Musical Instruments

The Autoharp in Irish Traditional Music— Part 1

My interests in the autoharp and Irish traditional music (ITM) should be apparent from the topics of the most recent dozen or so posts on this blog. I’ve approached them separately as a musicologist specializing in the history of musical instruments. This post marks a shift toward their intersection in performance from the perspective of a musician who started on the autoharp seventy years ago and found his way more deeply into Celtic music a decade later via the Highland bagpipes. I’ve since become comfortably conversant with the Irish idiom on the tin whistle and would like to be able to say the same with regard to the autoharp.

Irish dance tunes and airs figure prominently in its repertoire. However, the instrument does not conversely have an established position among those that are normally associated with ITM in its home country. Some instruments that are now fixtures in that context became so more recently than might be imagined. Tenor banjos and guitars are now regularly encountered in such things as trad sessions at Irish pubs but both had been more or less in the periphery until the 1960s, when alternate ways of tuning them became popular.

Barney McKenna is credited with having lowered the tenor banjo a fourth to place it an octave under the fiddle and mandolin, and the DADGAD guitar tuning came into widespread use. Perhaps the best known foreign arrival during that decade is the Greek bouzouki, which was also retuned in the process. Andy Irvine discusses its naturalization in this video. He names Johnny Moynihan as the primary agent, who summarizes his own perception of the upshot here.

I find it intriguing to speculate about what might result in the autoharp traversing the same path. Tracking what can be seen as tentative steps in that direction, the instrument was filmed at a fleadh (traditional music festival) at what again appears to have been some time in the 1960s, in a performance of The Mountains Of Pomeroy. A brief clip is included in a documentary produced by the Irish-language television channel TG4, seen here.

The sequence showing the autoharp is split into two snippets spanning from 13’02” to 13’57” cutting away from the video but with audio throughout. (The viewing app has independent language settings for the user interface and subtitles.) Additional segments of this footage are included in another TG4 documentary, with the autoharp appearing at 6’36”. (The latter production implies that the fleadh was in Armagh and readers of this post who can provide information about it or the identity of the player, are encouraged to leave comments below.)

The audio and video are sometimes significantly out of sync and likely to have been recorded separately, with varying degrees of accuracy in their subsequent alignment. However, the mandolin player’s fingers move with the melody of The Mountains Of Pomeroy with minimal delay in the second of the snippets. To my eyes and ears, the same goes for the autoharp accompaniment, about which the following can also be noted.

The instrument is the well-known 12-bar Rosen model (so-called for the large rose decal) made in East Germany. The tune is played in D major as heard on the soundtrack and seen on the mandolin fretboard. The corresponding chord bars seen on the autoharp are not in their standard factory positions. The labels have also been removed from them, corroborating their reconfiguration. The tuning guide underneath the strings is marked with the German designation for BH — rather than with the split H/B seen on models intended for the export market. Rosen autoharps were readily available in most European countries, possibly suggesting that this exemplar was initially intended for a German-speaking destination (or that the factory had simply run out of strips with the double marking). The cloth cover over the hitch pins is another non-standard detail.

The thought that apparently went into setting up this autoharp and the player’s intent facial expression (this post’s banner image) suggest that he takes it quite seriously. He holds it upright but picks the strings between the bar housing and the lower string support. This indicates additional forethought in his individual playing technique, presumably informed by observing other players.

It is reasonable to expect that he had seen (or heard recordings of) the instrument used melodically. Regardless of whether he was also able to play melody, the film does not show him doing so in the group setting. It may be less safe to posit that there were other Irish musicians who approached the autoharp similarly but the one at the fleadh was clearly being used by a non-casual participant. Had it been in the hands of, say, a touring visitor from the US, an Oscar Schmidt model would be expected.

In 1972, the Irish fiddler Kevin Burke recorded the album Sweeney’s Dream in the US backed by a local group of what the liner notes call “old-timey musicians.” The richly ornamented performance of Tuttle’s Reel is accompanied by Hank Sapoznik on the autoharp in the basic manner filmed at the fleadh, without in any way harnessing that instrument’s melodic potential (with which he would certainly have been familiar).

The autoharp serves the same role on several tracks of the album An Buachaill Dreoite, recorded in Drogheda, Co. Clare, in 1992 by the Irish fiddler Joe Ryan. The reel Trip to Durrow provides another good illustration of the intricacy of idiomatic Irish ornamentation. The suitability of the autoharp to its accompaniment is demonstrated by Ryan’s compatriot Jim McArdle, who additionally specializes in American old-timey music.

Kevin Burke has made numerous subsequent recordings of Tuttle’s Reel and discusses the tune in a tutorial video. He considers the question, “How could an American fiddler sound more like an Irish fiddler?” in another video from the same series. The aspects of the Irish musical idiom that it examines would largely be relevant to a transformed wording of the underlying question as, “How could an autoharper who plays fiddle tunes American style sound more like an Irish musician?”

One of the key differentiating factors is the way tunes are ornamented in the respective traditions. Melodic embellishment is common to both but elaborate decorative grace noting is a far more prominent attribute of Irish performance. One such device mentioned in the two preceding videos — the “roll” — is perhaps the most characteristic. It is an intricate extended ornament that will neither be familiar nor intuitive to an instrumentalist who hadn’t made an explicit effort at understanding and mastering it.

The practical consideration of how these ornaments can be played on an autoharp will be introduced with first phrase of the reel The Raveled Hank of Yarn, notated as it would typically appear in a published compilation of Irish tunes.

This leaves significant detail to be added by the performer, such as the rhythmic swing of the eighth notes and appropriate ornamentation. One of the applications of the latter is to separate adjacent notes of the same pitch. This is commonly dome with rolls. The most frequently encountered form consists of a grace note usually called a “cut” played above a principal note, and a lower “tip” (aka pat, strike, or tap) played before the following one. Here is a segment of the preceding phrase ornamented with rolls.

The composite four-note sequence is called a short roll. Where preceded by a third eighth note of the same pitch as the principal notes, it is a long roll. The rhythmic pulse imparted to both forms depends on whether the pattern starts on or off the beat. When included in a cut-and-tip roll, the grace notes are regarded as articulation rather than ornamentation and played so rapidly that it can be difficult, if not impossible, to hear their exact pitches.

This leaves the performer free to set the interval between a cut or tip and a principal note according to individual preference about what best suits the instrument in hand, which may itself impose technical constraints on the musical decision. Shannon Heaton demonstrates cut-and-tip rolls on a flute in this video. As with all monophonic instruments, starting a note ends the one before it. Instruments that permit multiple notes to sound simultaneously, exemplified in the ITM lineup by the Irish harp, can require separate damping action to delineate a crisp cut-and-tip roll.

Unwanted persistent sound can also be avoided by using what is called a “triplet” or “treble” instead of a roll. Usage is inconsistent and the terms are sometimes used to differentiate between same-note and adjacent-note variants. When ornamenting a note by its patterned repetition, each note in the sequence also ends the preceding one. It is usually notated as a triplet but is played as represented here.

The autoharp is among the instruments where executing a distinct cut-and-tip roll can be problematic. It requires a lot of nimble bar action and a high degree of precision in sounding only the intended notes. One obvious alternative would be the preferential use of trebles as, for example, on the tenor banjo and button accordion. Kevin Burke’s instructional videos also include one that describes the ornament on the fiddle, calling it a bowed triplet, here.

A complementary approach would be to adapt a form of roll more clearly amenable to the autoharp. The ornaments used on the Irish harp are a suitable starting point. Since this post is now as long as I think such things should be, I’ll resume the discussion in Part 2.

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