Letters: Let Go of the Language of the Past

Letters: Let Go of the Language of the Past


Having read Dáithí Kearney’s response to my article ‘Let Go of the Language of the Past’ in the Dec/Jan issue, I feel I should respond and clarify my position.

I agree that we can and must seek example and inspiration from past performers, and it is implicit in the nature of traditional musicians to do so, to some extent, but we should be conscious that all such discourses with the past are political. To point this out is not ‘negative’, as Kearney suggests. Rather, I would ask that we be critical of the discourse itself, and to be critical in a constructive rather than negative sense.

Even in Kearney’s letter he produces metaphorical structures that are politically based. For example, he talks of music ‘constantly evolving’, a common Western metaphor. This is, of course, challenged in our post-industrial world of climate change and the end of limitless economic growth. But this sort of metaphorical structuring is very easy to take as fact, and has personally got me into trouble with traditional musicians who despair at their music, as they perceive it, degrading and regressing.

Kearney states in his letter that, ‘Instead of being concerned with language, I propose that we strive for a greater understanding of the processes in traditional music.’ I have to ask him how does he intend to form and express his ‘understanding’ without recourse to language? Musicians can of course do this in their performance – and some really talented people can dance and paint about music – but we all talk and read about music. We should always have an eye to the way that these processes, for reasons external, but still vital, to the sounds themselves, can fail and betray the sounds we find so beautiful.

Published on 1 April 2010

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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