Musical Instruments

The Autoharp in Irish Traditional Music — Part 2

This post continues the discussion of ornamentation in Irish traditional music (ITM) from the preceding one. It begins with an elaborate characteristic device — the “Irish roll” — and instrument-specific variation in its performance. There are differences between, for example, the way a flute player conceptualizes and executes a roll, and a fiddler’s perspective on it. There is also a diversity of approaches among performers on the same instrument, as with any other aspect of individual style.

The musicologist in me has been trying to find a uniform descriptive model that accommodates the full range of approaches to the ornament’s execution. This is not simply an intellectual exercise but is intended to assist the autoharper in me, who in parallel has been looking for ways to play idiomatic rolls on that instrument. It has never been anywhere near the ITM mainstream in that genre’s home country, at least for melodic use, so the present endeavor can only reflect an extrapolation from the practice on other instruments.

The following text is illustrated with links to recorded performances and staff notation. The reel The Raveled Hank of Yarn is used in exemplification throughout. Jimmy O’Brien Moran plays it on the uilleann pipes here. This is how it would typically be notated in a compilation of Irish tunes intended for general use.

Significant musical detail is left to be added by the performer, including the crucially important rhythmic swing of the eighth notes and appropriate ornamentation. This is instantiated in the video and its fuller nuance is revealed by slowing the playback speed. To the extent that the pipes permit it, every group of three eighth notes repeated at the same pitch is articulated with a roll.

This ornament is generally described as a sequence of five notes consisting of a principal note, a rapid auxiliary note played above it, the principal note again, a rapid auxiliary note below it, and ending on the principal note. It execution varies in the rhythmic positioning of the individual elements relative to each other and to the beat. The form in the video is fully written out in the first two measures of the following transcription (with the intervals between the principal and auxiliary notes normalized). The remaining instances are indicated with two signs frequently used to mark where a roll is played without prescribing any of its detail.

This is how the ornament is usually executed on the uilleann pipes, which provide the model for current ornamentation practice on many other instruments. Janet Harbison demonstrates the same ornament on an Irish harp in a video workshop, calling it a “cut and tip roll” (from common labels for the upper and lower auxiliary notes). With regard to the harp, she says that “it’s fiendishly hard to play but worth the practice” and refers to it elsewhere as “the king of ornaments.”

Janet’s remarks about playing rolls on a harp are largely applicable to the autoharp. However, although strings are plucked in the same manner on both instruments, damping is effected in fundamentally different ways. Individual strings can easily be muted on a harp but not on an autoharp. Playing the preceding example with requisite clarity requires each of the two auxiliary notes to be framed by the swift raising and lowering of the bar for the chord that includes the principal note, and damps those immediately adjacent to it.

Janet also describes a triplet roll that is easier to play on a harp. This can also be transferred directly to the autoharp. It only requires a single bar action, raising and lowering it on either side of the bracketed triplet. The triplet can also be played with the downward stroke of a single finger.

The roll has thus far only been mapped into a dotted quarter note. It is commonly also fitted to a plain quarter note by dropping the initial principal note. A distinction is then made between a “long” roll and a “short” one. Shannon Heaton illustrates the difference on a flute here. Janet remarks that the short roll starts and ends on different notes and is therefore not entirely equivalent to the long roll. Some performers redress this by allocating the full five-note figure to a quarter note, mooting the distinction between the two forms. Kevin Burke demonstrates this approach on a fiddle in another video workshop.

The auxiliary notes are normally described as articulation and executed so rapidly that it can be difficult to perceive their exact pitches. Players are free to set the interval between an auxiliary and principal note according to their sense of what best suits the instrument in hand. This makes it possible to play a roll on an autoharp using adjacent notes in the same chord without raising the bar. However, doing so leaves no practicable way to damp the auxiliary notes, resulting in what may be heard as a persisting triad rather than a clearly delineated roll.

The preface to a collection of transcriptions of Kevin’s recordings, The Solo Albums, states that the auxiliary notes are not intended to have identifiable pitches at all. “The note above is produced…with a light percussive tap. The note below…by slightly lifting the finger from the main note, enough to interrupt the note, but not enough to produce a clearly pitched note.” If this can include truly pitchless notes that cannot be perceived as being above or below the principal note but have a distinct percussive onset, it becomes possible to include damped strings in an autoharp roll.

In any case, the presence of damped strings is sometimes unavoidable. Unless a single string for each intended note in a roll is plucked with immaculate accuracy, adjacent strings will contribute to the resulting sound. Ones that are damped add a stuttered effect of potential musical utility but can as easily be perceived as disruptive. Extraneous unmuted strings that make their way into the ornament similarly risk blurring its clarity and thrust, with corresponding effect on the melody.

The autoharp’s damping system also provides an advantage not shared by other instruments. The principal note does not diminish perceptibly in volume over the duration of a roll. Once plucked, the desired rhythmic emphasis determines whether it needs to be plucked once or twice again. This gives the options of actively accentuating the principal note by plucking it after an auxiliary note, or bringing it passively back into focus by lowering a bar that selectively damps the auxiliary note. (I’m deliberately avoiding an entrenched label for this technique — “hammering on” — for reasons explained here.)

Concern with unintentionally plucked strings and onerous bar action can also be obviated by forgoing rolls in favor of a less intricate ornament with comparable effect, called a “treble.” Janet also discusses this alternative, and its ample musical value is further demonstrated by Gerry O’Connor on the tenor banjo and Conor Connolly on a button accordion. However much a hallmark of Irish ornamentation rolls may be, their use is not an essential attribute of an idiomatic instrumental style. (There are also good examples of rolls performed on the banjo and accordion but they are surprisingly sparse.)

Here is our familiar reel with trebles, and their characteristic rhythmic pattern applied to a sequence of notes at different pitches, commonly called a “triplet.” Again, in the first two measures these ornaments are written as played, and the final two illustrate a widespread but less specific notational convention. (There is confusing ambiguity in the terminology, which sometimes regards the triplet and treble as synonyms, or inverts the definitions used here. Both terms are used in additional senses in other closely related contexts.)

Both the single- and multi-pitch forms of this ornament are well suited to the autoharp, as demonstrated by Tom Schroeder here. Rolls can be classified by the number of times they require a bar to be raised, for example, one for the triplet roll and two for the cut-and-tip. A treble can then be seen as the zero-raise member of the same family.

Trebles are typically interspersed with rolls on instruments that support both with reasonably equivalent facility. In fact, the present analysis can as easily have begun with trebles and progressed to rolls. The cut and tip are also used individually and in other combinations amenable to the autoharp.

A pivotal question remains about how much of this an erudite listener would accept as convincing ornamentation by traditional Irish standards when played on an autoharp. I’ve been in active communication about it with some of the people mentioned in these two posts. There’s general agreement about the instrument being able to produce convincing trebles and simpler ornaments. The returns are still out about rolls, and other aspects of the autoharp need to be considered in an assessment of its suitability to ITM from the native perspective.

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13 December 2022 19:38

I am surprized that you do not mention the “hammer on” – I use it frequently. Essentially it is a finger drag that only drags a couple of strings rather than what you call “all the extraneous strings”. One quickly follows the drag with a chord bar — so the effect is a grace note. There may be an extraneous string briefly but the ear resolves it into a smooth grace note.
What a fiddler calls “lift” is very important in Celtic music – the fiddler does it by briefly sliding fingers into position. One can approximate with “hammer on”.