Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Salem: "Pretty Saro" in open Ionian tuning played w/ noter

We'll meet as usual Saturday, Jan. 7, from 10 a.m. till noon at the Visitors Center, but I'll have to leave a few minutes early to sing at the memorial service for Becky Schildman in Springfield. Becky was an inaterpreter in New Salem historic village and a founding member of the New Salem Shape Note Singers during the 1990s. Link here to her obituary.

We'll learn two tunes in the Ionian tuning Saturday. (See information on modal tunings linked below.) If you have a dulcimer, we'll tune to DAA. If you don't, contact me ahead of time and I can bring a loaner. My email address is peterellertsen - @ - (delete the spaces and hyphens I put in there to discourage spammers).

The first tune will be the version of "Pretty Saro" in Jean Ritchie's Dulcimer Book. It's a great song, well attested in the oral tradition. Ritchie's version, which is under copyright, is lovely. So I'm posting it under fair use since we're involved in an educational venture in the historic village. The YouTube clip below shows the song being played with a noter on the mountain dulcimer.

Pretty Saro (traditional), played by Ginny White, using noter on mountain dulcimer. Place: Johnson County Missouri Historical Society.

I'll bring some noters, BTW.

I found a whole bunch of homemade noters when we were cleaning out the gargage the other day. I like to whittle on them, and I have a lot of extras. So if you find one you like, you can keep it.

The other tune is one we started to learn last month, "The Legacy" from Irish Melodies by by Thomas Moore. John Armstrong, an old-time Menard County fiddle player and son of a New Salem village, called it "Missouri Harmony," and we know it was sung at Rutledge Tavern, but it's available on line in the Southern Harmony, and I'll bring copies with dulcimer fret numbers written above the melody line (the lead or tenor part, the middle line in the three-part harmony of the day). The Southern Harmony version is easier to play with a noter than the piano-and-voice arrangement I handed out last month. And I plan to use it to show you how to play Ionian tunes directly from a shape-note tunebook without fooling around with tablature.

"Ionian" isn't just a fancy word for "major." A lot of the traditional music we play on the dulcimer is modal - i.e. it comes down to us from vocal music that was sung to different scales in medieval and early modern Europe. The scales, or modes, were given Greek names by church musicians of the Renaissance era. Which is why we know them as "Ionian" (major), "Aeolian" (minor) and so on. But the same scales found their way into instrumental music in the British Isles, and they came to America with the old Anglo-Celtic ballads and fiddle tunes.

The best explanation I've found on line is by Colorado dulcimer player Bonnie Carroll, in a webpage titled Modes, Keys, and Tunings. She explains:

A mode is simply a name given to a particular seven-note order of whole and half steps. It is a scale or sequence of notes or sequence of whole and half steps, but it is not a tuning or a key.

The names of the modal scales and the frets at which they begin are:

  • open -- Mixolydian

  • 1st fret -- Aeolian

  • 2nd -- Locrian

  • 3rd -- Ionian

  • 4th -- Dorian

  • 5th -- Phrygian

  • 6th -- Lydian
The mode of a piece is determined by the notes of that piece as laid out in the linear form called a scale. Further, if you learn at which fret each modal scale begins (the above list), the order of whole and half steps is automatic on the dulcimer due to the location of the frets. Each of the modal scales has a different sound and feel. Let me characterize each one.

The Ionian mode we know as the major scale: Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, Do. The Mixolydian mode has exactly the same whole and half steps as the Ionian, and therefore sounds the same, until we reach the seventh tone, Ti. It is a half step lower in the Mixolydian scale (Ti flat) than the seventh tone in the Ionian. It is, however, still a major sounding mode. The Lydian is the same as Ionian, except the 4th is a half step higher, another major sounding mode. The Aeolian scale is the same as the natural minor scale. The Dorian has the same notes as Aeolian and sounds minor, except the 6th is a half step higher than the Aeolian 6th. It is sometimes called mountain minor by old time musicians. The Phrygian is a minor sounding mode, and the 2nd tone is lowered a half step from the Aeolian. It is the scale that Flamenco music uses. All of the modes mentioned so far differ from the most common major or minor scale by only one note. That leaves the Locrian mode, a minor sounding mode but with a lowered 5th, which makes it sound most unusual for the structure of our usual western European music.
Remember: This is the clearest discussion I could find on line! For practical purposes, we only deal with three modes on the dulcimer - the Ionian (which Jean Ritchie calls the "do scale"), the Aeolian ("la scale") and the Dorian ("re scale") or "mountain minor."

Bonnie Carroll also has this from a traditional Irish music listserv. You may enjoy it after trying to wade through the discussion above:

Subject: Modes and Human Sexuality

The five original modes were the Androgynous, Bubonic, Carthusian, Derranian, and Eucalyptic. All except the Derranian were quickly abandoned when it was discovered that they required a nine-note scale (although you could get away with eight and a half in the Eucalyptic if you had to). The reason for this anomaly was never made clear, but after an initial flurry of curiosity during the first few months of 43 B.C., no one really seemed too interested in pursuing the matter further. The Greek philosopher Ctesiphon (or "the big C," as his friends used to call him) reportedly wrote a lengthy treatise explaining the whole mess, but most of the scrolls comprising the only extant copy of this work were erased and re-used for a collection of really dirty Corinthian limericks. (i.e. "A daring young girl from Mycenae / Wore naught but a bright purple beanie," etc., etc. - the translation work continues).
(Parentheses in the original.)

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