Traditional Music and the Avant-Garde

During last year’s RTÉ Living Music Festival, a questionnaire was handed out. One of the questions was whether or not the audience would like to see genres other than contemporary classical music covered in future festivals. I ticked the ‘no’ box because I thought there was plenty of contemporary music that I hadn’t heard that would fill the event for years to come. However, the appointment of jazz bassist Ronan Guilfoyle as Artistic Director of this year’s festival – and the subsequent inclusion of jazz programming – naturally raises the possibility of the future inclusion of other genres, traditional Irish music for example.

That, however, would be an indulgence. Traditional music is already catered for in the many festivals taking place all year round. I have no regrets in ticking the no box. Yet the concept is still appealing because what the festival offers, and what the traditional music scene lacks, is a platform for more experimental approaches to music, for music that is more demanding.

Compared to recent decades, traditional music today is rather short on genuinely challenging sounds. A concert of entirely solo sean-nós singing or solo instrumental music may well be arduous for those who are not regular listeners to traditional music, but for those within the community it certainly is not. (By whose measuring stick, therefore, are we programming concerts today?) The fact is that traditional music audiences are comfortable with a wide variety of aesthetics and are rarely confronted with music and sounds that they have not, in one form or another, heard before. Traditional music programming today is about celebrating what we have, regularly presenting new artists perhaps, but still abiding by a certain custom of presentation. What may be new for audiences, of course, is the particular approach a traditional artist will take on the occasion, the way they might interpret a tune or song, or even the repertoire they use, but even the most inventive today would usually stop short of breaking with a certain convention, of straying, for instance, into the avant-garde.

This is hardly ideal. In the full spectrum of traditional music performance, if there is not a cluster of subversives at work, trying anything and everything, achieving some success but probably enduring even more failure, then the ‘centre’ of traditional music – the current standard approach to performance – is not being adequately stretched. Without the cutting-edge experimentalists, traditional music is not required to address provocative ideas that challenge it, but which actually ensure its alertness to genuine change. No music has ever thrived without such a tension. Somewhere along the path in this new century, for reasons that are connected with the changing environment in which this music finds itself, it seems that traditional music has lost one particular and essential platoon – its avant-garde wing.

Contrast this with the explosion of adventurous – and young – creativity in jazz and contemporary music in Ireland in the last decade – PHFNM, DEAF and EAR in this issue of JMI alone! The contemporary music and jazz scenes in Ireland – still in the process of establishing and growing their audiences – have, of course, less to lose by taking risks.

Consider also a comment made by fiddle-player Dermot McLaughlin in the sleevenotes of a 2006 CD of music from 1953 by the Rainey brothers, two Traveller fiddle players: ‘It’s rare enough these days that I hear anything in traditional music that gives me a real jolt, a wake-up call, a reminder of why I ever became captivated by traditional music and especially by fiddle playing.’ It may appear damning when seen in print, but it is a viewpoint that can often be heard.

Ironically, side-by-side with this view is a constant air of anticipation and excitement, a feeling that with so many recordings coming out, and so many new young artists appearing, something special is always just around the corner. This feeling is partly driven by fine new artists coming on to the scene, uillean pipers such as the McKeon brothers, Seán and Conor, for example, or fiddle-players Breda Keville, Liam O’Connor and Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, or singers Róisín Elsafty and Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, and there are many more. But the avant-garde is something else. It will not automatically attain the approval of traditional music commentary; it will likely draw more criticism than acclaim. Consider the example of Martin Hayes, who was severely criticised but gradually respected when his first CD came out in 1993. Three extraordinary albums later in the 1990s and now his music is acknowledged as having set a new standard.

The point is that, in circumstances today where there is great commercial pressure on traditional music, we should not be leaving opportunities for experimentation to chance. There are no second chances in the relationship between time and music. Therefore, a festival which explicitly creates an encouraging space for the avant-garde in traditional music is necessary right now, and will become more and more essential as time goes on and more and more opportunities are lost.

With that, however, one of the most important things that will have to happen is a moving away from the idea that the ‘experimental’ or the ‘avante-garde’ in traditional music simply means more exploration in accompaniment and arrangement, and the coming together of artists from different genres. Too easy. While this has created some inspiring and beautiful traditional music over several decades, it has received a disproportionate amount of energy from traditional musicians for too long.

The idea of an avant-garde wing in Irish traditional music may seem a contradiction in terms, but it shouldn’t be. Essentially, avante-gardists are those who create and support the newest ideas and techniques in a genre. Perhaps the flow of praise from the media regarding new artists has convinced some that they are already at the forefront of progressiveness in traditional music. Many traditional music soloists and groups rather ambitiously present themselves as purveyors of ‘Irish music for the twenty-first century’. But there is another qualifier that must be added before artists could be considered innovative, and that is that their work must bechallenging – challenging for those who know and understand traditional music, not merely inaccessible to tourists. For logically, any artist presenting new ideas and techniques in a genre would automatically be creating music that challenged us, because by definition it is new – something we haven’t heard before; something unfamiliar; sounds that demand us to rethink the way we hitherto understood the genre.

The RTÉ Living Music Festival is not the place for insertions of traditional music in the future. So much more could be done within traditional music as it stands. The Masters of Tradition festival in Cork and the William Kennedy Piping Festival in Armagh, for instance, are fertile ground for all sorts of initiatives, as they have proved with the commissioning of new tradi- tional music works for the festivals. Temple Bar Trad too, only in its second year in 2007, has also proved it is taking a different tack, with a noticeable emphasis on high-quality new young soloists and duets.

But what would genuine avant-garde traditional music of the twenty-first century sound like? How would we recognise it? We can be sure, in any case, that not only would it challenge listeners, but it would also challenge this society.

January 2007

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