Ways of Talking and Thinking About Irish Traditional Music

Traditional fiddle-player Connie O'Connell, one of the interviewees in Jessica Cawley's book, 'Becoming an Irish Traditional Musician'. (Photo: UCC)

Ways of Talking and Thinking About Irish Traditional Music

A recent book by Jessica Cawley, 'Becoming an Irish Traditional Musician: Learning and Embodying Musical Culture', interviews 22 Irish traditional musicians and explores how they learnt their craft. Martin Dowling reviews.

The book under review, Becoming an Irish Traditional Musician: Learning and Embodying Musical Culture, is part of an academic series entitled SOAS Studies in Music. SOAS stands for the School of Oriental and African Studies, a college in the University of London originally founded in the early twentieth century to train individuals to administer the British empire in Africa and Asia. The series editors work in the SOAS Department of Music, ‘a world-leading centre for the study of music from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and their diasporas’, and where, according to its website, important journals and conferences of British ethnomusicology were founded. A first for this series, the book is the only one of 89 volumes, whose subjects sprawl across the globe, to be devoted exclusively to Ireland and Irish music. The appearance of this book in this series exemplifies how the purview of British ethnomusicology, for over a century focussed on the musical cultures of its far-flung empire, has come to include Irish music.

The author Jessica Cawley is a music education specialist currently working in Cork. Her undergraduate training in the United States culminated in 2005 with a fieldwork project entitled ‘Investigating the Ways the Irish Learn Music’. At the same time, she reports in her acknowledgements, she became hooked on flute tunes and developed a ‘full blown case of bi-musicality’ (ethnomusicological code for a Western musician who becomes expert in some ‘other’ music, or vice versa). I am not sure what the other half of the ‘bi-’ is or was in her musicality (she mentions abandoning the saxophone), but it appears that in the decade after her undergraduate thesis she followed along two tracks. Through ‘near-obsessive session playing’, practising and hanging out with traditional musicians, the author ‘became’ an Irish traditional musician, coming at it from outside Irish culture and perhaps a little later in life than is typical in Ireland, though not in America. Also during this period of time, she studied ethnomusicology at the University of Limerick and then University College Cork, was awarded a PhD and has now turned that PhD into this book. She became an ethnomusicologist.

Cawley does not dwell much on her ‘bi-musicality’, though it would have been interesting to read more about how it affected her becoming a traditional musician. Another perhaps more problematic and interesting bifurcation in this journey of becoming comes to light in the book: the difference between the listening and speaking about traditional music that is an intrinsic aspect of becoming a traditional musician, and the way of speaking and writing about the same phenomenon as an ethnomusicologist.

The two campuses in Cork and Limerick, along with Queen’s University of Belfast, might be called centres of Irish ethnomusicology, if it was not premature to say that such a thing exists, as distinct from the predominant institutions and discourses of British or perhaps more broadly Anglo-American ethnomusicology out of which they have evolved. In Belfast, John Blacking almost single-handedly made Queen’s a centre of British ethnomusicology, a tradition that later extended through the tenures of Martin Stokes and Suzel Reily (current board members of the SOAS series). There was a stronger indigenous strain in UCC, clearly signified by the presence of Seán Ó Riada in its classrooms in the late 1960s. But when Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, who earned his own ethnomusicology PhD from Belfast, branched out from Cork to found the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at what he called a scrappy little campus on the Shannon, he made Anglo-American ethnomusicology a cornerstone of the curriculum. In promotional material from a few years ago, Ó Súilleabháin remarked: ‘As an academic I began to realise in the 1970s and ‘80s that there was a growing field that was called ethnomusicology, the anthropology of music, and Irish music was not in there at all… One way to do that was to link Irish traditional music to the global musical heritage.’ So it is that, through internal and external examining of theses, presentation and publication of research papers at conferences, and finding a publisher for a volume like the one under review here, academic writing about Irish traditional music is caught in the web of a discipline built upon whatever universalising social science concepts it deems fashionable. The peculiar, the particular, the ‘other’ musical culture is caught, through fieldwork, in this web, and digested.

The language of traditional musicians
And so we find in this book two streams of experience, and two ways of talking and reading about traditional music. The book richly unpacks the author’s experience, through years of interviewing and taking field notes, of the language traditional musicians use to describe their journeys (I will explore some of this language, taken from a wide range of practitioners in and near Cork, below). This is bracketed by the flattening jargon of ethnomusicology. She is certainly not alone in this predicament. Generations of Irish traditional musicians have now come through the Irish ethnomusicology postgraduate factories, and our critical writing about our music has not benefitted much by it. A number of her interviewees also have experience of ethnomusicological training, and in her brief section on third-level education Cawley mildly warns about treating traditional music like a fossil in formal study. But it appears from the recollections of her interviewees that the luxury of free and unstructured time granted by student life was much more important to their journey into traditional music than anything that happened in the classroom. The problem of how to write and speak about the music, what conceptual tools to use, does not appear to have troubled anyone much.

The narrative structure and style of the book retain the traces of its origin as a first-rate ethnomusicology PhD. The coverage of the scholarly literature on Irish traditional music is exhaustive (the bibliography alone is worth the price of the book). What previous workers in the field have done that relates tangentially to the topic of education and learning is thoroughly covered in copious endnotes. The book opens with what looks very much like a PhD ‘literature review’, a set piece that must pass inspection early on in the training, demonstrating that the candidate has touched all the important bases and will settle on an acceptable one. Reading it can be dizzying, as we breeze through the canon: Clifford Geertz’s thick description, the Husserlian lifeworld, Pierre Bourdieu’s field and habitus, Thomas Turino’s artificial presentational/participative model, Mark Slobin’s affinity groups and cultural ‘flows’, Arjun Appadurai’s ‘-scapes’ theory (ethnoscapes, ideoscapes, this-scapes, that-scapes, the-other-scapes – as if ‘landscape’ does not by itself serve as an adequate metaphor for social or discursive field), kinaesthetic experience, embodiment, etc.

Much of this, and most of it thankfully, is immediately abandoned. Cawley adopts as an overarching conceptual framework a book under the title Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity by Étienne Wenger. Wenger’s concept of the community of practice (or CoP in the book) appears to suit both the subject matter and the needs of a PhD project perfectly. ‘Although well-established in other fields such as anthropology, business studies, education, media studies, and psychology’ Cawley writes, ‘the CoP framework has only emerged within music scholarship in the last decade or so.’ (p. 4) The concept is perfect because it is neither worn out currency, nor is it so new and unheard of as to meet with disapproval from examiners and editors. Rather it is a suitably fresh, emergent, yet also legitimate concept imported into the field from elsewhere in social scientific discourse.

Unfortunately, the concept, at least as it is used here, flattens the experience of ‘becoming’ a traditional musician into a static process of ‘enculturation’. The semantic richness of the book’s title (‘learning’, becoming’, and ‘embodying’) is drained away as the chapters progress. For example, there is very little about the musical body, though perhaps this may be because traditional musicians don’t talk about their bodies much. She claims that learning music is particularly kinaesthetic, quoting John Blacking: ‘what is ultimately of most importance in music cannot be learned like other cultural skills: it is there in the body, waiting to be brought out and developed.’ (p. 11) 140 pages pass before this theme is taken up again, in a section on the supremacy of orality over literacy, where she writes, intriguingly, that ‘expression is learned tacitly, not taught. Irish traditional music is first and foremost a dance music, its “feeling” and style are intimately related to rhythm, pulse, and emphasis’ (p. 150). So while one can ‘easily play Irish melodies using staff notation… this experience is something very different from becoming enculturated into the community of musical practice’. (p. 150)

This line of exploration stops at ‘becoming enculturated’. There is very little about learning itself, as distinct from categorizing the social settings where learning is alleged to take place (formal, nonformal, informal, direct, indirect, tacit, peripheral…). And there is nothing further on what is being learned, Irish traditional dance music itself, its structure and rhythms, nor on how these might be involved in how it is learned. So instead of unpacking the details and dynamics of learning (the structure of the music, how to handle the instruments, how to control the body) or becoming (a person and a social being), we have the breezier process of enculturation which seems to be neither the one nor the other. The author is surely aware of, and raises, deeper issues, and she came tantalizingly close to the heart of the matter in the just-quoted passage on feeling, style, and pulse. This happens with other topics as well, for example when discussing the subject of gender and women’s experience of becoming traditional musicians (p. 67), or the deeply immersive experience of a festival or summer school: ‘Such events carve a space where learners can fully immerse themselves within the community of musical practice throughout the week, an experience that represents a different way of being in the world ‘ (p. 108, my emphasis). But the narrative comes to a stop, leaving the reader to wonder about the nature of this different way of being.

Becoming and being a traditional musician
Cawley’s approach is to start with a quote from Wenger about how people learn things in social contexts, then note that scholars have remarked on how this too happens in Irish traditional music, and then flesh that out with a quote from one of her 22 interviewees if one can be found, in the hope that the reader will find that insight has been developed. For example, one of Wenger’s notable observations is that all learning is socially ‘situated’ learning. But is this not simply appending an extraneous adjective onto a concept that itself requires more unpacking? What other kind of learning can there possibly be? What is un-situated learning? In her conclusion, Cawley cites this from Wenger: ‘We are social beings. Far from being trivially true, this fact is a central aspect of learning.’ (p. 199). No, this is not at all far from being trivially true, and the narrative is thus trapped inside a circuit of mutually supporting platitudes. This contrasts very starkly with both phenomenological and dialectical sociological approaches. In Cawley and Wenger’s thinking, enculturation and the culture into which one enters (to be sure, via various pathways and through various gateways) are static things. Via the community of practice, and the musical genre that defines it, people learn its social rules, and how to play, and they are plugged in. Neither the depth of the personal transformation, nor the possibility that individual enculturation might actually change the culture itself in a dynamic unfolding, are part of this picture.

The first sentence of the book reads: ‘Becoming an Irish traditional musician is a never-ending journey.’ (p. 1) And in the last paragraph of the book, Cawley reiterates: ‘Enculturation cannot be rushed. Identity formation, cultural understanding, and musical development are lifelong processes which, by definition, cannot be fast-tracked.’ Once you are plugged in, you are always plugged in, and nothing else really happens except the lifelong journey of becoming continues. But is this not simply false? Is it not the case that a musician (including a number of Cawley’s interviewees) at a point in their lives stop becoming and start being Irish traditional musicians? When asked who they are, how many interviewees would say ‘I am a traditional Irish musician’ and leave it at that? And of those, what was it they achieved in order to recognise themselves as, and be publicly recognised as, traditional musicians? To record an influential solo commercial recording with a company recognised internationally as the main exponent of the tradition (Mary Bergin)? To play eight pub sessions a week professionally for years before founding a band and touring the world (Niall Vallely)? To perform on national radio or television, and be asked to teach at summer schools and university programmes (Connie O’Connell)? To win multiple first prizes at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann while still a teenager (Martin Hayes)? In a section entitled ‘Fleadh Cheoil as Rite of Passage’ Martin Hayes relates: ‘I was 19 or something; that was the end of that. You do outgrow it. It was fine, but you reach a point where the idea of music as a competition does not make sense anymore.’ (p. 121). Martin was 19 in 1982, and he won the Fleadh that year for the second year in a row (one of only three individuals to have ever done so). I competed against Martin in that final (if there was a last place awarded, I probably would have got it). Was it not clear to Martin, as it was to me and to the wider traditional music public, that he had become an Irish traditional musician, and that he had departed the terrain of Cawley’s book completely and entered a new field that had to be navigated, that of being an Irish traditional musician, not becoming one? And can it not be said that in his journey of being an Irish traditional musician, he is no longer a subject of enculturation but is changing the culture itself through his evolving approaches to public performance and speaking?

I am suggesting that there is a dialectic of enculturation and culture, of becoming and being, that is not captured by Wenger’s framework. (Bourdieu’s framework of habitus and field, which does attempt to capture the dynamics I am pointing to, would have been my recommended approach). It struck me that neither Cawley nor any of her interviewees discuss what was for me personally the most important step in becoming an Irish traditional musician: joining a band. The dialectic can take weird twists and turns. In my case, even as I began being an Irish traditional musician by performing in public and entering competitions, I realised that I had not finished becoming one.

And of course, people often stop learning, they give up before they get to the gateway. Having arrived, they become bored, or they begin to forget, and they lose what got them enculturated in the first place. The culture might go on changing without them, even as they struggle to remain part of it. As professional musicians, they may go on changing, testing the boundaries of the culture with which they still identify, or abandoning it without remorse. Generation gaps open up. Gaps between oneself and one’s being open up. This bumpy trajectory of stepping onto a qualitatively different plane, or falling off of it, of restarting again, of disappearing and reappearing not in the singular global community of practice but in fields within fields within it – all this is missed by the idea of a flat lifelong process shared by everyone who is enculturated.

Skilful fieldwork
Notwithstanding these theoretical complaints, this book is a treasure trove of insight into becoming a traditional musician, thanks to Cawley’s dedicated and skilful fieldwork with 22 musicians over an extended period of time (23 if you include her own reflections). All of this is very well organised in chapters which move outward from the experience of family and neighbours, to the pub session as site of learning via ‘legitimate peripheral participation’ (Wenger again), to the weekly routines of ‘organised informal’ instruction in schools and community organisations, to summer schools and festivals, and finishing with an informative survey of technology and learning from print through broadcast media, web 1.0 and web 2.0.

Throughout, the voices of some devoted and reflective practitioners are given plenty of time and space. Here, for example, are a series of quotes from Cork fiddle player Connie O’Connell describing how he got started on his instrument and how he developed:

So, I had a fiddle, and I didn’t know how to play it, because there were no teachers around at that stage, nobody at all in the area. So, I was playing for a long time and I didn’t know what I was doing with it. I tuned up just to the scale – ‘do-me-sol-do’ – four strings. I was only using one finger, so there was only one note between every two strings. Savage stupid thing to do, but at least I was able to bring out a tune on it. Anyway, my aunt’s husband wasn’t able to play the fiddle, but his father used to play fiddle before him. So, he called in one night and he said, ‘I think this is the right way to tune it,’ which was the conventional way. He said, ‘I’m not a hundred percent sure about this.’ He couldn’t play it. He hadn’t a clue, but he had some idea that this was the right way to tune it. So, he actually showed me how to tune a fiddle, and he couldn’t play it at all. So I started there and I was self-taught from then on. (p. 39)

The way I’d normally learn tunes was… I didn’t sit down and learn a tune, just turn on the tape recorder or radio while I was doing anything, reading, sitting at home, listening away in the background. After a while the tune formed inside my head and I would pick up the fiddle and play it. Which to me was not very stressful. It was a pleasant way of doing it. And then, I’d play the tune, and I might find at some part, there’s something wrong there. So, I’d refer back to my tape recorder and find out that little bit and sort it out. I’d have those tunes in my head until this day. (p. 167)

I went to Denis Murphy on different occasions and I was watching him playing and doing different things with the bow. The bow is where all the playing comes in really. So, I was watching him and trying to bring home with me a certain amount of that. You can’t bring it home in a tape recorder. You have to see it and know how he was getting a certain sound. The only thing I found very slow and difficult was technique. (p. 171)

The happenstantial, gradual, unconscious, situated, heterophonic progress of learning traditional music is a clear theme. Becoming a traditional musician means, in a fundamental way, learning to learn ‘by osmosis’, ‘on the fly’, through repetition and sometimes in a completely distracted state. For Aoife Granville, the pub session is a learning experience, but only in an indirect, holistic, and somewhat mysterious way:

Learning in the session sometimes isn’t just about the tunes, it’s about etiquette, it’s about listening. It’s where I got a better feel for the music as opposed to learning an awful lot of tunes…. I would learn tunes in sessions, but I wouldn’t retain them sometimes. It’s more about the whole music generally that you can learn in sessions. (pp. 61–2)

Situations intended to be formal learning experiences or formal presentations were often subverted. Take for example Geraldine O’Callaghan’s account of a typical day at school in her childhood:

My earliest and my longest influence in traditional music would be my teacher, Con Herbert. When I started national school, all the kids in the other classes were already playing music. It’s going to sound idyllic, but this is how it actually was: music happened at any part of the school day. It was as much a part of the school day as having your lunch. It could happen at any time. You’d be in a class and you’d be told to take out the instruments. Or he would just put on tapes or pick up the box himself and play away. And he’d say, ‘I’ll give a pound to anyone who could tell me the name of that tune.’ So, everyone would be competing to try and name the song or tune… It was every day, and it would have been all day every day if Con had his way… (p. 84).

Cawley also touches on the fundamental ambiguities of competition as a vehicle for learning, and some of her interviewees are very experienced and informative on this subject. Flute player and teacher Paul Clesham recalled:

A mother of a student I teach said to me, ‘We want to be thinking about our Fleadh tunes.’ And I thought, ‘Oh my god. It’s the 11th of October, the Cork Fleadh is seven months away.’ I felt, that’s actually sad! I don’t like this idea of people practicing two tunes the whole year and perfecting them. That’s not music. Entering competitions isn’t a complete musical experience. No, I have kids taking regular classes who say, ‘Oh, sorry I couldn’t practice my tune this week because I was practicing my fleadh tunes.’ (p. 115)

But for whistle-player Mary Bergin competitions were occasions for learning, and formal presentation of what you had learned was all but meaningless:

I really didn’t think of it in terms of competitions, because all of the competitions were held in these awful schools. I saw it as an opportunity to be brought to the Fleadh. I remember a load of whistle players would be playing in the jacks in these awful schools and someone would come in and yell, ‘You’re on!’ You had to race into the competition and play a couple of tunes and then go back to the jacks to play some more. We didn’t even know who won half the time. It was absolutely irrelevant. The craic was just having tunes together and playing. That’s honestly what I remember about competitions. (pp. 109–110)

Though Cawley doesn’t emphasise it herself, what comes out in some of the most insightful quotations is not the socially situated aspect of learning, but rather the person and the body, absorbing the sound of the music itself and the sight of expert musicians in flight, whether face-to-face, in a session, from a stage, or on a recording. Cork flute-player Conal Ó Gráda said:

I maintain that you’re not really taught music, you learn it yourself. You can have a facilitator there who helps you and points you in the right direction and shows you things that might have taken you longer otherwise to figure out. But really you learn it yourself. Traditional music is about listening and listening and listening and absorbing it into your bloodstream, so it becomes almost like an accent that you take on. (p. 158)

Niall Vallely recalled the time he spent alone with a single influential tape recording, but not actually how he absorbed everything on it:

A friend of my parents, Paul Davis, made a tape of tunes for me. When I was listening to the tape, I remember thinking what was brilliant was he’d play the tunes slowly and then he’d play them up to speed with a bit of ornamentation. And I remember thinking, how do you know where to put in the rolls and the wee drones and octave things and bits of ornamentations? I remember thinking, this is very impressive, that you can put them in here and there, and you’d just know that it sounds right, rather than someone having to tell ya. It was a couple of years later when I was actually doing it and I was thinking, how did that happen? How did I get to the point where I know how to put them in myself? (p. 164)

It is a pleasure to read these reflections, and we are in Cawley’s debt for doing all the careful questioning, listening, transcribing and narrating. This in itself is deeply important and valuable work, and more of it should be done. In conclusion, I am left with the feeling that these reflections from thoughtful people who have become traditional musicians should stand on their own, inside their own frames of reference, and that the social scientific jargon (and not just what I have criticized Cawley for adopting, but also that which I have suggested instead and have used myself in the past), should be left to the ethnomusicologists. I have concluded, and I am guessing Cawley has too based on her current work in Cork city, that it is much more valuable to be practising in a community than writing about the community of practice.

Becoming an Irish Traditional Musician: Learning and Embodying Musical Culture by Jessica Cawley is published by Routledge. Visit www.routledge.com. 

Published on 10 August 2021

Martin Dowling is a fiddle player and author of 'Traditional Music and Irish Society: Historical Perspectives' (Ashgate, 2014). He lives in Belfast.

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