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hjcjones

Rules and Tradition

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In the "What we are missing from the debate" thread, Michael asked this question, which I think is interesting enough to deserve a topic of its own.

 

I would be very interested to hear what others think about the 'rules' that keep music acceptably within a tradition, whilst at the same time allowing the freedom for individual creativity.

 

An interesting question. Firstly, I should say that by "tradition" I mean any musical tradition, and not specifically the Irish tradition.

 

I suspect the idea of "rules" is a modern one, and derives from the conscious notion of a "tradition". When "tradition" just meant whatever people happened to be playing, then there must have been freedom for individual creativity (although this would nevertheless be fighting against people's innate conservatism). Otherwise the new-fangled concertina would never have been allowed a place in Irish music, the fiddle would never have taken over from pipe-and-tabor for morris, and Peerie Willie would have been sent packing when he turned up at the Lerwick Lounge with his guitar.

 

Today we think of "the tradition" as something special which needs to be protected, and so we invent rules about what should and what shouldn't be allowed. This seems particularly strong in Irish music, with the influence of Comhaltas on the one hand and the idea of the "pure drop" on the other. This doesn't prevent a huge amount of good music being played which doesn't conform to these "rules". So is the "pure drop" preserving the "real" music, or is it inward-looking conservatism which prevents, or at least tries to ignore, developments in the music as it evolves? The answer is probably both.

 

In English music, whilst the tradition remains at its core, the music itself has been allowed more freedom to evolve - perhaps too much, since modern English music has moved some distance from the original tradition, to the extent that some find the original source music quite challenging to listen to. Interestingly, some of the musicians who were most active in discovering the pure source music have also been most active in modernising it - I'm thinking in particular of players like Rod Stradling, who has been tireless in bringing traditional musicians to wider notice and whose own playing is both influenced by it but has also gone in other directions. In terms of concertina playing, the styles of most contemporary anglo players bears little resemblance to the older players, although influences can be heard.

 

The fact is, we need both. We need to allow the music to evolve, so that it can be a vibrant part of contemporary music and not merely a historical curiosity, but at the same time we need to remember where it came from, what is special about it, and to rein in some of the wilder excesses.

 

PS this somehow got posted before I was ready, which is why the sub-title is incomplete - it should have said, "do we need rules to keep music within a tradition?"

Edited by hjcjones
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The fact is, we need both. We need to allow the music to evolve, so that it can be a vibrant part of contemporary music and not merely a historical curiosity, but at the same time we need to remember where it came from, what is special about it, and to rein in some of the wilder excesses.

 

 

 

That's exactly the point.

 

We need purists (much as I sometimes find them annoying to play with) to preserve the core of a tradition.

 

We need innovators who stretch the boundaries to keep it relevant to new generations, adapt to new tastes and draw in those with new skills.

 

There's a good example in American oldtime music. I've played with folks who are rigid in preserving the tradition as-is (so fanatic that they generally frown on having a concertina in their midst). They faithfully recreate the old masters and reject any deviation from what they did.

 

I've also played with modern innovators who do wild and crazy things with the music, and have done much to keep it alive for new generations.

 

In Morris music, Kimber and those who faithfully reproduce his music, or the pipe and tabor folks, are important. So were Morris On, with their rock-influenced arrangements and Big Nick Robertshaw, whose daring use of chords (including those dread 7ths) on the Jeffries Duet probably made the traditionalists cringe, but whose musicianship and love of the dance drew people to Morris music.

 

The same is probably true in most traditions: Irish, English, Balkan, Scandinavian, whatever. Both approaches play an important role.

Edited by Jim Besser

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i agree that all approaches play an important role. i think that the best innovators are the ones who pay the most respect to the tradition and old masters. there are some exceptions, however. i won't say who it is, but my favorite irish singer is also my least favorite singer: when he sings traditionally, he is out of this world, but when he sings on tour, it really ticks me off.

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Some years ago I conducted an interview with the ace American old-time fiddle and banjo player Dirk Powell (who may have caught the attention of some of you box players as he's also the accordionist in Balfa Toujours). Amongst many wise words, he said the following:

 

"Many people look at an old tradition and say either 'how can we change this?' or 'how can we make this like it used to be on a recording made in 1929?'. Either way, ideology is coming before the music. You might consider it innovative to knock down the framework of a tradition completely, but then you have nothing on which to build, and you lose the perspective that allowed people to understand you. On the other side of the coin, if you construct some massive, prescriptive structure and can't see beyond that, then the tradition will be stifled by it. I want the music to come first." [fROOTs #214]

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Hi

Surely the music isn't destroyed behind the 'innovators' different directions. The 'tradition,' whose-ever it is, remains on record, tape, CD's and in some cases,orally. It only dies if it isn't listened to or if you destroy the source. An innovation may lead people back to a 'tradition.' I can't believe that music and song that has lasted, in some cases, hundreds of years is exactly the same as when it was made. There should be room for everyone to 'interpret' music as they choose- if it isn't deemed 'good enough' as an interpretation by audiences then that interpretation won't survive. Musicians will probably go back to source and start again. I guess musicians who 'innovate' do it because they love the music and wish to bring it to audience attention, perhaps trying to make it more accessable- I can't believe that anyone would create a piece of music/variation because they didn't like the source.

chris

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In most cases, "the tradition" only goes back to the beginnings of recording. Before it was frozen on piano roll, wax cylinder or record, all music was alive. Even written music was routinely decorated, elaborated or performed in "variations" by classical, popular, itinerant and street musicians.

 

"The tradition" is an interesting and worthwhile effort to remind listeners where our music came from, and to honor those who went before us. But it seems kind of silly to get hung up on rules of "authenticity" that can only be traced back a few generations. Music is at its best as a living thing.

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In the "What we are missing from the debate" thread, Michael asked this question, which I think is interesting enough to deserve a topic of its own.

 

I would be very interested to hear what others think about the 'rules' that keep music acceptably within a tradition, whilst at the same time allowing the freedom for individual creativity.

 

An interesting question. Firstly, I should say that by "tradition" I mean any musical tradition, and not specifically the Irish tradition.

 

I suspect the idea of "rules" is a modern one, and derives from the conscious notion of a "tradition". When "tradition" just meant whatever people happened to be playing, then there must have been freedom for individual creativity (although this would nevertheless be fighting against people's innate conservatism). Otherwise the new-fangled concertina would never have been allowed a place in Irish music, the fiddle would never have taken over from pipe-and-tabor for morris, and Peerie Willie would have been sent packing when he turned up at the Lerwick Lounge with his guitar.

 

Today we think of "the tradition" as something special which needs to be protected, and so we invent rules about what should and what shouldn't be allowed. This seems particularly strong in Irish music, with the influence of Comhaltas on the one hand and the idea of the "pure drop" on the other. This doesn't prevent a huge amount of good music being played which doesn't conform to these "rules". So is the "pure drop" preserving the "real" music, or is it inward-looking conservatism which prevents, or at least tries to ignore, developments in the music as it evolves? The answer is probably both.

 

In English music, whilst the tradition remains at its core, the music itself has been allowed more freedom to evolve - perhaps too much, since modern English music has moved some distance from the original tradition, to the extent that some find the original source music quite challenging to listen to. Interestingly, some of the musicians who were most active in discovering the pure source music have also been most active in modernising it - I'm thinking in particular of players like Rod Stradling, who has been tireless in bringing traditional musicians to wider notice and whose own playing is both influenced by it but has also gone in other directions. In terms of concertina playing, the styles of most contemporary anglo players bears little resemblance to the older players, although influences can be heard.

 

The fact is, we need both. We need to allow the music to evolve, so that it can be a vibrant part of contemporary music and not merely a historical curiosity, but at the same time we need to remember where it came from, what is special about it, and to rein in some of the wilder excesses.

 

PS this somehow got posted before I was ready, which is why the sub-title is incomplete - it should have said, "do we need rules to keep music within a tradition?"

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Chris, that all depends on how well-recorded the tradition was before the innovation. The introduction of the concertina, or even the fiddle, were innovations in their time, but now they're "traditional". How much do we really know about the tradition before they were introduced?

 

A tradition is a moving river, not a fixed point. It is under pressure from innovations all the time. In the past, it was a matter of natural evolution whether or not a particular innovation became widely adopted, and altered the tradition. Today, when innovations seem to come thick and fast it seems there are some who want to resist these by applying "rules". The problem is, where do those rules come from and do they have justifiable foundations?

 

I didn't want to make this about Irish music, but it does provide a good example: the ongoing debate about the use of the bouzouki. It's clearly not of Irish origin, and is a recent, dateable introduction. There are some who say it's not traditional, but it's been so widely taken up that it could be argued that it is now part of the current tradition. Why should "the tradition" be defined at some point pre-bouzouki, rather than pre-banjo, or pre-concertina? It seems to me that's a random choice.

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Guest Peter Laban

 

I didn't want to make this about Irish music, but it does provide a good example: the ongoing debate about the use of the bouzouki. It's clearly not of Irish origin, and is a recent, dateable introduction. There are some who say it's not traditional, but it's been so widely taken up that it could be argued that it is now part of the current tradition. Why should "the tradition" be defined at some point pre-bouzouki, rather than pre-banjo, or pre-concertina? It seems to me that's a random choice.

 

Bear in mind that this discussion generally takes place among people on the internet, not among Irish musicians.

 

_Guitar__by_xkinjutsu.gif

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I didn't want to make this about Irish music, but it does provide a good example: the ongoing debate about the use of the bouzouki. It's clearly not of Irish origin, and is a recent, dateable introduction. There are some who say it's not traditional, but it's been so widely taken up that it could be argued that it is now part of the current tradition. Why should "the tradition" be defined at some point pre-bouzouki, rather than pre-banjo, or pre-concertina? It seems to me that's a random choice.

 

Bear in mind that this discussion generally takes place among people on the internet, not among Irish musicians.

 

_Guitar__by_xkinjutsu.gif

 

 

So would those musicians be happy when a person with a sheng or a djembe walked in even if they were a great player?

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So would those musicians be happy when a person with a sheng or a djembe walked in even if they were a great player?

 

I don't know about them, but I would: http://www.youtube.com/user/blowinbamboo#p/u/17/asLxqOV0rbQ

 

Every musical idiom has written (and unwritten) rules which are only really internalized by listening to it. And listening a lot.

 

But there is always a tension between "how things were just recently" and new innovation. The tension keeps the genre from straying too far too fast, and also keeps it from stagnating.

 

Why does Irish music use the simple system flute? Because Orchestras dumped them in the 19th century when the Boehm flute came in. New Orleans Jazz uses so much brass because the Marching Bands of the 19th century were folding, and the instruments were cheap.

 

Historically, folk music used cheap instruments. Not expensive instruments with multi-year waiting lists.

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Guest Peter Laban
So would those musicians be happy when a person with a sheng or a djembe walked in even if they were a great player?

 

The man playing the sheng in the youtube clips has been a visitor to the Willie week for the last fifteen years or so. It is interesting to see how he invariably draws the old guys, Gussie Russell for example was completely enchanted by his playing, year after year. I think I have some photos of him listening with a big grin on his face.

 

I have played with a djembe player and admit that I was less then enchanted when he came in (I sat in an empty pub playing a few tunes with a pupil and have been set upon by all sorts of terrible musicians in that sort of vulnerable situation). He was brilliant though and I told him so after the first tune. He came back 'yeah I saw you roll your eyes'. We played for another hour.

 

Musicians enjoy good music.

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It's one thing when a single person comes along with a "non-traditional" instrument. It starts to cause conflict when other people hear it and think to themselves "that works" and start playing it as well. In some cases (for example, the bouzouki, banjo and concertina in Irish music) it can fit into the existing tradition fairly easily, adding a different tone but without challenging the fundamentals of the music too much. In other cases it can change the music - I'm thinking of the impact the fiddle had on morris when it took over from pipe-and-tabor, and again the effect that melodeon and concertina had on English dance music. I'm sure the piano accordion must have had a similar impact on Scottish music when it became popular.

 

In these cases the innovations actually brought about changes in the tradition. No doubt some people complained about them at the time, but now we see them as natural and normal, and couldn't imagine the music without them.

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The Topic titles are slightly different, but the debate and most of the arguments are the same, over and over again.

 

It seems like only a month or two ago that I posted a link in a then-current discussion of this same issue to a post of mine in an old thread on the same question. Now it's late where I am, and I'm tired, and I still have other things I need to get done, so maybe somebody else can dig out that link again before I do?

 

But of course I'll add a couple of comments before I close this post. :D

 

Firstly, I should say that by "tradition" I mean any musical tradition, and not specifically the Irish tradition.

Sounds like a good idea, but it sort of assumes that one can distill a set of rules that's common to all musical traditions. I wonder how such "universal" rules would include something related to me by a friend who studied traditional dances in the Balkans (before the breakup of Yugoslavia):

 

On returning to a certain village a couple of years after his first visit, he noticed that the villagers were dancing a "dance" -- a particular sequence of steps, repeated -- identical to what he had seen on his previous visit, but the tune, which on the first visit had always been the same, was now entirely different, except for the rhythm.

 

Why, he asked, was the musician (yes, only one) not playing the same tune as before?

 

They were aghast! That was not possible; it would be a travesty! That other time it was Gjorgi playing, and the tune was Gjorgi's. Now it was Janos playing, and he had to have his own tune. He would not be
allowed
to "steal" Gjorgi's tune, even if he wanted to (and he didn't want to, of course).

PS this somehow got posted before I was ready, which is why the sub-title is incomplete - it should have said, "do we need rules to keep music within a tradition?"

Rigid rules are the antithesis and death of tradition.

The "rules" of a "tradition" are like the "rules" of a language. They are an attempt to describe what is commonly understood and how it is utilized; they do not prescribe in advance how the elements shall be combined, much less how they must evolve.

 

A definition of "creativity":

Different enough to be interesting, but not so different as to be disturbing.

Absolutely true, but is it useful?

Different individuals, even next-door-neighbors within the same tradition will likely have different thresholds for both "interesting" and "disturbing".

 

I have no answers... only questions.

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I wasn't suggesting that the same rules might apply to all traditions. Obviously, every tradition will have its own idea of what is acceptable, and also how much latitude is permissible. My caveat was simply aimed at those who automatically interpret the word "tradition" to mean the Irish tradition - I didn't want to limit the discussion.

 

In the past I doubt whether anyone thought they were part of a "tradition", they just played music. Sometimes a new influence would appear, such as minstrelsy, or a new instrument will become fashionable, such as the concertina. Sometimes these would be absorbed painlessly into the existing music, in other cases it might change it considerably. This didn't matter, it was just how things evolved.

 

We are now in a situation where we do think consciously about the existence of a "tradition", and the need to protect it. Some people appear to have very fixed views of what is and what isn't "traditional". The danger is that these may simply represent how the tradition was at a particular point in time, and it then becomes fixed and is not allowed to evolve.

 

To answer the original question, I don't believe we can, or should, have "rules". The music will develop in certain ways whether we like it or not - if we don't like it there is nothing to stop us carrying on playing it in the old way.

 

English music as played today in sessions bears little resemblance to the way it was played a generation or two ago - although it still pays regard to both repertoire and style (to a degree) it has adopted instruments and rhythms from other genres . Is this "untraditional", or is it the evolution of the tradition? The same goes for morris, both the music and dance have developed - there is a recognisable link to the morris of the late 19th/early 20th centuries (which itself was different from the morris of a hundred or two hundred years earlier), but it has moved on.

 

There's just good music and bad music. That's what matter, IMO.

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Obviously, every tradition will have its own idea of what is acceptable, and also how much latitude is permissible.

 

In the past I doubt whether anyone thought they were part of a "tradition", they just played music.

 

I think we're hiding behind some nebulous entity called "tradition" for what really comes down to personal choices. If you're in a group that wants to limit itself to music of a certain period, or style, or instrumentation, you have every right to make your own rules about "latitude" and what is "permissable" within that group. And visitors or newbies should respect your rules.

 

But most real "traditions" evolved by being open to new ideas and influences - as hcjones says, "they just played music." For anyone to set himself up as an arbiter of a "tradition", and criticize any player who doesn't meet his "standards", is a bit presumptious.

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Guest Peter Laban

 

I think we're hiding behind some nebulous entity called "tradition" for what really comes down to personal choices. If you're in a group that wants to limit itself to music of a certain period, or style, or instrumentation, you have every right to make your own rules about "latitude" and what is "permissable" within that group. And visitors or newbies should respect your rules.

 

But most real "traditions" evolved by being open to new ideas and influences - as hcjones says, "they just played music." For anyone to set himself up as an arbiter of a "tradition", and criticize any player who doesn't meet his "standards", is a bit presumptious.

 

And it isn't presumptuous to declare what traditions are and what are'n't 'real' (your words, although I did correct the spelling of the p word)?

 

Anyhow, I have made the point before that rather than 'rules' there is an aesthetic that comes with music that is handed on from one generation to the next. Every really great traditional musician I ever met had a strong deeply felt sense of what did or didn't suit the music. This is not a rigid structure and boundaries are not well defined in all cases but there is always a sense of what's right or wrong in the treatment of music. Good musicians like good music, I said that before, they also more often than not have strong opinions too about what good music is, and they know it when they hear it.

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In a similar discussion I likened the situation to natural selection (only it's cultural). if a variant form occurs , whether by mutation or breeding it will be subjected to varous forces. If stability and 'fitness' for the prevailing environment is stronger then conservatism will maintain the status quo ( although the new elements may lurk in the gene pool).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If the environment changes and offers new ecological niches then the newer forms may evolve into the new dominant population. In some islands there may be new opportunities as Darwin found. I'm sure in the USA jazz etc and other fusion music exploded and the types of music played emerged rapidly. Now they may even seem preserved in aspic.

 

Once a community finds its tradition suits its players and listeners it may settle down.. However I'm sure good musicians will usually get a respectful hearing if the other musicians are sensitive players themselves.

 

New instruments and styles do gradually become accepted and even welcomed.

 

 

I'm not too sure about forced hybridisation of very different styles but they may catch on in a new open social and cultural and even physical environment.

 

Afro Celts, Folk Rock, Reggae Folk etc etc Do they catch on and become new genres ( as discrete forms seem to be known nowadays)

 

Can the schisms between music afficianados reflect mass availability and an excess of choice rather than a limited or restrictive paticipant musicianship within the local population?

 

 

I could understand that in the backwoods but why does inward looking insularity exist in a worldwde music environment. Maybe it's something to do with anomie and a search for 'authenticity' plus appropriation of a music that seems 'genuine'. Such converts often become more fanatical and 'precious' ( as we say here) than the people from whom they lift a tradition.

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