How Can We Connect to the Musical Life Around Us?

Dún Laoghaire’s ukelele festival, Ukelele Hooley.

How Can We Connect to the Musical Life Around Us?

Reflecting on the diversity and intensity of musical life.

For a little more than a year, my colleagues and I in The Journal of Music have been involved in an online experiment. In November of 2012, we launched a listings service, but not a standard music listings service with just concerts. We aspired to create a system that was flexible enough to accommodate a broader range of musical activity, that would, for example, attract every type of musical format and all sizes  too, from the informal community workshop to the big annual festival.

My personal motivation was an interest in the diversity of the musical life around us, how the digital world can make us more aware of it, and what will happen once we, as musicians and audiences, become more fully aware of the range of musical opportunities that are all around us all the time.

This interest goes back to the original print magazine, JMI: The Journal of Music in Ireland, which I founded in 2000. It combined writing on traditional, folk, classical, jazz, contemporary classical music and more, partly because I was trying to challenge the traditional hierarchy of genres – with classical music at the top and folk at the bottom – but also because I was trying to present a more accurate picture of the musical life around us.

It was an idea that connected well with the emerging digital world. Very soon, iTunes, MySpace and YouTube had all but demolished the notion of a hierarchy of genres – in the digital world anyway. Similarly, The Journal of Music listings service took an open approach, in that all events would be on an equal level, without categorisation by genre or scale.

An island of plenty

To date, there have been almost 3,000 listings uploaded. What was striking from the start was the number of events taking place. Ireland is known for having a lively and intense musical life, but we could not conceive of just how busy it is.

Every local community, it seems, is its own musical community, with several self-sustaining micro music communities within it – choral, musical theatre, traditional, classical, pop, rock, hip-hop, electronic, avant-garde, opera, brass band, and much more – and the live music they are interested in listening to is often the music of their community, their children, their school, their neighbours, their friends, or the niche interests of a small group. Concerts of national and international acts – the ones we hear about via the media – are, in the context of their overall musical life, arguably in the minority.

Performances of niche music often take place in the same town or city on the same night and clash with each other. Sometimes, it appears that communities are not aware of each other’s activities. Hardly a week goes by without some kind of festival – sometimes there are three or four – and every community seems to have its own musical world.

Browsing the listings, one can also see the difference between the popular perception of an area and the actual range of musical life that was taking place there. For example, Galway, which is mainly famous for its traditional music, has over six very active choirs in the city alone; Westmeath has a concert orchestra; Ballydehob in County Cork, with a population of just over eight hundred, has both a traditional music festival and an international jazz festival all within the space of a couple of months; and Dún Laoghaire has a ukulele festival. These are just a fraction of the type of events that take place every week across the country.

The second element that was surprising was the number and range of venues in which music is performed. Music is played literally everywhere: leave aside obvious places such as concert halls, arts centres, music venues and bars, music is also regularly played in churches, community halls, schools, art galleries, hotels, libraries, sailing clubs, sports centres, childcare centres, nursing homes, museums, universities, caves, institutes of technology, town halls, cathedrals, cinemas, chapels, lake-sides, Georgian houses, craft centres, public parks, gymnasiums, cafés, shopping centres, beaches, swimming pools, angling clubs, and even polytunnels. They are all doubling as music venues. Whither the state-supported arts centre or concert hall struggling for an audience?

One has to consider how much prior research took place into artistic life before many of the arts centres in the country were built. Artists, promoters and organisers in cities, towns and villages still continue to use alternative venues all the time.

The third feature that was noticeable from the listings was the diversity of musical activity: as well as the obvious concert format, there are street performances, singing sessions, orchestra, choir and brass band rehearsals, traditional music sessions, student recitals, children’s recitals, Guinness world record attempts, workshops, masterclasses, summer schools, winter schools, festivals, musicals, operas, competitions, battle of the bands, lessons and showcases. A lot of it may be on a small scale, but to the community that they are serving, these events are significant and meaningful.  

Indeed, with many of these events, news of them may never in the past have travelled that far – it could have been in the local paper or newsletter, a billboard outside the venue, a poster in the shop, a text message sent out via the football club, or a big painted sign stuck into the ground on the side of the road. But now all of this local information is moving online and we are becoming aware of just how intense the musical activity around us actually is.

The listings service is still in development, but it has been useful for us, and I hope readers too, in putting some shape on the data surfacing on musical life. Across the internet this data comes in a range of formats and it is not easy to get a full picture of everything, but new digital resources show the potential that is there for creating a new kind of awareness of the musical life around us.

Creating a map of musical life

The key to further developing our awareness of the richness of musical life is increased documentation, not by large organisations but by the crowd – people collaborating to create a digital map of the music being played around them all the time – and it’s clear that this trend is going to continue, and intensify.

Although I am a performing musician, while I was editing the Journal between 2000 and 2010, I did few concerts. Prior to that, I was doing dozens of gigs a year, and yet there is hardly any record of them – no video, images or audio. Compare that with the past two years, in which I have undertaken around twenty stage concerts. Almost every one was recorded, there is video too, and there are plenty of images – and they are all online.

Considering these recent developments in the way we document musical life, my concluding question is this: as the rate of documentation increases, how long is it going to be until we, on our mobile devices, have a pretty good picture of all the musical activity that is taking place around us at a particular time in a particular place, and can actually engage with it in real time?

How as a musician would you respond to that? How as a composer would you respond? What will be the impact on learners of music, audiences, children and promoters?

The information we have will not be just a list of big gigs and concerts. Our musical life is incredibly diverse, with many small-scale events, and a lot of these events are, or they could be, opportunities for playing with, or collaborating with, others. Are we going to see new types of performance – spontaneous performances in public spaces?

Consider flash mobs. I accept they can be highly choreographed, but they came straight out of the digital culture in 2003 – a social experiment influenced by the idea of crowdsourcing. If they are satisfying a new type of musical urge among performer and audience, what kind of future performances are they actually signaling to us, once the technology emerges to makes it possible?

Boosting participation in music?

The most important question is what impact increased awareness of musical life will have on those who don’t play music. Music teachers, musicians, parents and everyone who once went to music lessons will know of the huge fall-off rate there is in musical participation as people move into their teens and become adults, and despite huge investment of time and money by parents, teachers, music organisations and the state, very few children go on to play music or sing as an adult. That can mean isolation for musicians because children who play music are often also the audiences of the future.

As a parent of children who play music, I am conscious of this fall-off rate, and I discuss it with other parents, and how we can best encourage our children to stay with music. It’s not easy, but a key insight that I have gained is the importance of making music a social experience, that there is something beyond the lesson, beyond the practice, beyond the formal once-a-year concert – that playing music is actually part of their social life and their engagement with their peers.

If all the details of the musical life around us are going to move online, and, for the first time, everyone will be able to see the musical life that is all around them – and engage with it in real time, either as a collaborator or a listener – then that could be an incredibly profound change towards increasing participation levels – and the role of music in our world.

This article is based on a talk given at the second Future of Music in the Digital Age conference (Dublin, 20 June 2013), organised by the Contemporary Music Centre, Ireland.

Published on 24 January 2014

Toner Quinn is Editor of the Journal of Music. His new book, What Ireland Can Teach the World About Music, is available here.

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