One of the great inventions of the West has to be musical notation. That something as fleeting, abstract and intangible as music can be written down always strikes me as rather incredible. It's just that when it comes to orally-transmitted music - which most of the world's music is - Western notation is a very blunt instrument indeed. There's so much rhythmic and melodic subtlety that falls through its grid. It tries to make music static, fixed, unchanging, to fit it to the norms and conventions of classical music. But folk music is very much alive.

The Romantic-era Master Piper, William Dixon, 'prick'd' his tunes down, an image which suggests a collection of butterflies pinned in a drawer. The analogy is a good one. The art of the folk musician is to bring these dead notes back to life again, to let them take flight.

Over the years I've just about taught myself to read and write folk tunes (I find learning by ear so much easier) and I'll not deny it's very useful. Here's a bagpipe tune of mine, Asclepius (a schottische in G in one of my favourite scales) as I 'prick'd it down' in my tunebook.

But of course, this isn't how I play it. The musicians I most admire, and the ones I try and emulate, are those who seem effortlessly able to weave around a tune, embellishing it with a harmony here, a variation there, extemporising to keep the tune surprising and therefore alive. Tunes don't just stop at the end of the bar - there's a space, an inbreath, where, with a turn or a roll, you can keep dancers' feet off the ground, maintain the suspense, before releasing back into the melody again.

Western notation gives the impression that a tune is like a set of train tracks - you hop on and away you go, the same every time. Nowadays I think of a tune more as a set of cairns or waymarkers on a fell walk. Touching the cairns stops you from sliding off the tune entirely (all too easily done on the pipes), but so long as you do, the way you reach them is entirely up to you.

Over the years you start to build up a repertoire of variations for a particular tune, but new ideas always emerge in the playing, from the chemistry, the push and pull, of what the other players are doing. A good tune will show you the way.

So here's Asclepius (who, incidentally, was the Greek god of healing - the seriously esoteric will also know that the Asclepius is one of the texts of the Corpus Hermeticum), as I played it a couple of summer's ago with Cliff Stapleton on hurdy-gurdy. The very last variation on the A-part just seemed to emerge simultaneously.

And here it is as I played it a couple of days ago in my bedroom, mistakes, squeaks 'n all. Different again. It doesn't stand still.

Asclepius by andyletcher


  1. Gorgeous tune...both versions! I'm a sucker for those odd, minor-ish weird scales that western music notation has a problem with (maybe that's the appeal, the can't pin them down). I've just spent the long weekend (here in OZ) having the time of my life at the Nannup music festival. I guess written notation acts has its place as a mnemonic, but it just cannot capture the fleeting magic that musicians and singers create when they work together onstage. The language of looks, smiles, eye rolls, head nods, body language that can mean louder, faster, slower, sadder, again, depending on the energy between the performers and the energy coming from the really is like watching magic being woven out of thin air. And even though you might hear the same group sing the same song 2 or 3 times over a weekend like this, it it NEVER the same twice. Magic, pure and simple...bliss!

  2. Lovely tune. It has found its way into my common repertoire. (Now I just need to get a few other folks to learn it).



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