Here’s a dearly loved piece of which I am very proud: “Mrs. Carmichael of Skirlings and Mrs. Carmichael’s Favorite” from the 2005 album of British Isles music I did with Kenny Butler. As I prepare to head out to Europe for an extended tour, much of which will be dedicated to performing this music with Kenny in Spain, Portugal and who knows where else, I want to share it with you. I composed a set of counterpoints to these lovely tunes, focussing more on line than the more American-influenced harmonic approach. I believe this is more like people improvised back the 1700’s and 1800’s. This tune yielded the contrpuntalist’s home-run: a quodlibet. What is that? Well, let us turn to page 8,474,311,590 in our copy of Wikipedia:
A quodlibet (/ˈkwɒdləˌbɛt/; Latin for “whatever you wish” from quod, “what” and libet, “pleases”) is a piece of music combining several different melodies, usually popular tunes, in counterpoint and often a light-hearted, humorous manner. There are three main types of quodlibet:
- A catalogue quodlibet consists of a free setting of catalogue poetry (usually humorous lists of loosely related items).
- In a successive quodlibet, one voice has short musical quotations and textual quotations while the other voices provide homophonic accompaniment.
- In a simultaneous quodlibet, two or more pre-existing melodies are combined. The simultaneous quodlibet may be considered a historical antecedent to the modern-day musical mashup.
Mrs Carmichael gets the rare and quite difficult simultaneous quodlibet blowout here. I love the effect. The tunes tug at the heartstrings, especially with Kenny’s tender and lively step-style playing on the violin. It’s as if a reminiscence of an older woman’s younger days roll right by, dancing as a girl, as a young mother, right through life to old age. At the final time through, (at 2:49) when the banjo slips in unnoticed (tricky for a banjo!), both tunes face each other till the music fades away, and they harmonize in warm, spinning joy.
Back in the 20-aughts after studying Scottish and Irish “fiddle music” for a year I decided to compose 18th century-style counterpoints to the enigmatic airs and dances rather than the “folk music” accompaniment it more commonly receives. The result is a new and vibrant polyphonic interpretation of this colorful, idiosyncratic repertoire. The listener will appreciate early music techniques infused with rocking modern rhythms of contemporary Celtic music.
The pieces are arranged in small suites. Though it is difficult to say whether this is how this music was originally performed, the brevity of the compositions certainly invite this approach. On this recording I play the plucked instruments; primarily the 11-string archguitar, but also bass dombra, steel string guitar, and banjo. Violinist Kenny Butler tunes his instrument lower (to A = 415hz) and strings it exclusively with gut, employing delightful aspects of baroque playing styles. The result is a warmer sound that blends especially well with the archguitar.