Tradition and Aspiration

Tradition and Aspiration

Fiddle-player Martin Hayes on traditional music in the twenty-first century

Like most other musicians, I have a lot of strong feelings and beliefs about music that I would rarely share unless I felt safe in doing so. I grew up listening to people with hugely strong opinions on what was good, and what was bad – people like my father, Peter O’Loughlin, Martin Rochford and Paddy Canny. They didn’t even say ‘good’ or ‘bad’, they said right or wrong!

When I started to play, as a child, I didn’t have any clear opinion about what was traditional or what was not traditional. In fact, my musical vision centered around whatever musicians I heard and whatever records I had in my collection. I wasn’t even aware of such a thing as an East Clare style of fiddle playing until I went to West Clare – but I did then begin to make that distinction.

As a child I didn’t like Sliabh Luachra music, and I didn’t like Donegal music. This was to become a deep moral issue for me; I adhered quite strictly to what I was familiar with musically and it took me until I was an adult to actually come around to understanding what Donegal music is and what Sliabh Luachra music is – and this is after having played obsessively throughout my teenage years.

Though I did, of course, come to an understanding of these styles, it was a long time before the Donegal fiddle player Johnny Doherty made sense to me, and the music of Tommy Peoples at first felt harsh to my ears. It just wasn’t appealing according to the aesthetics of East Clare at the time, though I began to slowly recognise a kind of stark high loneliness in the music and a kind of tension and a beauty. That, for me, was stepping outside; my first ‘stepping outside’ musically was to embrace things that were already part of the tradition. This indicated to me that we have a diverse and sometimes aesthetically conflicting tradition. In other words, this tradition is actually a combination of many traditions.

Adamantly traditional
At the age of twenty-one I moved to the United States. Being from East Clare really didn’t matter so much in Chicago. In fact, being from Ireland wasn’t even that significant. Slowly, I began to embrace and think about other forms of music, and I have thought deeply about music ever since. I have come to many conclusions, through an ever-expanding experience of embracing ever-wider fields of ideas that I find applicable to this music.

And yet, I remain, I think, adamantly traditional, at least by the standards that I would like to see define the tradition.

I left Ireland as a result of some foolhardy business ideas that I had at the time, which left me paying off the bank manager in Tulla. Being in America without a Green Card meant there was just a couple of options: one was hauling lumber (that lasted for about nine months), and the other was playing in a lounge bar on the south side of Chicago where the musical choice was either Neil Diamond or ‘Danny Boy’. I went down the ‘Danny Boy’ route.

At all times I realised I was playing music that I would have previously dismissed, and yet I was forced to do it, and learned to be humble about it. I actually began to enjoy doing some of the stuff, as ridiculous as it might seem. I played in wedding bands, rock ‘n’ roll bands, had an electric fiddle and grew my hair just to fit in.

Eventually I got tired of this. Having found that fate had cast me in a situation of earning my income as a musician, I decided to play the music that meant something to me. I felt some level of guilt around the whole issue of performance as a profession, believing that there was very little of it in our tradition and that it had, in some respects, a distorting influence. I grappled with that.

The truth, however, is that performance has always been a part of the tradition, even if only in small intimate settings where only a few, or even one, was listening – or even if nobody was listening. I believe that to play the music is to perform it – you respond to circumstances, whether it be in front of a large audience or privately for oneself. I don’t think that the ultimate purity comes from ignoring the circumstances or ignoring the audience as a distorting influence, but rather that there is an artistic lack of integrity in not trying to reach toward the listener.

When you become a professional musician there are a lot of responsibilities that you have to take heed of. For example, when a person books a concert for me in, say, Holland. In such a case, I would feel a responsibility to this person; I would feel a responsibility to the tradition; I would feel a responsibility to an audience; I would feel a responsibility to myself; I would feel a responsibility to the musicians that I got the music from. When you start bringing together all these responsibilities, there is a degree of compromise that has to be reached. In many ways, the question of authenticity then becomes a personal one in which you have to do your best to balance these various ethical matters. I’ve often felt that in previous debates regarding traditional music people didn’t truly understand the life experience and dilemmas that are involved in navigating these choices, and that judgments of musicians in these situations can be overly simplistic and sometimes unnecessarily harsh.

Tradition and authenticity
When I think of what is good traditional music I’m back to people like Martin Rochford. I’m back to that very beginning point. I know what people like him felt good music was, though it is a highly subjective thing. I remember looking at Fleadh Ceol adjudication sheets and fifty per cent of the marks went, I think, for something called ‘tradition’. That should really be called ‘subjective opinion’, for that is what good music amounts to in many ways. It amounts to whether one can in fact respond to it. The word ‘tradition’ is loaded. The tradition in Donegal is different from the tradition in Clare, as is the tradition in West Kerry and East Kerry – everywhere you go is different. Even people from the same musical region will often have widely divergent views of what their particular tradition is.

If we substitute the word ‘authentic’ for the word ‘tradition’ we might be moving towards something that may be sufficiently comprehensive to embrace a wider and more musical definition of Irish ‘traditional’ music. Authenticity might mean representing the voice of your forebears. In some minds it could also be considered authentic to recreate music by a process of mimicry. But it is also authentic to be yourself, completely, as an artist, as a human being. Following your deepest artistic impulses while being informed by, and being respectful of, the tradition from which you come is, in my opinion, an authentic musical path in this music.

However, there are a few authenticities in conflict with each other here right away. The question is now wider and more complex and cannot be easily resolved by simple definitions of what is good or bad traditional music. As the priests taught us in school: you have to have an informed conscience. The morality of your musical choices are dependent on how much you already know. If you play ‘bad’ music, and you don’t know the difference between it and good, then you’re doing fine. It is only when you know better and don’t act accordingly that you’re actually walking into the grey, moral territory in traditional music.

There is also ‘the muse’ – the intangible aspect of music, the source of inspiration, the key motivating force. In most discussions this is left out because it does not fall within the accepted criteria. Is it traditional or acceptable to talk about the Zen of fiddle playing? Well, I would argue that it is. How do we talk of heart, of draíocht, of feeling, of a deep spiritual meaning in music? Even though there is no precedent for the music of Tommy Potts can we say his music is traditional or not? I would argue vehemently that it is traditional.

I would like to argue against an often unquestioned assumption, which suggests that what we most commonly hear played as traditional music should, by an act of simple democracy, define the parameters. I would prefer to focus on those I consider the masters – the true innovators in music – and define the music by people such as Tommy Potts, Willie Clancy, Johnny Doherty, and Pádraig O’Keeffe, rather than by what I normally hear in a session, which is how we tend to define it now. We need to take a few steps backward and examine what is now mainstream Irish music and see how we got to this point.

More than dogma and repetition
It might not be so obvious when you live in Ireland, but when you live in Seattle, you become very aware of how insular thought can be around issues to do with traditional music, what I would call ‘cultural nationalism’. It gets confused because the music in itself, though it does clearly suggest, in some sense, our identity, in other ways it is actually just pure music. There are, therefore, issues of national identity battling against the forces of creative musical expression.

I would like to move it onto the plain of just pure music and assume that we now have a universal acceptance that our national identity is both diverse and secure. This is not to say that our music is not reflective of our past or of some essential part of our national psyche. However, we are treating the music as an unruly teenager to whom we are unwilling to offer full independence lest it not adhere to some static notion of what the tradition is. That fear exists because the context that created the music, that nourished it, that even brought the revival movement of this music into existence, all of these things have, in some sense, almost run their course and we now no longer have the cultural environment that created this music. The passing on of the tradition has to involve more than dogma and repetition. It must now also include some of the universals that are part of any artistic journey.

I teach workshops in various corners of the world and I go to great pains to explain to the students that the people in Ennis can also watch CNN and order in pizza. In fact, these students abroad that I teach can get all the latest recordings, chat on the internet, subscribe to magazines, turn up at the Willie Clancy week every summer and be equally well informed and engaged as anybody in Clare. Though I can’t statistically offer any facts for this, I think that there are presently so many traditional musicians in the United States, the UK, Australia, Canada, Tokyo, and around the world, that it is possible that there are more traditional musicians residing outside Ireland than within.

I often think about the evolution of jazz music in the United States in relation to the learning of traditional music. It went through something similar to Irish music, but only just a few decades ahead. There was a point when most of the mainstream media was dismissing jazz as some kind of un-thought-out, intellectually deficient music, but now there is widespread acceptance of it. Virtually every music school has a jazz department and, in fact, some would argue that they have figured out how to reproduce this music in an almost assembly line manner. The problem now is that much of the music played can be without depth of expression. There are people who can play like John Coltrane, but they haven’t undertaken the journey that John Coltrane did, so it doesn’t feel the same. That’s why it doesn’t feel the same if some band today is exactly like the Bothy Band. If we put Ceoltóirí Chualann on stage today, it would not sound as good to us because it wouldn’t be breaking any ground. It wouldn’t be changing anything.

In our understanding of developments in music we have to take the visionary spirit and the creative imagination of the artist more seriously than the end product of their creativity. It is the driving creative imagination of John Coltrane or Seán Ó Riada that we should be emulating. It may be more important to understand how they navigated their uncharted roads as artists than to try and draw conclusions from their artistic output. Every artist has to speak from the depth of his/her soul and that goes for artists that come out of a proscribed tradition as much as it does for artists in genres where personal creative expression is the norm.

Why I do what I do
As a professional musician I have to grapple with what the value of traditional music is. I haven’t much interest in religion, but I do have a deep interest in spirituality. I have had to try and rationalise what my position in music is – why I do what I do, other than to make a living, because that would be, in a way, a kind of a misuse of it. But I’ve often felt that the only clear thing I can offer as a performing musician is to actually enliven the spirits of the people that are there with me for that period of time.

In other words, I don’t have a long-held agenda. I don’t have a big plan to change Irish music or to move anything in radical directions. I can only go deep into a musical experience at that particular moment when I play and to bring people into it with me. I am very proud of this music and the strengths and qualities in it, and I am very aware that it does cross boundaries. The notion that I once grew up with, that only certain people could understand this music, is no longer true. What is lacking in the music, however, is some discourse, some criteria for performing it, some rationale, some basis by which we can decide what is good and what is right and what is the way to go about it. I once read a book called Zen and the Art of Archery. In many ways it reflects, in a universal sense, what it takes to engage in an act of performance, how one must truly engage in the most committed manner possible. That kind of thought has been very important to me. It is important that what is offered from a performance is something that truly reaches the heart of people, that it moves people in a deep way.

That is performance. Traditional music ‘sessions’ are another thing. I don’t turn up at sessions very often, usually because I’m afraid I won’t like it, and that people will expect me to play all night! I did organise sessions in Chicago when I lived there. I found out that it wasn’t always about making good music.

I would get people together to play at whatever level suited them, and usually I found that the lowest level was the best level to play at. I got people into a kind of communion, and I became very engaged in the concept of community, in the concept of people feeling united in their music. I was very concerned that we didn’t get too caught up in trying to make it the highest musical experience possible. It could get there. Sometimes it would get there for just five minutes a night.

Tradition and aspiration
As a teenager I remember an occasion when I was alone, walking down one of the roads not so far from our house after counting cattle. I remember thinking about the music of that locality and thinking that nobody will ever want to hear it. Nobody, I thought, will ever want to hear Joe Bane play because a lot of hiss comes out of the whistle when he plays, a lot of bad tone comes out, a lot of intonation issues, a lot of getting tunes wrong.

The outward shell of this music, however, was just a reflection of the musical aspiration; as with any artistic expression, the message is often more significant than the artistic vehicle. They spoke their inner aspirations through the musical vernacular of their locality with a naive innocence and purity that the most accomplished of artists have a hard time achieving. This music wasn’t widely appreciated because they played in a local, almost personal, vernacular and the outward form wasn’t often very refined. The musical voices of Martin Rochford, Joe Bane, Bill Malley, Junior Crehan and Bobby Casey, were, however, personally very important to me. I sometimes enjoyed it more when Martin Rochford sang a tune into my ear or when he talked about it, than when he played. I got a strong sense of his musical aspiration this way.

John Naughton came to the house a lot when I was a child, so did Tommy Potts, and various other people. There were always high moments, moments of communion between the listener and the player. There were high moments that the performer had no control over. But there were also a lot of dry stretches in between when the music was only OK. In fact, the majority of the time, that’s how it really was, but I choose to remember the special moments by which to define those people.

I’ve chosen to hear the aspiration of Martin Rochford and Junior Crehan. I don’t copy them and I don’t copy anybody else, but I do, in a sense, define tradition as my attempt to embody their aspirations, and to follow through, to keep reaching. As an artist, unless one is reaching forward or deep within, there isn’t life in what you do. The tradition can move forward without mimicking the past, while at the same time actually emulating it in as many personal ways as there are people playing it.

My talking about musical aspirations does not necessarily reflect where I am as a musician. These are things that I believe in. These are things that I aspire to. These are things that I very, very often do not achieve and these are things that maybe in my lifetime, I won’t achieve. But I do really feel that the first instruction I received, to play with feeling, is still the most consistent and most meaningful instruction that I’ve ever known.

My father used to say, ‘That music has no tradition…’, or ‘This music does…’, and I often felt it was a very naïve way of expressing it, but he was entirely accurate. For him, tradition was defined, not by whether a person played in a definable traditional manner, but merely whether the echo of that feeling, that emotion, that content, that melancholy which gives it meaning, was contained in the music or not. If the music didn’t have some of those qualities, it wasn’t traditional music at all.

Published on 1 January 2004

Martin Hayes has recorded several albums, including Martin Hayes, Under the Moon, and, with guitarist Dennis Cahill, The Lonesome Touch, Live in Seattle and Welcome Here Again.

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