Debra Reddin van Tuyll & Carl Purdy
The popular imagination associates traditional Irish music more with lively jigs and reels, céilíthe at the crossroads, and ballad crooners whose songs tell sad stories of emigration, immigration or unrequited love. However, there is a darker side to traditional music in Ireland. A 2009 study found that the two properties most commonly associated with Irish traditional music are, as expected, its liveliness but also its haunting qualities.
These haunting qualities are perhaps most often seen in the slow airs, ballads, and sean nos songs, but they are by no means limited to those forms. Even jigs and reels can be composed so as to take on menacing undertones, or given titles that reflect Ireland’s historic connection to the Gothic and Gothic arts. ‘Old Hag, You Have Killed Me’, ‘The Witches’, ‘I Buried My Wife and Danced on Her Grave’, ‘The Jig of the Dead’, ‘The Banshee’, Troll in the Mustard’, ‘The Wizard’, and ‘Port Na bPúcaí,’ which translates as ‘Song of the Pooka/Fairies’ are just a handful of examples of titles that have, at the very least, Gothic undertones.
Folk music, as any other genre of music, can be composed to convey dark, haunting messages and feelings. An entire neofolk genre encompassing dark folk music arose in the 1960s and was the genesis of punk and some of the metal genres. While this music is more commonly associated with heathenism today, it is also tinged with dark arts and supernatural phenomenon. However, the composition of Gothic folk music is far less studied than the composition of either contemporary popular music or classical music. This paper proposes to address that musicological hole in the literature by considering how folk music – in particular, Irish traditional music – can be constructed so as to convey a feeling, message or emotion linked to the Gothic.
Irish traditional music makes an ideal subject for such a study because of Ireland’s long connection to artistic expressions with gothic undertones. The dialectic between Ireland and England has allowed Ireland to be portrayed ‘in terms of Gothic isolation and hauntedness since the eighteenth century’ and before. Further, associations between Ireland and music – scholarly and otherwise – are centuries old.
Further, music is a common character within Irish myths, legends, and folklore, and its very presence often signifies or is the result of magic. William Butler Yeats maintained that Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738), Ireland’s most famous composer, was inspired to become a composer by the fairies whose rath he slept on one evening on his way home from a late night at the pub. Additionally, in Irish mythology, the gods Dagda, Lugh, and Ogma used the three strains of music (joyful [geantraighe]; melancholy [goltraigh], and sleep-inducing [suantraighe]) to rescue Dagda’s harp and harper from his enemies. That same harp also magically played the three strains to prophesy the birth of Dagda’s three sons.
Few explanations have been offered for why Irish traditional music has so many instances of songs and tunes that deal with supernatural themes, or at least have supernatural titles. One author suggested that the violent cultures of Ireland, Scotland, and other Anglo-Celtic nations factor large in the fascination with the supernatural in those cultures. The author suggests that the violent pasts of these nations has spawned songs that express a longing to see lost loved ones one last time or perhaps serve as vicarious acknowledgments that humans have little control over their fates. Whatever the genesis, traditional Irish music is an expression of local culture and indigenous society. It is a text that can communicate meaning, just like other forms of text, provided one is receptive to meaning embedded in the language of music.
Likewise, one must also be able to identify ‘the Gothic’ if one is to identify its presence in any textual form, including music. Most scholars agree that actually constructing a scholarly definition of the Gothic has proved elusive. Most definitions have made more reference to features and styles of the Gothic than actually reaching to the heart of the term’s meaning. When applied to literature, the term ‘Gothic’ actually began as something of a joke. Horace Walpole subtitled his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto as A Gothic Story. Walpole used the term to mean something ‘barbarous’, as well as to draw on an association with the Medieval period. In general, references to ‘the Gothic’ suggest, or at least hint at, the involvement of the supernatural, mystery, and suspenseful unfamiliarity. In fact, it is this notion of unfamiliarity that is perhaps the closest defining characteristic of the Gothic.
This is the basis for van Elferen’s definition of Gothic music: ‘the sounds of the uncanny’, which Freud defined as being related to what is frightening, to what ‘arouses dread and horror’, to when the familiar becomes the unfamiliar. Van Elferen argues that Gothic music is ‘the sonic [characteristic] of the genre. But she, in keeping with other scholars, believes these sonic characteristics ‘remain obscured in Gothicist as well as musicological research’. She identifies the first great example of Gothic music as the ‘Dies Irae’, which translates from Latin as ‘Day of Wrath.’ This eerily gloomy thirteenth century Gregorian plainsong chant is still used today to conjure up images of death and uncanniness. According to van Elferen, critical assessments of Gothic music typically use non-musical terms such as ‘sinister’, ‘somber’ and ‘depressing’, or ‘moody’, ‘gloomy’ and ‘macabre’. Overwhelmingly, however, the word most commonly used to describe both the Gothic and Gothic music is ‘dark’. Van Elferen further argues that whenever analyses are done of the compositional strategies used in Gothic music, they do not address how the alleged darkness is produced. In fact, most commonly, critiques of Gothic music focus on particular artists or bands, or on the contemporary Goth subculture. Other genres of Gothic music are typically ignored, which is why a study such as this one that deals with traditional music, the folk music of a particular place, is important, for it provides a musicological explanation of how darkness within particular musical genres.
The authors have chosen to examine the Gothic in folk music through the medium of traditional Irish music. This choice is based on Ireland’s long association with the sort of dark, haunting elements and supernatural characters that are cultural hallmarks of both Ireland and the Gothic genre – whether literature, film, music, or some other form. While today most Irish would deny any belief in leprechauns, trolls, nymphs, fairies, the Sidhe, or even magic, they nevertheless embrace these folkloric creatures as an important component of their cultural history. Just as this paper was being finalized, Irish tourism posted a film on its Facebook Page about the fairy tree at Hill of Tara and the movement to reroute a road so as to leave the tree undisturbed.
Similarly, in 1999, seanachaí (a traditional storyteller) Eddie Linehan successfully waged a campaign to reroute a bypass around Ennis, Co. Clare, so as to save a fairy tree known as the meeting place of fairies from the province of Munster whenever they were preparing to go to war against fairies from Connacht province. Michael O’Donnell, an Irish farmer from Borrisoleigh, Co. Tipperary was able to buy his farm at a reduced price because of the fairy fort just behind his farmhouse. No one wanted a property where they would have to live in such close proximity to the Sidhe.
Thus, Ireland’s long association with supernatural and Gothic themes and stories, coupled with the presence of those themes in the country’s folk music as well as its literature, render it an ideal locus for an examination of how folk music communicates the Gothic. In this work, the authors will analyse traditional Irish music to determine how it uses common elements of music to craft stories that fit within many different musical genres, including the Gothic genre. The haunting quality of Irish traditional music and its uncanniness are the defining characteristics that place traditional Irish music within this genre. The haunting quality of Irish traditional music will be demonstrated through the analysis of two tunes, one that goes back at least to the 19th century and one composed in the 21st century. The body of traditional Irish music does not lack for songs (i.e. songs with lyrics) with Gothic themes, but this work will focus on traditional tunes, that is works that do not possess lyrics. The focus is specifically on how the elements of music as a thing in-and-of-itself can tell stories within the Gothic genre.
The tunes to be analyzed are an older piece, ‘King of the Fairies’, and a contemporary composition, ‘The Ghost.’ The first tune analyzed is ‘The Ghost,’ composed by Liz Carroll, a Grammy-nominated trad-style fiddler from Chicago. In an interview with the authors of this paper, Carroll said that her compositions are not guided by rules of theory but by her understanding of traditional Irish music’s stylistic conventions, her own musical sensibilities, and as well as by the idea or message she is trying to express with her tunes.
Carroll composed ‘The Ghost,’ in 2002 for a graveyard scene in Marina Carr’s play ‘By the Bog of Cats’. In the case of ‘The Ghost,’ Carroll said the tune ‘just came to her’ when she started thinking about what a nighttime graveyard encounter with a ghost might sound like. Carroll explained that she is not formally trained in composition, so her tunes are not composed so much by following the rules of ‘musical grammar,’ as by what her imagination tells her the tune should sound like. Carroll’s skill and intimate knowledge of this genre lends her an instinctive understanding of how to use the sonic characteristics of music to convey a particular feeling or emotion. In this piece, she captured the sense of a ghostly presence and added an Irish twist to it.
By contrast, ‘King of the Fairies’ is a traditional tune that perhaps should be considered ‘pan-Celtic’. It appears to have derived from a Jacobite tune, ‘Bonnie Charlie,’ and is very similar to an English tune titled ‘William of Orange,’ an interesting historical juxtaposition. The tune migrated from Ireland to Cape Breton, a North American epicenter of Irish traditional music, where it was transformed into a march titled ‘Rí na Sideog’, or ‘King of the Fairies’. In Irish folklore, ‘King of the Fairies’ is considered to be a summoning tune. According to tradition, if played three times consecutively during a celebration, the Fairy King is compelled to appear. Once arrived, he assesses the festivities, and if they are to his liking, he joins in and everyone has a grand time. If he is displeased with what he finds, he turns to mischief to entertain himself.
The compositional style and subject matter of both tunes are associated with traditional Irish music, which dates roughly from the 17th century. Traditional Irish music is historically dominated by pieces about love, home, emigration, poverty, and war, but dozens of Irish songs and tunes deal with Gothic and supernatural themes such as curses (‘The Curse of the Molcolbhin Line’), mystery (‘The Mystery Reel,’ ‘The Mystery Jig,’ ‘The Mystery Inch’), hauntings (‘The Haunted Jukebox,’ ‘The Haunted House’) and cross-cultural supernatural creatures who appear in Gothic tales such as witches, hobgoblins, ghosts, monsters, trolls, and fairies. Others tunes have titles that deal with supernatural creatures peculiar to Ireland such as leprechauns, puca, banshees, merrows, changelings, dullahans, and grochs. Ghosts commonly make appearances in traditional Irish songs, sometimes appearing in human form (e.g., ‘Molly Malone’) and sometimes in animal form (e.g., ‘Molly Bawn’), but other supernatural themes occur as well in Irish lyrics, such as Satan appearing in altered form so as to steal souls more easily (e.g., ‘An Cailín Deas Crúite Na mBó’ (‘The Pretty Girl Milking the Cows’) and fairy abductions (e.g. ‘The Lake of Coolfinn’).
That said, it should be added that simply because a tune has a title that deals with the supernatural, it is not necessarily Gothic. ‘The Fairies Hornpipe,’ for example, is neither dark nor haunting, but it does tell the story of a type of supernatural creature, albeit a creature that seems to be more like Disney’s Tinker Bell than the Sidhe of Irish tradition. It captures the light, ethereal aspect of fairies rather than the darker, scarier, unfamiliarity of an Irish fairy.
These characteristics function as a system of grammar and which scholars generally agree are common across musical genres. Communication occurs when shared meaning is accomplished. In the case of music, the communicative properties of a particular piece may or may not be terribly sophisticated, yet music from any genre is capable of delivering at least a rudimentary message. The communicative power of music comes from its unique characteristics – pitch, rhythm, harmonic treatment, etc.
Experts disagree on exactly how music’s characteristics achieve the creation of shared meaning (i.e., communication). One school, the expressivists, believes music communicates by evoking emotions. The other, the formalists believe music can only express the musical craftsmanship of the composer and/or performer. Formalists argue that any musical expression is grounded in theoretical training and an understanding of the rules and characteristics of music.
Neither the formalists nor the expressivists provide a satisfactory explanation for how music communicates. However, combining aspects of the two approaches offers a more satisfying explanation of how music communicates. Philosopher Leonard Meyers, for example, maintains that music communicates through both formal grammatical structure and emotion that are employed to create shared meaning.
Working from Meyers’ perspective, the authors argue that traditional Irish music is a medium through which shared meaning is shared both through the formal structure of a composition and through the composition’s emotional content. Redfern Mason, an English-born music critic for the San Francisco Examiner and the Boston Evening Transcript in the early 20th century, recognized the communicative properties of Irish music in an admittedly romanticized, pro-nationalist study. In that work, Mason contended that
Every air has a mood so definite that it provokes inquiry as to the nature of the poem with which it is associated. Even the dances, which of all music, would seem least to demand the inspiration of words, are no exception to this rule. In many cases . . . the name irresistibly suggests a story, an idyll, a legend, a joke.
If music can suggest a story or a joke, make people happy or sad, amorous or patriotic, it follows that it can also evoke the sort of titillating fascination with fear and the macabre that are the classic emotional responses to the Gothic.
Further, music has specific characteristics that function as a sort of musical grammar and syntax and afford music its communicative aspects. The following sections are intended to give the reader a brief explanation of how the elements of musical grammar and syntax are used in Irish traditional music to reflect the Gothic.
Tonality functions as the overall structure or grammar of music and is a key element used to embed Gothic (or other) meanings into tunes. Tonality refers to the character a piece of music takes on as a result of the key signature (scale pattern) in which it is written. Most western music today is written in either a major or a minor key. However, far more tonal options exist if one reaches back in time to the Gothic period (roughly 1100-1500) when eight scale patterns, called modes, existed (See Figure 1). Ionian and Aeolian modes, which would eventually become the major and minor keys, remain in common use across a broad spectrum of musical genres today. The other modes are used less frequently in most other forms of contemporary Western music.
Figure 1. The eight modes, based on the C major scale (i.e., the scale pattern that would begin on the note C and would contain no sharps or flats).
Figure 2. C major scale
Traditional Irish music, however, has retained two additional modes from the original seven: Dorian and Mixolydian. Dorian and Mixolydian modes are related to standard major scales but are structured differently. They start on different notes, and the accompanying chords will be different as a result. They are recognizable as music, but they sound noticeably different, perhaps even alien, from the more typical major and minor scales that one is used to hearing. Consequently, Dorian and Mixolydian modes can be used to create sounds are familiar yet not familiar. Their familiar unfamiliarity can be used to add darkness to a tune because of the relationships between notes in the scale, even the starting note of the scale, is different from the standards used in Ionian and Aeolian modes. Listeners would know they are hearing music when listening to a composition in Dorian or Mixolydian modes, but it would sound just a bit off kilter, a bit uncanny. The tonality would be off just enough to create a sense of disorientation or anxiety. Use of these uncommon modes in musical composition, then, functions something like a haunted house. A house is familiar because of its association with family structures, but a haunted house, while its design, construction, and set-up might be common, is unfamiliar because of the ghostly presence.
By way of example, a tune written in the G Dorian mode would follow the structure of an F major scale but would start one note higher. The G Dorian scale sounds uncanny because it is familiar – recognizable as a musical scale – but unfamiliar at the same time in that it does not sound like a ‘normal’ scale pattern. Some pitches will sound higher or lower than a listener has learned to anticipate. The emotional result is the rough aural equivalent of a cliffhanger, which a composer can use to signal listeners that the story the music is telling may not be what it seems. Modal settings, then, are ideal for musically telling stories with Gothic themes because they allow the music to produce a vibrant and rich range of emotional experiences for listeners. Liz Carroll’s ‘The Ghost’, analysed later, does exactly this through its use of the G Dorian mode. She uses the Dorian mode to create an implied duality that straddles the world of the living and the world of the non-living, or, in Irish mythology, the Otherworld.
If modes are the musical grammar that facilitate the telling of Gothic tales, then intervallic relationships are syntax that allow a composer to add nuance to a tune. Intervallic relationships refer to the proximity of one note to another. For example, notes that are adjacent are referred as a minor second (See Figure 3).
Figure 3. A major second is the name for the intervallic relationship of notes that are two half-steps apart. In this figure, you have a C and a D. A C sharp (which can also be called a D flat) falls between the C and the D. the interval between a C and a C sharp would be a minor second, or a separation of only one half-step.
An important element of musical syntax used to create Gothic-themed music is chromaticism, that is, moving up or down by half-steps. Chromaticism arose as a technique used by Romantic composers to create tension and suspense. The use of successive pitches in the melody that moves from one half-step to the next sounds like a 12-legged spider scuttling after lunch or a ghostly presence beckoning a Gothic heroine to follow it into a dark ruin.
Rhythmic meters and patterns
Rhythm is a characteristic of both language and music. Trained storytellers use rhythm to help them pace their stories – speeding up in exciting passages, slowing down or pausing in sad sections, just as poets use precise meters in composing their works. Likewise, musicians use rhythm not only to keep all the players together but also to create a sense of shared experience and meaning with listeners who may be clapping or tapping their toes in time with the music.
Rhythmic meter is, of course, a characteristic of Irish traditional music, which follows the same two basic rhythmic patterns of most music. It will have either a duple meter (two or four beats to the measure. See Figure 4) or triple meters (three or six beats to the measure. See Figure 4).
Figure 4. Duple meter is based a rhythmic pattern that has either two or four beats per measure. Triple meter has three beats per measure.
While timing is important to music, it is less so for creating a Gothic experience – at least for listeners. Within the Gothic genre, timings can be stretched, compressed, or overlapped. Given its origin as dance music, rhythmic meter is vitally important to traditional Irish music, thus a tension does exist within this element between the Gothic and Irish traditional music. This is accomplished by, for example, interspersing triplet and duple rhythms creates rhythmic tension as in ‘King of the Fairies’.
Speaking as musicians, however, the authors would argue trying to navigate the maze of different tune types within the pantheon of Irish traditional music and their slight rhythmic variations can present an authentic Gothic experience for a performer if not a listener. Remembering to play a hornpipe differently from a reel, a strathsphey, or a polka; what the difference is between a slide, a double jig, and a slip jig; or whether this particular barndance is in reel time (4/4 time signature) or slide time (12/8 time signature) can be a discombobulating experience.
Rhythmic patterns are an important component for creating a feeling of the Gothic, for they, at their core, are music’s equivalent of the human pulse. They provide tunes with ‘a steady recurrence of contraction and relaxation, tension and release’. The rhythmic patterns of music draw listeners in by offering a vicarious connection to other humans. These patterns also allow listeners to become part of the community sharing in the musical story by tapping their toes or drumming a rhythm on a surface while listening.
Both ‘The Ghost’ and ‘King of the Fairies’ employ rhythm to convey meaning. In ‘The Ghost’, the slow, buoyant feeling of a ghost is created by the tune’s bouncy triplet meter. In ‘King of the Fairies,’ the rhythmic pattern is more definite with its syncopated rhythms (a pattern of longer notes followed by shorter notes or vice versa. See Figure 5). It moves like a march with decided emphasis on beats one and three to create the sense of a grumpy fairy stomping as he assesses a gathering with a skeptical eye.
Figure 5. The syncopated rhythm used throughout ‘King of the Fairies – a dotted eighth note followed by a sixteenth not. The two notes together account for one beat within a measure. (Hyacinth at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)
Ornamentation ‘is a decisive stylistic determinant in Irish traditional music.’ One of the most interesting and often daunting elements for those learning to play traditional Irish music, ornaments are non-notated notes added to a tune to give it increased character and interest. Trills, cuts, triplets, and turns are the most common ornaments in traditional Irish music. Ornamentation is not generally specified by the composer. It is an interpretative frill added by performers, which allows them to function as co-creators of meaning through individual interpretation of the tune. Given that Irish traditional music is commonly passed on aurally, this co-creation of musical meaning is unavoidable. Ornamentation and interpretation can also be sources of suspense regarding whether the song will be performed in exactly the same way this time as last.
Ornamentation can add Gothic elements to traditional Irish music in that ornaments can be used to create sound effects of a sort. A violin glissando can illustrate a spectral presence gliding about, or a pizzicato (plucking the strings rather than bowing) can signify frightening excess. A trill or short roll on a whistle might signify the fluttering of a fairy’s wings. These may be elements written into the original, or they may be ones the player uses to co-create meaning with the original composer.
The following two sections represent the authors’ analysis of two Irish traditional tunes. As with any art form, each individual’s ‘reading’ of the piece may differ. However, these analyses are grounded in musical theory guided by the expertise of a long-time composer and performer of both folk and art music. Also, in the case of ‘The Ghost’, the interpretations are guided by a conversation with the composer as to her intentions as she wrote the tune.
While ‘The Ghost’ is a contemporary piece it was composed to fit into the traditional Irish music genre. By the same token, Carroll’s background as a traditional fiddler informs her imagination and influences her use of musical language. Carroll is not a trained composer who looks to music theory to guide her composing. She is more likely to ‘hear’ a piece as it forms in her mind. Nevertheless, her work clearly makes use of the characteristics of traditional Irish music to place the listener in the presence of the supernatural – in this case, to put the listener in the presence of the ghost of a recently deceased person.
Carroll employed each of the communicative elements discussed above in her composition. For example, when the authors considered her choice of a syncopated 3/4 meter, they heard a rhythmic structure that evokes a feeling of buoyancy and lift that they interpreted as depicting a floating ghost who settles, then lifts off, moves forward, then settles again as if searching for something unobtainable (See Figure 6).
Figure 6. A measure from ‘The Ghost’ that illustrates the syncopated rhythmic pattern. This pattern is a dotted quarter note followed by an eighth not. The two notes together account for two beats within a measure. (‘The Ghost’, The Session, https://thesession.org/tunes/13880).
Carroll also portrayed this the ghostly presence by using particularly large intervallic relationships (5ths, minor 6ths, and octaves. See Figure 7) to create movement and a sense of sprightliness through the large leaps.
Figure 7. The second and third notes in this measure represent an octave (eight note) leap. (‘The Ghost’, The Session, https://thesession.org/tunes/13880).
Large leaps are dramatic because there is always melodic tension where the transition from the first note to the second is hard and uncomfortable, it is an unexpected twist that is disjunctive. Smaller movements, such as between adjacent notes (minor seconds) create extreme dissonance. Dissonance is a technique that can be used to create tension, or a sense of the familiar unfamiliar. A listener is aware of hearing music, but listeners the dissonance is jarring; the preference for consonant music is typically strong. Dissonant music is uncomfortable; it is rather like the proverbial fingernails on a chalk board. Further, moving from one note to another, whether ascending or descending, creates a sense of motion. In the case of ‘The Ghost,’ Carol uses ascending intervals to move her ghost up into the air and descending intervals to move it back down to earth.
Carroll’s choice of the G Dorian mode aids in portraying a sense of sadness and maybe unresolved longing or searching. The dark ambiguity of the G Dorian mode (i.e., neither major nor minor key) plays into the portrayal of a ghostly experience through music.
Her chordal harmonic treatment is disorienting because of the use of the secondary dominant, a technique a composer uses to portray considerable movement in a piece. The effect in this piece is a feeling that it is toying with two different key signatures and, perhaps, as a result, suggesting the presence of two different ghosts. Regardless of the intent, the result is unsettling, which accomplishes Carroll’s goal of creating tension in the listener. The stepwise progressions of chords, both ascending and descending, demonstrate an emotional contact between the spiritual and the temporal. The use of ascending and descending chords creates an arc that takes the listener on an unsettling emotional journey similar to what the ghost experiences as it walks along the path that will lead it from this world to the next.
This same message is embedded in the form of the piece. The A section has a much more unsettled feel to it due to the large intervallic leaps, stepwise harmonic treatment, and unusual rhythms. In the B section, the syncopated rhythms still feel a bit off kilter but are more regularized to what the ear is used to hearing – long notes followed by short notes. Also in the B section is Carroll’s most important use of a doted half note, a long drawn-out note that gives the listener an opportunity to pause and settle after the emotional turmoil of the A section.
Carroll’s use of ornamentation is limited in this piece, occurring in only three places. She uses three simple turns to contribute to the buoyancy of the piece. That is, Carroll makes good use of these ornaments to accelerate the movement from one measure to the next and to propel the piece forward. No ornaments are included in the B section at all.
‘The King of the Fairies’, in the key of E Dorian, paints a musical picture of an irritable fairy stomping grumpily around without regard for those who might get in his way. Place is not so apparent from the piece, but if one is aware of the associated legend, one can easily see the Fairy King haughtily assessing a gathering to determine whether it is to his liking. This picture is painted musically through rhythmic structure, key signature, tempo, and tune type.
While the piece is a set dance, it is generally played so that it sounds like a hornpipe, which is a type of dance, and accompanying music, that originated in the British Isles in the 16th century. A hornpipe is played with swing or syncopation, and the hornpipe dance is traditionally done in hard shoes to emphasize the percussive stomping of the dancer’s feet.
The same rhythmic pattern repeats throughout the ‘King of the Fairies’. The pattern consists of a recurring transition from syncopation to a simple, even, movement created by two repeated unsyncopated long notes that are both accented so as to sound like two stomping feet. This sort of accented first and second beat is an uncommon pattern in most hornpipes, as is true of most pieces written in common time. More typically, the first and third beats of a measure receive the emphasis.
The first part of the story, represented in the A section of the tune, is told musically through the ploddy syncopated rhythmic pattern that concludes in two accented beats and then moves to syncopation again. Such a pattern creates, at least in the imaginations of these authors, an image of a grumpy old fairy who is furtively prowling around, ‘casing the joint’, and who keeps looking for reasons to be displeased. Finding none, he stomps his feet or pounds his fists in consternation.
The B section begins with three consecutive long notes: the root (the first note in the scale, in this case, an E), fifth (a B) and octave (a high E) intervals that are followed by the two quarter note demonstrative treatment. The measures that follow are played in a higher octave than the A section so as to demonstrate the shrill frustration and the height of this fairy’s consternation. The B section plays out a musical melodic tirade until a eventual melodic stumble that is emphasized by the downward movement from the G-F#-E to a D along with the rhythmic pattern which moves from a long note to short note (a dotted quarter-eighth-dotted-quarter-eighth).
An even more dramatic stumble follows in the next measure with a rhythmic pattern that is unlike any other in the piece. This measure is syncopated, but its long-short pattern uses notes of longer durations (dotted quarter and eight notes). The melodic structure is different as well. Instead of being more-or-less stepwise, the notes in this measure move down two notes, up a note, then back down two notes. This measure is so different from the rest of the song that it is clearly the climax of the piece, the moment when something has caught the king’s attention, and he pauses to make his assessment of the gathering. That the piece picks up and continues on in the previous pattern for another seven measures, which could be read as an indication that he is pleased with what he has seen.
‘King of the Fairies’ is among the most popular pieces classified as hornpipes on The Session, a website that collects primarily Irish tunes and that also functions as a forum for traditional musicians’ discussions of tunes. ‘King of the Fairies’ comes in third, as measured by the number of downloads. Further, the tune has sparked lively discussion among musicians regarding its provenance, proper tempo, and proper playing arrangement. The word ‘haunting’ comes up time after time in comments about the piece.
Most agree that the tune can be played just as any other Irish set dance, but, with proper treatment and instrumentation, it can be made to sound scary, spooky or haunting. One reason for that may be that when played as a set dance, the piece is played ‘crooked,’ according to Zina Lee (the username of one of the Session discussants). The first section is repeated three times instead of the traditional two – once to give the dancers an introduction and then twice for them to dance – and then the second section is only played once. Some, who are likely familiar with the legend that this tune can be used to summon the King of the Fairies, even commented that they play it around 11 p.m. at musical gatherings in hopes of that the pub’s former landlady will magically reappear.
The Gothic genre is complicated, for its appeal is contradictory. Stories in this genre are both repulsive and enticing. They pull in and they push away. They appeal by offering what is forbidden or dangerous, and, at the same time, promise satisfaction of inexpressible impulses. There is something inexplicably pleasant about flirting with the fear of the familiarly unfamiliar, the uncanny, the unknown.
Tales of the supernatural have generally been communicated through stories and words. Today, new technologies allow audiences to be mesmerized by television programs about pet psychics, celebrity/ghost encounters, vampires, witches, and even the occasional zombie. Movie theatres offer similar fare, though with a much higher price tag. Words and images, however, are not the only way in which Gothic stories can be told. As this paper has demonstrated, they can be told with music as well.
Though it comes from art music rather than from folk music, Modest Mussorgsky’s ‘Night on Bald Mountain,’ offers a useful example of storytelling by a composer. According to the composer, the piece was inspired by Russian legends about a gathering of witches on St. John’s Eve. Mussorgsky’s intent, according to his notes, was to recreate
subterranean sounds of supernatural voices. Appearances of spirits of the darkness, followed by that of Satan himself. Glorification of Satan and celebration of the Black Mass. The Sabbath Revels. At the height of the orgies, the bell of the church village sounding in the distance, disperses the spirits of darkness. Daybreak.
While ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ is art music, scholars have long argued that certain universals do exist across different genres of music. One of those universals is music’s power to convey a message from composer/musician to listener. Another seems to be an interest in the supernatural.
Mussorgsky and his comrades in the classical genre are not the only musicians to compose music that deals with Gothic or supernatural themes. Both ‘King of the Fairies’ and ‘The Ghost’ tell the same sort of stories. That they are folk music makes them no less a musical depiction of the Gothic. Both ‘King of the Fairies’ and ‘The Ghost’ are scary stories about creatures from another realm. These pieces of music tell their stories by the ways they combine intervallic relationships, metric relationships, key signatures, ornaments, and other musical attributes. Combining the characteristics of music in specific and particular ways, any composition can evoke strong emotions, and when a skilled composer wishes, can also tell a story.
Most Gothic tales are told through the vehicle of literature (novels, short stories, poetry, and other word-based genres), but, as the analysis of these two pieces shows, stories can be conveyed without words. Music also offers a genre for telling ‘tales of mystery and imagination’, to borrow a phrase from Edgar Allan Poe. Music uses a different ‘grammar,’ which limits the detail that can be included to that which can be conveyed by sound and rhythm. Nevertheless, music has the power to engender long-lasting memories and to create moods and atmospheres, and music has the power to enhance, even to duplicate, what language evokes. In fact, music can portray feelings that cannot necessarily be expressed well in words. For example, a story can tell a reader that an annoyed fairy crashed a party, but only music can let the listener actually hear the stomping about.
The ‘reading’ of these tunes presented here is idiosyncratic to the authors, but this is no different from what happens when a reader reads a Gothic novel or a viewer watches a Gothic movie. Communication theory tells us that meaning is co-created between the sender and the receiver. This does not apply only to traditional text-based communications media such as books and movies. It applies to any form of communication, including music. Will another listener hear a different story when he or she listens to ‘The Ghost’ or ‘King of the Fairies’? Very likely – but the differences will be similar to the differences between two readers’ assessments of what a text-based story meant. The structure and grammar of the language of music allow composers of to evoke emotions and to suggest meanings. This is as true of composers of folk music as it is of composers of any other genre.
* * *
. Gerry Smyth, Music In Irish Cultural History (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2009), p. 54-55.
. Kennet Granholm, ‘“Sons of Northern Darkness”’: Heathen Influences in Black Metal and Neofolk Music’, Numen, 58, 4, (2011) (p. 514-54).
. Isabella van Elferen, ‘Morrissey’s Gothic Ireland,’ in Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond ed. by Mark Fitzgerald and John O’Flynn (London: Routledge, 2014), 165-179 (p. 169).
. Dean Miller, ‘Supernatural Beings and Song and Dance: Celtic and Slavic Exemplars,’ in Transforming Traditions: Studies in Archaeology, Comparative Linguistics and Narrative ed., by M. Formin, V. Blažek, and P. Stalmaszczyk. Proceedings of the Fifth International Colloquium of Societas Celto-Slavicaheld at Příbram (2010). http://uir.ulster.ac.uk/25529/1/00-214_StudiaCeltoSlavica6_c.pdf – page=10[Accessed 13 September 2016].
. Olivia Wikle, ‘The Singing Never Stopped: The Transformation of Scottish and American Supernatural Balladry’, Proceedings of the National Conference on Undergraduate Research, Ogden, Utah, (2012), 29-31.
. Tom Munnelly, ‘’They’re There all the Same!’ Supernatural Elements in Narrative Songs in the English Language in Ireland,’ Béaloideas, Iml. 60/61 (1992/3) 173-196; Nancy Edwards, The Archaeology of Early Medieval Ireland (New York: Routledge, 1999), (p. 77); E. Estyn Evans, The Personality of Ireland: Habitat, Heritage and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), (p. 49); James O’Grady, History of Ireland: The Heroic Period (London: Sampson, Low, Searle, Marston, & Rivington, 1880) (p. 3-88); James Travis, ‘Irish National Music,’ The Musical Quarterly 24:4 (1938), (p. 451-480).
. Catherine Spooner, ‘Forget Nu Rave, We’re Into Nu Grave’, in The Gothic in Contemporary Literature ed. by J. Edwards and A. Monnet (New York: Routledge, 2012), 182-194 (p. 182).
. John Mullan, ‘The Origins of the Gothic. Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians,’ British Library Website (not dated) http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/themes/the-Gothic [Accessed 16 January 2016].
 Sigmund Freud, S. ‘The ‘Uncanny’’, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVII (1917-1919): An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works (London: Hogarth Press, 1955) (p. 218).
. van Elfren (2010), p. 1.
. Isabella van Elfren, ‘Sonic Gothic,’ in The Gothic World, ed. by Glennis Byron and Dale Townsend (London:Routledge, 2014), p. 435.
. van Elfren (2010), p. 2.
. van Elfren (2010), p. 2.
. John Walsh, ‘Irish Road Side-tracked by Fairies’ Right of Way’, The Independent, (19 September 1999). http://www.independent.co.uk/news/john-walsh-on-monday-irish-road-side-tracked-by-the-fairies-right-of-way-1120744.html [Accessed 3 March 2016].
. Michael O’Donnell, Interview series, 12-16 May 2014, Fairy Fort Farm, Borrisoleigh, Co. Tipperary, Ireland.
. Dane L. Harwood, ‘Universals in Music,’ Ethnomusicology 20 (1976), 521-533 (pp. 525-526).
. Smyth (2014) 54-44.
. Fitzgerald and O’Flynn, 147-152.
. Liz Carroll, Personal interview 3 November 2013, Atlanta, Georgia. Interview notes available from Debra van Tuyll.
. Grace Toland, (firstname.lastname@example.org), ‘The Ghost. [Email to Debra van Tuyll (email@example.com]. Sent 28 Augusta 2013. No time stamp. Available from Debra van Tuyll at email address given.
. Jennifer Weigle, ‘Fiddler, Composer Liz Carroll on the Life She has Woven Around Irish Music’ Chicago Tribune, 13 March 2015. http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/ct-remarkable-liz-carroll-0315-20150309-story.html [Accessed 16 September 2016].
. Anonymous, Traditional Tune Archive, ‘King of the Fairies’ score (not dated). http://tunearch.org/wiki/Annotation:King_of_the_Fairies_(The) [Accessed 17 January 2016].
. G, Ó hAllmhuráin, ‘The Lament for O’Donnell’ O’Brien Pocket History of Irish Traditional Music (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 2012).
. C. Shannon and W. Weaver, The Mathematical Theory of Communication (Urbana-Champagne: University of Illinois Press, 1949); Wilbur Schram, ‘How Communication Works’, in The Process and Effects of Mass Communication, ed. by Wilbur Schram (Urbana-Champagne, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1954); H. Blumer, Symbolic Interactionism; Perspective and Method (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969); H. Blumer, ‘Society as Symbolic Interaction’, Human Behavior and Social Process: An Interactionist Approach ed. by A. Rose (New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 1962) (p. 1); D. Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (New York: PLUME, 2006) (p. 2, 5, 9, 19); Deryck Cook,, The Language of Music (London, Oxford, 1959) (p. 6-7); F. Verschure and J. Manzolli, ‘Computational Modeling of Mind and Music; in Language, Music, and the Brain: A Mysterious Relationship ed. by Michael A. Arbib (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013) (p. 393): R. Byron, R., ‘The Ethnomusicology of John Blacking’ in Music, Culture and Experience: Selected Papers of John Blacking ed. by R. Byron (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995) (p. 1).
. L. Kramer, ‘Music and Representation: The Instance of Haydn’s Creation’, Music and Text: Critical Inquiries, ed. by Stephen Paul Scher (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992) (p.139-162).
. Susanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key; Robert Albrecht, Mediating the Muse: A Communications Approach to Music, Media, and Cultural Change (Crisskill, N. U.: Hampton Press, 2004) (p. xiii, 26, 18); Karen Ralls-MacLeod, Music and the Celtic Otherworld (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2000),, 15; Levitin, (2006) p. 2, 9; John Connell and Chris Gibson, Sound Tracks: Popular Music, Identity, and Place (New York: Routledge, 2003) (p. 192, 43); Robert Kraut, ‘On the Possibility of a Determinate Semantics for Music’, in Cognitive Bases of Musical Communication ed. by Mary Reiss Jones and Susan Holleran, (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1992 (p. 1); J. Donovan, ‘The Festal Origins of Human Speech,’ Mind (1891) OS-XVI (64) (p. 400); Robert Albrecht, Mediating the Muse: A Communications Approach to Music, Media, and Cultural Change (Crisskill, N. U.: Hampton Press, 2004) (p. xiii, 26, 18); M. Cohn, The Mission and Message of Music: Building Blocks to the Aesthetics of Music in Our Time (Newcastle-Upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publ., 2010) (p.145); Leonard B. Meyer, ‘Past Positions As to the Nature of Musical Experience,’ in Musical Perceptions ed. by Rita Aiello (with John A. Sloboda), (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994) (p. 10); Howard S. Powers, ‘An Overview’, in Music Culture and Society: A Reader ed. by Derek B. Scott (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000) (p. 30); Mary Reiss Jones and Susan Holleran, ‘Cognitive Basis of Musical Communication: An Overview’ in Cognitive Bases of Musical Communication ed. by Mary Reiss Jones and Susan Holleran, (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1992) (p. 4).
. Meyer, (p. 6, 10, 29).
. Redfern Mason, The Song Lore of Ireland: Erin’s Story in Music and Verse (New York: Baker and Taylor, 1911) (p. 5, 13, 65, 77).
. Niall Keegan, ‘The Parameters of Style in Irish Traditional Music,’ Inbhear: Journal of Irish Music and Dance 1, 1 (2010), p. 63-96.; L. McCullough, ‘Style in Traditional Irish Music,’ Ethnomusicology 21,1 (1977) pp. 85-97.
. Bruce Benward and Marilyn Saker, Music In Theory and Practice, 8th ed. (Boston, McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2009) (p. 44).
. Ibid.; Richard H. Hoppin, Medieval Music. (New York: W. W. Norton Co., Inc., 1978).
. Peter Cooper, Mel Bay’s Complete Irish Fiddle Player (Pacific, Missouri: Mel Bay Publications, 1994) (pp. 9-20); Fintan Vallely, The Companion to Traditional Irish Music (New York: New York University Press, 1999), (p. 243); Sean Williams, Focus: Irish Traditional Music. New York: Routledge, 2010), (p. 15); W, Anderson and T, Mathiesen, “Ethos,” in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd. ed., ed. by S. Sadie and John Tyrrell, (London: Macmillan Publishers, 2001).
. D. Ramos, J. L. O. Bueno and E. Bigand, ‘Manipulating Greek Musical Modes and Tempo Affects Perceived Musical Emotion in Musicians and Nonmusicians,’ Brazillian Journal of Medical and Biological Research, 44, 2, pp. 165-172 (p. 167).
. M. Conran, The National Music of Ireland: Containing the History of the Bards (London: John Johnson, 1850) (pp. 17. 53, 54); T. Mooney, History of Ireland from its First Settlement to the Present Time (Boston: Patrick Donohue, 1854) .
. Anne Williams, Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995) (p. xi).
. Mason, p. 65; Vallely, 1991, pp. 239, 243.
. Vallely, 1991, p. 243, Smyth, 2009, 54-55.
. H. Tischler, ‘Re: The Chromatic Mediants: A Facet of Musical Romanticism,’ Journal of Music Theory, 2, 1 (1958) pp. 94-97 (pp. 94-97).
. Tischler, 1958, p. 95.
. S. Mallock, and C. Trevarthen, Communicative Musicality: Exploring the Basis of Human Companionship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) (pp.131).
. N. Gebhardt and T. Whyton, eds., The Cultural Politics of Jazz Collectives (New York: Routledge, 2015) (p. xi).
. Van Elfren, 2010, pp. 7-8.
. R. Jourdain, Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Your Imagination (New York: Harper Perennial, 1997), (pp.126-127, 146).
. K. Overy, and I. Molnar-Szacks, ‘Being Together in Time: Musical Experience and the Mirror Neuron System,’ Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal 26, 5 (2009) (pp. 489-504).
. McCullough, 1977, p. 85.
. Keegan, online.
 . Van Elfren, 2010, p. 9.
. Li Carroll, [Personal interview 3-11- 2013], Atlanta, Georgia. Interview notes available from Debra van Tuyll.
. J. Bharucha, ‘Anchoring Effects in Music: The Resolution of Dissonance’, Cognitive Psychology 16 (1984) (pp. 485-518).
. Keith, Wyatt, Carl Schroeder, and Elliott Joe, Ear Training for the Contemporary Musician, (Hollywood: Musicians Institute Press., 2005), p.87.
. Lothar Mikos, ‘Between Fear and Pleasure,’ in Suspense: Conceptualizations, Theoretical Analyses, and Empirical Explorations ed. by P. Vorder, H. Wulff, and M. Friedrichsen, (New York: Routledge, 2013) (pp. 37-49).
. Bruce F. Kawin, Horror and the Horror Film (London: Anthem Press, 2012); George Lipsitz, Footsteps in the Dark: The Hidden Histories of Popular Music (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007) (p. vii).
. Phil G. Goulding, Classical Music: The 50 Greatest Composers and Their 1,000 Greatest Works (New York: Ballantine Books, 1995) (p. 460).
. Steven Brown and Joseph Jordania, ‘Universals in the World’s Music’, Psychology of Music 41, 2 (2013), pp. 229-248; Patrick E. Savage, Steven Brown, Emi Sakai, and Thomas E. Currie, ‘Statistical Universals Reveal the Structures and Functions of Human Music,’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 112, 29 (2015), http://www.pnas.org/content/112/29/8987.abstract [Accessed 30 September 2016].
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