Miniatures and Modulations

Philip Hammond's reimagining of ancient Irish songs originally transcribed by Edward Bunting are wonderfully entertaining

Edward Bunting was still a teenager, 19 in fact, when, in1792, he was given a job the results of which would change the face of Irish musical history: to attend the ‘Harpers Assembly’ at the old Assembly Rooms on Waring Street in Belfast, and write down the tunes played there by the 11 competing harpists.

Forty airs were played in total, and Bunting eventually published them in 1796 as arrangements for piano, in the first of three volumes entitled The Ancient Music of Ireland. It was fortunate that he did his work of collecting: the tradition of itinerant harpers was already dying, and but for Bunting’s work their tunes, many of them ancient in origin, would probably have died with it.

Bunting’s anthology of songs – inspired by the 1792 festival, he collected many more in the years after – has continued to resonate across the intervening centuries, and influence the development of Irish music. It was Belfast-based composer Philip Hammond’s starting-point when, in 2009, he cast round for an idea to mark the retirement of a colleague, and happened upon a tune in Bunting’s 1796 collection which took his fancy.

‘Open The Door Softly’ was the title. Hammond took the basic melody as noted by Bunting, juiced its jaunty rhythm up with bounding syncopations, laced it with jazz harmonies, and served it up to a delighted retirement party audience. It was the start of something – before long, Hammond had a Belfast Festival commission to write more miniatures and modulations based on Bunting’s harp tunes, and the sequence eventually grew to 21 completed pieces, averaging about three and a half minutes each in duration.

The entire set of these has now been put on CD by Belfast pianist Michael McHale, who has been playing Hammond’s music since he was 15, and has a close creative relationship with the composer.

It’s worth noting that these are definitive performances: the verve and élan that McHale brings to his playing are invigorating, but there is poise and sophistication too, and a sense that he has totally understood and assimilated what Hammond is aiming at in his expansion and amplification of these tunes, beyond the modest dimensions of Bunting’s original transcriptions.

Hammond has some wonderfully evocative titles to toy with. ‘The Wild Boy’ is one of them, and gets you immediately wondering what was ‘wild’ about him. For Hammond – whose ‘modulation’ incorporates eerie dissonances and sudden shifts of focus – it’s a strangeness of outlook and personality that is suggested, an unpredictability that probably made the boy of the title intriguing, if a little unsettling, to be with.

‘John O’Reilly The Active’ is a more straightforward type of fellow, if constantly fidgety – his hyperactivity is comically mirrored in Hammond’s chattering rhythmic writing. McHale shades the piece away beautifully into nothing, as O’Reilly presumably judders off, perpetuum mobile, to his next pressing appointment.

‘The Ugly Tailor’ is, in the Bunting version, a harmless, amicable individual. In Hammond’s ‘modulation’, however, he is comically distorted, like the gnome in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, his waltzing clumsy, his features hall-of-mirrors-twisted. Should we be sorry for him, even a little frightened? Each listener will have his or her own emotion.

My favorite title is ‘The Beardless Boy’, if only because I wonder why you would ever want to call a boy, by definition not a shaver, beardless. It matters not: Hammond’s take on him is splendidly exuberant, perhaps suggesting that the boy in question is particularly energetic because he doesn’t have to waste his calories either in growing stubble or removing it.

This song elicits from McHale a performance of great panache – the four upward glissandi are exhilarating – but one that is also punctiliously terraced dynamically, and respectful of Hammond’s structural intentions.

I could go on writing, but I won’t – it would spoil the fun you will have exploring these wonderfully entertaining and edifying pieces. In Hammond, Bunting has found a composer who loves the music he notated from the harpists, and takes it in fascinating, fun-filled and sometimes moving new directions. In McHale, Hammond has, quite simply, been blessed to find his own ideal interpreter.

Miniatures and Modulations is out now on the Naxos Grand Piano label (GP702).