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New Hibernia Review 5.2 (2001) 111-125

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Irish Traditional Music in a Modern World

Sally K. Sommers Smith

"Traditional music in a modern world" sounds, initially, like an oxymoron. "Traditional" suggests something old, from the past--perhaps moribund, certainly anachronistic. The amalgam of tradition and modernity is, therefore, an uneasy one that may carry the association of corruption of one vision by another. When a tradition suddenly becomes wildly popular--as has Irish traditional music--many will immediately and understandably assume that it has been changed to suit modern sensibilities, and will suspect that the tradition has somehow been damaged in the process. The impulse to preserve traditional Irish music and the need for the music--like all human expression--to change in order to reflect the conditions of people who play it, discuss it, and transmit it to the next generation frequently bring such tensions to the fore. There are serious questions about traditional music's survival in a modern world: How much change can traditional music absorb without compromising its ability to encapsulate a time, a place, a national identity?

The world of traditional music is defined by standards of playing, behavior, and opinion that mark its adherents as members of a distinct subgroup. Learning by observation and imitation is, of course, a hallmark of all traditional transmission, but it is also an important course of initiation into traditional music culture. Traditional Irish music has a peculiar and distinctive sound that resonates even with listeners just beginning to appreciate its power and nuance. The constituents of that sound, though collectively acknowledged, may be selectively applied by different players, or groups of players. Therefore, music that uninitiated listeners may complain "all sounds the same" may in reality differ greatly in performance by different players, or in different parts of the world. Traditional music has often been thought of as a body of tunes held in common by members of a national group, or by those with an affinity for the music if not necessarily ties of nationality. It is not, therefore, primarily a music associated with individual composers or performers. 1 Breandán Breathnach, an ethnomusicologist [End Page 111] and an uilleann piper himself, goes further; he refers to true Irish music as anonymous:

Folk music, like all other music, is in the first instance the work of some one person, but since it is accepted by--and becomes the property of--the community, and since it is passed on from generation to generation, so that it no longer possesses any features which would link it with particular school or class of writers or composers, we speak of it as anonymous. 2

Without losing sight of the quality that makes the music identifiably traditional, individual musicians inevitably claim tunes as their own, and imbue the simple melodies with their own rhythmic or melodic variations and their own ornamentation. Such a practice may seem like a casual approach to learning and performing the "correct" tune, intact from past generations. It is in fact much more than that. It is a necessary development in the traditional process of transmission, in which the feel of the music, the "setting" of a tune is at least as important as the succession of notes played by the musicians. There can, by these standards, be no one "correct" form of the tune.

More than just the music is transmitted in this fashion. Often, the people who have played the tune--or, in some cases, who have composed the melody--are recalled in the making and remaking of the music. A traditional performer can be relied upon to add a personal stamp to the performance of the tune, but the musician from whom the tune was learned will also be recalled and named when the music is played in public. A portion of the social fabric that bound the tune as it was played in the past is thus transmitted as well in the traditional process. Innovation and, eventually, evolutionary change in traditional music can be causally linked to the local playing circle and its...


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