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Thread: What makes an Air?

  1. #1
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    Default What makes an Air?

    What is it, exactly, that makes a song or tune an Air?

    Does playing an air involve a certain technique?

    I am playing Canticle of the Turning with the choir at church.
    The tune is Star of the County Down - an Air in Em.
    As I play the tune, I feel like I am being heavy handed compared to You Tube videos that I have listened to.
    It isn't a good description, but the You Tube videos feel like they have more of a "bounce" than I have in my playing.
    What don't I know?

    Thanks!

    Joseph Baker

  2. #2
    Mandolin Friendly Mark Gunter's Avatar
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    Default Re: What makes an Air?

    I'm very new to playing Airs - in fact, I'm no good at it. But a good place to learn more is by checking out the Song a Week social group here at the cafe. There have been plenty of Airs treated over the years in those threads, so you can watch the videos but also you can post questions like this for the guys who really have them down.

    The Airs are played slowly for one thing. As to "bounce", you may need to add a little syncopation to your playing. Also, the rhythm can vary just a bit while playing some of these Airs - IMO you need an expert feel to pull that off.
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    Mandolin Friendly Mark Gunter's Avatar
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    Default Re: What makes an Air?

    Here are examples just two Airs treated in SAW group.

    The first is Da Slockit Light performed here by David Hansen, as found in the second page of this thread: https://www.mandolincafe.com/forum/g...cussionid=2245



    The second is O'Carolan's Receipt For Drinking performed here by John Kelly, as found in this thread: https://www.mandolincafe.com/forum/g...cussionid=6050

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    Default Re: What makes an Air?

    Thank you, Mark, for your replies.
    I enjoyed both of the tunes which you posted.

    Joseph Baker

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    Mandolin Friendly Mark Gunter's Avatar
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    Default Re: What makes an Air?

    No problem, Joseph. The tune you mentioned, Star of The County Down, was the SAW tune for week #211 - I would suggest resurrecting that thread with your questions and maybe your own submission playing the tune. You can get a lot of help and inspiration in there.

    Here is David Hansen's 3/4 rendition from that thread:



    And you can visit the entire thread here: https://www.mandolincafe.com/forum/g...cussionid=4004
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    Default Re: What makes an Air?

    I am obviously driving too fast.
    The sheet music that I have for the choir is in 2/2 time.
    I always tell the organist that "those dots on the page are just suggestions".
    Maybe I need to ignore the time signature and try to play how it should feel (if that makes any sense)

    I really liked the version in 3/4 time.

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    Default Re: What makes an Air?

    An air could be defined as a listening tune, rather than a dance tune, and usually played slowly.

    I have 3 version of this tune in my library and they are all in 3/4. The Bela Fleck and the Flecktones version has a 6/8 jig feel.

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    Default Re: What makes an Air?

    Adante con moto (slowly, but with motion)
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    Default Re: What makes an Air?

    There seem to be two different things going on in this thread -what is an air and how might offer play "canticle of the turning in a church setting?" I'm of no help on the first but this video is how I've always heard the song in churches. I very much prefer David Hansen's version but suspect it's not how your for will sing it.

    https://youtu.be/TXyGh1MW2OM

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    Default Re: What makes an Air?

    What a good chorale tune this is.

    I'd aim for the feeling of this:



    The voices have the simple melody, just follow that. Then follow the counterpoint and fills of the pipes. Very cool.
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    Default Re: What makes an Air?

    As the player on the O'Carolan video Mark attached above, I would say that I approach airs as though they are stories, and the way you perform it is akin to how a good storyteller will vary his/her voice and delivery as the story unfolds, giving emphasis to some bits, slowing down in places and being a bit faster elsewhere, so that there is a feeling of a story not only told but enjoyed by both teller and listener. I have often found that when playing with an ensemble (usually a few fiddles) there is a tendency for the players to adhere to a stricter rhythm and the air becomes more of a waltz or a slow 4/4 tune or hwatever; this I think is because if you have a few players playing in unison (or even playing parts) then there is always a variation in how each will interpret the notes in the tune as far as timing and dynamics go, so there can be a greater desire to adhere to a stricter time, almost like playing with a conductor. Our big Strathspey and Rell Societies in Scotlnad generally have a conductor who leads strongly and keeps everyone playing together. In your case, working with a choir in a church environment will probably lead to a stricter sense of more rigid time, to keep the performers together.

    Interestingly I got the following definition of "air" from Wikipedia: "An air (Italian: "aria"; also ayr, ayre in French) is various song-like vocal or instrumental compositions, and can also be applied to the interchangeable melodies of folk songs and ballads. It is a variant of the musical song form often referred to (in opera, cantata and oratorio) as aria". I tend to play what we call Slow Airs here in Scotland and the definition above seems to me to cover a much wider range of musical pieces.
    Last edited by John Kelly; Nov-18-2017 at 4:28pm. Reason: added info
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    Default Re: What makes an Air?

    This is the you Tube version that I had been listening to!
    Very cool, indeed.
    "The voices have the simple melody, just follow that. Then follow the counterpoint and fills of the pipes"
    Now the trick is to play it properly...

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    Default Re: What makes an Air?

    I don't think most people would consider Star of the County Down an air. One of the distinguishing features of an air for me, at least in the Irish/Scottish context, is that you can't tap your foot to it.

    An air has "rubato" phrasing; varying tempo for emotional expression, as with John Kelly's example above, or the Sean Nós clip linked by jesserules. Many tunes get mentioned in forums like this as "slow airs" that are actually marches or slowed-down interpretations of faster dance tunes like reels.

    Another difference is that, at least in the Irish/Scottish tradition, an "air" would usually be a solo performance, and not something a group would play together. Sometimes a rubato-phrased air is attempted in pub sessions, but unless the group has played together for many years, it's usually a train wreck in my experience. People start and stop at different times, and the result is chaos. A "slow air" with metered tempo, or a true slow air that's been crammed into a 3/4 or 4/4 tempo -- as "Da Slockit Light" is often played in sessions -- is more successful as a group effort, because everyone is on the same rhythm train.

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    Default Re: What makes an Air?

    Quote Originally Posted by foldedpath View Post
    ... One of the distinguishing features of an air for me, at least in the Irish/Scottish context, is that you can't tap your foot to it.

    An air has "rubato" phrasing; varying tempo for emotional expression, as with John Kelly's example above, or the Sean Nós clip linked by jesserules ...

    Another difference is that, at least in the Irish/Scottish tradition, an "air" would usually be a solo performance, and not something a group would play together ... A "slow air" with metered tempo, or a true slow air that's been crammed into a 3/4 or 4/4 tempo -- as "Da Slockit Light" is often played in sessions -- is more successful as a group effort, because everyone is on the same rhythm train.
    This is a really good explanation, thanks for taking the time to write it. Makes sense that rubato phrasing is best performed solo. BTW, I think John Kelly in the video above did a great job of recording his backing to mirror the rubato feel to accompany his soloing.

    Da Slockit Light - I really love that melody, and just recently learned the melody, but can't do it any justice. Do you know of any particular performance you can recommend for me to listen to or aspire to? Besides the ones in the thread I linked to ... something that really has that slow air feel?
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    Default Re: What makes an Air?

    Quote Originally Posted by Mark Gunter View Post
    Da Slockit Light - I really love that melody, and just recently learned the melody, but can't do it any justice. Do you know of any particular performance you can recommend for me to listen to or aspire to? Besides the ones in the thread I linked to ... something that really has that slow air feel?
    I have two recordings in my collection that are great examples you could hunt down. The first is Tom Anderson (who wrote the tune) and Al Bain playing together on the album "The Silver Bow." It's in a set: "Da Slockit Light / Smith o'Couster / Da Grocer."

    The very best example (IMO) is Aly Bain playing it with Ale Möller backing on Latmandola (so you get some mandolin content too!), on their album "Beyond the Stacks." This is a very emotional rendition of the tune, the one I keep coming back to, even though I'll never be able to play it like this.

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    Default Re: What makes an Air?

    "I don't think most people would consider Star of the County Down an air."
    I called Canticle of the Turning an air because the sheet music called it that.

    "One of the distinguishing features of an air for me, at least in the Irish/Scottish context, is that you can't tap your foot to it."
    "
    An air could be defined as a listening tune, rather than a dance tune, and usually played slowly."
    This is a really helpful idea for me to remember.

    Indeed, it makes sense that rubato phrasing would be best for solo performance
    The rest of the choir has to know where I am going.
    We had practice after Mass today and I thought that things went much better today - both my playing and the choir's singing.

    Thanks to everyone who has contributed to this thread.
    It has been enlightening to me.
    I would certainly welcome more thoughts and ideas.
    After I get through Christmas with the choir, I would like to tackle playing airs.

    Joseph Baker

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  24. #18
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    Default Re: What makes an Air?

    Quote Originally Posted by foldedpath View Post
    The very best example (IMO) is Aly Bain playing it with Ale Möller backing on Latmandola (so you get some mandolin content too!), on their album "Beyond the Stacks."
    Thanks for the recommendation! I listened to a few samples, and felt the purchase was justified by this tune and others, notably Spread Thy Wide Wings

    Looking forward to listening to these guys.
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    Default Re: What makes an Air?

    Quote Originally Posted by Joseph Baker View Post
    ... this thread. It has been enlightening to me.
    Fairly sure that you and I are not the only ones. Thanks for the well-phrased question that really got folks in a responsive mood!
    - Ed

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  26. #20

    Default Re: What makes an Air?

    Seeing as The Star of the County Down has been mentioned a few times in this thread, some of you might be interested in listening to this slow air from Mary Bergin's first record, Feadóga Stáin.

    You can find it on Spotify and I'm sure on many other online sources. The track in question is track number 5, called "Fonn Mall (Slow Air): Liam O Raghallaigh" on the record. But the melody is essentially The Star of the County Down. Wonderful rendition. Actually the entire record is wonderful.

    Kenny

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