The name Standing Stones refers to the enigmatic prehistoric stone monuments which are found throughout the British Isles and parts of Western Europe. We perform the traditional music of the Celtic peoples who at one time occupied all the areas in which these monuments are found. Especially, we perform music from the Gaelic tradition which until about 300 years ago extended unbroken from the south of Ireland all the way to the most northern part of Scotland.
A large part of our repertoire comes from Ulster and the West Highlands of Scotland. These areas, only about 12 miles apart at the closest point, stand on the two sides of the cultural and political gap that split the old Gaelic world into two partsScotland and Ireland. The remarkable similarity in musical styles points out how recently the fissure took place. In more recent times, emigration has carried Gaelic culture to many parts of the world; Canada and Australia particularly have provided havens where its vitality remains strong.
Northern Ireland and the West Highlands of Scotland were the heartland of the ancient Gaelic civilization. Despite the ravages of history, much of the old culture is still preserved there. This rich legacy is the main source of the musical repertoire of the Standing Stones:
To this basis we add song and music from throughout all of Scotland and Ireland. We also do a few pieces from the other Celtic lands (Isle of Man, Wales, etc.), and Australia and Canada. We play traditional instruments such as harp, flute, fiddle and cello, as well as modern instruments including accordion and guitar. (We have revived the use of the cello, the traditional accompaniment instrument in Scotland until the advent of the piano in the mid-1800s.)
Gaelic culture arrived permanently in California roughly 150 years ago. We have an on-going research project to document historical references to musical performances in this early period. From time to time we work with local historical re-enactment groups to re-create music from this era.
We have also begun to explore medieval and Renaissance music. There is much similarity to traditional music. Of course, some of the traditional music goes back to medieval times, and it has been argued that traditional performance style preserves early practise. This relationship is a subject of on-going research. Much new information has come to light recently concerning early harping techniques (the research of Ann Heymann, the leading scholar of the wire-strung harp, is particularly valuable). Although little is known about music in Ireland at this time, we like to do a few pieces which are known to have been performed or could plausibly have been performed in medieval Ireland.
Our lifelong involvement with traditional music and culture is presented through varied instrumental textures and vocal harmonies. This musical tradition has survived unbroken for centuries, each generation adding its own contribution. This ancient heritage gives the music a timeless quality that touches the heart deeply.
A Standing Stones' performance is usually divided equally between instrumentals and songs. We have a large repertoire of traditional songs of all kindsfunny, spirited, mysterious, tender and heart-breaking. While the majority of these are in English, we have some in both Irish and Scottish Gaelic as well as other languages. We perform a few songs in traditional unaccompanied style, but most are arranged with instrumental accompaniment and vocal harmonies, as is now common with many traditional performers. We make a special effort to work out arrangements that suit the character of the tradition, rather than using the style of country or pop music arranging. In particular, this often involves the use of modal harmony similar to that of the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods.
The instrumental pieces we perform also demonstrate a wide range of types. We play a lot of dance music, but we avoid the "all reels" syndrome of some players, performing as well regional dances such as highlands, mazurkas, germans, polkas and slides. We try to avoid rehashing tunes recorded by well-known performers, instead making our own selections from original sources. We also like to play the older types of tunes such as marches, slow airs and harp compositions.
As accomplished singers and also performers on several instruments, we can present a wide variety of vocal and instrumental textures. We avoid stereotyped arrangements and over-used accompaniment techniques, such as the noisy bashing of guitars and bodhráns. Each piece is carefully arranged to bring out its own special qualities.
We get asked to play at a wide variety of different events. Therefore, we have had to develop several different classes of material for different performance situations:
Sometimes we even get to play places where we can select material just because we enjoy playing it!
We found an artist's impression of a Standing Stones rehearsal. Why aren't the harp strings connected to the soundboard? How does she reach the strings at the top? Why is he waving an empty glass in the air? Does she really have her foot on the cello? How much will a new bridge cost?
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