A Celtic Challenge

A blog by Philip Ashworth, RSNO Composers’ Hub 2016:17

Embarking on any new composition requires a goodly deal of planning and preparation. With a wholly original piece, one generally has carte blanche and can pretty much do whatever you like. However, arranging or transcribing existing music carries with it a different set of possibilities and, indeed, responsibilities.

Transcribing a piece would keep the entire melodic and harmonic shape intact, and merely set out to present the tune for a different group of instruments. In this case, voices to orchestral instruments.

Arranging a piece allows for a great deal more artistic interpretation, and one is less constrained by the source material. However, the listener must be able to recognise that this is the same tune: Jingle Bells arranged for full orchestra or for solo piano is still Jingle Bells.

Of course, one could choose neither route and embark on a work that uses the original piece in a most oblique manner, perhaps not even incorporating any musical elements at all, using the original simply as a source of inspiration.

There are pros and cons to all three routes, and it was fundamental to establish where I was going and how I would approach the work at hand.

I felt it important from the outset that the original tune should feature prominently in my piece. (It is, after all, the reason I chose it.) But more importantly, it is a tune firmly entrenched in the aural tradition; passed down through generations only by ear, without need of notation and a feel some responsibility in preserving our heritage.

Given that this a single line melody with no accompanying harmony, I elected to create harmonies of my own to suit the ensemble for which it was now being arranged. So this would be a new element.

The other thing to consider was the fact that the original is a vocal piece. The melody repeats and relies on the text being sung as its means of achieving variety. This textual element would not be possible for orchestra, and so I would need to invent another way to create contrast and variety: whatever I was going to create had to stand up in its own right.

Waulk is based on a melody taken from a Cloth Waulking Song, performed by Mrs Kate Nicolson, South Uist, and recorded by the University of Edinburgh School of Scottish Studies in 1982. This working song serves two primary purposes ­– entertainment for the task in hand, and a more practical function of keeping the 'mechanics' of the operation in time. In my arrangement of this tune, I felt it important to keep something of the 'call and response' idea. However, I have attempted to introduce two further elements. The first is a sense of harmony, translating the notional harmony of the working group to a musical sort. The other is intended as a comment on the rise of industrialisation that has all but wiped out traditional working practices such as hand-washing tweed.