Oliver Schroer - The Hub of the Wheel
I love Oliver Schroer’s Jigzup. Ostensibly an album of fiddle tunes, each track seems to come from its own alternate musical universe. Over the past few days, I’ve been trying to make sense of the album’s ninth track, The Hub of the Wheel. It starts out as a rather plain jig in E minor, but before long, I would start to lose track of where one section closes and the next opens. In the meantime, the tune begins modulating into brighter and brighter keys, until—oh, we’re back in E minor… how did that happen? Schroer plays both fiddle and guitar on this track, and is joined by bassist David Woodhead. I encourage you to take a listen to the entire track.
After taking the time to transcribe the melody and bass line, things became a bit clearer. I’ve divided the tune into sections based both on repetitions and where I feel there are moments of arrival; here, as far as I can tell, is what’s going on.
|A||8 measures||E dorian|
|A||8 measures||E dorian|
|A’||11 measures||E dorian|
|B||11 measures||D major?|
|C||12 measures||C-sharp minor -> A major|
|D||8 measures||A major|
The first two sections are fairly unremarkable: in E dorian, a common mode for tunes from the British Isles and related traditions, each section is 8 measures long. To my ears, the most striking feature of the A sections is the insistent, descending three-note figure—if you count versions with a skip (for example, the second half of the first measure), every single note in these sections participates in an instance of this motive.
The tune’s third section, which I’ve labelled A’, continues in E dorian with the descending figure from the A sections. There are some minor variations in its third and fourth measures, but in its seventh measure, the tune departs from the model set in the A sections, running past its expected end by three measures.
The tonal centre of the tune’s next section, labelled B, is not entirely clear. The chords are largely consistent with a key of D major, though Schroer and Woodhead never play a D chord in root position, and the melody includes a G-sharp. Like the A’ section, the B section has eleven measures, but in contrast to the tune’s opening, this section largely abandons the descending three-note figure. The section’s last four measures feature a rising bass line from E up to B, suggesting a possible return to E minor.
With a C-sharp minor chord in the bass and guitar and repeated G-sharps in the fiddle, the arrival of the section labelled C makes it abundantly clear that we’ve left the key of E minor. The section has twelve measures, although they don’t break down into groups of four: two C-sharp minor chords are separated by three measures (the melody even hints at a switch to 9/8), which is followed by B minor and A chords each lasting two measures. The second half of the C section involves another rising bass line from A to E, setting up an arrival on A.
Finally, the D section offers some semblance of a return to normalcy: lasting eight measures, it is unambiguously in A major. Curiously, the section’s ultimate chord, E major—V in the key of A—is followed immediately by an E minor chord—I in E minor—upon the repeat of the tune. What might otherwise be an awkward transition is smoothed over by the return of the descending motive in the D section’s final measures, with a downward scale from F-sharp leading cleanly to the G natural at the beginning of the following A section.
With a form lasting 58 measures and sections and a modulation from E minor to C-sharp minor, I don’t feel too bad about my prior confusion! Now I just have to be sure not to accidentally slip into this tune the next time I’m leading a set at a session…
Check out my recording of The Hub of the Wheel, which includes many elements of Schroer's original arrangement.
Posted: Jan 07, 2021. Last updated: Apr 15, 2021.