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Éire-Ireland 42.3&4 (2007) 277-287

Recent Works on Irish Music:
An Interdisciplinary Conversation
Ann Morrison Spinney

Works considered in this review essay:

Leith Davis. Music, Postcolonialism, and Gender: The Construction of Irish National Identity, 1724-1874. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006.
Gerry Smyth. Noisy Island: A Short History of Irish Popular Music. Cork: Cork University Press, 2005.
Martin Stokes and Philip V. Bohlman, eds. Celtic Modern: Music at the Global Fringe, Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2003.
Harry White. The Progress of Music in Ireland. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2005.

Given its iconic relationship to nationalism, music has too long held a peripheral role in the field of Irish studies. However, recent interdisciplinary essays and monographs, including several by scholars other than musicologists, suggest ways of drawing music more fully into cultural studies. Such dialogue promises to develop our understanding of Irish culture since 1700. Just as musicologists routinely borrow from literary studies, art history, anthropology, sociology, and folklore, an analogous approach—involving some formal analysis of sound by other disciplines—enriches interpretations of music's role in Ireland. The four volumes considered below, each engaging with music in very different ways, were chosen from among recent works to exemplify how scholars from different disciplines might incorporate this central area into cultural studies. [End Page 277]

The persistence of a romantic-era conception of musical experience as essentially subjective discourages scholars outside the discipline from accepting any engagement with sound as part of their responsibility when investigating aspects of Irish musical culture. The notation system by which musicians (including some traditional players) transmit sound, as well as the technical terminology employed in analysis, too often intimidates, isolating musicology from other disciplines. But several of the recent studies explored in this essay indicate the possibility of engaging with sound as data—without recourse to notation or obscure technical terms.

A well-established theoretical model structures this review essay's approach to interdisciplinary musical scholarship. In The Anthropology of Music (1964), Alan Merriam argues that the cultural domain termed "music" needs to be analyzed on three levels: "conceptualization about music, behavior in relation to music, and music sound itself."1 In Merriam's model these levels are not hierarchical; each is equally important, and any change in one will affect the others. Changes in a culture's soundscape—for example, through the invention of electronic instruments or the addition of foreign instruments—will alter its concepts about music, and such conceptual transformations in turn affect people's behavior. Merriam's threefold structure thus mandates that material from disciplines other than musicology be incorporated when considering the music of any group of people, whether fans of a particular style or citizens of a nation. His insistence on interdisciplinary involvement mirrors the argument of this review, reminding us that musical sound is embedded in intellectual and social life—and that its analysis is integral to the work of cultural critics who turn to music.

The Progress of Music in Ireland

Harry White is a musicologist whose work in Irish studies successfully exemplifies an approach to music incorporating all three of Merriam's analytical levels. White's specialties in Austrian baroque music and the history of Anglo-American musicology provide his work with a cosmopolitan perspective. Most significantly, his thorough [End Page 278] engagement with methods and concepts from the humanities and social sciences offers common ground on which different disciplines might converse. In his introduction to The Progress of Music in Ireland, White notes how "the immense popularity and lustre of the traditional repertory continue to define the reception of 'Irish music' almost to the exclusion of any other consideration in contemporary cultural discourse" (11). In over twenty years of scholarship, White has addressed this central problem from many different angles: why this identification came about, why it has not disappeared, and how its persistence has affected Irish intellectual life. In this collection of twelve essays, eight of which are reprinted from other sources, he explores these questions from a variety of perspectives. Crafted without...


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