In the Irish-speaking areas of Ireland, visitors are sometimes frustrated because they speak Irish to locals and are responded to in English. It doesn’t take long for them to give up altogether, deciding that the language is actually truly dead in the area.
I am always intrigued by this black-and-white conclusion from what is a complex social experience. Although Irish is a language in crisis, the ultimate decision of the local native speaker as to the language they speak – whatever it may be – is not considered equal to that of the visitor. The former is presumed to be constant, single-purposed and predictable, and ultimately disappoints. The result is a hardening of the sides, and the language not growing.
There is a correlation with music: those coming from one culture to another often experience the same pattern of expectation, engagement, disappointment and withdrawal. Whether a pop musician engaging with classical music, a traditional musician exploring jazz, or an electronic artist experimenting with folk, what one presumes of the other genre will ultimately decide the meeting’s level of success. If we assume that a musical culture is something fixed and constant, the result will likely be a form of ossification, an overdose of order. Our attitude to other musical cultures is surely a reflection of our own musical views: if we ourselves enjoy a culture of openness, excitement and ease of collaboration, that is what we will find elsewhere. Conversely, if another genre is found to be slow to change, it is probably an indication of our own conservatism.
Often in the Irish-speaking areas, the Irish language actually flows once people have a chance to simply get to know each other. In this issue of The Journal of Music, we explore various sides of traditional and folk music, where we see the result of a more profound engagement.