The Thin Green Line: On Writing About Irish Traditional Music

The Thin Green Line: On Writing About Irish Traditional Music

In the world of music the printed word holds a great deal of power, writes Toner Quinn, and it should not be underestimated.

The reason I have spent the last fourteen years writing and publishing about music is because of a simple principle that I happen to believe, that the writing about a music affects the fortunes of a music. Every genre of music produces a body of literature, from the specialised to the general, and the quality and range of that writing will influence the development of that music. It achieves this, firstly, because specialised writing is a channel of communication between practitioners; it adds to their knowledge, their understanding of the music they play, and nourishes their artistic practice. And secondly, more general writing influences the interaction between the practitioners and the larger and more powerful community, the wider public, which in turn influences the opportunities available to the musicians, as well as the music’s status in society.

Like many publishers, I started publishing because I wanted to write, which is a terribly complicated way of doing things, but in the year 2000 in Ireland there wasn’t a forum available for the type of articles that I was interested in producing, and so starting a magazine seemed a logical step. I’m sure I took that step because of something that I learned growing up. My mother was a journalist with the Evening Press and my father has authored various books. I grew up witnessing, up close, on the one hand, the dynamic, public work of generating the daily national news and the immediacy of its impact. Sometimes I would have the opportunity to visit the printing presses in the basement of the Press, where a Dublin printer would put a copy of the latest edition in my hand and tell me, cryptically, that now I knew what was happening in the country before anyone else. At the same time, I would observe the slow, solitary work of my father writing a book over many months and years, and how its impact on publication, in contrast, would almost be in slow motion, as the various ideas would spread out gradually through reviews, discussion on late-evening radio shows, and talks at festivals and in community halls. Responses would come back in the form of letters, phone-calls and conversations with strangers on the street, and that’s how the book’s impact was judged. 

What I learned from this was that the world of the printed word holds a great deal of power, that its waves of influence can travel out very far, into domains that are normally closed to us, and that it will shape the world around you. It should therefore always be of concern to us, and have our attention. In the world of music, specialist writing usually comes in the form of reference books, academic studies, niche biographies, CD booklets, blogs, specialist magazines, sheet music and tutors, while more general writing comes in the form of books for a wider audience and articles and reviews in mainstream websites, newspapers and magazines. The Irish traditional music community has been excellent at producing specialist materials – in recent years, for example, Fintan Vallely’s essential 832-page second edition of The Companion to Irish Traditional Music, Helen Lawlor’s insightful Irish Harping 1900–2010, Nicholas Carolan’s fascinating edition of the Neal tune collection from 1724, and so much more. Traditional music has endless sources to fuel its imagination. But beyond that, the contribution to the mainstream media in print has always been thin, almost hesitant — a ‘thin green line’ as I call it. The writing and coverage on traditional music that is there, while valuable, is extremely limited in comparison to the amount of activity taking place.

Furthermore, the publication of more general books on Irish traditional music seems to be in direct proportion to the amount of mainstream media coverage that the music receives. It is now, for example, seven years since The Humours of Planxty by Leagues O’Toole, thirteen years since The Rough Guide to Irish Music by Geoff Wallis and Sue Wilson, sixteen years since Ciaran Carson’s Last Night’s Fun and Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin’s A Pocket History of Irish Traditional Music, twenty years since P.J. Curtis’ Notes from the Heart, twenty-eight years since Carson’s Pocket Guide to Irish Traditional Music, and, since it has not yet been superceded, it is worth mentioning that it is now forty-three years since Breandán Breathnach’s Folk Music and Dances of Ireland

Without a consistent presence in the mainstream print media, the work of introducing aspects of traditional music to the wider public, and commenting upon them, is often left to generalists rather than specialists. This is satisfactory for gaining publicity, but when critical assessment is required, an exploration of a new style that’s emerging, an analysis of an important issue in traditional music, the generalist will struggle. And because the medium in which they are writing is such a powerful one, the effect on the traditional music community is often negative. The pattern is something like this: Step one: An aspect of traditional music catches the attention of the mainstream media; Step two: various articles and reviews appear, written by generalist writers who make broad statements about traditional music; Step three: traditional musicians read them and become upset; Step four: traditional musicians react by taking their annoyance out on each other. I have seen this pattern repeat itself in traditional music over many years. The traditional music community rarely responds publicly and substantially in the media or even in public forums but instead engages in closed debate. The overall result is a scepticism about the media and public writing on traditional music, and of the benefits of engaging with it, and through it. This naturally leaves traditional music at a disadvantage.

This is a difficult enough challenge to overcome, but the public work of communicating to the public what is taking place under the broad heading of traditional music is important, for if traditional music does not articulate publicly the vast range of activities, opinions and views that it holds, then it is vulnerable to other voices misinterpreting the reality. For example, in April 2014, Professor Harry White, Chair of Music at UCD and a General Editor of the recently published Encyclopaedia of Music in Ireland gave the John F. Larchet Memorial Lecture in UCD titled ‘“That Gong-Tormented Sea”: Music and Public Discourse in Ireland, 1914–2014’. White presented an image of traditional music that will perplex any writer, listener or scholar who explores the full range of writing and discourse on traditional Irish music today. In a section titled ‘Traditional Values’, he said: 

The discourse surrounding traditional music has become so partisan, so strident and so orthodox in its fundamentalism, and I may say, rebarbative protectionism, and never more so than at the present moment, that it has become the favourite stomping ground of self-appointed demagogues whose pronouncements remind me of nothing so much as those of rural bishops fulminating from badly built cathedrals in the early twentieth century against every occasion of sin which might fuel their own self-importance.

Even accepting the challenges that I have described with regard to traditional music public discourse, the image presented here is unrecognisable. 

White’s distortion of the situation aside, the challenge remains of creating effective platforms for regular public writing on Irish traditional music. And in order to achieve that there needs to be a broader appreciation of the role that the writing about traditional music plays in traditional music, the economics involved, and even of what constitutes quality music writing. 

The very first basis for music writing of value is that it needs to be informed by a detailed knowledge of the artist’s previous work, and this is knowledge that is gained through repeat listening and detailed background research. It is only through extensive repeat listening and reflection that a writer can take the various immediate, thin and willowy impressions that he or she has of a music and start to bulk them out into thoughts of more substance and value to the reader and artist. Even in the case of live performance, where one does not have the opportunity of hearing a piece of music again, a writer can still produce informed writing provided they undertake extensive listening to the artist’s earlier work, in order to put the performance in context. Repeat listening as a technique towards music writing is key and it is underestimated – words reveal themselves with repeat listening, almost like shells in the sand as the tide ebbs and flows.

Secondly, music writing can not allow personal preferences to overrule all else. That sounds counterintuitive when we are discussing music, but a first question writers could ask on listening to an artist, or the new work of a composer, is not simply whether it fits into their expectations, but rather what was the artist trying to do. The clues to that, again, are in repeat listening to their work and background reading. We can then ask how successful the artist was in achieving his or her aims, and if the performance had sufficient moments of intensity to keep us engaged. And amidst all of this the reader needs essential information, such as what pieces of music were performed, what was the context of the performance, who the performers were, what instrument they played, who the composers were and perhaps some reflection on the overall audience’s experience. That is a great deal to get in, but that is what we need.

A third aspect to effective music writing is that it is genre-neutral. The temptation in music writing is to rely on the music knowledge of the reader, to use certain phrases or references that are common in a genre. Using genre-neutral language forces you to be more precise in your descriptions. An example is the phrase ‘rooted in tradition’, which we often read in Irish traditional music writing, but what would that mean if you read it in a review of an avant-garde clarinettist? Its meaning becomes more ambiguous. If it was a review of a pop singer, you may wonder which particular line of tradition they are talking about. That to me is a signal that the language isn’t precise enough.

The role of the editorial process in music writing, then, along with the technical work of commissioning, scheduling, chasing for copy, checking details, punctuation, editing for length, proofreading, gathering imagery and scheduling for publication, is to champion these above principals, and to ensure that the writing is as detailed as it can be and yet still accessible to a broad readership. This creative side to the editorial process can take considerable time depending on the length of the article or review.

What I hope I am conveying here is the resources of time, finances and personnel that are required in order to produce high-quality writing on music for a general audience. And it is unlikely a large mainstream publication is going to invest the resources in Irish traditional music to facilitate this kind of regular publication, which I’m sure is frustrating for the traditional music community given what they know about the popularity of this music. Why, for example, can the Sunday Business Post give a page over to classical music and opera coverage, and yet have no coverage of traditional music? Why is traditional Irish music absent from the weekend section of the Irish Independent? Why does traditional music get just one small album review per week in the Irish Times, while other genres get more? This is about the economics of publishing. The music promoters who have the resources to advertise in national newspapers are generally classical music and popular music promoters, and the coverage reflects this. If traditional music organisations had substantial resources and were regularly advertising in the national newspapers, coverage of traditional music would follow, just as night follows day.

Without a stronger and more substantial presence in the media, and quality coverage, traditional music artists and organisations will struggle to raise their profile and attract support – and so the cycle continues. The economics, for the moment, may be out of the traditional music community’s hands, but what it can do is simply recognise the power of public writing about traditional music, and never underestimate it.

This is an edited version of the Francis Roche Memorial Lecture given at the Blas International Summer School of Irish Traditional Music and Song at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance on 25 June 2014.

Published on 27 June 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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