The digitising of archive recordings is revolutionising the study of traditional music, writes Olga Wojtas
Rehearsing bagpipe tunes in the university library is not the best route to popularity; neither is playing the same recording of a long-dead Gaelic singer over and again at your reading desk in the common room. But rare archive recordings are crucial resources for students of traditional music at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.
Happily, the college has overcome the problems of accessing these recordings by creating a digitised collection that students can use in practice rooms and at home. Celia Duffy, academy head of research, is director of a project dubbed Hotbed - Handing On Tradition By Electronic Dissemination - which is funded to the tune of £228,000 from the Joint Information Systems Committee.
Students on the BA in Scottish music - the UK’s first traditional music degree, which was launched in 1996 - learn in a different way from classical music students. “Classical players learn from musical texts, while traditional music is learnt orally,” Duffy says. “Students need to know various regional styles and then find their own style. But getting the sound material is not easy. A classical student can go down to Virgin and get x number of versions of Beethoven’s Fifth, but a lot of archive material is hard to get hold of.”
Much of the Hotbed collection has been digitised from material painstakingly gathered over the past 50 years by the School of Scottish Studies, now the department of Celtic and Scottish studies at Edinburgh University. These include fiddle pieces, piping and ballads. Hotbed has also digitised 78rpm recordings by legendary Aberdeenshire fiddler James Scott Skinner, whose fans included Queen Victoria. Project manager Stevie Barrett says: “That wouldn’t have been accessible to the students. They would have had to track down a 78 player and an appropriate needle.”
Hotbed also includes contemporary work, including fiddle playing by Brian McNeill, head of the Scottish music department and founder of the Battlefield Band, and tutor Iain Fraser.
There are six dedicated Hotbed machines in the academy’s teaching and practice rooms, and through the web, the students can access the music on their home PCs. They can search for pieces, control the volume, pause and go back to the beginning of the piece - and the academy team has also developed a looping system to enable the students to listen repeatedly to one particular section.
“How they tend to learn is by isolating a particular phrase and repeating it over and over again. As they listen to a whole tune, they can break it up where they want to save it, and get their own custom marked-up tunes,” Duffy explains.
“We’ve added video material as well, and that’s turned out to be much more useful than we thought. The students say that to understand a particular performer’s style, they need to see it, to know how that the fiddler is using a bow, or how the harpist is fingering,” she says.
The team is working on slowing the playback without altering the pitch, so that students can practise the piece alongside the recording. While this is possible with downloaded material, the researchers believe it has never been done with streamed material. Fiddle tunes played by Scott Skinner and Fraser include “lovely ornamentation”, Duffy says, and students would be able to slow down the recording to analyse how this was achieved.
The academy’s approach to sound recordings can be applied to other areas in the performing arts, and in ethnography and languages, Duffy says. Hotbed is also available to students and staff at Edinburgh’s Celtic and Scottish studies department, whose interest is primarily cultural rather than musical. But the Hotbed team’s greatest challenge is to persuade students to change their normal learning habits and use the collection.
“That’s common with computer-assisted learning. It involves a big cultural shift,” Duffy says. “They’ve told us to have a blanket poster campaign, send them emails every week and put notes in their pigeonholes.”
Hotbed wants to see even greater student involvement in the future, she adds.
“Our students do their own fieldwork projects and we’d like them to put them into Hotbed - so that they’re not just using it, but contributing as well and doing their bit to continue the tradition.”