Some of the joys of Welsh

I’m slogging through the character names index and a Welsh pronunciation guide for To Carry the Horn (very necessary — sorry to do it to you folks. One of my beta readers is complaining bitterly. I say, could be worse – could be a Russian novel.) This requires me to look up every name and make sure I provide some clue about how to say it. Welsh looks much harder than it is because of unusual spelling conventions. “Gruffydd” is Griffith, “Rhys” is Reece, “Vachan” became Vaughan, and so forth, but there are some genuine problems, too.

To begin with, you can’t just look up Welsh words in a dictionary. Perhaps you didn’t know this… Celtic languages share a phenomenon known as “mutation” and are annoying enough to change the spelling accordingly. This means, when you pronounce a word differently because of the influence of its surrounding words or grammatical syntax, you spell it that way.

Consonant mutation in Welsh
Consonant mutation in Welsh

We’re used to this in English for vowels in some of our older words, such as our class of strong verbs. We share with other Germanic languages couplets like “run/ran”, “fall/fell”, “know/knew”. Initial letters, on the other hand, rarely do this in English, so it doesn’t seem so bad because we only have a few of them, and the initial letter isn’t involved. It’s different in Welsh.

Let me give you an example. In English, we write “an apple”, but we say “a napple”. In Welsh, they spell it that way, too. So a hypothetical sentence in English, spelled as the Welsh do, might read. “Mary couldn’t decide which apple she wanted, but John gave her a napple she couldn’t resist.”

Got that? How would you look up “napple” in a dictionary? You have to know the language well enough already to understand what might happen so that you can guess what the unmutated form of the word “napple” might be, after you fail to find it. Good luck with that if you’re skipping the grammar and going straight to the vocabulary lists.

In English, we have some other famous examples, both of which demonstrate how this can all go terribly wrong. That little amphibian we call a newt? Sorry, wrong name. It’s actually an eft. At some point circa Middle English, the phrase “an eft” was reanalyzed, incorrectly, as “a neft” which became “a newt.”

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A fashion for resonance

A variety of nyckelharpas
A variety of nyckelharpas

Some discussion of the early history of Western music is necessary in explaining the ancestry and origin of the Swedish nyckelharpa.

In the early Middle Ages, vocal music was performed as a single melody line (monophony). Gregorian chant (or plainchant) originated circa 800-1000 AD, from an older tradition of sacred singing in the early church. This musical style was based on scale arrangements called modes which have a theoretical basis going back to Classical Greece via Jewish and Byzantine religious traditions. Our modern major and minor scales are a weak bi-modal descendent of this system. Modern Western classical music developed in a different direction: that of harmonic modulation.

One of the musical innovations of the Middle Ages was the introduction and development of polyphony, the singing of two musical lines simultaneously. This began as singing in simple octave intervals for mixed choirs of men and boys. Later, melodic lines based on intervals of parallel fifths or fourths developed. This style of singing, called organum, was first described around 895 AD. Organum was not true polyphony, featuring an independent melodic part. It was instead a reinforcement of the main melody, typically sung as the highest line. The first reference to organum describes a well-established practice, so the actual date it became popular is not known. True musical notation only began around 900 AD, so earlier history remains obscure.

The practice of organum singing created a parallel fashion in musical instruments, in which continuous sound either in parallel to the melodic line or as a fixed drone became popular. Pipe instruments (in the form of organs and bagpipes) and stringed instruments were particularly well suited to this style…

Read the rest of The Swedish Nyckelharpa in Its Historic Context.

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Lessons from a foxhunting photo essay

The full photo essay is here.


29 - Portrait
Continuous horizontal curves

This is not the conventional head pose for this formal pack shot, but I was struck by the lines of horizontal arcs.  The eye travels from the rump’s inverted “U” curve to the “U” curve of the coat’s skirt and back to the inverted curve of the horse’s neck.  The echo of the coat’s curve with the belly provides stability.  The combination conveys balance and permanence.

35 - Portrait
Vertical curves in motion

The horse on the right, by contrast, has vertical arcs, particularly the tail closely echoing the rear.  Unlike the shallow stable arcs in the first picture, these are deeper.  We know the hind leg will straighten, so we see the deep curve as a spring that will uncoil, driving the horse forward.  We also know the matching curve of the tail is impermanent, and that increases the sense of a fleeting second caught and frozen, adding to the sense of motion.

A massive spring
A massive spring

The curves of the Belgian in the next photo are like clock springs tightening and loosening.  The mass of the horse is emphasized by the glimpse we get of her chest, and though she’s trotting she almost seems to be trotting in place and not moving forward.  The obvious coiled power encourages that illusion, and we see the curves, correctly, as engines of stored energy.

Rising like the phoenix
Rising like the phoenix

The estate at Long Branch has two pairs of gate pillars surmounted by old eagles.  The pose is triumphant rather than ascendant, but with the view from below and the maples like flame behind, the curves of the wings look ready to thrust it aloft like the phoenix reborn.

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Computers are not instruments


It is wonderful to have lived through the birth of the personal computer, and to be part of the computing industry. I have been a programmer and systems designer, and today everything I do has some computer aspect to it: professional work, photography, music, research, websites. With my background, they are not black boxes to me.

Computers are great machines, but they are bad tools at a very fundamental level.

I want to draw a distinction between a machine, which you set up and assign work to, and a tool, which you wield directly, as a human animal. What makes a tool great is its capacity to function as an extension of yourself, as though it were part of your body. Poking a hole with a stick is not importantly different from using a finger; the tactile and visual feedback is immediate in the same way. That stick is a tool.

Becoming adept at stick wielding (think: swordplay) is a matter of entraining muscle movements and responses to real-world feedback. If you have to think about the movement, it’s too slow. Animals like humans are well-equipped for this sort of learned skill. We learn how to walk, run, reach, throw, poke, and so forth as part of our repository of behaviors. Any tool we have that we can treat as a bodily extension is incorporated into our reactions in the same way, and we can become expert users.

In music, we speak of knowing a piece “in the fingers”. “The hands know how to play the tune”. We can add to that tacit skill our rational decisions, reacting to other musicians, to the emotions of the moment, to an experimental harmony, and so on. As beginners, we find that we have to “think too much” about what we’re trying to do. Music becomes a performance pleasure to the degree that our mastery is at our command to be directed as we will.

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Waving my hands in the air


These days I play the fiddle.

It wasn’t always thus. I had classical piano training as a child, and taught myself guitar, both folk and classical, as a teenager. I can’t remember ever learning how to sing — I assumed everyone could (I still think that). My mother was trained as a classical pianist in Antwerp but she was diverted from that life by WWII and an American GI. She became interested in jazz theory when I was quite young, and I enjoyed learning what she was doing with basic music and harmony theory.

So there I was in my 30s, an experienced amateur singer in medieval-to-classical choral works and a variety of ethnic and traditional genres, and I still spoke string and keyboard a bit. Suddenly one day, listening to traditional Scandinavian multi-fiddle tunes, it occurred to me -– why couldn’t I do this? After all, how hard could it be? I got to the basic level of “village fiddler” after a while, and it’s all been a bonus from there.

Today, I play music for Scandinavian dancing. (I’ll speak more on that genre some other time, but if you like Irish music, I recommend the traditional fiddle music of Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark.) What I want to talk about now is the psychology of playing the violin for this music, specifically how the physical movement of the playing impacts the overall communication.

I understood the principles of the strings and stops before I started, and I knew how the bow was used to produce the sound, but I was not prepared for the significance of the musical gestures imparted by bowing. Playing a guitar is an activity with small hand movements. But bowing… this is the land of big gestures.

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