Simon Thoumire and Aidan O'Rourke came up with the fantastic idea of bringing 22 of Scotland's finest professional fiddlers and students of the Royal Conservatiore Scotland to perform at the Celtic Connections festival this year.  The ensemble takes it's name from the Strathspey & Reel Society tradition, but with an innovative twist that leaves plenty of room for creativity within the tradition.  Four new pieces were commissioned by Creative Scotland and the composers were: Simon Thoumire, Aidan O'Rourke, Jennifier Austin and myself.  

My composition "For A' That Variation", is a collage-composition.  It includes a couple of traditional tunes that Robert Burns also used for two of his songs: A Man's A Man For A' That; and Scots Wha Hae.  I decided to write a series of variations on these tunes, and for the first time, I wanted to experiment a little with African cross-rhythm patterns.  I began by varying the tunes by looking for inspiration in the 18th Century fiddlers' style such as Oswald, McGibbon and Riddell. 

I had been recently reading about musicking in Sub-Saharan Africa and how musicians combine two rhythms together (3 beats with 2 beats, also known as a hemiola).  I was intrigued to discover that according to David Greenwood, "Many sub-Saharan languages do not have a word for rhythm, or even music. Rhythms represent the very fabric of life and embody the people's interdependance in human relationships.  Cross-beats can symbolise challenging moments or emotional stress: playing them while fully grounded in the main beats prepares one for maintaining life-purpose while dealing with life's challenges." (Greenwood, David Peñalosa; Peter; collaborator,; editor, (2009). The clave matrix : Afro-Cuban rhythm : its principles and African origins. Redway, CA: Bembe Books. p. 21. ISBN 1-886502-80-3.)

I suggested to all the fiddlers that I would like them to play my notation with their own added bowings, grace notes and phrasing.  This I knew they would all be comfortable doing as most have had experience adding ornamentation to minimal/skeleton notations in manuscripts.  I feel every fiddler has their own unique touch that is informed by their teacher and community and I wanted to leave space within the piece for their own variation.  

I also wrote two different endings for the group to vote on! They voted for the 1st ending, which I was slightly surprising by - I was positive they'd choose the 2nd ending!  By giving the group the opportunity to decide how the piece would end I felt it helped in someway to breakdown the composer/player divide.  I am a strong believer in the notion that music is not an object (noun) it is a process (verb).  By keeping space open for discussion I felt the piece became less my own and more of a group entity!  At least that was my hope... Christopher Small who coined the term "Musicking" and his book (of the same title) has been such an inspiration for me on this project.  I would like to thank Felicity Laurence who kindly introduced me to his writing whilst I was a student at Newcastle University.  Here Small states that,

"The act of musicking establishes in the place where it is happening a set of relationships, and it is in those relationships that the meaning of the act lies.  They are to be found not only between those organised sounds which are conventionally thought of as being the stuff of musical meaning but also between the people who are taking part, in whatever capacity, in the performance; and they model, or stand as metaphor for, ideal relationships as the participants in the performance imagine them to be: relationships between person and person between individual and society, between humanity and the natural world and even perhaps the supernatural world." Small, Christopher (1998). Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening. Hanover: University Press of New England. p. 8. ISBN 978-0-8195-2257-3.


I hope that this piece expresses my passion and relationship with Scottish traditional music-making alongside my deepest appreciation of the many other forms and traditions of musicking across the world.  The "out-of-Africa" hypothesis proposes that humans evolved from Africa between 200,000 and 60,000 years ago.  It is fascinating and may the diversity of human music-making continue to thrive for generations to come.  One day I would really love to visit East Africa to learn more about their way of life and to discover similarities and differences between our musical traditions.

"That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,

Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.  

For a' that, an a' that,

It's coming yet for a' that,

That Man to Man, the world o'er,

Shall brothers be for a' that."

From "A Man's A Man For A' That" by Robert Burns.
AuthorShona Mooney