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Mapping Beyond-Tune Composition By Traditional Musicians in Scotland

The New Traditional School in Scotland: Pilot study 2021-22

In this blog post, Lori Watson reports on the first  phase of a pilot study to identify possibilities and priorities for further study on innovative composition by traditional musicians in Scotland. The work was carried out with Research Assistant Alexandra Huang, and funded by a Creative Informatics PhD Research Assistant Small Grant

Figure 1: Mr McFall’s and Fraya Thomsen rehearse for Distil Showcase, by Simon Thoumire

Since the 1990s there has been a significant increase in the creation of larger-scale and innovative composition by traditional musicians in Scotland. The composers of these musical works experiment with forms beyond the common 32 bar dance tune (i.e., ‘beyond-tune’), draw on a wide range of influences and engage in opportunity-based professional development in this unique community of practice: the New Traditional School (Watson, 2013). This research contributes to the first scholarly documentation and analysis of a unique practice and its facilitation.

The pilot study for this project spans 2021-22 and involves the collection of new data, mapping the composition activity since 1976 (earliest composition of interest), and gauging feasibility and planning for future research. Ultimately, I aim to establish a collection/archive of new compositions and accompanying materials along with a publicly accessible online platform. The collection/archive will facilitate advancements in creative work (composition and performance), programming and commissioning, and research into modern aspects of performance and creative practice by traditional musicians. In this first phase, I aimed to expand our existing database of new works from 1976-2010 to 1976-2021 and to better understand the needs and concerns of composers and potential partners.

Project Team

Figure 2: Dr Lori Watson, by Louise Bichan

Dr Lori Watson (Principal Investigator)

I am both a researcher (ethnomusicologist and artistic researcher) and a composing traditional musician. I seek to advance the practice of beyond-tune composition, make explicit the creative and performance strengths of contemporary traditional musicians, and contribute to our understanding of the nature of tradition and its relationship with creativity.



Figure 3: Alexandra Huang

Alexandra Huang (Research Assistant): https://www.ed.ac.uk/profile/alexandra-huang

‘Alexandra Huang is a third-year PhD student in comparative literature at LLC, the University of Edinburgh. She previously read an MSc in English literature (Edinburgh) and holds an MA in Piano Performance (Royal Conservatoire of Scotland). Her PhD investigates literary evocations of piano performance in early 20th-century novels. She is dedicated to solo piano performance and creative collaborations with instrumentalists and opera singers. During the pandemic, she launched a creative film project about the great composer Frédéric Chopin in Scotland and was awarded first place at Edinburgh Festival Competition in the Chopin category. Enamoured of Scotland’s culture, she is delighted to join Dr Lori Watson’s pilot study project as her research assistant to broaden the creative impact of Scottish traditional music.’

Research Activity and Insights

Four key activities took place between July and September 2021:

  • Initial consultation with a small number of partners and stakeholders
  • Updates to literature review and contextual understanding
  • Expansion of (basic data) in the new works database from 1984-2010 up to and including 2021
  • Survey of database composers

I had hoped to collect and analyse recordings, scores and other materials from a cross-section of composers but this was not possible within the timescale. I identified other potential music analyses for future research including a structural analysis of Distil Showcase recordings.

A number of important insights were gained as a result of this phase of the pilot study. The first was that I expected more than 70 composers but have identified over 170! There are 200 artists in the Traditional Music Forum’s Directory of Musicians which features artists and bands with traditional music (primarily folk instrumentalists and singers rather than other forms e.g., pipe bands or dance bands). Although this does not represent the traditional music scene in Scotland as a whole, it provides a strong indicator that a large portion of professional musicians in this genre are also engaged in the composition, and certainly performance of, beyond-tune composition.

I was able to invite 115 composers (limited by available contact details and social media reach) from the expanding database to the survey, of which 67 composers participated. So, our initial data collection was considerably greater than expected.

Research Assistant Alexandra Huang’s knowledge and skill in both music and comparative literature along with her non-specialist perspective on traditional/folk music was particularly helpful at this stage in the research. Alexandra was able to pose essential questions that challenged my communication of key aspects of the research. It is easy for me to take some of this information for granted but extremely important that we can make it relevant and useful beyond the specialist practitioners involved.

An important aspect of the survey was that I was able to document, in some detail, evidence that both supports and challenges my own observations and assumptions as a member of this community of practice (and a composer in the database). The findings that challenge my observations and assumptions are particularly helpful given my positionality. An example of this, is the use of recordings and/or staff notation/scores by the composers. Learning and working primarily ‘by ear’ and performing without notation is an essential part of traditional/folk music practice. This along with my own experiences of collaborating, rehearsing and performing beyond-tune compositions led me to believe that a large portion of these composers would prioritise recordings either along with scores or perhaps in fewer cases instead of scores.

Respondents of the survey both supported and challenged this view: 66% use a combination of 50% or more recordings (50-75%) combined with scores (25-50%) as I expected. But 17% of the respondents use only scores and this suggests that advanced notation skills and confidence are increasing in this community of practice: something to explore further in future research.

Figure 4: Balance of recordings/scores used, NTS composer survey 2021

We also found that there is significant repeat composition: few of the survey respondents have composed one beyond-tune composition and stopped. In fact, 56% of respondents have composed 10 or more pieces meeting the beyond-tune criteria (more than half of whom have composed over 20 pieces meeting the beyond-tune criteria).

Figures 5 & 6: No. compositions to date, NTS composer survey 2021

Next Steps

In planning for the New Traditional School research, the next priority is exploring options for the database and a digital platform that will allow public access to the database and materials from the collection/archive that can be shared by composer and performer permission.

The second phase of the pilot study will take place in 2022. This will involve filming in-depth field interviews with composers to explore creative process and specific aspects of the creative works. News coming soon!

Follow the project blog: www.tradmus.com

Many thanks to Alexandra Huang for her helpful contribution to this research and for providing the survey graphs.