A very contemporary art form

Those who have studied the history of traditional music often enjoy pointing out that this music is not nearly as old as many presume. Retreat just a few hundred years and we would not even have some of the tune types – the hornpipe for example – never mind much of the repertoire that we perform today. (Similarly, the pub session only began in the late 1940s – in England!).

Traditional music releases, up until recent times, tended to support this notion that the music was very ancient and untraceable. Sleevenotes seemed to record only the most basic of information: a list of tune titles – or sometimes just reels, jigs, hornpipes – with little more than – traditional, arranged by the artist– trad. arr. – for short, after each one. Today, however, more and more traditional music CDs have tracks in which the composer of the tune is named, and often they are living composers.

Previously, to produce a CD containing a high percentage of newly composed tunes would have been exceptional, and usually the preserve of avant-gardists such as Máirtín O’Connor, Sharon Shannon, Slide or Kí­la, yet now it seems that even recordings which stay very close to the tradition will have a considerable amount of new repertoire.

In particular, I’m thinking of two Cló Iar-Chonnacht CDs which have just been released: flute-player Catherine McEvoy’s The Home Ruler and fiddle-player Brian Conway’s Consider the Source. As well as three compositions of her own, McEvoy’s recording contains relatively recent tunes by Johnny Watt Henry, Frank McCallum, Vincent Broderick, Paddy O’Brien, Josie McDermott, Carmel Gunning and Larry Redican. Conway’s album contains tunes by Michel O hEidhin, John McGrath, Dave Collins, Larry Redican, Sean Ryan, Pat McKenna and Ed Reavy.

Yet, listening to them, these new compositions blend in very cleverly with the older material. This apparently new trend must be a result of the ease with which new tunes can be passed around via recordings and the internet, but also a result of the fact that traditional musicians can quickly check the composer of a tune online.

For example, there is a 771-page tune archive on http://www.thesession.org which lists thousands of tunes and every recording on which a particular tune appears. Visitors can also leave notes and queries regarding composers. The natural development of this, on recordings in the future, is that tunes where we don’t know the composer will be in the minority, and traditional music will reveal itself as a very contemporary art form indeed.

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