Monday, December 1, 2008

My Problem with Irish Music

If a precious jewel, which all desired, lay out on a frozen lake, where the ice was perilously thin, where death threatened one who went out too far while the ice near the shore was safe, in a passionate age the crowds would cheer the courage of the man who went out on the ice; they would fear for him and with him in his resolute action; they would sorrow over him if he went under; they would consider him divine if he returned with the jewel. In this passionless, reflective age, things would be different. People would think themselves very intelligent in figuring out the foolishness and worthlessness of going out on the ice, indeed, that it would be incomprehensible and laughable; and thereby they would transform passionate daring into a display of skill ... The people would go and watch from safety and the connoisseurs with their discerning tastes would carefully judge the skilled skater, who would go almost to the edge (that is, as far as the ice was safe, and would not go beyond this point) and then swing back. The most skilled skaters would go out the furthest and venture most dangerously, in order to make the crowds gasp and say: "Gods! He is insane, he will kill himself!" But you will see that his skill is so perfected that he will at the right moment swing around while the ice is still safe and his life is not endangered ...

-- Søren Kierkegaard, The Present Age (1846)


hsempl said...


was he talking about irish music as well, or did you make that connection?

it makes me think also of something i was thinking of last night; i was reading an old guidebook that has been reprinted for amusement value ("The Clumsiest People in the World") and there was a phrase something like (I'm too lazy to get the book) "You will sometimes see an old welshman, white of hair, playing on a harp." And she meant of course in London somewhere, because this travel writer didn't travel. And I got this realization that the (stereotypical) old man playing the harp was just the remnant of the living music that is no more; he tells of the body as a fingernail tells of the body.

T said...

Hmmm. Sounds like a fella who came into the session I played last night--lots of fast and accurate tripe, and no music in it at all! Let 'em fall into the icy lake, I say.

An Briosca Mor said...

I'm confused. So is your problem with Irish music that it's too full of edge-skaters (as Tes seems to imply) or that it's not accepting enough of those who successfully flirt with the edge (which is what I initially thought you were getting at)? Or is it something else entirely?

And you didn't perhaps go to Nanny's last night, did you?

Rob said...

I've been struggling to express this in this space for a while now.

Basically, the music has ceased to develop in any meaningful way because there's no spirit of experimentation to speak of--no risk. And there are any number of skillful players who will go only so far and no further, never daring beyond the limits of marketability. And why would they? Everyone recognizes the foolishness and worthlessness of trying new things, of approaching the music with what Kierkegaard calls "actual passionate daring."

I'd argue that Irish music was a thriving, developing, dynamic thing only for as long as it was played unself-consciously, i.e. when players were absorbing new influences from all over and weren't so intent on preserving the tradition like a fetus in a bottle. Accordions and concertinas started being used in the music barely a hundred years ago; reels as we know them aren't much more than two hundred years old. I can't imagine new instruments or dance rhythms being incorporated into the music as it exists today. Between the rise of the recording industry and the attendant popularization of Irish music as a product, the creeping fungi of nostalgia and revivialism, and a host of other factors, the music itself has become moribund.

On the other hand, I suppose if things were otherwise, we wouldn't be playing Irish music. Shrug?

Rob said...

Of course, I could apply the same Kierkegaard quote to lots of other musics: blues, different species of jazz, even heavy metal.

An Briosca Mor said...

Well, the thing is, it is traditional music. And as such, the traditional part is every bit as important as the music part. It's not that things traditional never change, because they do. But the change happens at what seems to be a glacial pace. If not, it would not have lasted for decades or even centuries as it has, it would have instead morphed into something totally unrecognizable, or just died out completely.

Maybe I don't have a problem with this because there is another traditional institution that I grew up with - the Catholic church. As I got heavily involved on the cutting edge of Catholicism while in college, I naively anticipated great change taking place in the church at large in a short timeframe. It never happened, and I guess what I learned from that is this: If you want to be a change agent in a traditional milieu, be prepared for a life of existential angst and great disappointment among the few successes you achieve. If this doesn't sound inviting, then look at the state of the institition now, and if it is attractive and interesting to you as it is, embrace it and enjoy it for what it is. Otherwise, you're better off just cutting ties with it.

Rob said...

I maintain that this thing we're calling traditional music was formerly more dynamic and malleable, more alive, than it is now. Yuval Taylor makes a convincing argument in Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music that there's no effective difference between folk music and popular music, other than the reverence and scorn with which they're respectively regarded. It seems to me that when Irish music was popular music, it was merrily morphing for centuries, but only in the last hundred years or so has it been traditional music, and therefore not allowed to change. Which made it start dying.

As 21st-century urban Americans, we can't have the same relationship with Irish music that a 19th-century fiddle-playing farmer from Sligo would have, but in order to work out what kind of relationship we do have with it, it's probably best not to treat it as something inviolable and sacrosanct. Let it be pop music again. Take risks. Shake things up. Otherwise it's all a bunch of LARPing.

An Briosca Mor said...

I would maintain that Irish trad has never really been popular music as such. Pre-Bothies, it was social music and as such adapted itself to the different yet similar societies in which it was played, the home townlands and counties of Ireland that many musicians never set foot out of their whole lives. Hence the regional styles, many of which were indeed bastions of wildness and raw primitiveness in comparison to the homogenized way everyone plays today. Two things caused that homogenization, Comhaltas and the commercial popularity of the music over the last 40-odd years. But really, there has been a lot of boundary-pushing and innovation during our musical lifetimes, despite the general homogenization of the music at the same time. Moving Hearts and Riverdance are two examples of that, and there are many others too over the years. But the thing is, none of those innovations has stuck. People seem to keep coming back to the tradition for whatever reason. Hard to say why, but maybe because of the timeless quality inherent in the so-called pure drop. Riverdance et al, even though not all that old, still somehow seem dated today, whereas the pure drop seems to remain endlessly fresh. Maybe it's the difference between drinking an aged single malt whiskey and the latest trendy cocktail. Both have their place at the party, but the trendy drink will always eventually be replaced by the next big thing, whereas the classic drink endures from year to year.

Rob said...

Well, ok, that's the party line. But we may be talking about different things here. By "popular music" I mean simply the vernacular music that people hang out with. As opposed to the Dear National Music That Must Be Enshrined And Defended. Different regional styles developed because people just played music, and soaked up influences wherever they could without regard for whether they were "traditional" or not. I strongly doubt the concept of the "pure drop" was in people's minds prior to the 20th century. And good thing, too, otherwise herring fishermen in Donegal might have said to each other, "ooh, mustn't play those Scottish tunes, they're not traditional," and the Donegal fiddle style would never have existed. Or (much worse) they might have said, "Hey, if we're going to play these Scottish tunes, we should be careful to play them in the traditional Scottish style."

Of course I'm taking kind of an extreme position on this because it's an interesting conversation. By way of a counterexample, I'm remembering listening to Matt Molloy with Philippe, and talking about how many of Matt's variations and gestures seem to have more to do with rock & roll guitar than the Sligo/Roscommon flute style. They don't jump out at you that way (not least because Matt has had such a pervasive influence on Irish flute playing), but they aren't things that rural players a century ago would have thought of.

An Briosca Mor said...

I think I've lost sight of what your position is in this, discussion. Going back to the title, whether we call the music popular or vernacular or trad is not a problem with the music, it's just semantics. Whatever you call it, it is and has always been niche music, not a music that has ever enjoyed widespread worldwide popularity. As the Irish music niche has spread throughout the world in the era of recordings, its niche in Ireland itself is probably smaller than it ever has been in history. Instead of thinking of it as THE MUSIC that has to decide what influences it will or won't absorb, think of trad as just another influence on the budding musician starting from a blank slate and trying to decide what to play. Rock is an influence, blues is an influence, jazz is an influence, country is an influence, etc. In this spectrum of influences, trad ends up being one of the smaller ones actually. I mean, would it make sense for someone to say "My problem with rock music is that it doesn't allow for much experimentation that's influenced by trad"? Of course not, because no one is really stopping any musician from being influenced by anything - except the musician him/herself. If 1% of all the rockers in the world decided that they were going to become heavily influenced by trad, that would probably way outnumber all the trad musicians that even exist. If 50% of all trad musicians all of a sudden decided that they were going to be way influenced by metal, though, in the grand scheme of things no one would notice because the total number of players doing that would still be miniscule. But the already small niche that is trad would become even smaller. If stuff like that kept happening, before long the trad niche would just disappear entirely. That's why it often seems like trad musicians have a siege mentality. Really, they are constantly fighting for survival. When a species has to operate like that, it will naturally become quite hesitant about evolving.

Zisbo said...

I’m not sure that I agree that there isn’t experimentation or a cutting edge in the wide world of irish music. You can certainly hear new forms and ideas in the music of groups and people like Flook, Kila, the Scandinavian/Irish fusion of Karen Tweed’s music, Eileen Ivers, and the Afro-Celt sound system, among others (I didn’t say you had to like them.) I also think I hear things I’ve never heard before in the music of more “inside” players like Liz Carroll and, as Rob pointed out, Matt Molloy.
I’m also not sure about the Kierkegaard quote. I don’t think technique precludes passion, I think a lack of passion precludes passion. I’m glad that some modern Irish musicians have had the time and money to hone their technique in ways that their predecessors haven’t.
Finally, I have doubts about the whole concept of “progress” in music. I think as artists we are always seeking to express something new (even if, in my case, it is just competence). But I think that is different from the critical buzz surrounding newness and the cutting edge in popular music. I think jazz and popular music critics (I’m blissfully ignorant about classical music criticism) create a narrative of constant progress and modernization in music to help sell new recordings and to establish themselves as “your guide to all that is new and hip.” I don’t see Nickleback as progress from Elvis Presley, I don’t see Anthony Braxton as progress from Louis Armstrong, and I think the rush to embrace the new makes it easier to forget that which came before, including much more than music. Maybe it’s my Marxist roots but I see most new music as resulting from changing social conditions, not as steps on a journey to the one true music in the Platonic sense.
Which means we play the hand we are dealt. The irish music of 2008 isn’t the Irish music of 1928 or 1848. We lose some things, we gain some others.

T said...

I wish I had more time to get into this discussion--ironically, I don't because I'm writing a chapter about the music, with a Monday deadline!

But a few thoughts:

1. John, when do you reckon the music became "traditional"? It's the same point Rob makes in his reply to you, but it's worth reiterating. And as much as I'd like to, we can't blame Comhaltas and commercialism for everything: this process of codifying and homogenizing began much earlier. We could debate when that started until the proverbial cows come home, but a few moments that come to mind are the 1790s (Belfast harp festival), the mid-19th century (Petrie, Joyce, &co.), and closest to my mind (because that's the era I'm writing about right now), the decades immediately preceding the establishment of the Free State in 1922 (Gaelic League, establishment of the Irish Dance Commission, etc.). I'm arguing that that era pretty much defined what we hear as "traditional" in Irish music (disseminated, of course, by the exciting new audio media of the time).

Anyway, I digress--but without getting into the quibble about pop v. vernacular, another way to cast this discussion is to think about the function of the music (a thought I'm going to leave hanging because tempus fugit, and all that).

2. It's fascinating to me how Rob and I got to what might *seem* to be diametrically opposite points from the Kierkegaard. But I think the two points are compatible--it's just the point of reference that changes. What the ice is, and who the skater is, and what the jewel all have meaning in this figuration. The kind of playing I was referring to is the stuff we all know well--the stuff that was once daring (when Eileen Ivers did it), but is now a caricature of innovation. Skilled, technically flawless, seemingly daring--but still calculated, and strangely passionless, despite carrying some semiotic markers of "passion." In a room (or a city, or a "tradition") where such a person plays, I would argue that another musician who plays simple, subtle music, maybe with a farmer's broad fingers, becomes the daring one. It's ironic, since that's the "traditional" way, but hey--nobody ever said the world made sense :-)

Now I *really* have to get back to work!

An Briosca Mor said...

John, when do you reckon the music became "traditional"?

You couldn't pinpoint a specific time when it became "traditional" (like you can, for instance, for when a woman became pregnant), because "traditional" is not a state but rather a continuum or a process.

I'm arguing that that era pretty much defined what we hear as "traditional" in Irish music (disseminated, of course, by the exciting new audio media of the time).

Not that it isn't a worthy undertaking, but your argument will always be hampered by the fact that no one really knows what the music sounded like before the invention of recordings. Dancing about architecture and all that. You're trying to develop a theory of musical evolution when it all comes down to it (well, actually you're trying to describe or codify that evolution, to be more precise) but you're handicapped in that you'll have less raw material to work with than Darwin had with his fossils and all. (Until someone digs up the fossilized 1800 version of the eight-track player and the fossilized collection of Edward Bunting eight tracks to go with it, that is.)

the stuff that was once daring (when Eileen Ivers did it), but is now a caricature of innovation.

Just out of curiousity, can anyone come up with a specific instance of innovation that's not a caricature, or - such as the playing of Tommy Potts or Tommy Peoples - pretty much a one-off shot of brilliance that really didn't contribute to the music's evolution? In other words, if you were a future musical Darwin and got to pick bits of innovation as the fossils you'd use to demonstrate your theory of evolution, what would you identify or single out from the last 40 years or so? I might come up with Matt Molloy and his ilk right off the bat, but after that it gets tough, doesn't it?

T said...

Ok, I don't have time to write a detailed response here, but a response is necessary.

1. Maybe we can't track the colloquial usage of the word "traditional," but we sure can track its published use in reference to the music. I haven't seen anything yet in my archival research to suggest the word was being used popularly before about 1925 to describe the music. "Irish," yes. "Ancient," yes. But I haven't noticed "traditional." (If you can dig up some references before 1925 that use that specific word, send 'em on--I need to know!...and I need to read O'Neill's prose to check, because I wasn't looking for the word last time I read that stuff.) And I don't need to tell you that "traditional," "Irish," and "ancient" aren't synonymous.

2. Your argument rests on the assumption that what I'm doing is trying to figure out (or describe, or "codify," as you say) the evolution of the music. Don't assume that what I'm doing is what you *think* I'm doing. You're right that we'll never know what players in 1850 sounded like--but we *can* think about how they and their music might have circulated, or how the idea of the music was used toward nationalist ends, etc. That's not the same thing as evolution at all. So it's NOT some sort of musical Darwinism I'm after here--that must be your obsession, because it sure as hell ain't mine.

3. I think you've got your meaning of "caricature" wrong, utterly wrong. Eileen Ivers (to name just one example) can't possibly be a caricature, because to be a caricature depends on the "original" being familiar to the point that any parodies are recognizable. So it's possible that Eileen could now be a caricature of her earlier self, but not when she first did Riverdance.

It's something of a technical point, but you seem to be using it to suggest that innovation is rare, if not impossible. I'm not going to take up that banner here, because I don't care enough about the tradition/innovation debate at the moment to bother--but it *is* important to me to challenge you on the points that you make that seem to foreclose on further discussion--a major problem with a lot of the thinking (scholarly and on the ground) about Irish trad, now and historically.

T said...

Oh--one exception to the "traditional" usage I just remembered: song texts printed in the late 19th centuries will use "traditional" to mean "old and anonymous." But that's obviously not the same thing we mean today when we say that so-and-so is a "traditional" player.

An Briosca Mor said...

Hey, Tes, please don't confuse anything I say for scholarly thought ('cause I'm not an Irish music scholar, I just play it), or even an argument (because I'm not arguing any specific position here), and certainly I hope you're not picking up any hostility on my part toward what you're doing, since basically as you say I don't have any clue what you're doing so how could I offer any criticism of it anyway? I'm just musing here on various statements that have been raised. My comments are probably non sequitors to any rational arguments being made here.

Whatever you're doing, if it involves the state of the music pre- and post-recording era, you've got to admit you'll be hampered by the lack of being able to actually hear what the music sounded like before recordings became available, don't you? As I said, that doesn't mean that whatever you're doing is not worth doing, just that you'll have a tougher time doing it than if you were able to hear the music as it sounded across the whole time period you're studying.

And hey, you're the one who put Eileen Ivers and the word caricature in the same sentence, so don't chew me out about calling Eileen's music a caricature, because I didn't say that. I really don't care what you mean by that word, because that's really not what I was getting at there. What I meant was that it's hard to identify exactly which individual instances of innovation over the years have actually contributed to the growth of the music. The music has evolved, and people have innovated, but it almost seems like the ones always cited as innovators did not do things that caused the majority of musicians to move in the direction they were innovating in. Yet the music has changed over the years. Who can we identify as the agents of that change, the ones who pushed it along? It's hard to pick them out, or at least it seems so to me.

Again, just musings, not related at all to what you're doing. But feel free to tell me I'm full of crap! :-)