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Random Thoughts On Random Tunes 5 - My Love Is In America

I came to an appreciation of the music rather late in life - something which, from time to time, I regret terribly.  But then again, what use are regrets?

One of the results of this late immersion in the music has been a rather idiosyncratic approach to learning tunes.  At sessions, I find myself surrounded by players who never put their instruments down; no matter how obscure, or how demanding, the tune, they know it and play away.  Whereas, some nights I'm lucky to be able to recognise - let alone play - half of the tunes.

A big debate rages constantly among traditional musicians as to the "proper" way of learning tunes.  There seems to be a consensus - amongst those who have the ability at least! - that the best way to learn tunes is by ear.  I can well see the truth in this - the music is formed from a finite series of notes, arranged into a more or less finite series of apt phrases.  However these phrases are capable of being arranged into an almost infinite variety of tunes.  A very good musician of my acquaintance, who has a phenomenal ear for tunes, reckons his ability hinges on the fact that he put a great deal of effort into learning phrases, not by artificially dissembling tunes but by noting mentally where this or that phrase recurs in different tunes and how the phrase is affected by following or preceding other "stock" phrases.  He talks about the DNA of tunes and compares the possibilities for endless tunes with the fact that the complex variety of life itself is formed from a tiny range of molecules - but capable of being arranged in infinitely varied ways.

Hmmm.  I'm not quite at that stage.  There are one or two tunes which I've learned by ear.  More often, I will have a vague idea of the tune in my head but need a little reassurance that I'm on the right track.  Usually I'll have a skim through the tune in a book (or more commonly in "abc" format via the web) and play it through one or two times with the notes in front of me until I have the basic sequence.  However, inevitably, the setting doesn't quite correspond with the way I hear the tune in my mind's ear.  And so, over the course of the next little while, I'll play it dozens of times, until eventually I have a version of the tune which works for me ...

My Love Is In America is one of those tunes I've heard hundreds of times, but it just didn't "stick".  Until I was listening to Helen Roche's beautiful CD "Shake The Blossom Early".  In one of the songs, My Love Is In America emerges as a theme, played very slowly and steadily on the pipes.  And straightaway I "got" the tune.  I was on the way home and couldn't wait to see if I could translate this tune which was now firmly established in my memory into my fingers.  It was one of those occasions where the learning by ear approach worked for me.  I wouldn't say that I played it through fluently in that first instance, but I had very little difficulty in picking out the notes.  And after perhaps forty or fifty repeats - drilling the tune in - I can safely say that I'd developed something of a way with the tune (and, of course, after playing the tune "out" with other musicians, my approach to it has developed further - as it does!).

In London, in any event, this tune is often played at a blazing speed.  However I like to hear/play it a slower pace than that at which reels are normally played.  A slow version of the tune draws out its sense of melancholy.  My Love Is In America.  Such an economical, evocative phrase.  There is undoubtedly a tail to these few words, along the lines of "... and I'll never see him/her again".

I remember, during a slow news day, hearing on the radio a few years ago that Irish music had "officially" been rated as the "saddest" of all the world's musics.  I seem to remember the piece being illustrated by a number of slow airs on the pipes.  However, I would maintain that some of our dance music captures as much melancholy as the most heartbreaking of slow airs.  I find that tunes such as "Corney Is Coming" and "The Bird In The Bush" can conjure up feelings of sadness to match those evoked by, say, "Taimse I Mo Chodladh" or "An Buachaill Caol Dubh".

And of course, with a title like "My Love Is In America", it's not surprising that this popular reel also has a tremendous sense of sadness at its core.

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February 2010


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