Reverse Engineering in Pibroch – by Ronald Smith

We have seen great advances in recovering and reclaiming the nearly lost art of the clarsach, and heard Simon Chadwick’s ressurections of its music and explorations into the lost world of the era when harp music and pibroch flourished side by side.  While illuminating and inspiring, much of this remains a specialist activity requiring dedication beyond the limits of the typical pibroch enthusiast.
But there is a simpler approach, open to many of us.
Working on the assumption that this music has a probable – if imponderable – relationship with the ‘tree of strings’, one can simply try to play it on an accessible stringed instrument: the acoustic guitar. There are already those who do so; virtuoso players like Tony MacManus.
But almost anyone can learn to pluck the notes approximating to the pipe scale, without going the whole hog of mastering guitar technique. This reveals remarkable insights into pibroch, especially into its phrasing; and develops a feel for the music which compliments the chanter. Also, most of the gracenotes and ‘cuttings’, as Joseph MacDonald termed them, can be approximated, to produce an effect very like that of the throws, grips, shakes, and even the taorludh and crunludh.
The siubhal is especially easy to play, and is a good place to start.
For an urlar, one might be tempted to try ‘Lament for the Harp Tree’ because of the obvious association; a simpler approach to this air would be ‘Corrienessan’s Salute’, which appears to be a truncated version, using the same motifs.
Other tunes I have found suited to the guitar are ‘Togail nam Bo’ (‘Too long in this Condition’) and ‘The Bells of Perth’. But even more demanding airs like ‘Cumha na Cloinne’ (‘Lament for the Children’) sound good and are surprisingly amenable.
With practice, any pibroch can be attempted, even those in the vocable notation of The Nether Lorne MS.
A further advantage is the effect on one’s memory; different parts of the brain are involved and the cross-over reinforces one’s grasp of the music.  And meaningful practice need not be loud or intrusive. Nor much of an effort.
One scale which is easy to learn is on the top four strings, EADG. Starting on the third fret of E gives you a reasonable low G; A is the next string up. Your second or middle finger on the second fret of G produces high A.
This A can also serve as a low G for a higher register, with the next string, B, standing in for low A. The last string, also E, allows you to expand the scale right up to high A, for a pleasant, lighter alternative to the more sonorous lower scale. It is, however, more of a stretch than the lower pitched strings.
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