Let Go of the Language of the Past

Let Go of the Language of the Past

The language we use around traditional music isn’t about making new music but about old music. We are judging today’s traditional music on the basis of what we imagine happened in the past, restricting the creative freedom of today’s artists. If the traditional arts are to flourish in the future, we have to start challenging the language of a past agenda.

Let us get it over with and introduce possibly the most hackneyed phrase in contemporary musicology: ‘Talking about music is like dancing about architecture’. It is ironic that such a potentially post-modern statement has lost its author – there are many sources claimed, including Frank Zappa, Elvis Costello and Clara Schumann – and indeed, in a structuralist sense, talking about anything is like dancing about architecture. However, talking about music can indeed be a frustrating affair. All of us have seen the stifled yawns when we try and explain the life-shattering importance, beauty and majesty of a performance. We need no more proof of this regular failure to convince us of the essential disfunction of languaging about music.

So, if this is the case, isn’t talking and writing about music a delusion, the building of castles in the air by those without the talent to do the real thing? Possibly, but what contemporary science tells us is that the urge to build categorical structures is an essential human trait, perhaps one essential for life as we know it. We organise our world in order to understand it, and with that understanding we can engage with and shape our world.

The humanity of our understanding of our world is nowhere more apparent than in the way we talk about music. Philosophers and linguists such as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have illustrated how we engage the world through metaphors. These are easily uncovered in a musical context. For example, I may listen to the latest album of traditional music and think that it’s ‘too fast’ – although nothing is moving apart from the CD spinning in the player (which goes at the same speed for every CD). We all think of pitches in terms of ‘up’ and ‘down’ but this is, again, an obviously metaphorical structure that helps us engage with the phenomenon of music.

We do not have to travel too far to show how fragile such structures are. Professor Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin of the University of Limerick tells a story of teaching a renowned traditional accordion player a tune by ear and, at one tricky bit of the tune, where they had to resort to language, the exchange broke down because Ó Súilleabháin’s idea of ‘up’, shaped by common Western practice, was in conflict with the idea of ‘up’ that the accordion player had, which was rooted in his experience of his instrument.

We have no cold, scientific detached and objective language for music. We do have systems of signs that are created so we can make music, and organise it into structures that help us engage with it for our benefit as musical animals. How often, however, is the political animal the one that calls the tune? Even in everyday metaphorical encounters with music, how often do we hear loaded terms – I would argue that all terms are loaded – applied to performance? And how detrimental is this to our creative practice?

My interest in the language structures built around music is rooted in my own experience of their diversity. I am an Irish traditional musician, created in a diasporic environment in England where many music cultures competed for my attention. The music with the biggest system of signs and language was classical music, and, as a teenager, the tradition that structured my experience was that of the pop/rock continuum. But these musics were not the most important to me as a child growing up outside London. Irish traditional music, the music that did most to define me – ethnically, musically, socially – had language too, but it was largely mute or incoherent. It was a small operational language, a language spoken primary before the sound was made. I played ‘jigs’ and ‘reels’ on the ‘flute’, but techniques were something cobbled together through observation, practices rarely verbally transformed and even then more rarely standardised. There were also categories and aesthetic languages spoken after the sound, but much of this language was secret. We heard talk of ‘regional styles’ – styles of playing from different parts of Ireland – but these were rarely explained. We also knew good and bad music and heard comments like ‘there’s great life in his music’, ‘she has no lift in her playing’ and ‘he’s a lovely steady player’ to let us know as much.

When looking at the language practices around traditional Irish music it is easy to fall into the intellectual hole dug by some ethnomusicologists, for example, assessing a culture’s musicians based on their ability to express ideas about what the ethnomusicologist perceives as important. It is unproductive to categorise language according to its likeness to classical Western structures. As we shall see, language about Irish traditional music, like that of any music, is shaped by need and political agenda. It needs to be challenged in a creative arts environment, but it is essential that it is not accounted for in such a comparative manner. What is clear is that the language of this art has reached a hiatus in a post-nationalist, post-economic boom world, a hiatus that needs to change to maintain its relevance.

Language plays an essential functional role in the life of any music. For example, traditional Irish music is a dance music, and, for dancers to communicate with musicians to elicit certain types of tunes, they must have words, signs or gestures to make this happen. In the same way, terms such as ‘flute’, ‘accordion’, and ‘bouzouki’ will bring pictures to the mind of the traditional musician. So when one traditional flute player says to another to take out their flute, what she expects to see is the wooden simple-system flute, not a metal boehm system flute. However, such language structures are not immutable historically. For instance, the term ‘flute’ was once used to describe both transverse flutes and whistles, and ‘fiddle’ could have meant a variety of bowed instruments before the domination of the contemporary Italianate instrument. When we move away from language with such a functional role, we can see how contemporary much Irish music language practice is.

Nineteenth and early twentieth century texts relating to traditional music and, most importantly, generated by traditional musicians, show that late twentieth century structures for traditional music practice didn’t play the same role in the past. At a very basic level, what we now regard as being at the heart of Irish traditional music, the dance music tradition, was not regarded as Irish at all. Evidence of a predecessor of this tradition can be found in the country-dance publications of the eighteenth century which seem to have little national connotation at all. It is pure speculation, but the likelihood is that the late nineteenth-century fiddle player, living in a place like west Clare in the west of Ireland, had no conception of him/herself being a west Clare style musician, a traditional musician, or even an Irish musician. Arguably, the spectre of ‘traditional Irish music’ only casts its shadow over peasant musicians in Ireland with the focus of attention from middle-class, urban nationalism at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At this time the antiquarian agenda of collectors like Edward Bunting and George Petrie was replaced by the politico-cultural project of Patrick Pearse and the Gaelic League looking for authentic expressions of Irishness. For music, this national project reached a Janus-like height of expression in the high-art aspirations of composer and academic Seán Ó Riada.

Seán Ó Riada’s concern with Irish regional styles and his first formulation of a structure of these phenomena, in a series of radio lectures in the early 1960s, is interesting. This is the first systematic organisation I can find for regional styles, but Ó Riada came to traditional music as an adult, working in theatre, engaging a diasporic community of mostly country musicians based in Dublin, trying to work out why they sounded different from each. Take it from me – the most important point of reference for members of a diasporic community is imaginings of ‘home’ and of course these musicians may have been right to account for their different performance practices according to their home place. But we have built an idea of regional style which idealises and isolates it as an authentic, self-conscious entity, often in the face of apparent contradiction. Take for example south Sligo fiddling, a style that is sometimes perceived to stretch over the whole of north Connaught in the west of Ireland. For this style, as for every style, there are ‘best-example’ fiddlers, central to the sound, namely Michael Coleman, James Morrison and Paddy Killoran. However, when you mention that the ‘swing’ associated with these players might have had just as much to do with the popular swing of 1920s America where these men lived and recorded, you are in trouble, because you threaten the authenticity and Irishness of the entity known as the Sligo style.

Metaphors for music are also used in a politicised way to promote authenticity and nationality. If we read through a publication such as Crosbhealach an Cheoil: The Crossroads Conference (1999), we find metaphors regarding music as a physical entity. Nicholas Carolan, Director of the Irish Traditional Music Archive, writes: ‘the entity “Irish traditional music” has a very long history on this island. It’s been here, in round figures, for 9,000 years’. Traditional music is thus a ‘thing’, an archaeological artifact, to be protected from metaphorical planners and property developers who could be, according to flute player, flute-maker and ethnomusicologist Hammy Hamilton ‘damaging to the “tradition”’. Representing the tradition as a living thing, to be nurtured or killed, is very common in this book. Musicologist Martin Dowling writes of the ‘death of a tradition’ with ‘musical roots’.

We all commonly use metaphors for music as ‘thing’, of ‘place’, as ‘person’, as ‘vehicle’, as ‘body of water’ and more, to account for our practices. We do it to a political agenda which, in the case of traditional music, tends to be nationalistic and nostalgic. Psychology tells us that nostalgia is a positive force in our memory – one which we utilise in times of challenge and conflict – but I wonder what role have nationalism and nostalgia for a creative process in traditional music today.

I think they have a role, but if they are the overarching concern, are we not engaging in repetition? Does art become craft? Much of the systematic language we have about traditional music isn’t about making new music but about making old music. We are judging the value of new music according to imagined past practices, performances rooted in earlier performances, of iconic, performers who themselves have had their music rooted – by others – in certain regions. Even melody is treated as a living historical entity. I remember the great Peadar O’Loughlin of Clare catching me after a performance and telling me very pointedly that I played tunes like I don’t like them and what I was doing was damaging to the tune. This imagining of the tune as something exterior to the musician, an object or living entity that the musician relates to, has artistic implications. The tune is no longer the musician’s, it is the music of place and past generations. Artistic agency is thus taken from the musician.

If the traditional arts are to have a future, then traditional artists have to understand that the language used to account for this art is largely a thing of history, of past agendas that can run contrary to a contemporary arts agenda. Sure, it’s important that your average fifteen-year-old traditional flute player will be familiar with the 1920s recordings of Leitrim flute player John McKenna, more so than the same age classical player will be of Marcel Moyse, but a traditional artist must understand their own practice beyond that. Perhaps it is no accident that some of the greatest traditional music produced in the past twenty years has been done so in the most traditional of solo contexts, where musicians such as fiddle-players Martin Hayes, John Carty and Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh or flute-player Harry Bradley have creatively engaged the metaphors and imagined conceptual structure of past practice. Martin Hayes in this very magazine wrote of conflicting ‘authenticities’ competing with the artistic ‘muse’ and how he personally conforms and conflicts with past language practices while drawing inspiration from personal experience.

Is there more than this or are we forever doomed to create music according to the agendas of past generations? Obviously musicians like those mentioned show that this need not be the case, but we need to develop a more overt awareness of the power of language that can act as an agent restricting artistic expression. Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh has argued previously in these pages that third-level education in Ireland is not being utilised properly for the development of traditional music and has looked to Scandanavian models. I would argue that we primarily need to work for a space in the intellectual and imaginative language practices of traditional musicians. Certainly third level has a role to play in this, and I think if Ó Raghallaigh was more familiar with the workings of such institutions he might have a clearer idea how such a challenge is engaged. But this is much more far-reaching and ingrained than in the universities and colleges. The national broadcasters churn out much doggerel associated with either low-brow imaginings of past tradition or popularisations and teenage magazine accounts of current ones.

Of course, national organisations such as the state broadcaster RTÉ and the Arts Council of Ireland have engaged with these word games that avoid contemporary creative practice in the traditional arts. The Arts Council in their new-found appreciation of traditional arts direct much financial support to the Irish Traditional Music Archive, at summer schools, at publications of historical repertoires. These are obviously deserving of support, but shouldn’t the Arts Council’s primary activity more directly sustain creative, artistic practice rather than focus on archival and educational initiatives? To blame the Arts Council, however, or any other institution beyond the community of arts practice, with a remit to support the traditional arts, would be unfair. They have attempted to engage the traditional music community on its own terms, but those terms, when employed uncritically, are not those of a creative arts practice but a historical, regional practice.

Part of the problem is, of course, the consideration of this tradition as being a communal expression, so much so that the individual artist is either submerged in communal expression or expelled, regarded as untraditional, un-Irish. This may always have a role in the perception of this art form by its practitioners and audience – traditional Irish music is an über-community music, a music that defines and empowers Irish and wider communities all over the world. Its musics are a major factor identifying the Irish among themselves and amongst others internationally. This is a strength, but the central strength has to be creative and adaptive artists.

The academic Jesuit priest Walter Ong has shown us that in non-literate, oral societies the meaning of ‘tradition’, or the concept nearest to it, is what is current, what happens now. We, however, have built language structures for this music around what we believe has happened in the past, and what we believe was important. It troubles me that, for example, a music created by a previous generation of East Clare musicians out of their engagement with a wider world of music is used as a way of coercing and critiquing new generations of East Clare musicians, attempting to prevent them from engaging the sort of processes that made earlier artists’ music so wonderful in the first place. Paddy Canny, for example, now considered a central significant figure in the promotion of an ‘East Clare’ style of fiddle playing, made wonderful, innovative music by engaging a wide world of performance, but his musical progeny are perversely prevented from doing so by the packaging and weaponising of his legacy.

As traditional musicians we must realise the political use of such language and how it can be used to restrict our practices. This is not only a hazard for Irish traditional music but any music, especially those presented as ‘traditional’, ‘folk’, or ‘authentic’. Conversely, we should look to develop our own vocabularies, both musical and musicological, as metaphors for creative practice, not past agenda. As long as what is authentic is related primarily to what is past rather than what is artistic, any tradition faces a dilemma that it needs to address. We must remember that if we constantly critique our language for music – the language that organises and articulates it – we have some hope of keeping (to quote the nineteenth-century poet John Boyle O’Reilly) the ‘ancient, wordless music’ in our hearts.

Published on 1 December 2009

Niall Keegan is a traditional flute player and Associate Director at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, University of Limerick.

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