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At the heart of English folk
Song for the Starling

#1: Song for the Starling

A reflection on the musical element of the exhibition, by Owen Ralph

Murmuration of Folk, the new exhibition from Rosie Reed Gold at Cecil Sharp House, was inspired in part by the discovery of the dance tune Song for the Starling in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Found in Marshall Barron’s book of ‘Birds, Fancies and Delights’, the tune was first printed in the 18th edition of the English Dancing Master under the title Joy After Sorrow.

I feel I should be honest from the start – I don’t much like this tune. There’s very little in it that really grabs me melodically, harmonically or rhythmically. I also don’t really hear any starlings in it, as my rendition above probably shows. That is, I didn’t until the private view of the exhibition. Rebekah Robertson and Pete Thomas performed the tune at the event in a very different manner to me, bringing forth an abundance of imaginary birds twirling through the air.

Two interesting juxtapositions arise here. Firstly, a tune that failed to move me inspired a whole exhibition in Rosie, an exhibition which I conversely find absolutely breath-taking. Secondly, Rebekah, Pete and I all played from the same page of notation, but created two very different renditions without making any conscious effort to do anything other than play what was in front of us. While the fact that not everyone likes the same thing is hardly a revelation, nor indeed is the fact that different musicians play music differently, there is a hint of something much deeper here which goes right to the heart of folk musicking.

To me, an essential characteristic of a folk tune is that, when taken in isolation, it is incomplete. You may have 16 beautifully transcribed bars of music on the page in front of you, but at that point they are simply marks on paper. They constitute the blurb on the back of a novel, lacking the vividly beautiful descriptions and thrilling drama contained within its pages.

Various things might be done to make these transcriptions more ‘complete’. Cecil Sharp adorned his collections of morris tunes with piano accompaniments, thereby reducing the ambiguity in harmony and overall style. Percy Grainger on the other hand took very detailed, scientific transcriptions of the tunes he collected, aiming to have as accurate a record as possible of the performance.

While both of these strategies were a means to an end for Sharp and Grainger, extra details such as these merely impede the casual musician from connecting with the tune, from being ignited by the spark of inspiration on the page. That first meeting between tune and musician is a crucial moment, particularly when the musician in question is idly flicking through a book in search of new repertoire. In this scenario of musical speed-dating, the personality of the tune needs to shine through right from the outset, in order to provoke the musician to pause and explore the notes on the page. The little details need to quickly become apparent, unhindered by distracting extraneous elements, in order to charm their prospective new musical partner.

It might seem an odd way of putting it, but that really is how a tune is completed – by forming a relationship with a performer. The two recognise their compatibility and come together to bring into being something which is greater than the sum of their parts. Any musician who has been in this position will be familiar with the period of elation that follows; the ‘honeymoon period’ where you play the tune over and over, relishing every little quirk, every beautiful little moment, while the tune itself takes equal pleasure in exploring your creative impulses, becoming something infinitely more than the dry lines of notation in a dusty book, where it had lain unnoticed for so long.

I might be pushing this imagery a little far, but I hope you will agree it’s not simply an abstract metaphor. There is a genuine sense of relationship created in these moments, the essential give-and-take which brings into being that elusive entity we call folk music.

Tunes residing on the page are effectively indefinable. Their incompleteness means there is precious little to comment on, save for a dry musical analysis of its basic technical attributes. One might have a bit more luck attempting to define a musician; they are constantly shaped and redefined by their own experiences and by the ideologies and assumptions of their society. They are affected by every musical work they have ever heard, every musician they admire. But still, all of these attributes are equally meaningless until they are put into practice, until they come to fruition in relationship with the right tune.

This unique set of attributes which constitutes a human being means that everyone sees something different when they pick up a written tune. Different musical elements will leap out, different ornaments and musical devices will be implied, a different musical work will arise. Only at this point, the point at which an exhilarating relationship has been established on the basis of reciprocal inspiration and creativity, does the tune really come alive.

I find this really exciting. This is music which requires us to do nothing more or less than be ourselves, and subsequently creates something so much more than we ever could on our own. This is the very crux of what it means for music to be described as folk. I sometimes wonder if one reason that there has always been such a divide in opinion over how to define folk music is because we spend too much time analysing the notes and the words on the page, and not enough time examining the process that takes place when a tune is picked up by a musician who loves it.

This is where the folk quality is found – not in the history or the technical attributes of the tune or the song, but in that blossoming relationship between two strangers who take each other as their own. It’s a relationship that can only be built where there is a sense of communal ownership over the tunes in question (where it is not in a monogamous relationship with somebody else, usually a needy and jealous composer!), for only then can you feel the freedom to be yourself, rather than simply the mouthpiece of a composer as you are required to be in classical music (and to a certain, less conscious extent, popular music).

I concede that this line of thought needs much more thorough qualification and broader exploration; I haven’t even mentioned how it might apply to orally transmitted material for example, but as a starting point it’s a really refreshing angle to take. As Rosie’s exhibition shows, once established, these relationships tend to result in something amazing. And that’s really exciting.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of EFDSS.

Rosie Reed Gold’s exhibition Murmuration of Folk is available to view at Cecil Sharp House until 12 August.



National Youth Folk Ensemble

National Youth Folk Ensemble


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