Nothing seems to reconcile Glasgow, the economic capital of Scotland, with Edinburgh, political capital of the country. The two main cities of the Scottish belt stare at, tease and respect each other like porcelain dogs that nothing can bring together. Even the M8 – the motorway between the two cities – increases the differences between them: a logical bypass in Edinburgh, an amputation and stretch of the highway straight into the heart of Glasgow. The tone is set: since the first one prides itself for having an old city classified as World heritage for humanity, the official line for Glasgow will be "the most modern city in Europe" thanks to another – but this one infamous – Robert Bruce1 and his city restructuring plan.
Glasgow could no longer compete with the architectural heritage of "Incredinburgh2" and chooses to be Scotland with style3, sealing the two contradictory and irreconcilable visions: to the summer Edinburgh festival answers the winter Celtic Connections on the West coast; to the Edinburghers Walter Scott and Conan Doyle are opposed the Glaswegian Charles Rennie Mackintosh; to the actor Sean Connery, the humorist Billy Connolly.
The lungs of traditional Scottish music are in Glasgow:
Royal Conservatoire of Scotland – former RSAMD – The National Piping Centre, The College of Piping; Strathclyde University unfortunately will have to be removed from this list since the music department is closing down soon for refocusing on “growth areas”. Musicians also meet in pubs every night in Glasgow for the session. This is the event where the traditional music repertoire is performed and where the music style is developed.
Scotland, Ireland, Isle of Man and Wales share musical forms such as reels and jigs, along with specific forms such as, for Scotland, the strathspeys4, from the name of the valley surrounding the river Spey, or the waulking songs found mainly in the Hebrides islands nowadays. Excluding these specific forms, some reels, jigs or airs are so common between the countries that contradictions can be heard regarding their origin.
If I knew well-enough the Irish repertoire after playing often in sessions in Ireland, I wasn’t so familiar with the Scottish repertoire when I arrived in Scotland, in 2006. Before my first Scottish session, I picked up a few airs from the internet and from music books such as “The best Scottish tunes”, “All the music played in Scotland”… music books which should prepare you for the tunes performed in pubs. I don’t have to mention that none of the tunes I learned was played during my first session. The swing sounded like reels and jigs but in a completely different repertoire than my fingers could play. That night, I could only try to keep up with the guitars but I think I talked more with my neighbours than I played.
Maybe going to the Ben Nevis for a first Scottish session was a bit optimistic. Because of the high level of the musicians who usually come to this pub, it is considered a difficult session. The Ben Nevis is one of the sanctuaries of the Scottish traditional music in Glasgow, where up-and-coming students of the Royal Conservatoire go. Better be prepared before going. This straight introduction was for me, however, a great dive into the real modern Scottish musical scene. It is certain that the musicians present that night knew the repertoire I had previously learned but rather than playing it, they preferred a modern repertoire that I couldn’t know before coming to Scotland - because a living music can’t be learned from a book. Renewal, being up to date with modern arrangements and this in a cohesive society, is it not the definition of traditional music?
The modern repertoire
One of the characteristic elements of the modern repertoire is the repeating of patterns, of three or four notes more often, which destructure the metrical strong beats but preserve the general swing of the tune. Many years ago, in Ireland, when we were both students at University College Cork, the fiddle player Eoghan Neff played his own version of the American Amy Cann’s reel Catharsis for me. In this reel, he was developing the logical destructuration of the B part 3/3/2 rhythm, in bright and breathtaking variations. Witnessing the internal remodelling of the metric generalised in sessions was, for me, a great surprise at that time and shows, if proof is required, that traditional music evolves, often toward more complexity, and that the musicians' level also is higher.
The list of “modern” tunes performed in sessions is getting longer under the influence of the leading musicians of the moment. It was during one of these evenings that I for the first time heard reels such as Scottish Simon Bradley’s Salvation or the frenetic Pressed for time, composed by the prolific piper from Pitlochry, Gordon Duncan. The tunes of Aidan O’Rourke, fiddle player of the band Lau, are far to be neglected, as well as Michael McGoldrick’s ones, like his slip jig Farewell to Whalley Range which I arranged for the Celtic harp and recorded since then in Awen.
Playing harp in sessions
Being a harp player in sessions is far from easy. First, whatever size the pub, the venue is always too small for a harp. Unless you arrive before everybody else, it’s not worth it to take out your instrument later at night as, not only will you not get a seat (unless you bring your own stool), but also you will play less with your fingers and more with your elbows to get room. Then, room or no room, there is always the risk to have a pint of Guinness carelessly spilled over your instrument. Finally, since amplification is quite rare in pubs, and the volume is generally high, nobody will hear you, including yourself in some places, even when plucking your strings harder than usual.
Why go to sessions then? A few good reasons would explain why harp players should go anyway: This is the place where you are going to learn the repertoire and the style as played by the best musicians. Even if you can’t perform as well as you wish, the session is still an important instance in your musical practice. If you are desperate to perform a tune on your own, remember that a session lives by the rhythm of its actors. Everybody is playing until, suddenly, an intermission is declared: several musicians get up to order a drink, to go to the toilet, or to go for a smoke. Thus, it is quite frequent to find yourself in a small group for a while, leaving you time to perform a few tunes which will be particularly welcomed before the rest of the musicians start again.
This is one of the main differences I noticed between the sessions where I’ve been in Ireland and those in Scotland: to be heard while performing a solo air, in Ireland, there's no need to pluck your strings harder than usual. After playing a few notes, and for the duration of your tune, the pub is mute in a religious silence, before starting again as soon as you have finished. This happens to the singers too who I had the chance to meet during those evenings. However, it’s not as common for other instruments such as the tin whistle or, more surprisingly, the flute or the fiddle, for instance. In Scotland, whatever instrument you play, it’s much more difficult to get the entire pub’s attention and most of the time you will perform for the musicians around you.
Some sessions not to be missed in Glasgow
Depending on the leader and the musicians performing at the session, the repertoire changes a lot from one pub to another. Some sessions have the reputation of being “difficult” compared to others. If the speed of the tunes performed is inversely proportional to the room for seating, the Ben Nevis5 is surely one of the pubs where you are the most tight. You had better arrive early in this pub, not only to have the chance to get a seat, as mentioned previously, but especially because the musicians rarely start performing with all of their energy, but rather in a moderate speed, meaning easier to follow.
The following anecdote will illustrate the matter: When the Ben Nevis became my local pub, I used to arrive among the first people in order to set up within the three or four square meters booked for the musicians. At this time, the encouraging sign for me was that I was playing more than I was talking. Just before the midnight regulatory closure, the same tune performed at the beginning of the evening was played again, this time much faster. So fast, that I could hardly recognise it but, above all, I probably didn’t have enough alcohol in my blood to play as fast as my partners that night.
This is certainly one of the keys to organising a good session. Pubs often offer a drink to the musicians performing whereas a few years ago, at the Ben Nevis, the musicians rarely had to pay for their own consumption (within reasonable quantities). One can better understand the appeal of this pub then, with a selection of leaders – paid, of course – excellent musicians. Among the good sessions, one will regret the closure of the Victoria Bar , commonly known as the Vicky Bar, in Bridgate, putting an end to one of the oldest sessions of Glasgow. Òran mór, in the West end, hosts a session on Wednesdays in this old church converted into a concert hall, a dining room, a night club (in the crypt) and a pub which closes at 3am; you could go to the Babbity Bowster for a Saturday evening session after shopping in city centre; there's the Dràm, previously Uisge Beatha, a few times during the week… in Glasgow, the sessions never end!
Traditional music will not stop even when the pub closes. The session is just finished, then comes the after session. With the people you have already been with all week, you now, late at night, go for another session, this one less formal. Now, since you are sharing with them not only the music but also the style of living, you are part of the traditional music society. Welcome to Glasgow, Scotland with style!
1. In 1965, the engineer Robert Bruce was at the origin of Glasgow's restructuration which resulted in the demolition of Victorian parts of the city and this in order to construct a motorway straight into the city centre.
2. "Incredinburgh" is Edinburgh’s new slogan.
3. "Scotland with style" is Glasgow's slogan.
4. Irish strathspeys are regarded as being influenced by Scottish music.
5. Sessions on Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday nights