Seinn Dùthchasach / Seann Nòs
(Indigenous Gaelic Singing Styles)
Some of you have written to ask what the definition of 'seann nos' singing is. Well now, that certainly is a loaded question, but I'll do my very best to help.
The following will refer to indigenous/regional Gaelic singing styles and not the general performance of a Gaelic song:-
Firstly, the term 'seann nos', means 'old way/style', although this doesn't sufficiently describe our traditional, regional Gaelic singing styles. The term 'seann nòs' is relatively new and I think I would be right in saying that it was coined in Ireland around the middle or early 20th century.
The word 'seann' (old), suggests that it is no longer current and that it is something which has died out or is old-fashioned. I prefer to use the term 'seinn dùthchasach' (indigenous / traditional / culturally rooted style of singing), although I admit that it may not trip off the tongue too easily! However, I feel it best describes this form of singing, which has been passed down via aural/oral transmission for hundreds of years, but which is still as relevant today as it was in the past. Although becoming rare, there is still a living and unbroken tradition of singing in distinctive regional styles in some areas of Gaelic Scotland.
Singing a Gaelic song in a classical or contemporary style (Americana, Country, Jazz, Rock, fusion etc.) is very different to singing the same song in a regional seann nòs (style). While many singers can perform a Gaelic song quite beautifully, if they learn the words and tune well enough, and many are even able to imitate some of the traditional styles to a degree, singing in an authentic indigenous style which has developed within the singer's own area/family/culture for hundreds of years, is a much more complex form of singing altogether; it is full of nuances of language and style, melisma, rhythmic shifts and pitch shifts which can too often be lost on singers who were not reared with it. I like to compare it to one's lingustic accent - it is a STYLE of speaking which one soaks in subliminally, it was not specifically taught and is practiced naturally, without plan or thought. It is the same for seinn dùthchasach - it is one's musical accent, if you will. There are many and varied regional Gaelic singing styles, and also many forms of ornamentation within those styles, which can be found in the nòs of Gaelic regions stretching from the Butt of Lewis, in the Hebrides, down to the tip of Co. Kerry in Ireland.
The authentic way to perform 'seinn dùthchasach', is unaccompanied (a-capella), and the natural Gaelic speech within the poetry should always take precedence over the melody. The melody should always be fluid in order that the language rhythms are never compromised or distorted and the technical quality of the voice is never as important in these regional styles as it is in classical singing. The song text (the poetry), holds the most prominent position and if the text cannot be understood or is marred by such things as faulty pronunciation, broken phrases or even unsympathetic accompaniment then, to the ear of the Gael, the entire performance is compromised.
There has been a lot of influence on Gaelic singing styles from other cultures and this is now beginning to influence audience appreciation of the genre. Having a tuneful, natural voice and an uncontrived regional singing style is crucial. The essence and beauty of good seann-nòs singing is its totally untrained, natural, free and relaxed quality. Authentic singers are completely comfortable with their language, their song and their singing style; having been exposed to it and nurtured in it, within their homes or communities, since childhood, and these performances rarely have a contrived feel to them.
For a performer to suggest that they are a 'traditional Gaelic singer' by merely singing a song which is generally accepted as being from the traditional canon is misleading. There is a LOT more to it than that.
The stress pattern of the Gaelic poetry in the song should dictate the rhythm and use of the basic melody, so that no two verses are alike with regard to note values. Rhythmic freedom is one of the most important aspects of traditional Gaelic singing, and is the one least understood by those not brought up with it. Nowadays, with so many Gaelic songs being accompanied by musical instruments, the rhythmic freedom seems to be the most frustrating for any accompanying musician who is unfamiliar with the genre.
With fewer opportunities to hear true traditional singing in the remaining Gaelic communities, younger singers should therefore take time to seek out older traditional singers to listen to and learn from. Archive recordings are now easily accessible from the likes of the Tobar an Dualchais online database, and these can help singers to familiarise themselves with songs in their own regional style. Care should be taken, however, about learning from these archive recordings without the help of a mentor who is familiar with the songs and styles, as nuances of pronunciation, style and phrasing could be lost on novices. I would always advise singers to fully digest the text of the song before marrying it with the melody. In this way it is hoped that the nòs, phrasing, word stresses, assonance etc would be fully understood and appreciated. This should make an enormous difference to how a young singer will eventually communicate the song to their audience. There has been a tendency, over a number of years, for singers to be heavily influenced by regularity of rhythm, and even native Gaelic speakers are now subject to this change. Some singers can be seen playing out the rhythm with their hands and/or fingers, while singing the song, keeping it in a strict rhythm. This often shows a lack of familiarity with the traditional free style and the all important language rhythms, giving the performance a very contrived quality.
The tempo of a song may also vary according to the degree of ornamentation used. In the Scottish Gàidhealtachd, melismatic singing is much more pronounced in Lewis and in Harris, but nowadays there are fewer singers who ornament naturally and effortlessly in the traditional style. However, some singers, wherever they come from, feel that ornamentation is a requisite of any traditional singing; this, unfortunately, results in the introduction of a very artificial form of ornamentation in some performances. Affected, excessive or peculiar embellishments / ornamentation are unpleasant to listen to and add nothing to a sean-nòs performance, indeed they totally strip it of its traditional 'nòs' and should be avoided at all costs.
A style of singing which has been nurtured since childhood will always sound natural and will stand the test of time. A true traditional singer, brought up with melismatic singing, will never think about when or where to embellish notes, it will be as natural to them as breathing or as natural as their accent (as mentioned above).
When a singer is brought up with an indigenous singing style their performance of a song will always sound natura, but as so little true 'seinn dùchasach' is now heard in our Gaelic communities, younger singers often have to learn their songs from commercial recordings which, although attractive in sound and quality, are too often based on techniques and styles outwith their own region and culture, and are usually from a variety of sources, with many singers now adopting mainstream jazz, blues, rock and pop styles within their performance. This shows that the emphasis is more on pleasing a non-Gàidhealach audience than on respecting the song or the traditional genre. There is an element of the inferiority complex in this trend and suggests that some Gaelic song performers require to be validated by those from outside the culture before they feel comfortable about their own performance. The danger in this is that the fickle nature of fashions and trends will render them ignorant of the true roots of the songs they perform, and they will certainly be unable to perform them authentically and/or pass them on to a younger generation. What then of the unbroken chain ?
Another phenomenon attached to traditional Gaelic singing is that the singer will often make changes in the song each time it is sung. I know I do this myself, through my ornamentation or by subconciously making other slight changes in the melody notes. It will depend on how one feels at the time, on one's familiarity with the song, on the atmosphere, on how relaxed one is, or on the state of one's voice at the time.
Insensitive musical accompaniment has certainly had an adverse effect on the performance of traditional Gaelic song over the past 70 years or so. Songs which should be unrestricted in their rhythm are often forced into measured time because of unsympathetic musical arrangements, and possibly the intimidating tactics of instrumentalists who are unfamiliar with the genre and who force singers to alter or distort the natural linguistic rhythms within a song.
When Gaelic songs that are naturally free in rhythm are forced into a strict, and what is in fact an alien rhythm, many of the Gaelic words are stretched out unnaturally, poetic phrases are broken and the entire performance loses authenticity, particularly for the informed listener. Too often the meanings of the words are altered by the distortions of rhythm created by thoughtless instrumental accompaniment. I should add, however, that there are many accomplished musicians who are extremely adept and sensitive to the nuances of traditional singing styles (many of whom I've had the pleasure of working with) and who go out of their way to ensure that the song text is given due respect and that the singer is happy with their accompaniment.
For those of us 'of a certain vintage', who were brought up in Gaelic speaking communities, local or regional singing was a part of our cultural landscape - it was always there and a constant in our lives, just as our language was. I am painfully aware that, nowadays, young people in the Highlands and Islands do not have this luxury and that their main exposure to Gaelic singing is through the medium of social media, CDs, videos, television, and large festivals, which too often marginalise or even exclude the most traditional performances.
Traditional singing, within communities, and performed in an informal and relaxed manner is becoming frighteningly rare.
I hope the above highlights the fragile state of traditional Gaelic singing (not to be confused with 'traditional' songs) in the 21st century, and the need to keep these precious living traditions alive within Gaelic speaking communities.
I hope the blog encourages debate, and I would welcome any questions or feedback. (please use the contact form).
To finish, I'd like to quote Sorley MacLean;
Gaelic songs - "the songs in which ineffable melodies rise like exhaltations from the rhythms and resonances of the words, the songs that alone make the thought that the Gaelic language is going to die so intolerable to anyone who knows Gaelic, and has in the least degree the sensibility that responds to the marriage, or rather the simultaneous creation, of words and music.
It may be that a great piper without Gaelic can play pibroch supremely; it may even be that a great singer without Gaelic can be coached into a great performance of one of those songs; but it is CERTAIN that no one who does not know Gaelic can really hear one of those songs. I am convinced that Scottish Gaelic song is the chief artistic glory of the Scots, and of all people of Celtic speech, and one of the greatest artistic glories of Europe. I have been of this opinion for nearly 40 years, I have reiterated it ad nauseum, and now I am more convinced of its validity than I have ever been".