The Art of the Possible

The Art of the Possible

It is possible now to do almost anything to Irish traditional music. Whether one should is open to debate.

The phrase ‘politics is the art of the possible’ is attributed to the Prussian statesman Bismarck. Or, to give him his full title, as I’ve just gleaned from Google, Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck, Count of Bismarck-Schönhausen, Duke of Lauenberg, Prince of Bismarck. En route I discover that ‘Bismarck’ is an alternative name for the famous pastry known as a Berliner, as in JFK’s remark Ich bin ein Berliner. Or not, according to a Wikipedia entry which debunks the received idea that the people of Berlin understood the President of the United States of America to be saying he was a jam doughnut: ‘Kennedy’s statement is grammatically correct, perfectly idiomatic, and cannot be misunderstood in context… The urban legend is not widely known within Germany, where Kennedy’s speech is considered a landmark in the country’s post-war history. The indefinite article ein can be and often is omitted when speaking of an individual’s profession or residence, but is necessary when speaking in a figurative sense as Kennedy did. Since the president was not literally from Berlin but only declaring his solidarity with its citizens, Ich bin Berliner would not have been correct’. Moreover, it seems that Berliners do not refer to the pastry in question as ein Berliner, but ein Pfannkuchen, a pancake. It is only non-Berliners who call it ein Berliner.

Of course Bismarck did not say, ‘Politics is the art of the possible.’ According to one source, what he said was Die Politik ist die Kunst des Möglichen; according to another, Die Politik ist die Lehre von Möglichen. Kunst may be translated as trick, skill, or art, among others. Lehre is a different kind of tricky business: among the various English possibilities are lesson, warning, doctrine, apprenticeship and tenet. So whatever Bismarck did say, if indeed he said it all, depends on what he said, and possibly how he said it. For all we know he might have spoken ironically. The vagaries of attribution and translation lead to different kinds of understanding or misunderstanding.

As with language, so with music. We may speak of musical genres as languages – classical, jazz, rock, and so on – each with its range of sub-genres, styles or dialects. As such, they evolve and are modified by each other. It used to be thought in some quarters that Irish traditional music existed in some uncontaminated zone, free of alien influence. But the very names of the dance-music forms – mazurkas, schottisches, polkas, flings, waltzes, highlands, for example – belie that notion. Even the most common structure in the music, the reel, is arguably of Scottish origin. The tradition has always been susceptible to outside influences, and has accommodated and adapted them to its own purpose. This is not to deny the unique characteristics of Irish traditional music, its immediately recognizable accent or blás.

Seán Ó Riada, in his 1962 collection of radio talks, Our Musical Heritage, noted how Norman, Latin and English words had been absorbed into Irish, submitting to Gaelic declensions and conjugations; in the same manner, foreign literary themes were adapted to Gaelic poetry. Irish remained Irish nonetheless. He went on to compare the progress of tradition in Ireland to the flow of a river: ‘Foreign bodies may fall in, or be dropped in, or thrown in, but they do not divert the course of the river, nor do they stop it flowing; it absorbs them, carrying them with it as it flows onwards.’ That might have been true of Irish when it was the majority language in Ireland; whether the metaphor is valid for its current state is a moot point. The numbers of native Irish speakers in the Gaeltachtaí continue to decline; and the Irish used by many urban speakers is often so pervaded by English syntax, grammar and pronunciation that one could argue that the foreign bodies dropped into it have become so numerous that they have caused the river to take another course, or filtered it off into creolized tributaries.

Likewise, the so-called ‘pure drop’ of Irish traditional music has become exposed to influences unimaginable a generation ago. It is rumoured that when in the 1920s gramophones began to appear in Irish kitchens, many fiddle-players, confronted by the virtuosity of a Coleman or a Killoran, put their instruments away. Certainly many of them changed their style and repertoire in an attempt to emulate the music valorised by the new technology. Others stuck with what they knew better. Now that musicians have access to a plethora of media – virtual worlds of music – they have all the more choices to resist, assimilate or be overwhelmed by. The music has become an international commodity, played to bopping crowds across the globe. The gamut of what is possible is ever expanding, and Ó Riada might well be turning in his grave at the thought of his river of tradition turning into Riverdance.

It is possible now to do almost anything to Irish traditional music. Whether one should is open to debate. Take the fiddle-playing of Eileen Ivers, for example, who has been described by the New York Times as ‘the Jimi Hendrix of the violin’. One can admire her technical virtuosity while questioning the ends to which it is put, and for me her jazzy deviations from the beaten track of standard jigs and reels are sometimes a few steps too far; but that might well be a minority view, since, according to the Boston Globe, ‘Eileen Ivers & Immigrant Soul rocks the house everywhere it goes’. Nevertheless I can’t help feeling that some ultimate melodic boundaries are being violated. To my ear the variations played on the theme of one reel or jig sound much like the variations played on another. It all sounds the same, the tune lost in translation. Listening to this style of music I am sometimes returned to the state of a novice listener or learner, unable to tell one tune from another: it’s all diddly-dee to me, as it is to someone unaccustomed to the old traditional music. Maybe, I tell myself, it is indeed a new genre or another language whose grammar I do not understand.

In any event there are other possibilities open to the contemporary traditional musician. One is to accept the limits of the music, as the writer of haiku does those of the haiku, or as a tennis player accepts the need for a net and lines which determine the boundaries in which one plays. The small room of the sonnet can contain infinite riches; and I have a bee in my bonnet to the effect that a small back room is the ideal space for the art that is traditional music and all that is legitimately possible within its rules. Conventions need not be moribund. The music is alive to the flow of the current in which it occurs. Such a room implies conversation with the here and now as well as all the other occasions on which the music has been played, whether in that same room or further afield. An example of this kind of musical dialogue is Maeve Donnelly and Peadar O’Loughlin’s CD, The Thing Itself.

The next article in this series will be called ‘The Thing Itself’.

Published on 1 November 2008

Ciaran Carson (1948–2019) was a poet, prose writer, translator and flute-player. He was the author of Last Night’s Fun – A Book about Irish Traditional Music, The Pocket Guide to Traditional Irish Music, The Star Factory, and the poetry collections The Irish for No, Belfast Confetti and First Language: Poems. He was Professor of Poetry at Queen’s University Belfast. Between 2008 and 2010 Ciaran wrote a series of linked columns for the Journal of Music, beginning with 'The Bag of Spuds' and ending with 'The Raw Bar'.

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