Purpose of Set Design
The purpose of set design in Celtic music is two-fold.
1. The set must engage the audience
Set design must thoughtfully select and sequence interesting melodies, harmonic support structures, time signatures and tempos, rhythm and swing effects.
2. The music must surprise the audience.
Once listeners think they know what’s coming next in the music, they lose interest. A properly designed Celtic set always surprises listeners.
When designing a Celtic set these two concepts take precedent over all other considerations:
Engage with interesting music and then Surprise by changing the mood
The essential task of a Celtic set is to bring pleasure by manipulating the mood of the audience. The work falls within the domain of psycho acoustics - the branch of science studying the psychological responses associated with sound.
The major tools used to manipulate the mood of the audience are
- Key signature and mode of the tune
- Time signature and swing within the time signature
A “traditional” Celtic ensemble has a well defined set of instrumental voices. That means the orchestration and timbre of the music is constrained by specific voices within five instrument groups.
- strings: fiddle, tenor banjo, bouzouki, guitar, cittern, mandolin
- reeds: bagpipes, accordions, concertinas, harmonicas, occasionally duduks or bombards
- wind: whistle and flute, harmonicas, occasionally duduks or bombards
- percussion: bodhran and bones
- piano (in dance settings and largely as a rhythm instrument)
Contemporary Celtic music does not limit the number or nature of voices. Synthesizers, electric pianos, saxophones..... you'll hear it all in contemporary Celtic music.
Traditional Celtic dance music rarely (read IF EVER) makes use of harmony. Melodies may be doubled or tripled on different instruments. Melodies may be played with an octave separation. But in traditional Celtic music, harmonies just don’t happen. Modern presentations of traditional Celtic music and new music composed in the traditional style make extensive use of harmony.
Fusion ensembles will employ non-Celtic voices such as cello, cajon, drum kits, acoustic or electric bass. All sorts of possibilities exist.
Audience interest can be enhanced by changing the timbre of the ensemble - the coming and going of lead voices. Fiddle on one pass, flute on the next, banjo, then accordion, and so forth. But changing the timbre of an ensemble isn’t sufficient when designing a Celtic set. The set design has to get to the heart of the matter. And, that’s how to manipulate the mood of the listener.