Saturday, 15 September 2012

On the one hand.....

Bit of an accident last Friday is keeping me out of the workshop so I have a bit of time on my hands (or rather hand) resulting in this and maybe one or two other rather long posts. 
This is something that I’ve been meaning to write about for quite some time.
I’m sure that, like me, many of you read and sometimes contribute to the on-line boards and discussion lists relating to traditional flute/Irish music.
            For those from outside Ireland in particular, this has become one of the main ways in which they keep in contact with the Irish music community in general, and in their own area of enthusiasm in particular.
            To those who have come to the music in the digital era, it can be hard to explain just how different it was back in the day, when the cassette recorder was considered to be the cutting edge of technology.
            When my own interest began to develop in the early 1970s the only sources of tunes or the way of playing them were a couple of dozen LP recordings, the players themselves, and if you were lucky what you or your friends recorded on the new fangled cassettes. There were also a few printed collections, but abc notation was unheard of, so this source was barred to anyone who wasn’t musically literate, and even then one still needed to hear the notes played by a traditional player to make any progress.
            Classes and formal tuition were scarce in general and unavailable in many areas. It required serious effort to try to learn traditional music.
            Of course this was not all bad. There’s an expression in Irish - cad is anamh is iontach- which simply means what’s rare is wonderful, which I think is appropriate here. Nowdays one can access even the most obscure recordings - even video recordings -  with a few clicks of the mouse, and there’s an element, for me anyway, of over exposure taking some of the good out of it. Eating an exotic food every day soon reduces it to the level of the mundane. I suppose that part of the attraction for me, and I’d suggest many others, was the esoteric and non-commercial nature of the music scene in those days.
            I have to confess to being partly resposible for this whole internet/traditional music thing. When I was a PhD student at UCC in the early 90s myself and one of my colleagues, Paul McGettrick set up the Irtrad-L discussion list which was the first of it’s kind, and amazingly this year has it’s 20th anniversary.
            Since then of course, there are such resources almost without number. But the question that has to be asked is...what effect has this had on the traditional music community?
One the major effects is that this community is now more than ever an international one, not that this is totally due to the internet. Since the first days of Irish emmigration Irish music has been international, but with the advent of the internet, this internationality has moved far beyond the original limits of the Irish diaspora, which were largely the USA and UK. Recently, for example, I have sold instruments to Mexico, Chile, Brazil, Belarus, and the Ukraine, something which definitely would not have happened in pre-internet  days.
However despite all this internationalism, is the internet really leading to a more homogenous traditional music culture?
One major factor that has become apparent to me, speaking as someone who is familiar with the Irish traditional music community both in Ireland and abroad, is that those outside Ireland are much more likely to be involved in the internet music community than those Irish born and still living in Ireland, despite the fact that the Irish are major participants in every other aspect of digital communications and social networks, twitter etc.
This of course, is one of the results of the spread of the popularity of Irish music abroad, and that popularity has,  for a considerable number of years spread far beyond the Irish diaspora, something which in some part has been due to the influence of the internet.
Within a comparitively short period of time, we have moved from a situation where Irish traditional music was the concern of a minority within Ireland, ( lets include the diaspora for accuracy) to the current state of affairs where that same group now find themselves as a minority in a world wide community.
How this situation is now presenting via the online media is essentially what concerns me in this post.
Having been, as I’ve pointed out, there from the very start, and having been at times a keen enough participant in the whole online area, I find that recently I’ve become simply a lurker, with little interest in active participation.
There are several reasons for this.
One of course, is lack of time, but if I were honest with myself and my readers here, I’d have to admit that in general the discussions and exchanges that take place among the online Irish music community are of little to interest me, and the reason I have no interest is that they largely deal with situations, topics, and areas of interest that have no relevance to me as a practising musician and instrument maker living in Ireland.
What worries me, is that very many of the participants appear to be involved for just that very reason...that in some way they’re now, even if vicariously part of the Irish traditional community that those of us living in Ireland (the heartland of it, I think you’d have to admit) are part of.
A board that perhaps many of you are probably familiar with, and one which I’ve been a member of for some years is the Chiff and Fipple forum.
This forum currently has over 10,000 members so to the uninitiated it can appear that they’re reading the distilled wisdom of a group of this size. Like almost every other online forum without exception though, the regular posters are a tiny percentage of the overall membership...not the fault of this or any other forum, of course.
What’s more worrying, and what has encouraged me into almost complete lurker mode on this and other forums, is that the opinions expressed, taken in total, reflect something completely different to those that I know are held by the traditional flute community in Ireland, on just about every thread discussed.
I’d argue that as a group, flute enthusiasts based in Ireland hold radically different views on all the common issues that are discussed from day to day on such forums, such as favourite recordings, players, styles, makers etc. This is not to say of course that such opinions are invalid in any way...except as being representative of Irish opinion, which is presumably what the majority of the forum members are keen to find out.
Of course such forums cannot and should not be restricted as to membership, something that would quickly lead to elitism.
But perhaps more people should be aware that many traditional Irish music forums are dominated by opinion from outside what might be considered the core group.


  1. Very interesting statements. I'am one of those who learned most about Irish trad music via the internet. I'd be very interested to get to know what the "core" opinions etc. are. Any idea how to get the information from abroad?

  2. Hi Moritz,
    Excuse the delay in replying to you. I suppose the whole point is that it's difficult to get the information from abroad, even with the internet and social media etc. I think really what you have to do is to spend some time in Ireland. To use a linguistic comparison, you can learn a lot of Irish from books and via the internet, and even in college courses abroad, but I don't think that anyone would dream of thinking they really could get a handle on it without spending a reasonable amount of time here in an Irish speaking community.
    However surely it's a step forward from your point of view to realise just what the input is into the various boards. Some are more "core" than others, simply because they have a higher input from people living and playing in Ireland. The Session, and Irtrad-L are two that appear to have a larger Irish input, for example.
    I'm not trying to say that the opinions expressed on the boards are invalid, they're obviously valid for the people that hold them, but as an example if you look at the flutemakers names that constantly crop up on Chiff and Fipple as people's favourite or preferred makers ( a very common thread as you probably know), I'd argue that a similar list solicited from flute players living in Ireland would be quite different.
    Thanks for your interest in my blog
    All the Best

    1. Hammy, I've been waiting for more on this, but I guess I'll jump in. I have issues with both The Session and C & F, but not apparently for the same reason you do. As you say, the common posters are but a fraction of the site membership, and many of them, though knowledgeable and sometimes helpful, seem far too full of themselves and invested in their opinions even when they can be objectively shown to be in error. Now, that's my beef.

      You, OTOH, seem to draw a distinction in what Irish players think as opposed to anyone else, and I'm not clear on what you mean. Your example of flute makers does not enlighten me to your point. You, Grinter, Olwell, and Murray are among the favorites on C & F. Not so in Ireland? And what about other opinions? Can you elaborate a bit?



    2. Hi Alan,
      There is obviously going to be an overlap in what Irish and other players think, and perhaps I'm not makng myself as clear as I hoped. Re the flute makers' example You are right in that those you mentioned are firm favourites both on C & F and here in Ireland, but there are quite a large group who seem to feature quite largely on C & F who don't get above the radar here at all, and I was using that to illustrate the point of the difference in opinion between here and abroad. I'm not saying that there are a completely different set of opinions.
      I suppose the whole point was to alert people not living in Ireland that what they read on these boards does not totally reflect the range of opinions here.
      All the Best

    3. Hm. I'm still groping for clarity, here. Can you give an example of a topic for which there would appear to be concensus on a board that would have an Irish player scratching his head? I get that you are saying the boards don't speak for the native Irish player, but even within the born-and-raised Irish, there must be a variety of opinions, no? Is there something about being Irish that leads to a specific divergence of opinion from the non-Irish ITM flute community?

      I press only because you're the one that brought this up and you devoted a lot of words to the subject. The implication (or at lease what I infer) is that if one's opinion is not informed by being Irish and living in Ireland, then of necessity, one will think about flute and the music played on it differently. That's an interesting premise, but I need to hear a basis for it and some examples before I can either react to your statement or agree/disagree.

      Am I being difficult?


  3. " if one's opinion is not informed by being Irish and living in Ireland, then of necessity, one will think about flute and the music played on it differently."
    What I'm trying to say is that it will be of necessity partly different. People from outside Ireland will find it difficult to see which part is which, that's essentially my point

    "Is there something about being Irish that leads to a specific divergence of opinion from the non-Irish ITM flute community?"
    Not a specific divergence, but opinion is based on experience, and obviously Irish based players have a different experience.

    "Am I being difficult?"
    No, maybe I am ;-)

    1. Ah. Now we have the basis for a conversation, if you're game. If I can summarize your two statements, what I'd say is, "The experience of the Irish player is different than the experience of the non-Irish player, and this has a direct affect on how the Irish player plays and thinks about both the music and his instrument." Fair enough?

      To me, this is easily understood when talking about airs and songs. There is a sensibility to the performance I can recognize but not duplicate. Perhaps this is also true (albeit to a possibly lesser or not-so-obvious degree) with dance tunes on flute. Certainly having the music in your veins can't help but set you apart from those of us who play it as a second language. I wonder, though, how that influences thoughts and opinions one might express on a flute-oriented ITM web site. I guess I'm looking for that stick-in-your-craw accumulation that prompted your original post. You didn't exactly say, "What are those C & F fools on about?", but it feels like there's at least a bit of that beneath the surface, no? I yield the floor :)

  4. Yes fair enough. But the music as a second language thing can just as easily happen in Ireland as elsewhere. The difference is that people here have direct access to the first language here. What I was trying to say about boards in general is that it's easy to get the impression that you're getting access to the first language, which you are but to a limited extent. That's all I was trying to say.