Modern Performance Practice and Aesthetics in Traditional Scottish Gaelic Singing
McPhee, Erin K
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Performance practice and aesthetics is an under-researched area in Scottish Gaelic song. Previous studies have focused on text rather than context, and there is a significant lack of information from the singers themselves, in their own words, as to how they view their own tradition of singing and performance. The objective of this study is to present an overview of modern performance practice and aesthetics in Scottish Gaelic singing, based primarily on what singers believe to be important. The scope is not meant to be exhaustive; rather the purpose is to serve as a preliminary study of Gaelic singing and promote discussion in the topic. Located in the field of ethnomusicology, it will consider not just the musical sounds produced, but the performance as a whole, and consequently the research is divided into the four topics of aesthetics; singing styles and vocal techniques; performance contexts; and repertoire selection and transmission. The data were collected primarily through fieldwork, combining interviews with fifteen Gaelic singers of different ages and experience in Gaelic song with participant-observation at céilidhs, formal concerts, and Gaelic singing classes. The information gathered is revealing, indicating that, although singers have a clear sense of what is important to them in their singing, there is no universal set of criteria with which every singer agrees. Certain aspects of singing might inspire very definite opinions in some singers, and ambivalence in others. But one prominent theme to have emerged, that appears to pervade throughout modern Gaelic singing, is the juxtaposition of preservation versus innovation. This manifests itself in many different ways, such as the contrasting contexts of céilidh and concert hall; the contradictory opinions of how much interpretation is acceptable; whether or not singers choose songs based on the traditional criterion of the poetry, or for the melody; whether or not accompaniment or choral singing has a place in traditional Gaelic song; and whether or not their repertoire selection is affected by the taste of modern, often non-Gaelic-speaking, audiences. All of this certainly reflects the state of change in which the world of Gaelic singing finds itself, with more external influences than ever before, and facing the question of whether or not it can survive if it is not relevant for modern singers and audiences.