Canntaireachd

By Barnaby Brown

Canntaireachd (‘chanting’) is the vocal substitute for Gaelic piping. In 1815, Alexander Campbell described it as: ‘those sort of syllables by which pipers fix in their memory the themes and variations of the various compositions performed on the bagpipe’ (A Slight Sketch of a Journey made Through Parts of the Highlands and Hebrides, p. 47). When pibroch’s cultural confidence peaked in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was notationless. Chanting was the primary mode of learning and teaching, as it still is for many of the world’s great instrumental traditions – those with teaching lineages, long apprenticeships, and heritage compositions bearing the imprint of many masters.

Two complementary types of material are listed here: chant recordings and chant scores. Both are experimental and reflect research in progress. Two questions interest me: how can we make ‘source-sensitive’ pibroch easier to handle, easier to learn, and easier to teach? And what does being ‘source-sensitive’ (or HIP) in pibroch mean? The short answer to both questions is, I believe: take canntaireachd seriously. That means two things. Firstly, use it, embed it in your practice. Secondly, invest time in acquiring a canntaireachd that doesn’t contradict the source materials. The resources on this page are designed to make both of these major challenges easier.

Development of these materials

The ways I sing and present canntaireachd on paper have been moulded in equal measure by research and practical application. The research side is currently being written up for a PhD thesis and will be published in due course. On the practical side, I am particularly indebted to three user groups: firstly, since 2003, the adult learners at canntaireachd workshops given in many countries, but particularly at Thomas Zöhler’s Dudelsak Akademie; secondly, since 2006, the emerging professionals on the BA Scottish Music (Piping) course in Glasgow; and most recently, since 2009, professional musicians who are interested in how pibroch might inform the accompaniment of Gaelic song and the revival of early Gaelic harp and fiddle music (Bill TaylorClare Salaman, and Coracle). These interactions have not only been immensely enjoyable, but the learning has been very much a two-way process.

Since October 2012, this research has been supported by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council through the project Bass culture in Scottish musical traditions. I am deeply grateful to David McGuinness and all the Bass Culture project team for encouraging and guiding the materials published here. Thanks to this public funding, they may all be downloaded free for personal study.

Adventures in Canntaireachd

Ceann Drochaid Innis Bhàiridh (The End of Inchberry Bridge)  Notes on page PS 165, recorded 27 June 2014
Cruinneachadh Na Sutharlanach (The Sutherlands’ Gathering)
  Notes on page PS 72, recorded 27 June 2014
Piobaireachd na Pairc (The Park Pibroch)  Chant score below, notes on page PS 21, recorded 27 June 2014

In these experimental recordings, I reconstruct MacCrimmon canntaireachd from the texts of Gesto and Campbell, informed by its unbroken transmission in the Western Isles by mother-tongue Gaels. When reading from ‘Campbell notation’ (sources C1 and C2), I do not attempt to sing what I see; rather, I try to convert the notation back into canntaireachd, which in teaching practice goes beyond being a vocal substitute for piping. As students are quick to point out, pibroch masters do things with their voices which the pipe cannot do. These vocal idiosyncrasies may cause irritation, but they serve a vital purpose: the expressive powers of the voice make it easier to grasp the sense of difficult music, particularly on an instrument which doesn’t stop for breath or do loud and soft.

Canntaireachd helps you to connect imaginatively with a tune’s soul, bringing something extra to your interpretation which is, ultimately, what music making is all about. Listeners can immediately tell when a piper is ‘putting the song into a tune’, rather than just playing the notes. It is no different in Western classical music – I’ve heard both Jacqueline du Pré and James Galway say to masterclass students words like, “you are not singing it, please, I want to hear the song!” Learning a tune through canntaireachd is probably the most effective way of supplying the song, a short-cut if you like to playing musically. What might seem irrelevant to a beginner reaps a sustaining harvest later on.

Canntaireachd is an expressive medium intended for the ear; it makes challenging music easier to understand. Campbell notation, on the other hand, was never designed to be sung; it is a notation system developed on paper for the eye. The label ‘Nether Lorn Canntaireachd’, therefore, perpetuates a misunderstanding: Campbell’s text is not a dialect of canntaireachd. Further explanation can be found in my Campbell Notation guide, page 3.

This means that you have to read one thing but sing another. This is an infuriating impediment to learning, but the same is true of many English and French words. Fortunately, the vocabulary of pibroch is extremely small, consisting of about 80 words (listed on pages 1-2 of my guide). Better still, many of the longer ‘vocables’ are formed from shorter ones, so the notation can be learnt surprisingly easily – much faster than English or French which have hundreds of words written one way but pronounced another.

As with a foreign language, the pronunciation of canntaireachd is best acquired by ear. Don’t let the perplexing way it is written discourage you; just trust your ear, not your eye. I have moved away from thinking of introducing a spelling reform because access to Colin Campbell’s manuscripts is universal and there is such huge value in being able to read them. Campbell notation is not a perfect system, but once you have cracked it, you have it for life and it gives you direct access to a vast quantity of Scotland’s finest music.

A canntaireachd notation could be developed which balances the requirements of ear and eye more equally. This might be worthwhile for introducing piping to schoolchildren and the wider community through large-group singing. Perhaps it could embrace light music and serve beginners. Such notation would always be a compromise, however, and I prefer to sing expressively, unfettered by the consistency which notation demands. Although consistency is what students long for, it impedes the development of good musicianship, which is what canntaireachd is all about.

Chant Scores

A’ Ghleus (An Exercise)  PS 146
Cruinneachadh Mhic Mhic Thormoid (Sìol Tormod’s Gathering)  PS 16
Cruinneachadh Chlann Chamshron (Clan Cameron’s Gathering)  PS 162
Piobaireachd na Pairc (The Park Pibroch)  PS 21

These scores will be intelligible to any pibroch player who can read Campbell notation. If you already play pibroch, then this Campbell Notation guide should suffice; for newcomers to the tradition, a chapter of my thesis will hopefully make life easier. While this is in production, the oral method is the best option and will probably always remain so. Distrust notation, it can be seriously misleading for a host of different reasons. Instead, learn first by listening, immersing yourself in the music. Secondly, reinforce that by singing it yourself, actively from memory (before you try to get your fingers around the notes); the chant scores are designed to support this stage two. Only then, after absorbing it by ear and memorising it through active singing, grapple with what it might look like in staff notation. And remember, the staff notation is a reflection (not necessarily a clear one) of only one of many possible renditions. This was a notationless musical culture; every transcription is different and reflects personal decisions on the part of the transcriber. Singing from a chant score helps you to connect with the ‘permanent music’, the part that endures from generation to generation. Why? Many variable aspects contingent on style and personal expression are removed.

In summary, aim to be singing a tune by ear before you see it in staff notation. Use the chant scores, but don’t sing what you see, sing in the way you have picked up by ear. If you don’t have a pibroch teacher who sings to you, then seek out recordings and sing along. There will always be different schools of canntaireachd; what makes the approach presented here different is its attempt to reconstruct a solution that is supported by all the earliest evidence – on paper and in archive recordings.

Singing is the time-honoured way of learning pibroch. It is not just for teachers. The music sinks into your brain faster, deeper, and in a more wholesome form when you vocabelise it before you play it. Don’t let self-consciousness be an obstacle – Highland pipers have been learning by singing for centuries and it feels great to connect with such a deep tradition.

 6 July 2014 (last revised 12 July 2014)