The Litany of the Saints: Musical Quotations and Influences in the Music of Tommie Potts.

Harmonic Through and Potts' Music Process


It may well surprise us that a musician like Potts, operating as he did out of a monophonic non-harmonic tradition, should focus on harmony in the manner just described in the Chopin examples, but there are additional indications which must convince us of the importance of harmonic thought in his musical process.  One of these came through in a conversation in January 1986:

POTTS: Like, in respect of ‘Julia Delaney’, it’s only in the last three of four months that I’ve been ending off the part which I think is in a D minor key… now I use two notes – I use F natural and E.  Now the reason I do that is, like – no, it’s D and E – it would be for – it could be for the harp or the piano, in the appropriate chord for the melody.  And in that chord, like, as you know, D and E is a discord – but in that lovely wondrous sense – it makes me cry. 
[Speech Transcriptions, p.45 see Ó Súilleabháin 1987]

In another part of the same conversation, he attempts a further explanation of how he perceives his music “chordwise”:

POTTS: There were two instruments that I would have an interest in and that would be the piano and the harp.  Because even I tried to do that myself, like say, in ‘Julia Delaney’ [whistles softly]:

Julia Delaney

Now, these two notes are so near each other, the F and the E, like that in harmony in respects of the F, it’s be a D minor chord on the piano and then in the whole – in the context chordwise [hesitates] chordwise resultant tone, notes E and D can be made, you know. 
[Speech Transcriptions, p. 53 see Ó Súilleabháin 1987]

His confusion in the last two quotation from his speech as to whether he is dealing with an F/E or an E/D relationship would indicate that what he is attempting to describe is essentially a minor chord of the ninth as follows: chord. It is the harmonic tension between the E and D on the one hand, and between the D and F in the other which characterised this chord.  In his case, however, what he perceives as a harmonic colour/mood/feeling (“I’m shrivelled”, Speech Transcriptions, p. 54) becomes translated into his perception of a melodic equivalent (“and then in this desire I have for music, I make some music for myself” – as quoted above). 

The importance of the piano as a creative aid in all of this emerges both in his conversation and in the ‘Domestic Tapes’. 

POTTS: And then that in turn, you see, I got quite a lot of what I’ve done or what I’m doing from going over to my piano
[Speech Transcriptions, p.53 see Ó Súilleabháin 1987]


On the ‘Domestic Tapes’, there are four instances of Potts experimenting at the piano (see Potts’ Catalogue 7/10, 8/13, 9/22,23 and 14/2).  His piano playing is very hesitant, but nonetheless certain themes and harmonic ideas emerge clearly.  Illustration 31 shows relevant extracts from three of these.  Example 1 was clearly identified for me by Potts as being related to his setting of ‘Julia Delaney’, and in fact, the opening phrase of this example corresponds with the opening of the reel.  While the chords used do not include a tonic ninth, the harmonic colouring in bars 3 and 4 (a first inversion of the super tonic diminished, and dominant minor-ninth) includes the note E.  Examples 2(a) and 2(b) are typical melodic motifs used by him, with the latter showing his interest in the major/minor harmonic dichotomy which finds such effective expression in his use of F sharp and F natural as melodic variable notes in such pieces as his setting of ‘My Love is in America’ [iv] .  Example 2(c) has a similar harmonic scheme to Example 1, and Example 3 is identified by Potts himself in his annotations to my catalogue as “possibly towards a variation to the ‘Morning Dew’ reel”. 

illustration 31

Illustration 31. Extracts from Potts' piano playing on the domestic tapes. Details of the Catalogue referred to may be found in Ó Súilleabháin 1987