Welcome to the Fancy Peas, AgainBy:
This article is about the creation of musical variations; something that has been part of the piping tradition, in England and elsewhere, for almost as long as it has had a re- corded history. The three most proximate roots for this piece all come from the Blowout held in 2011.
The first inspiration was a conversation I had with Clive Mathews in which he deplored the “current habit” of playing through a set of variations more than once. Clive’s opinion was that one should start at the beginning, play through the variations and stop, perhaps returning to the theme to round the performance off. My initial reac- tion was to agree with him — after all, I am a model of politeness and didn’t want to start an argument — but, after the conversation, I began to think: I came to the conclu- sion that I quite liked the performance to go on a bit longer, in some cases a lot longer, and wasn’t as bothered by the habit of repetition as Clive. I have been interested both in repetitive music that slowly changes and in sets of variations for a long time. In the late 1970s, I programmed an early Apple computer to play the (British) national anthem. Each time through the tune, the program replaced one note at random with a different one, with sometimes comic effect. After a period of time the program switched strategy and gradually, again at random, reinstated the correct notes. The overall effect was of the tune gradually decomposing into an unrecognizable mess and then slowly re-emerging. I’d be the first to admit that it wasn’t hit parade material — the whole thing lasted over half an hour — but it did keep me off the streets.
The second inspiration came during the workshop with Paul Martin on tackling variations in border pipe music, specifically the Peacock tunes, which were recom- mended as containing some very good material. During the discussion I asked Matt Seat- tle if he had ever considered writing a set of variations that went from one tune to an- other. “No” was the answer (and also the end of that part of the discussion).
The third stimulus came during Julian Goodacre’s talk on his approach to the composition of tunes. Part of the discussion centered on the question of whether tunes “just arrive”, and are captured (or not) by the person whose brain they have just flown through, or whether it is possible to avoid the wait for the muse to appear and work at it. I believe that one — anyone— can work at it rather than just wait for a tune to drop out of the chanter (although with me, as with many others, sometimes tunes do just emerge almost fully formed) and I said as much during the discussion.
So there it was: could I put my money where my mouth was? Could I sit down, pick a couple of tunes from the Peacock book and write a set of variations that gradually morphed one into the other? Further, could I make it so that the set was repeatable? After some thought about the structure, I realized that three tunes would make a much more satisfying cycle; instead of bouncing between tune 1 and tune 2, one could go from 1 to 2, then to 3 and finally back to 1 again, leading to a naturally repetitive structure.
I’m writing this whilst the variations are being written. So the rest of it is a kind of diary. The end result will (hopefully) be a record of what I did. At the end will be the final result followed, perhaps, by some closing thoughts and some suggestions for further work. Of course, this “as it ‘appens” style of writing is slightly disingenuous: if the whole thing goes wrong I can quietly put it in the bin, although there is always the dan- ger that the people with whom I’ve discussed it will come up to me later and ask embar- rassing questions like “What happened to that Chanter article you said were going to write about turning one Peacock tune into another one?”.
For my first attempt I decided to go for the low hanging fruit; I picked tunes that were in the same key, had the same number of bars and a common rhythm. I’m sure it’s possible to relax one or more of these constraints, but learning to walk before attempting to run is usually more successful than the other way around.
The tunes I chose were Holmes Fancy, Welcome to the Town again and Butter’d Peas, all taken from the facsimile edition of Peacock’s Tunes produced by the Northum- brian Pipers’ Society in 1980.
Confession Time: The alert reader will spot that two of the tunes are in 4⁄4 time and one in 2⁄4. To make my job easier, I rewrote Butter’d Peas in 4⁄4. Anyone who can reliably tell the difference between a tune written in 2⁄4 and the same tune written in 4⁄4, when played on the pipes had better stop reading now; worse solecisms are to come. I usually play a different version of Buttered Peas (from the NPS 1st tune book) to the version in Peacock. When playing the Peacock version, the f sharp notes in the second part really grated on me, so I changed them to f natural, which sounded much better. Mea Maxima Culpa. I left the first part unchanged because that sounded good (to me) as it was, and I have a bagpipe that can play either note.
A short digression on equipment: I suppose the minimum required, unless the budding variation writer has a truly prodigious memory, is a pencil, an eraser and some sheets of manuscript paper. Whilst I might be able to manage with such a Spartan set of tools, in my case the process is much quicker if I have a musical instrument to hand to try out different ideas. Better still is a robot that plays exactly what has been written1. A computer that can read music and play it back to the perpetrator makes the process very much easier.
The first job is to put the tunes into the computer. My own robot is capable of recording what I play on a keyboard or any other midi instrument. It will even clean it up afterwards and produce (almost) recognizable sheet music from the performance2. If that doesn’t work, the computer will also read music from a scanned image: I’m spoilt for choice, but my keyboard playing is woefully inadequate; I also know the kind of mess that results from trying to scan in manuscripts such as the Peacock book and the amount of work required to correct it. It’s quicker in the end to just type it in.
Welcome to the Town again happened to be the first tune I’d selected so in it went, immediately followed by Holme’s Fancy. At this point I wanted instant gratifica- tion — I wanted to see if this was going to work. So, instead of typing in Butter’d Peas, I took the first measure of Holme’s Fancy (it was the one in front of me, because I’d just finished entering it), wrote it at the top of the page and tried to think of what to do to turn it into the Welcome tune.
It’s always a good idea to look at previous practice, especially practice that is good enough to have survived. What do the previous composers of variations do? Crudely put; they leave the bones of the tune intact and just run amok; sometimes, they make it more complicated; sometimes, they make it less complicated; they alter the rhythm; they put in gratuitous arpeggios; they decorate the hell out of it; whatever. The only difference in my case, apart from lack of experience, is that although I’ve chosen tunes that are similar in structure, I may have to surreptitiously alter some of the bones in going from one tune to another. I will probably also have to design the embellishments with a view to concealing the underlying surgery.
With that in mind, how can we get from this:
The first thing that struck me was the very strong first top G in Welcome to the town again. How could it be introduced gradually? I came up with a scale for the first two beats of the bar and left the rest unchanged.
Next is to work on the last two notes of the bar. I chose to substitute the notes from Welcome directly.
We are getting closer, but still not there. I now have a scale that needs to change into a single top G. I chose to miss out some notes so I ended up with a simple tune that
was similar to Welcome, but not quite.
At this point Welcome to the town again can be played without too much of an
obvious hiatus. I then started work on the B part and tried to repeat the spirit of the
changes I had made in each of the A part variations, coming up with the following:
I have a suspicion that I may have stolen a bit of the first variation3 from the play- ing of Catherine Tickell. That’s the trouble with this composition lark: you never know whether you have just invented something or merely remembered it from somewhere else. If it comes to a plagiarism court case, I might end up having to give her 1⁄128 of the vast royalties that will come my way when (or if) this is published.
On to Butter’d Peas. This turned out to be easier. I was able to ‘plonk’ whole bars from my eventual destination into the starting point without (to my ears at any rate) causing very much discomfort. After following the same process — vary the A part, then vary the B part in roughly the same spirit — I arrived at Butter’d Peas, but with a small problem: I’d gone a bit faster in the B part variations and I had one more variation in the A music than the B music. Rather than repeat anything, I jazzed up the B music with a rappel effect to make the number of variations the same in both parts.
The final task is to get back to Holme’s Fancy. The A parts of each tune are quite similar and it was fairly easy to change one into the other without too much aural dis- comfort. As far as the B parts were concerned, I decided to drop the f natural notes as