Musical Instruments

The Autoharp in Irish Traditional Music — Part 2

This is a direct continuation of the preceding post and its discussion of characteristic decorative elements of Irish traditional music (ITM) that are not commonly heard on the autoharp. The music has a prominent position in the repertoire of that instrument and there are many examples of its skillful melodic rendition. However, such performances and the autoharp itself, are rarely encountered near the ITM mainstream in its home country.

The same can, of course, be said about countless other instruments. The suitability of one or another to ITM is a recurring topic of discussion in dedicated online forums, with a recent example here. Opinions vary about how well whatever is being put forward for consideration might fit into, say, a trad session at a pub. However, there is always clear consensus about the overriding importance of the player of any candidate instrument having a thorough understanding of the traditional Irish musical idiom and the ability to project it through their performance.

One essential aspect of that idiom is the extensive use of grace notes for ornamentation and articulation, in patterns of varying complexity. The specific embellishments commonly heard on a given instrument are taken from a broader repertoire according to the player’s assessment of what best suits that instrument’s technical capabilities. Shared preferences are often observed within a performer community — both regionally and instrument based — but there is no native Irish style of melodic autoharp playing that can be examined in these or any other regards.

If there were such a thing, it is safe to assume that one of its attributes would be the far heavier use of grace-note ornamentation than in the American style. One purpose of such decoration is to maintain rhythmic momentum. This is done with a separate battery of techniques conceptualized as “fill” in the American frame of reference.

Two specific ornaments that an autoharper wishing to play ITM on its own terms might beneficially adopt were presented in Part 1 of this post. One is a patterned subdivision of a quarter note into two sixteenth notes and an eighth note. It is sometimes called a “treble” when played on the same note, and a “triplet” when comprising different notes. However, that usage is commonly inverted and the terms are also treated as synonyms.

I use treble as a general designation to avoid confusion with other senses of the word triplet. One of them designates the staff notation of a quarter note divided into three equal parts. The same convention is frequently used for writing a treble despite it being played as a quarter note divided in half, with one of the halves again divided in half. There is a fundamental rhythmic distinction between subdividing a beat in half or in thirds, and it is easy enough to notate the treble as it is played.

This is a mainstay of performance on several instruments in the established ITM lineup and is also well suited to the autoharp. Karin Mueller uses same-note trebles liberally in a benchmark solo autoharp recording of The Kesh jig. Tom Schroeder adds the multi-note pattern in a tutorial video on The Rights of Man hornpipe.

The second characteristic ornament is the substantially more intricate “roll.” I haven’t been able to locate any similar examples of its use on the autoharp. With apologies to anyone whose work I may have overlooked, it is not clear to me which of its variants might be suited best to that instrument. The purpose of the following text is to consider a few alternatives.

Janet Harbison discusses ornamentation on the Irish harp in a video workshop that covers a number of devices that are also useful on the autoharp. She includes two basic types of rolls, presenting a “triplet roll” first. Here is the beginning of the reel The Raveled Hank of Yarn (introduced without ornamentation in the preceding post) notated with triplet rolls. Each sixteenth note in the bracketed triplet is played with equal length and the first of them determines the rhythmic pulse and marks the pitch of the three-note aggregate.

One way to execute this on an autoharp is by playing each instance of the principal note with the middle finger, using the ring and index fingers for the notes immediately above and below it. (An alternative using fewer fingers is considered below.) The other hand raises the chord bar before plucking the string for the first sixteenth note and lowers it again just after the string for the third sixteenth note has been plucked.

Janet continues with a “cut-and-tip roll” that she says is fiendishly hard to play on the harp but well worth the effort, and refers to it elsewhere as “the king of ornaments.” It is named for the single grace notes applied to the principal notes from above and below. (Since I primarily play wind instruments, I use the labels “cut” and “tap” more commonly encountered in that context.)

The grace notes are significantly shorter than the principal notes and are played so rapidly when included in a roll that they are usually conceptualized as articulation or a rhythmic effect (illustrated in the preceding post with links to presentations on the flute and fiddle). Their pitch can be difficult, if not impossible, to discern and the primary note unambiguously determines the pitch of the entire ornament.

The strings in a roll are plucked individually with similar techniques on both the harp and the autoharp but the requisite damping is effected in entirely different ways. Individual strings can easily be muted on a harp but not on an autoharp. With the latter, silencing a vibrating string requires the lowering of a bar for a chord that does not include that note (or a rarely encountered full damper bar that acts on all strings). Playing the notated example with requisite clarity on an autoharp (even one with a dedicated damper bar) therefore requires each cut and tap to be framed by the swift raising and lowering of the bar for the chord that includes the principal note.

The imperceptible pitches of the articulating grace notes on other instruments make the intervals between them and the principal notes a matter of individual preference, steered by the most efficacious way to produce the intended decorative effect on the instrument in hand. This provides latitude on an autoharp for the grace notes to be adjacent to the principal note in the same chord, rather than same scale, eliminating need for any bar action. However, the space between the target strings will then vary from chord to chord and depend further on how the specific instrument is strung and tuned, increasing demands on accurate aim.

A roll played on an autoharp has one further property not displayed by any of the other instruments considered here. Unless each note is plucked with immaculate accuracy, additional strings will contribute to the resulting sound. On a diatonic autoharp this will include double strings and, if a lock bar is engaged on a two- or three-key instrument, the muted string(s) can add a stuttered effect. This will be even more marked on a chromatic instrument.

The familiar technique of dragging a single finger across a delineated interval provides an alternative to plucking the central three notes in a triplet roll individually. However, if any extraneous strings are present, they can blur the ornament’s rhythmic thrust and perceived pitch. A drag can be applied to a cut without this offsetting effect if it is started on the string immediately above the principle note.

A further variant retains the convenience of a dragged triplet roll but reinforces its contour and pitch. The core triplet is separated from whatever precedes it by clearly sounding the principal note, followed by what is then a somewhat compressed triplet. This both starts and ends the ornament with a string sounding at the principle pitch, with a further occurrence at its midpoint. Kevin Burke describes and demonstrates this form on a fiddle in a tutorial video.

[The initial version of this post also indicated it in staff notation. That representation needs revision to suit its execution on the autoharp more specifically. I’ll either reinstate it in a further update here or delve more deeply into it in a separate post.]

Concern with undesired strings and onerous bar action can also be obviated simply (even if anticlimactically) by forgoing rolls in favor of trebles. The ample musical potential of the latter ornament is 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 clearly not an essential attribute of a traditional instrumental style. (There are also good examples of their performance on the banjo and accordion but they are surprisingly sparse.)

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 this with some of the people mentioned in these two posts. As might be expected, there’s reasonable consensus about the instrument being able to produce convincing trebles.

The returns are still out about rolls and there are other aspects of the autoharp that need to be considered in an assessment of its suitability to ITM from the native perspective. I’ll be taking this all as fuel for future posts.

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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”.