Monday, 26 September 2011

Tomorrow the Fox meets Hurdy Gurdy

About 20 years ago I saw my first hurdy gurdy and decided that one day I would own one. Recently, I got around to making that dream come true. So, the question that I've heard most frequently since become a hurdy gurdy owner is, 'What the **** is a hurdy gurdy?!?'.

Well, in French it's called a 'vielle a roue', which roughly means it's a fiddle with a wheel. That's probably the easiest way to explain this fascinating instrument, but it doesn't really explain it fully. It's like a wheely fiddle in as much as a rosined wheel vibrates the strings as it turns, in much the same way as a rosined bow does on a fiddle, and the pitch of the note is changed by shortening the scale length: on a fiddle this is done by stopping the string against the fingerboard with your finger, on a hurdy gurdy it's done by pressing a key which pushes a small wooden 'tangent' against the strings.

It's unlike a fiddle though, in that it's got drone strings which play a continuous note like the drones on a bagpipe. One of the most distinctive features about the hurdy gurdy (as if the wheel, tangents, drones, and generally odd configuration weren't enough!) is the buzzing bridge, known as a dog or 'chien', which is sounded by varying the speed at which the wheel is turned.

There are many websites that go into much more detail about how a hurdy gurdy works and how they're played, so I won't go on too much here. Instead, here's a video of my new toy, a copy of a type of hurdy gurdy dating from the 16th or 17th century. The tune is Tomorrow the Fox Will Come to Town, which was printed in Thomas Ravenscroft's Deuteromelia (1609). This might, I suppose, be considered my theme tune...

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

The De'il among the Tailors

Here's a northern jig that I've always loved, finally recorded for posterity.

The instrument is a Richwood octave mandola with all courses tuned in unison. This seems like a good opportunity to talk about the classification of eight-stringed instruments - that's what blogs are for right? Getting things off your chest that other people may or may not care about? If you don't care, just watch the video. If you do care, here are my thoughts.

There are three common eight-stringed instruments beginning with the 'mando' prefix (we'll ignore bouzoukis for now - that's a whole other discussion): the mandolin, tenor mandola, and octave mandola or octave mandolin. The great debate is whether the largest of these should be called an octave mandola or an octave mandolin. The answer, technically, is neither. It should be called a tenor mandola, but that would just be confusing.

The word 'mandolin' is a derivation of 'mandolino', which means 'little mandola'. That is to say, the mandola is the original instrument and the mandolin is the soprano version. The octave mandola, as we call it now, is a tenor version of the original mandola. So, instead of mandolin, tenor mandola, and octave mandola, we ought to talk about a mandolin, mandola, and tenor mandola. See, I said it was confusing, so I think I'll just live with the old debate about whether it's an octave mandola or an octave mandolin...

Anyway, the video...