Traditional-music criticism

There are many issues involved in writing about music, some of which are addressed in this issue in articles by John McLachlan and Bob Gilmore, but traditional-music criticism has problems all of its own.

Unlike other genres, the body of high-quality criticism for the public on traditional, or folk, music is extremely thin. The low standard can be seen in the fact that few anthologies of reviews and articles from magazines and newspapers are published.

A central problem is that much of the mainstream writing is still under the spell of revivalist thinking, critiquing traditional and folk in terms of its contribution to a cultural movement first, and as music second. The result is writing which has little to say to a broader musical readership. The hangover of a perception that folk art is of less value and therefore less fertile for intelligent discussion means that few come from outside to challenge this state of affairs.

It is often thought that the increased entry of traditional musicians into third-level education will change this situation, as they will become more analytical about the music they play, and will have the benefit of insider knowledge. The increased demands of third-level education however – it is common these days to go all the way to PhD level – mean that those analytical skills are often soaked up by academic work, as opposed to essays and criticism for the public.

It is a self-perpetuating situation, and change must start with the traditional music listenership itself, which should be expecting more.

June 2009

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