Friday, August 23, 2013


To me, Scottish traditional music is the most beautiful in the world.

I like classical music and always have.  It's what I first learned on the instrument I always wanted to play, and some of it speaks to me very deeply.  I also like Renaissance polyphony and Gregorian chant and 60s rock and some old time and bluegrass and lots of more contemporary folk-inflected pop.

But to me, Scottish music is the most beautiful, and this remains true no matter how many arguments I hear about how this music or that is objectively better, or richer, or more complex.

I first heard Scottish music, really heard it, at the Ohio Scottish Arts School, a week-long Scottish arts workshop at Oberlin College.  My interest in the music had been developing for a while before that, and I'd heard plenty of recordings and even played some of it.  But I can't say I really heard Scottish music until I heard it played by my fiddle instructor, Bruce.

Bruce is short, squat and red-faced, wears hideous cutoff jean shorts and has a cauliflower ear from years of rugby.  When he's had a few (dozen) glasses of wine, he starts doing headstands in the middle of a session.

Also, he seems to have just up and swallowed the whole deep ocean of Scottish history and tradition, like that guy in the folk tale, and when he plays it just comes flowing out of him.  His fiddle is like part of his body.  I don't think I caught my breath for days after hearing him play for the first time.

Bruce gave me a scholarship to come back to the workshop the next year, which strangely might be one of the things I've received in my life that has made me the most proud.  To me it meant that he saw potential in me, so that maybe some day I could come close to doing what he does when he picks up a fiddle.

There's a word in Welsh that's not easily translatable into English: hiraeth.  It's most commonly rendered as "longing" or "homesickness," but those are oversimplifications.  To me it conveys much the same thing as C.S. Lewis's notion of "joy" and touches on that most fundamental of all human longings, the divine homesickness for a home we've never seen but that we know to be our ultimate destiny.

You can't go looking for this feeling - it just comes on you, brought on sometimes by the most trivial or unexpected things.  It is painful, because it is shot through with a deep awareness that we can't fulfill that deepest longing fully - not yet, not in this life.  But the hope is there too, the knowledge that there is a Person who can and will fill the emptiness, and that every small experience of virtue or truth or self-sacrifice or beauty is His footprint.

Scottish music is where I've encountered this feeling most often, and I don't think it's necessarily a coincidence that it's a Celtic language that actually puts a word to it.

This past weekend at Milwaukee Irish Fest, I discovered the first new band I've heard for a while that plays Scottish music the way I learned to love it.  They are from Nova Scotia, actually, and their music is billed as "fusion," meaning they use some non-traditional instruments and are inspired by different genres in their approach to traditional music.  But make no mistake - they are deeply rooted in the Scottish tradition and breathe incredible life and passion into it.

They have some absolutely kicking arrangements of dance tunes, but my favorite thing they played was a waltz.  When you find out that this tune was written as a wedding gift for a friend, it takes on an even deeper resonance, musically, emotionally, and even theologically. 

As Bruce would say, have a listen.

Jenn and Anthony's - Sprag Session

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