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> Issue 29 > Page 37 - The Cape Breton Fiddler: A Talk with Allister MacGillivray

Page 37 - The Cape Breton Fiddler: A Talk with Allister MacGillivray

Published by Ronald Caplan on 1981/8/1 (422 reads)

Mary MacDonald with Margaret MacPhee, Piano time, the method she was using to learn tunes from an old man called Alexander J. Beaton, who was born in the 1830s. His fa? ther was born in the 1700s, so we'll as? sume that Alexander had some very old mu? sic. And Mary had it in two hops from the 1700s. Mary said, when old Alex was show? ing her how to play the fiddle, he used to say, "Look at my hands, look where I'm placing my fingers--here and here." She said, "And my sister used to watch, but I'd turn my head away, because it was the tune I was wanting"--this is the way she phrased it. That to me typifies the type of approach that the players had in those days. So much reliance on the ear--it came through the 1800s. There was little book reading among the Cape Breton populace be? cause often they weren't even literate in their language, let alone in their music. -But they had a great emphasis on correct? ness, and they got not only the tune, note for note. but they got all the nuances of the Gaelic flavour of playing, from listen? ing- -things that couldn't be notated even if they could read the music in the first place. They were relying heavily on the ear, and the ear can become highly devel? oped when you're not relying strictly on note-reading. Players will tell you that today. You talk to Robert Stubbert or Wilfred Prosper, that when they were first learning to play there was a great reliance on the ear. They found once or twice listening to a tune--and you know how complex some of these reels can become--they'd even hear them on the radio--just a couple of turns through it, they could almost go to the vi? olin and play it. There were cases of guys who heard a tune, and didn't even bother to play it till the next day. Then they'd say, "Oh geez, that tune I heard last night--I must give it a shot." They had de? veloped their ear to that point. Today we're putting a lot of emphasis on note-reading, getting the tunes from books. And as soon as you get into the note-read? ing, you put your emphasis in a different direction, the ear will lose its sharpness; so that if you play a tune for a guy, he'd want to say, "Would you mind writing that down for me?" You would lose that strong reliance on the ear, and its keenness would fade away. It's almost like a blind person--Jose Feliciano, Doc Watson--they can put the emphasis on the ear because they've got to concentrate in that way. You take a modem violin player who even starts out reading music, how highly devel? oped can his ear really become? So, al? though we didn't have a high degree of edu? cation, we did have this great fidelity to aural transmission. And the music that we were playing in Cape Breton, especially in the early 1900s, it probably sounded very much what you would have heard in the ear? ly 1800s. Because of the isolation in Cape Breton and the reliance on the correctness and the flavour that was passed on, that couldn't have been passed on by book. If you take a piece of music, any tune, "Cock of the North" or whatever, it has a melodic notation, a series of notes that can be hummed by an individual--that's the tune--that's what you'd find in a book. Now, an old-time Cape Breton player, and even a lot of the modern players, because we're still carrying over some -of the old techniques, are adding a lot extra. They say it came from a time when there was no rhythmic accompaniment like guitar or pi? ano, and you had to develop new techniques for volume, to emphasize a chord progres? sion even though they hadn't a rhythm in? strument. So what they did, for one thing, they played extra notes around the melody. Some of it was influenced by the bagpipe; they played a lot of drones. One important example of the drone technique is the actu? al tuning of the violin. They have a scor- dactura tuning, a number of them actually; one of them's called'"high bass," one is called "high bass and (counter) tenor," and another two are called "low bass." It means adjusting the bass strings of the vi? olin so that when you're playing that sin? gle melody, the melodic line, you're also bowing these extra notes to create an ac? companiment for yourself, to give what we'd call a polyphonic texture, more har? monies and richness around that tune. Standing: Peter Maclntyre, Benacadie; Joe Walker, Lake Ainslie; Alex Maclntyre, Benacadie. Seated: Bernie Gil? lis, SW Margaree; Mike MacLean, lona' Jack Gillis & Alex Gillis, SW Margaree. New Bedford, Mass., 1922-23.
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