A couple of years ago there was a discussion in the Green Man staff room after a book of tunes had been offered for review. I wondered what the criteria for reviewing it were, as it seemed at the time a bit strange to review written music. Looking at this book of tunes by top Irish group Lunasa, it's become much clearer now what those criteria are.
I have four or five music books at home -- Randy Newman and Nightnoise are good examples of the genre. These two measure 25 (width) by 30 (height) centimetres, with about twelve staves on a page, whereas the Lunasa tune book measures 14.5 (width) by 21 (height) centimetres, with about eight or nine staves on a page. As the pages are much smaller, it's much harder to read the music, and the chord symbols are printed in a very strange and squashed font, making them exceedingly difficult to read, especially when the chord is extended (e.g. Bm7sus4).
Some tune books display the tunes in alphabetical order, making it easy to find a tune but hard to follow when listening to the records. This book displays the tunes to all three of Lunasa's records in the same order in which they appear on the discs, thus making it easier to follow the records, but harder to find a tune at random. As most of Lunasa's tracks are medleys, this arrangement has the added bonus of keeping each constituent tune of a medley together, so I suppose that this order makes better sense.
Each tune is presented as a melody line, along with chords. There has been no attempt made to provide a piano-like accompaniment (not surprising as Lunasa don't employ a piano) nor any harmony lines (except for "Ash Plant"). There are also none of the links which the group have added to the tunes. Whilst this makes the book ideal for someone who wants to play the tunes on their own, it doesn't make it too easy for someone who wants to play along with the records.
Although my sight reading of music isn't very good, I followed the tunes in the book along with The Merry Sisters Of Fate, and it seems that there are several sections missing. Also, Donogh may play one verse of a tune using the harmonic accompaniment as per the book, and a second verse using a different chord sequence. So beware!
In some cases, the tunes are presented in two keys, normally after transposing by three semitones. Thus tunes presented in Bb also appear in G, and tunes in F might also appear in D. The instruments which I play don't have preferred keys (although Eb is a tad difficult on the guitar!), but I can appreciate that pipes and whistles are much more diatonic in nature.
After each tune is presented a short paragraph of text, normally explaining from where the band learnt the tune. It transpires that a fair amount of what people take to be traditional tunes have been composed by musicians in the last thirty or forty years. Unfortunately Donogh gets his "it's" and "its" mixed up in these sections, which means that no one proof read them.
And what of the accuracy of notation? I fired up my trusty MIDI sequencer and keyed in Donogh's own lovely "Inion Ni Scannlain"; I'm pleased to report that the result was very close to the original, although an entire section of the tune (what might be termed the "middle eight") was left out! If one wants to nitpick, then I'm not too sure about his use of triplets, and I believe that it is better to notate a note lasting three half beats at the beginning of a bar as a crotchet tied to a quaver, rather than a dotted crotchet, as the former notation makes it clearer where the beat falls. This may be the result of using some computer typesetting program for music, but none is credited. Other tunes, especially those in common time, have long clusters of eight quavers per bar; this may make things easier for the musician learning the tune, but I doubt very much that this is how Lunasa actually play the tune.
Included are three pages of black and white photographs of the band, uncaptioned. There are also a few pages about Donogh's guitar style and tuning (dropped D), along with chord shapes to assist the learning process. There are only common chords used, the most exotic being the major or minor seventh, suspended fourth, which probably every guitarist knows by shape and sound, if not by name. In several tunes there are also minors with added ninths, but these chord shapes appeared to be absent from the suffix.
There is no information about the publisher on the front cover or fly leaf. The first page of the book gives thanks to people and credits for design, artwork, etc., but no publisher. On the back cover appear Lunasa's Web site and the address and telephone number of their management company. However, in small print on the fourth page appears "All tracks published by SGO Music Publishing Ltd except for ....." The book is available from Lunasa's excellent Web site, at about the same price as any other music book. I assume that making the pages larger would have meant increasing the price of the book, so the publishers had to tread a sharp line between cost and clarity. I would have preferred clarity.
That caveat aside, I'm quite pleased with the book as a source of Irish tunes, although less pleased as one revealing the sources of the Lunasa wizardry (my expression). I'm going to buy a penny whistle, then start practicing a few tunes so that I'll be ready when I go to Ireland in the summer.