Minims and crotchets: surviving British musical notation

“It’s simple,” G. tells me. “There are two quavers in a crotchet, two crotchets in a minim, and two minims in a semibreve.”

She’s not explaining the Harry Potter universe but musical notation in British as opposed to American. I give her a panicky nod, but I don’t fool her, because she stops before she gets to the full breve—which has a long E so that it sounds like breathe, in case you need to know that. And crotchet is pronounced like crotchety, with a T you can actually hear, not like that thing you do with a length of yarn and a crochet hook.

I explain to G. that I learned to call them whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, and so on, and she seems to believe that if I learn to translate those into the terms she knows we’ll be able to discuss time—that’s time as in music, not as in clocks. But because the eyelids of my mind fluttered when she said “It’s simple” and shut completely when she got to the quavers, my end of the conversation is mostly hand signals. I’m trying to show her the written notes, for some reason, with my fingers indicating whether the notes have stems and whether they’re filled in or hollow in the center.

Surprisingly relevant photo of a courgette. Or a zucchini is you prefer. Photo by Mmm Daffodils, on Wikimedia.

A courgette. Or a zucchini is you prefer. Photo by Mmm Daffodils, on Wikimedia.

G. and I know each other from the singers night at a local pub. Her head harbors a fine range of folk songs, from the sweet to the raunchy, with several stops in between, and she understands both time and notation, although she can’t necessarily communicate either of them to me. In spite of that, we’ve worked out a couple of songs that we sing together, and she tolerates my musical ignorance—a gift I admire even more than her ability to harmonize spontaneously. We’ve been working on a new song, Les Barker’s “Non, No Courgettes,” which is a mash-up of French and English set to the tune of Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.”

A courgette, in case you need to know this, is a British zucchini.

Somewhere in the midst of our run-through, I’ve fallen foul of a hemidemisemiquaver. Or something very much like one. There is such a thing. Really there is, although probably not in “No Courgettes.” I can’t say for sure because I wouldn’t recognize one if it snapped my finger off and added salt. All I know is that they’re very short, but then so are piranhas.

So am I, if that’s at all relevant.

I’m not completely uneducated about music. I took piano lessons as a kid, and I’m sure you could have found a more resolutely untalented student somewhere but you’d have had to look hard. The lessons were about either classical music or some damned silly song about my pretty dolly, and I wasn’t interested in either of them. I don’t remember how long I took lessons for. It seemed like forever, and my teacher must have felt the same way, but given how little I know it could have been no more than two months. I came out of it almost able to read music. I can follow the treble clef if the notes don’t go too far above the stave and the time signature doesn’t get complicated and there aren’t more than one or two flats or sharps. Forget about the bass clef—I can’t read that at all. To translate that, if we were talking about words, I could read the vowels but not the consonants. It’s ever so handy.

No one, in all the time I took piano lessons, ever mentioned a minim, a crotchet, or a quaver.

G. lets the abstract discussion slide—this is both wise and merciful—and we tackle the song again, both of us tapping time on the coffee table. In my head, the words run, “Non (two three), no courgettes (two three four)….”

She manages not to pack up her guitar and leave. It helps that one of the cats has crawled into the case and gone to sleep.

Singing up the sun: A late report on an early solstice

The winter solstice celebration came to Cornwall early this year. No, the earth’s tilt hasn’t changed and the days hadn’t stopped growing shorter, but a group of people around here gather to sing up the sun on the summer and winter solstices and—well, the pub couldn’t handle that many breakfasts on the actual solstice, so having weighed the sun’s schedule against the pub’s schedule, the group met a day early. Or was that two days early? I’m the last person to trust on this kind of information, but what matters most in life, breakfast or accuracy?

Breakfast.

Stone circle at Minions

Stone circle at Minions

I’m not sure if I should say “they” or “we” as I write about this. I’ve joined the group twice now, but by definition it involves getting out of bed in the dark, so I’m a fringe member—always on the verge of rolling over and mumbling, “Next year.” So let’s go with “they.”

The place they meet is on the moor, where three ancient stone circles were built one right next to the other. Last year, a group of archeologists and volunteers uncovered an ancient pathway between two of the circles, then documented it and covered it back up, since that’s the best way to preserve it.

Not only is the place packed with ancient monuments and atmosphere, it’s also windy. The moors are like that. If there’s any wind at all, you’ll take a pounding. So it was cold and we didn’t stay out long, but we stood in the midst of the stone circles and sang, and the harmonies were beautiful. And in response, the sun did what it always does, which is to come up when it’s damn well ready. On this particular almost-solstice morning I’m sure it did come up but we couldn’t really tell. It was cloudy and anticlimactic and we walked to the pub and ate breakfast, but the harmonies really were beautiful and I’ll probably drag myself out of bed at silly o’clock when the summer solstice comes around.

Folk Music and English Accents

I’ve lived in Cornwall for eight years, and I’ve gotten used to the gap between, on the one hand, Wild Thing’s and my accents and on the other the accents of pretty much everyone else we know. Most of the time, I don’t hear the difference. Even when I listen to the other Americans in the village, I don’t notice their accents. I’m listening to words, not what they’re wrapped in.

Except for the times when I do, of course, when it’s like being hit on the head with a rock. A small, soft rock, but still a rock.

I was at Singers Night at a nearby pub last week when out of nowhere I heard my accent. Whack: small, soft rock to the side of the head.

Irrelevant Photo #2: Bude Canal in the late evening light. Photo by Ida Swearingen

Irrelevant Photo #2: Bude Canal in the late evening light. Photo by Ida Swearingen

Singers night is a wonderful, unpredictable gathering of mostly amateur singers, although one professional shows up regularly, for the sheer love of singing. In the summer, the place gets crowded, with some of the visitors singing and others listening and occasionally taking pictures, which is strange since they’ll go home with pictures of a bunch of people in chairs, with their mouths open. But who am I to judge? This particular night gathered in a strong group singers, and any song with a chorus sounded great—rich voices, good energy, harmonies. I admire the hell out of people who can harmonize spontaneously.

G. had started a song whose chorus repeats the line “Didn’t I dance?” and we must’ve sung the words three times before I heard myself: dahnce. My accent had melted into the accents around me instead of sending that good ol’ American A up my nose to spin itself so flat you could use if for a plate.

Dahnce? I thought. Dahnce? Who the hell am I turning into?

Some people pick up accents when they move, but I’m not one of them. To lose my accent, or even modify it, has always seemed like a much larger loss, as if I’d be losing some part of who I am, or hiding it behind a cardboard cut-out of a personality. I lived in Minnesota for decades without picking up more than a bit of shading on the O. Or so M.’s friend, who’s a dialogue coach, tells me. I’d have sworn I still sounded like the purest of New Yorkers, but she has an ear for accents, so I’ll have to take her word for it.

I’m not claiming my attitude’s better than anyone else’s, and to demonstrate how little sense it makes, I’ll tell you that I’m not bad at picking up accents in other languages. In my head, that’s a matter of respect—for the language; for the people who speak it. In English, though, I count the same act as disrespect.

To make even marginal sense of this, I have to mention the toxic history that imitating other people’s accents has in the U.S. When I was a kid, whites imitating African-American or Mexican accents did it badly and to make fun of them. It was skin-crawlingly awful. These days, I know white kids (okay, they used to be kids; you turn your back for ten minutes and they grow up) who adopt African-American accents because they like them and want to blend in. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but I don’t suppose it matters, because it’s not my feelings that count.

My point here is that there’s a do-not-cross line in my head that keeps me from picking up accents in English, but there I was, singing dahnce.

Every language, and every accent within a language, is a song. I’d love to claim credit for that insight, but I heard someone say it in a radio interview. Unfortunately, I haven’t a clue who it was. A woman, I think, so that narrows it down a bit. Whoever you are, I apologize for not crediting you. But to illustrate your point, whoever you are, when I was still living in the U.S., I heard a recording of kids playing in a schoolyard, and without being able to catch a single word I could tell they were English. The song of their accent rose free of the words. And that’s what swept me along in that chorus: the song.

British singers often sing in American accents. It drives the purists nuts, and they blame it on American rock music. If you listen to enough of it, the accent pours itself on top of the notes and you may not even notice that you’ve picked it up.

Unfortunately, picking up an accent doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get it right. You’re likely to revert to your own accent at any time. Sometimes a word is so firmly stuck in your head that you don’t notice you’re reverting: Michigan comes out Mitchigan; Houston comes out Hooston. The line that tickles me is from a hard-luck, down-and-out folk song with the line “I can’t go back home this a-way.” Only it was an English singer, and it came out as cahn’t. “I cahn’t go back home this a-way.” Hard-luck, down-and-out meets silver-spoon. Cahn’t isn’t limited to a silver-spoon accent here, but put it in an American song and it sure sounds like one. And that’s one of the problems with singing in accents that aren’t your own.

Me? I avoid songs that demand an accent transplant. Most of what I sing is American folk music, and the U.S. is a long way from here, so if I end up singing songs I can’t lay claim to by right of either geography or heritage (and I do; they’re fantastic songs), from this distance they don’t sound as absurd as they would if I were back home.

To the extent that I sing English songs, I keep my accent in place and avoid anything I know is going to sound ridiculous. And if anyone who’s heard me wants to warn me off some particular song because I do sound ridiculous, just throw a nice, soft rock at my head. It would be a kindness.