Recording and Creating Irish Musical Identities

ancestral-imprints-coverThérèse Smith (ed.): Ancestral Imprints: Histories of Irish Traditional Music and Dance,

Cork University Press, Cork, 2012

ISBN: 9781859184554; RRP:  Euro 39

For several decades now, scholars have examined and debated the notion that Irish traditional music emanates from a distinctive and stable Irish culture. Traditionalists hold the view that this inherited music culture remains an expression of Ireland’s native culture, while assimilating new and ‘foreign’ influences. Seàn Ò Riada, in his influential 1962 radio series Our Musical Heritage, likened this process to a river in which any ‘foreign’ cultural influences are ‘quickly absorbed and Gaelicised’.1 Others argue against a racialised idea of culture and view emigration, for example, as producing new cultural forms rather than creating a globalised Irishness. In this view, it is the changing social and political contexts, economic conditions, and technologies and changes in tastes and ways of thinking that produce musical change.

The title Ancestral Imprints implicitly places this collection of essays in the first of these categories. This is unfortunate, as the authors adopt a range of approaches such that the volume generates an internal dialogue that is both instructive and challenging. Similarly, the book’s subtitle, Histories of Irish Traditional Music and Dance, suggests a well-trodden thematic path, when in fact the book is about the recording of these practices. Drawing on original manuscripts and printed documents, audio and video recordings, the authors examine both the production histories of these artifacts and their reception history, including their impact on musicians’ performance. Authors interrogate the ways in which these material records articulate identification with the nation, region or locality and with specific styles and aesthetics.

Thérèse Smith, of University College Dublin’s Music Department, applies keen scholarly and editorial skills to introducing and editing the volume, although an introduction to the authors would have been a welcome addition.

In the first of the thirteen essays, Susanne Ziegler recounts the history of Richard Henebry’s wax cylinder recordings made in 1905 in Ring, Co. Waterford, among the earliest known recordings of Irish traditional music and only recently repatriated from Germany. Another three essays document the work of lesser-known nineteenth-century collectors of Irish music and the manuscripts they produced. Paul de Grae, an engaging storyteller, expands our knowledge of Chicago police chief Francis O’Neill, compiler of the best-known collection of Irish traditional music, The Dance Music of Ireland2. De Grae analyses music notation to demonstrate that O’Neill’s musical sources included American musicians and printed collections beyond the circle of Irish emigrants usually regarded as the sole contributors to what musicians in Ireland called ‘the book’.

Several authors examine the role of the fieldworker/collector. Notable is Deirdre Ní Chonaille’s essay on the social and musical impact of her dissemination through radio programs of recordings made on Inishmore by her aunt, Bairbre Quinn. Ní Chonaille’s account of her project’s technological challenges, ethical conundrums and ultimate triumph engages the reader with its fearless self-scrutiny.

Other essays interrogate ways in which the recording process serves to create and articulate musical identity. Helen Lawlor suggests reasons for twentieth-century harp music’s exclusion from the mainstream of tradition. Jimmy O’Brien Moran considers the influence on musicians of the earliest audio recordings of uilleann pipers, identifying distinctive American and Irish styles of piping which contributed to the creation of a stylistic canon. Róisín Nic Dhonncha decries the impact on sean-nòs song repertoire and style of competitions and recordings and advocates using singers’ own ‘local, indigenous criteria’ to re-evaluate sean-nòs performance.

In a fascinating essay on the making of Seàn Ò Riada’s hugely influential radio programs, which drew on his field recordings and were subsequently published as Our Musical Heritage, Daithí Kearney argues that, while demonstrating the diversity of musical styles within Irish traditional music, the programs had the paradoxical function of creating homogenisation. For example, Ò Riada mistakenly identified individual singing and fiddling styles with geographical regions, where in fact a great diversity of styles prevailed; and his limitation of exemplars to the western coastal regions continues to constrain discussions of Irish traditional music.

In a welcome turn to the contemporary, Susan Motherway examines the impact the recording process has made on Irish traditional song performance, both amateur and professional, in standardising repertoire, performance practice and arrangements. She considers how professional recordings have developed a popular-music aesthetic audiences have come to expect, and identifies the constraints on repertoire, song length, language, themes and accompaniment imposed by the recording industry’s global marketing strategies. This commodification of musical performance fractures the relationship of performer to, and leads to a loss of, local practice. Motherway’s examination of how three singers are represented on their recordings’ sleeve notes suggests however that many performers of Irish traditional music choose to retain a connection with their local audience while also appealing to a globalised audience’s appetite for romantic images of Ireland. She concludes that music technology’s evolution has opened new possibilities for traditional musicians, who can connect with audiences through the internet and can access earlier generations’ performances through archive recordings.

Philip V. Bohlman’s compelling essay, ‘Irish Music at the Edge of History’, completes the volume and draws together many of its themes. He pursues the metaphor of ‘the edge’, a place of cultural translation, through an eloquently nuanced exploration of nineteenth-century representations of Irish music and their receptions, within Ireland and in England, Germany and America and of Irish music in its revival and popular-culture manifestations. Yet his definition of the Irish diaspora as ‘agents of Ireland’s own globalisation’ (p.197) suggests Ò Riada’s notion of an assimilative Gaelic music culture that sits uneasily with his understanding of music culture as dynamic and transformative. At the same time, this challenges readers to rethink both the certainties and the ambivalences of Irish identity — its myths and its histories — canvassed in this collection.

1. Seàn Ò Riada, Our Musical Heritage, The Dolmen Press, 1982, pp. 19–20.

2. Francis O’Neill, The Dance Music of Ireland, Lyon & Healy, Chicago, 1907.

Helen is the author of The Making of Irish Traditional Music, Cork University Press, 2008.