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hjcjones

Rules and Tradition

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If by "rules" we simply mean a shared understanding of a framework for the music, that's fine. That leaves plenty of latitude for creativity while still retaining an awareness of what is right for the music and what is not, and more importantly why. It's when rules are applied unthinkingly that they cause problems.

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I do find it irritating when folk are constantly shifting from genre to genre. I have been in sessions where it shifts from English to Irish to French etc etc. Interesting but hard to get a nice groove going.

 

The reason French and Scandinavian tunes are so popular in English sessions is that they do often share a similar "groove", especially since in most cases they are somewhat anglicised rather than played in authentic style. Irish tunes, on the other hand, have a different groove so they don't fit so well into these sessions.

 

I see this simply as adopting and adapting good tunes into a particular genre, just as tunes of different origins were shared between the different traditions of the British Isles.

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It seems to me though, that what makes music music is the presence of rules. Music is at its most basic organized sounds, and if you don't know the rules that organize the sounds, you can't make sense of it as significant, thus the eternal inter-generational complaint that kids' music today is "just noise". The problem is not so much rules, as authenticity that makes us value those rules (as some of you have pointed out). We have many different sets of rules at our disposal, even if they aren't generative we at least recognize them. I can hear something and think it sounds jazzy even if I can't reproduce it or say exactly what makes it sound like jazz. In a genre like Irish trad part of what makes it "traditional" music is that it has a more fixed repertoire (than say ska or punk rock, for example) and is associated with a bound (though not strictly) territorial entity. So if I were to go play some Irish reels, I wouldn't just access my set of generic musical rules, but would bring bits of all the musical rules I've absorbed over my lifetime, unless I have enough training to use a certain set. It seems to me there are two poles of how musical rules are implemented (ie musical style), that any given performance with fall between. A conscious training of an enumerated set rules, and the less conscious use of rules gained from lived experience.

 

Part of what complicates this picture is nationalism (groans from the audience). The idea of a nation and a people that constitute it allows the child of Irish immigrants in Boston, for example, to make certain claims about authenticity. If you are operating under a framework that does not privilige a homogenous people united by some kind of territory (as the people who are the source of "traditional" styles did), the esssence that makes Clare and Mayo playing more intuitively similar that any other two traditions (I think of a tradition as a repertoire, instrumentation, and formal musical features) of music just isn't there. The situation is in some ways analagous to national languages. Before the rise of nationalism, language was a marker of class more than authenticity. Most people just spoke a local language, and the wealthy also had a command of some kind of literary language. With the inclusion of nationalism, it became important that everyone speak a standard language as a marker of national belonging. The point being that if your music must be authentic and represent some kind of territorially-bound essence (note how most kinds of "traditional" music are qualified with the name of a nation), then it becomes more important to imitate your predecessors. In ye olde tymes, only rich people had ancestors (think about the importance of blood lines to nobility) and every one else maybe knew two or three generations back. With the rise of nationalism the entire people of a nation now have collective ancestors which are part of what constitutes a nation in the first place. But these ancestors are public property rather that the private reserve of noble geneology. What does this have to do with musical authenticity? Well, "traditional" music gets its authenticity in the same way, there must be some claim to a collective past to legitimize the current formal charateristics of the style. This is not to say that authenticity is not important in the constitution of other kinds of music, heck rock and country are pretty much the same music with different senses of authenticity, but I think it operates a little differently.

 

I don't think this means that "traditional" music should be dropped and we should no longer be concerned with keeping older styles of playing around. Heck I play two styles of music that are intimately involved with the kinds of questions of identity I mention above. Rather I think what's at stake needs to change. Value like "good" or "real" aren't what is at stake, but rather enjoyment. I think as long as we're up front about why these styles of playing are worth keeping, they are in fact Good Things: because we derive enjoyment form them, and not because they are some kind of untouchable reified entity that has an essence valuable in itself. So yeah, I think we need rules to have a tradition, we need rules to have music, but I think the more interesting (and relevant) question is what is at stake for maintaining any given set of rules.

 

Umm, sorry if this is rambling and not completely on topic, but I've been thinking a lot recently about this kind of thing.

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If by "rules" we simply mean a shared understanding of a framework for the music, that's fine. That leaves plenty of latitude for creativity while still retaining an awareness of what is right for the music and what is not, and more importantly why. It's when rules are applied unthinkingly that they cause problems.

 

I can agree tentatively... but I think we need to also recognize that 1. the less experienced you are in a Tradition, the more rigid the rules need to be and 2. what might appear to be an unthinking application of a "rule" by an outsider might in fact be anything but from the perspective of someone inside the tradition.

 

Sometimes, it seems to me, claims about traditions being rigid come from people whose "innovations" have not been accepted by the tradition. Or because people at a particular session were not particularly welcome when someone pulled out tunes and/or instruments that were not considered part of the tradition.

 

--

Bill

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Traditions to which you've been exposed form the context for your music, but everyone has been exposed to more than one categorical musical context, and most music fits into more than one category. I think traditions are not so much like a set of boxes, but rather more like an interwoven set of family trees that continue to grow and branch and in-breed. :) So, preserving musical traditions is kind-of like in-depth geneology. It's not so much about replicating the past, but more about having a detailed understanding of where you came from.

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Traditions to which you've been exposed form the context for your music, but everyone has been exposed to more than one categorical musical context, and most music fits into more than one category. I think traditions are not so much like a set of boxes, but rather more like an interwoven set of family trees that continue to grow and branch and in-breed. :) So, preserving musical traditions is kind-of like in-depth geneology. It's not so much about replicating the past, but more about having a detailed understanding of where you came from.

 

 

True, in the days of radio and other media, most of us are exposed to several musical traditions. Pop, classic, jazz, folk (own and foreign) etc.

However, I prefer to apply the analogy with language. Children who grow up in truly bilingual societies (and I don't mean children with one foreign parent, or adults who have emigrated to another language zone!) do not mix the two languages. They speak both of them in a pure form, as I witnessed in the Outer Hebrides back in the 1950s. Although the mother tongue was Gaelic, English was taught at infants' school, and of course all official documents, the radio programmes and usually Church services (especially if the Minister was from the mainland) were in English. Small children could switch over from talking Gaelic with their mothers to talking English with us visitors.

I spent my childhood listening to classical music and folk music on the radio, and hymns at Church. So I know the conventions and "unspoken rules" of classical, Church and folk music, and it would not occur to me to mix them up - except, perhaps, as a deliberate experiment.

 

What I assume of bilingual children is that, knowing two languages, they will be more aware of the structures of those languages than people of comparable education who are mono-lingual.

Similarly, someone who has grown up hearing music from several traditions will be more aware of what is happening in each - without mixing the traditions.

All music is based on the laws of mathematics, physics and neurology, and these laws are immutable. Each music genre sheds a different light on these natural laws, giving us a deeper understanding of the other genres.

 

Cheers,

John

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Thanks for some very stimulating and thought provoking posts. And welcome l'Albatroce! I can do with some more of that 'rambling' as you desribed it!

 

Mike

P.S.

I went with my son to a festival once and he was playing along on guitar and using some 'jazzy'chords, he'd been listening to Scottish band The Easy Club record and thought the swing sound was exciting. He got firmly slapped into place by some diehard fiddler and I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. hat's off he stood up for himself and said it was in harmony! Needless to say I had a long chat with him after, he was only 14.

 

Now he's 30 and quite a succesful Dub Step DJ and producer and does what he wants within that field - which is as convoluted and genre ridden as any of our trad music. So he abides by some loose 'rules' in a constantly shifting and rapidly evolving area of niche music. Nonetheless he is quite happy to sample his old Dad , then mix it up!

 

 

edited today to cope with that annoying split screen!

Edited by michael sam wild

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Children who grow up in truly bilingual societies (and I don't mean children with one foreign parent, or adults who have emigrated to another language zone!) do not mix the two languages. They speak both of them in a pure form, as I witnessed in the Outer Hebrides back in the 1950s

I realize this may not be central to your argument, but this isn't strictly true. I'd even take issue with the idea of a "pure form" of a language, but that's a story for a different message board. Billingual children are very adept at what they call "code switching" in the biz, that is changing between different languages and dialects at the drop of a hat. There is, for example, Chiac in New Brunswick, which is frequently perceived as very sub-standard French, but it's spoken by bilingual people people who often have access to more standard varieties of both French and English (for an example, see the exploits of Acadieman). Billingual areas in the Southwest United States are also rife with bilingual kids and adults who act as vectors for foreign words and idioms into either Spanish or English. The salient common point between music and language, as I see it, is that any concept of a "pure" form of either is an ideological construct, one that advances certain value jugements, in a state of mutual feedback with heterogenous practices.

 

This is even more tangential, and even more anecdotal, so don't take my word for it, but I notice a lot of bilingual people consciously importing idioms from one language into another. There was an interview with Gruff Rhys, in which he said he liked to literally translate Welsh idioms into his English song lyrics since what was banal in one language was colorful in another. My neighbor's daughter also informed me that a "fu man chu" moustache meant "crazy man moustache", since "fou" is French for crazy, "man" meant man, and chu then must mean moustache. Okay, I promise no more talking about language on a concertina board. I just can't help myself sometimes.

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I would have to agree with L'Albatroce on this. Living in Montreal it is amazing how completely bilingual people who have grown up here are. Many have not a trace of accent in either language. A very common feature of any conversation is a peppering of words and expressions of both languages.

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As music is so universal and speech follows tonal changes it's not surprising the processes share some features of transfer.

 

Now if you put a child of a particular ethnic origin in an environment with minders who had no music what tradition would emerge....?

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The salient common point between music and language, as I see it, is that any concept of a "pure" form of either is an ideological construct, one that advances certain value jugements, in a state of mutual feedback with heterogenous practices.

I didn't mean "pure" ideologically! More statistically. There are fat books that contain all the words used in the English language, and the grammar that connects them. Same for Gaelic. You can easily analyse a person's utterances, and ascertain whether or not all their words and grammatical constructions come from one language. In the case of bilingual Hebrideans, I would take the language of the English-speaking mainland Highlanders as the yard-stick. This uses a few Gaelic borrowings, and if a Gaelic speaker uses these in his English, it doesn't mean that he personally is mixing up the languages.

You address mixed languages which are neither standard French nor standard English. We get this in Alsace, too - the Alsatian dialect sounds like a concatenation of alternating French and German words. However, the Alsatians can speak proper French, and a lot of them can speak proper German (depends on the political constellations during their childhood). They are aware that these are three distinct languages, and speak French with the French, German with the Germans, and Alsatian amongst themselves (if they are native Alsatians; people from other parts of France just speak French).

 

We have this in music, too. In Ireland, the songs of Thomas Moore are popular with older people. These are unequivocally Irish in their content, and often in their melodies. But they were written as art songs, to be sung by tenors, baritones or sopranos to the piano. You can't really do them justice without the diction and voice control of a classically trained singer. On the other hand, you can't do them justice with an English or American accent, either. (The same can be said to an even greater degree of the arrangements of Robert Burns songs in Scotland.) For this repertoire, Irish (or Scottish) singers can (and often do) preserve their regional accent while learning voice production and clear enunciation. So I'd sing a Handel aria with classical technique in Received Pronunciation; "The Minstrel Boy" to the piano with classical technique and my Irish accent; and "The Oul' Orange Flute" in an Irish accent and with decidedly non-classical gruffness.

 

It wouldn't occur to me to mix them! Unless, of course, like your Welsh songsmith, I were deliberately aiming at a personal style of interpretation, aware that it might irritate the more conservative listener from one or other of the genres.

It's the people who have only learned classical music and suddenly want to sing folk or jazz who sometimes get muddled. Or pop singers who suddenly want to sing Schubert. They're like people who learn a second language at school.

 

Cheers,

John

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Using the analogy of language brings up an interesting thought. A living language is not a rigid thing. Over a period of time it changes, it takes influences from other languages, the fluent speakers bend and shape it, play with it distort it and break it,s rules. There are those that cannot accept the way the language changes and will spend their energy wailing about how the language is 'going to the dogs'. There are some that will spend their life trying to convince others of the importance of the correct placement of an apostrophe. No right thinking person would suggest that we all revert to they way the language was spoken in the dark ages. Surely the language is enriched by all the nuances and diversions that shape it's development.

 

And so it is with music. We can't be sure how music was played in the past and so the 'traditional' way of playing at any given time is transient. However the best music and language builds on what has gone before it is not diluted by each generations influence but enriched by it. There will be pedants that take the protection of a tradition too far and so attempt to stifle innovation from within the tradition. History tells us such endeavor will be futile.

 

Dave

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The analogy with language is interesting. In France, the Academie Francaise has long tried to resist the incursion of foreign borrowings into the French language, but has been powerless to control the way the language is actually spoken.

 

In the past a musical tradition would develop in much the same way, by natural evolution, however today we are conscious of "The Tradition" and some people, rather like the Academie Francaise, try to oppose attempts to modernise it. It is difficult to know whether this is the right thing or not, whether it is the essential preservation of the tradition or a futile attempt to resist innovation. To use the cop-out of the lazy journalist, "only time will tell".

 

Of course some traditions were more open to innovation than others. It is interesting to compare the different approach to the introduction of the anglo concertina into the Irish and English traditions. Irish musicians seem to have developed a style which reflected the essentially melody-driven approach to the music, and largely ignored the polyphonic capabilities of the instrument. In England, on the other hand, concertina and melodeon players seem to have taken advantage of polyphony, even though this may have changed the nature of the music, and possibly even the dances (in particular morris).

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This conservatism/evolution thing fascinates me. Who are the arbiters?

 

In our local South Yorkshire carol singing tradition it marks you out where you sing and in which pub if you put an 's' on 'Awake arise good Christian (s)' Or sing 4 or 5 repeat phrases 'The Christmas Tree' in te Kris Kringle song ( itself accepted into the tradition from the US )!

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The analogy with language is interesting. In France, the Academie Francaise has long tried to resist the incursion of foreign borrowings into the French language, but has been powerless to control the way the language is actually spoken.

 

In the past a musical tradition would develop in much the same way, by natural evolution, however today we are conscious of "The Tradition" and some people, rather like the Academie Francaise, try to oppose attempts to modernise it. It is difficult to know whether this is the right thing or not, whether it is the essential preservation of the tradition or a futile attempt to resist innovation. To use the cop-out of the lazy journalist, "only time will tell".

 

You know, I think it might be important here to keep in mind that there is a difference between innovation from within and the introduction of foreign elements into a tradition. I think what many of us who are more conservative about our chosen musical traditions object to is the insistence that some make that the tradition should be open to innovation. Often what they mean by that (in my experience) is that they want to introduce to the music some instrument, or method of playing that they learned outside of the tradition. Now, I am not saying that such things can't be done, but I do believe that the mere introduction of something is not innovation. For example, if the bazouki played at the local session was still identical to the same instrument played by Greek Musicians, then it doubtless would not be accepted in ITM today.

 

And here is the thing about evolution; people often think about evolution as being change.. and to some extent it is. However, equally important to evolution as the change is selection. For every change that succeeds that are hundreds, maybe thousands that don't. Its that gradual evolution that allows us to recognize a tradition as being valid.

 

 

Of course some traditions were more open to innovation than others. It is interesting to compare the different approach to the introduction of the anglo concertina into the Irish and English traditions. Irish musicians seem to have developed a style which reflected the essentially melody-driven approach to the music, and largely ignored the polyphonic capabilities of the instrument. In England, on the other hand, concertina and melodeon players seem to have taken advantage of polyphony, even though this may have changed the nature of the music, and possibly even the dances (in particular morris).

 

And that of course is what some of us don't want. We like our traditions the way they are.. sure they are going to change slowly over time.. but we want them to be preserved so that if my son takes up the music, what he plays will still be recognizable to me. If we change the nature of the music, we haven't preserved the tradition, have we?

 

--

Bill

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This conservatism/evolution thing fascinates me. Who are the arbiters?

 

In our local South Yorkshire carol singing tradition it marks you out where you sing and in which pub if you put an 's' on 'Awake arise good Christian (s)' Or sing 4 or 5 repeat phrases 'The Christmas Tree' in te Kris Kringle song ( itself accepted into the tradition from the US )!

 

Why the musicians of course. Thats one of the reasons you get so many complaints about how unfriendly sessions often are. In my personal experience, most sessions are quite friendly as long as you are willing to go along with what they are doing.

 

--

Bill

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You can easily analyse a person's utterances, and ascertain whether or not all their words and grammatical constructions come from one language.

As someone who has spent upwards of five years in higher education studying linguistics, I can say with a fair amount of confidence that it is not easy. The only reason we have an idea of a "pure" language is because there are institutions that exercise a certain amount of authority that use a more or less standardized language. What makes a prestige dialect accepted is not its formal characteristics, but the clout of the institutions that wield it. "Proper" French or English is no more pure than a "dialect". In fact, coming up with a quantitative way to test this is a lot harder than common sense suggests. In Turkish it used to be the other way 'round. "Proper" Turkish was full of Arabic and Persian loan-words an syntax, which were absent from the spoken language of the less educated. That is, until the government decided that the proper language should also be pure and attempted to purge all Arabic and Persian elements from official discourse (with, I might add, more success than the Académie française has had). There's no a priori reason why Alsatian or Chiac couldn't be the standard literary language, just a history of institutions. And they'd probably decry as barbarous innovations the increased usage of words like "entendre" or "détester".

 

Back to the music. My view is that keeping old styles of playing is a Good Thing because musical diversity is a Good Thing. Once you break a tradition, something is lost that you really can't get back, even with the best documentation. Lute players have a variety of written material at their disposal, but because the tradition of lute playing was broken, they can only guess how the people who developed the instrument and repertoire played it. There are currents in contemporary music to use instruments as purely physical objects, to obtain whatever kinds of sound they can by any means (the works of Piotr Zabrodzki for tuba come to mind), and they produce some pretty interesting stuff, but knowing how the people who developed the instrument played it is something I value. Innovation is great, but elevating one style to the "authentic" way of play genre X makes me uneasy.

 

In any case the concertina was an innovation from without when it was first invented (it is worth keeping in mind that all instruments were invented, they didn't just arise spontaneously from the mist). Aside from the uilleann pipes, I don't think there's any instrument played in Irish dance music that has been either invented or heavily modified in Ireland (though those who know more than me can eithe confirm or deny). I play my concertina mostly in French Canadian music, which although it's been done before, is not really traditional. Part of my journey in this music has been how to preserve the traditional sound (I really dislike modern interpretations with electric bass and drum kit, to the extent that I have to constantly remind myself not to look down on them), while still trying to find my own style. I don't want to (and in fact can't) sound exactly like an accordion, fiddle, or harmonica, but I try to draw on their idiomatic playing to inform the sound I get out of my concertina.

 

It might be stating the obvious, but in musical performance everyone needs to be playing the same thing (or the parts of the same song) in order to sound good to a degree that it is not necessary to all speak the same dialect to understand one another. For that reason you need to be more explicit about what is desired musically so that everyone is "on the same page". And indeed in order to preserve these older styles of playing there has to be an open resistence to innovation in some circles.

Edited by L'Albatroce

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This conservatism/evolution thing fascinates me. Who are the arbiters?

 

Why the musicians of course. Thats one of the reasons you get so many complaints about how unfriendly sessions often are. In my personal experience, most sessions are quite friendly as long as you are willing to go along with what they are doing.

 

--

Bill

A group of musicians are playing in a public place (such as a pub) according to their own rules. A newcomer sits in, assuming that it is an open session, and unknowingly breaks the rules. Result: irritation and visible resentment, <_< which become mutual, and another brick in the wall between some Irish TDM players and the wider music community.

 

If you and your companions choose to restrict your playing to "The Tradition" as you define it, all well and good. But please make sure that the rules are clear to everyone at the outset - especially if you're playing in a public place - to prevent misunderstandings. That way, no one need worry about "how unfriendly sessions often are."

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