An Irish music medley

Irish session 2

Adding to my handy roundup of roundups, as the Irish tag has become unwieldy, here’s a selection of my dabblings in Irish music, which feature some exhilarating tracks that will brighten your days.

lnfCiaran Carson’s exquisite Last night’s fun has inspired several posts, including

And this charming recollection, told to me at a session in an Armagh pub, has a Carsonesque lilt to it.

i got further into the swing with

To whet your appetite, here’s an irresistible playlist:

See also under Indian and world fiddles. And while I’m here, may I remind you of the great Flann O’Brian (more under Myles tag), and various fine Irish jokes such as these.

What’s the craic?

*Part of my series on Irish music!*

Craic pub

I’m always intoxicated [Now read on—Ed.] [That’s enough of your lip—SJ] by the mood of Irish music, with its elusive, swirling, heterophonic (or even monophonic) melodies offset by jagged syncopations, any rare hints of harmony serving merely to remind us that it’s a mere modern trinket to which its unruly contours can’t be reduced (see e.g. More early music).

* * *

Around the world there must be many terms evoking the special atmosphere of entering deeply into the spirit of musicking; I think of flamenco duende and fado saudade—both with a strong undercurrent of loss. In more celebratory vein, an Irish expression much bandied nowadays is craic, the convivial mood sparked by getting together in company (cf. buzz, vibe, groove). I suppose this kind of atmosphere is the goal of most social gatherings where music is likely to be a catalyst, like Moroccan ahouach, Mediterranean festivals, or weddings anywhere. How good it is to have an all-encompassing term that stresses the wider context of sociability—including drinking, joking, musicking together! Significantly, in WAM, whose pundits have worked tirelessly to claim autonomy from mere human interaction, I can’t think of such a term—ideas welcome.

Irish session 2

Sitting around the table, taking turns—like in Shanghai silk-and-bamboo teahouses.

So impertinent non-nationals like me have become familiar with the nation of craic; but sure enough, it’s yet another of those fabricated traditions—in which the Irish are complicit, to boot. Kevin Myers has described it as “pseudo-Gaelic”, a “bogus neologism”.

The word crack (derived from Middle English crak, “loud conversation, bragging talk”) is recorded in Scotland in the 16th century in the sense of chat, news, or gossip; and it was common in north England and Scotland in the 19th century, sometimes with hints of musicking. These senses of the term entered Hiberno-English from Scots through Ulster, and were then borrowed into Irish, with a reference from 1929 and rural citations from the 1950s. In Dublin, the great Flann O’Brian used the word in articles collected in The best of Myles (1966).

The Gaelicized borrowed spelling craic is only documented from 1968, and it was reborrowed into English later still. The glorification of craic as a “specifically and quintessentially Irish form of fun” is even more recent. Critics have accused the Irish tourism industry and the promoters of Irish theme pubs of marketing “commodified craic” as a kind of stereotypical Irishness. For Kevin Myers it “coincided with the moment that Irishness became self-conscious, winsome, stylised, conceited, boastful”. In his 1999 book Companion to Irish traditional music, Fintan Vallely suggests that the use of craic in English is largely an exercise on the part of Irish pubs to make money through the commercialisation of traditional Irish music; he never heard the word spoken in Dublin until the late 1980s. He notes that Ciaran Carson (based in Belfast) was enraged by the spelling craic. Do read this excellent article by Donald Clarke!

Of course, we can’t specify the spelling when uttering the term (now that would make conversation a fine pickle), but just as I was about to try adopting it, I now think it’d be prudent for me to refrain from doing so. Still… it does sum up a feeling that is much needed.

While, um, craic has to be experienced in company, even audio recordings of live concerts can sometimes hint at the jubilation of the event. Here’s a playlist for the CD Dear old Erin’s isle: Irish traditional music from America (Nimbus, 1992—a companion to the 1991 Fiddle sticks: Irish traditional music from Donegal, also wonderful):

Following Last night’s fun, on a linguistic note: #3, with Liz Carroll on fiddle, consists of an exhilarating sequence of reels with magnificent titles: Drying out, Crush cars, The lost Indian; and Séamus Eagan’s flute solo (#6) is The wee bag of spuds. Such creative titles are conspicuously different from those of non-nationals like Messrs Messiaen and Boulez.

A paean to the fry-up, and the music of time

*Part of my series on Irish music!*

LNF

Ciaran Carson’s Last night’s fun is a constant delight—one of the great books about music (for more, see Carson tag).

The chapters are named after, and inspired by, the title of a particular Irish tune. In Boil the breakfast early Carson sings the praises of The Fry and depicts a fantasy of the perfect Belfast café.

If traditional musicians are engaged with constant repetition and renewal, infinite fine-tunings and shades of rhythms, variations on the basic, cooks are even more so.

He recalls the excitement of discovering the vocabulary for eggs in a New York diner:

A: How do you want your eggs?
B: Well… fried, I suppose.
A: What do you mean, fried? You want basted, over-easy, sunny-side up, over-hard, or what?

He soon graduates from the attractive-sounding but wobbly sunny-side up to over-easy. Indeed, “even the Irish fried egg has many schools of thought”. One thing always leads to another:

Then we engage the wider lexicon of “The Fry”, where the possibilities become Byzantine. Some exclude fried mushrooms or potatoes, say, from their definition of The Fry, as being side issues—distractions from the matter in hand. […] Sometimes I am attracted to the Puritan ideal of bacon and eggs, nothing more, nothing less. [For less, see here.]

By a meandering route involving two more tunes (The Kylebrack rambler and The Galway rambler, aka The Kylebrack), Carson recalls a story:

Then there was the café you always found by accident, above a haberdashery or alterations shop. The door that led upstairs was innocent of any label or description of the premises above. * You sat at the white-linen-covered table, and the table silver glinted with a sudden tang of memory; you knew you’d been here many times before. Waitresses in black stockings and little frilly caps appeared to serve you. There was a little scalloped butter-dish, silver slat and pepper cellars; toast came in a toast-rack. Besides the silver tea-pot was a jug of just-boiled water. The fry arrived on thick white wide-rimmed hot delph plates—“Mind the plates”, the waitress said, as she dished them out as if she were dealing cards. All the hands were flush: the famous Dublin Hafner sausages, the exotic Free State bacon, the coarse fat-spotted black pudding, the unctuous creamy texture of the white. The eggs wobbled and glistened their glazed orange yolks. […]

You sat at the window above the hum and buzz of the street below. At first you gulped and chewed and then decelerated as you realised that your hunger would be perfectly assuaged. Then you could eat contemplatively, picking bits and choosing bits you thought would make an interesting ensemble. You craned your neck occasionally like some astronomer, gazing downwards at the Milky Way of interweaving passing heads. The chinking noise of cutlery and crockery cut through the muted traffic noise. You pronged the last inch of Hafner’s sausage on to a tiny toast triangle that you’d custom-cut, and married it to the last remaining quarter of an egg yolk. You ate these morsels in one forkful. Then a gulp of tea. You settled back contentedly. An enormous cut-glass ashtray came from nowhere. Plates vanished, and you put your elbows on the table and lit up. The bill came in its own good time, unhurriedly. You looked with some amazement at the spiky old-fashioned Staedtler HB pencil-writing, quoting price current in the Fifties. You paid the carbon-slip. Then you descended to the mundane busy street. Absorbed into the crowd, you let yourself be taken by its flow, and became another corpuscle in its bloodstream.

We would spread the word about this last word of an eating-house. No-one ever found it, nor could we again when we determined that we would, because the universe is often stumbled upon by accident, or visualised in dreams. Only when the stars concur do we arrive. We stumble through the patterns of the Kylemore and the Kylebrack and we wander through the icons of the city, touching them in well-worn reliquary places. We are on a pilgrimage, and yet we do not know it…

We are fragile, and it is the morning after; rather, it is early afternoon, and we have settled in a dusty sunlit corner of the empty pub. Our talk is desultory till we think to play a tune, and we are all reluctant. Yet we start because we have to. And somehow, two bars into it, we sense each other’s playing in the way the Zodiac arrives at planetary conjunctions, and we can do more than play the pattern out. And though the stars, by now, are out of line with what they were two hundred years ago, we too have been moved, or have been moved to know that until now we had not played this tune. We did not know its beauty, nor had we realised the marks of other hands that knew it, and had passed it on to some they hoped would eventually manage to figure out its gorgeous shape. We repeat this same tune many times, and about the twelfth or thirteenth time, we know it’s time to stop, since we have gained a century in those few minutes of horology. Then we were like some watchers of the skies, or we had gazed at the Pacific for the first time, and we were silent as we contemplated time in all its mirrored constellations.

* * *

Boil the breakfast early is a reel, perhaps best known in versions by The Chieftains—here they play it live in 1981 at a BBC session:

And here’s John Whelan with friends in a medley opening with The Kylebrack:

Another title that reminded me of Li Manshan and Li Bin is Ask my father.


* Cf. my version of the touring musos’ fantasy. See also Health-food options, and even, if it’s Daoist ritual yer after, Pacing the Void.

Health-food options

full English

In an inexplicable recent aberration at the supermarket I inadvertently bought slimline tonic. Turns out, all things considered, it’s really not too bad, as long as you leave hardly any room for it by first filling the glass up with gin. That will have to pass for a culinary tip.

Talking of health-food options, * that reminds me:

In the Good Old Days, in search of sustenance before recording sessions for John Eliot Gardiner I sometimes used to go to a caff for breakfast with the principal oboist, who was not exactly an elfin waif. He would cheerfully order 2 sausages, 2 bacon, black pudding, 2 fried eggs, fried bread, hash browns, beans, grilled tomatoes and mushrooms, with side-orders of double buttered toast and a large bowl of chips. Then he’d look at the waitress (sic) and go,

“And a diet Coke, please.”

Do read Cieran Carson‘s loving homage to the role of the fry-up in Irish musical life in Last night’s fun!


* Cf. the reported exchange in an Argentinian steakhouse:

Diner (ingratiatingly): “Do you have a vegetarian option?”
Waiter (suavely): “Yes Sir, we do indeed—you can FUCK OFF!”

The Molvania series is also full of fine dining tips (“Molvanians love eating out—preferably in France or Germany”).

Critiques of artistic competition

LNF

Allow me to draw your attention to several diverting posts bearing on the misguided nature of competitions in music and dance:

In her book WIld music, Maria Sonevytsky has more mature analyses of Eurovision and popular TV contests in Ukraine.

And then, I do concur, contests are a more creative aspect of traditional performance—such as Chinese ritual groups (and shawm bands) “facing platforms”, or “cutting” in jazz…

New tag: fiddles!

At last I’ve added a tag in the sidebar for fiddles, embracing all kinds of bowed lutes (or even, um, friction chordophones) around the world, including folk fiddles, ghijak and satar, sarangi and kamancha, violins in WAM, and so on.

It’s a typically extensive list, and I’m sorry I can’t subhead tags, yet. If I could, the entries might include

and so on.

A stimulating comparative post is

with the amazing Transylvanian fiddling there pursued further in Musical cultures of East Europe. See also Some jazz fiddling.

Do also explore the tags for Irish and the brilliant Ciaran Carson—some highlights include

One quirk of the blog format I use here is that I can only give categories and tags to posts, not pages. So I’d add other pages like

and so on.

For another instrument tag, see trumpet—giving links to many world traditions of wind and brass playing.

Chinese mouth-organs and Irish flutes

Irish flutes

While I was writing with affection and awe on the sheng mouth-organ, I recalled that Ciaran Carson has a similar passion for the tactile minutiae of Irish flutes and their human custodians (Last night’s fun, “Hard to fill”, pp.49–57). Each chapter takes the title of a tune, and (like life, and like jokes!) each tune leads into another.

A few excerpts to give a flavour:

He picks up the foot-joint and prises out the little brass pins which hold the C♯ key in place; he turns it over, and there, under the touch of the key, are the initials “A.L.”, the hidden mark of Alexander Little who spent some time with D’Almaine and later set up shop on his own at 24 Chenies Street (1847–54) and then at 35 Devonshire Street (1854–73).
This is a six-keyed flute of Jamaican cocus-wood, weathered to a rich dark chocolate brown with oxblood striations glinting under the immediate surface. […]
We are in Sam’s workshop at 1 Exchange Place, Belfast. Exchange Place is, in Belfast parlance, an “entry”: a narrow lane between two streets, a backwater or a short-cut, a deviation from the beaten path. Exchange Place is an entry: we talk and breathe in an exhalation, a many-layered scent of shellac, beeswax, raw and boiled linseed oil, tallow, almond oil, aromatic blackwood shavings, nitric acid and ammonia. I believe you can smell the blue steel blades and boxwood handles of the antique tools: gravers, gouges, chisels, pliers, diamond files and flat files, pincers, chasers. You pick one up and feel its oily-sharp edge with grainy specks of sawdust on it.
[…]
And this is not to speak of the unspeakable archaeological layers of things strewn and assembled on every available surface in the workshop: pins, papers, screws, tobacco tins and and coffee jars, thread, waxed paper, empty bobbins, walrus, tusks, billiard balls, sealing-wax and string, envelopes, cigar-boxes, empty glasses, tannin-encrusted teacups, bus tickets, knives, a bottle of Angostura bitters, a drawing-plate, a bicycle repair-kit, two old trade tin trays (Ross’s Mineral Waters and Buckfast Tonic Wine) with rusted pocks in them, bills, invoices, a blue tin of Vaseline, Christmas cards and postcards, a blowtorch, fluxes, solders, coils of silver wire, brass tubing, wine corks, an old cardboard advertisement for Bassett’s Liquorice Allsorts, brass plate, a Swiss Army knife, dust, unaccountable detritus and filings of long-gone operations, a Bo-Peep matchbox which rattles with brass thumb-tacks when you pick it up, washers, drill-bits, oil-cans, tea-pots, files, gimlets, scissors, a copy of the Irish News from last year, a shrivelled chip, Kirby grips, bulldog clips, Jubilee clips and paper-clips, a square damp packet of Saxa salt, Blu-Tack, bits of putty, sealing-wax, a little paper packet of cigarette-lighter flints, a candle stub, a Zippo lighter, cotton-wool, a sticky tin of Tate & Lyle’s Golden Syrup, wisps of steel wool, and the blue glint of methylated spirits shivering in a glass square-shouldered glass-stoppered bottle against a stained, scarred patch of the workbench; on a window-sill, three little tinker-made tin inkwell-shaped receptacles with milled brass screwtops, containing pumice, tripoli and rouge, each bearing the original early Victorian price of three shillings (3/-).

Click here for Pakie Duignan in duet with fiddler Peter Fitzpatrick.

And Last night’s fun is just as wonderful on performance practice. I’ve linked Chinese and Irish musics before; for a change from the usual comparison with silk-and-bamboo (for both social context and heterophonic sound-world), Carson’s recollection of Pakie Duignan reminds me of Daoist guanzi-player Wu Mei:

His way of breathing was a joy: it had economy and grace and power; his management of time was perfect. He had the time to hit whatever note it was that came next, then to extend the breath into the next phrase like a sudden almost-visible extension of the room, as if this phrase had yearned to be united with its predecessor, and now they were together. Then he’d cut the end of that phrase and wander off into the split chink of a twilight zone, momentarily. Normal business would resume some time, but in this instant he had gone down steps he’d never seen till then, that led down to a dark harbour where water clucked against the boats and rocks and a constellation could be seen reflected.

Astounding—go on, read the chapter, and the whole book!

Like Carson’s fantasy on the role of the Irish breakfast in musical life (“Boil the Breakfast early”, pp.15–21), that’s just the kind of loving detail, mutatis mutandis, that we need for China, and Chinese ritual.

As with the syncopated cadential pattern in the hymns of the Li family Daoists, we need to evoke all the practical insider’s detail and the embedding of ritual with daily lives—not just grandiose theory and ancient mysticism. If we’re going to write about music—and ritual—at all, then along with Berliner’s Thinking in jazz, Carson’s book is a paragon. For more, see my series on Irish music!

Ask my father

*Part of my series on Irish music!*

Ennis

Peter Kennedy (fiddle), Marie Slocombe, and Séamus Ennis (Uillean pipes).

Another passage from Last Night’s fun that reminds me of Chinese music is Carson’s brilliant discussion (pp.7–13) of the naming of tunes, what the Chinese call qupai 曲牌 “melodic labels”:

A: What do you call that?
B: Ask my father.
A: “Ask my father”?

I can only hope we haven’t made such a mistake in documenting folk qupai. Indeed, I could well have asked Li Manshan’s son that very question (cf. the joke at the end of our film)…

Here’s the great Séamus Ennis playing Ask my father:

This story of his bears on the subject too:

More early music

*Part of my series on Irish music!*

LNF

In Irish music I already cited some fine quotes from Cieran Carson’s Last night’s fun bearing on the mania for soulless competitions, including the tale of the three fiddlers. The final passage in this section is remarkable (p.98):

I find among these people commendable diligence only on musical instruments, on which they are incomparably more skilled than any nation I have seen. Their style is not, as on the British instruments to which we are accustomed, deliberate and solemn but quick and lively; nevertheless the sound is smooth and pleasant.

It is remarkable that, with such rapid fingerwork, the musical rhythm is maintained and that, by unfailingly disciplined art, the integrity of the tune is fully preserved through the ornate rhythms and the profusely intricate polyphony… They introduce and leave the rhythmic motifs so subtly, they play the tinkling sounds on the thinner strings above the sustained sounds of the thicker strings so freely, they take such secret delight and caress [the strings] so sensuously, that the greatest part of their art seems to lie in veiling it, as if “that which is concealed is bettered— art revealed is art shamed”. Thus it happens that those things which bring private and ineffable delight to people of subtle appreciation and sharp discernment, burden rather than delight the ears of those who, and in spite of looking do not see and in spite of hearing do not understand; to unwilling listeners, fastidious things appear tedious and have a confused and disordered sound.

That passage might seem like a fine description of Irish music today—but it was written in 1185, by Giraldus Cambrensis in Topographia Hiberniae!

Generally (my Daoist priests of the Li family, p.291),

I wage a tireless campaign against the Chinese scholarly trend to make ambitious links between ancient citations and living folk practice, but here is one case where I totally support it. Comparable to the centrality of the keyboard for 18th-century kapellmeisters, the sheng master was the grand director of courtly ritual music right from the Zhou dynasty around the 6th century BCE, with an unmatched understanding of scales and pitches, a custom that has persisted throughout imperial history right down to today. Of all the wise sheng masters we have met in north Chinese villages, Li Qing was among the most outstanding.

Doubtless Irish music has changed in many ways since the 12th century, and that passage is just general enough to allow us to discern parallels that may not add up to so much—but still, it’s impressive.

Irish music

*Part of my series on Irish music!*

Paul Carthy (1911–2006)

Paul Carthy (1911–2006).

In his brilliant Last Night’s Fun, Ciaran Carson devotes a chapter (“The standard”, pp.91–8) to the mania for soulless competitions—a caveat for Chinese pundits too. A few instances:

Deirdre was once asked to adjudicate the fiddle competition in the County — Fleadh. Unfortunately, the event attracted no entrants; but the competition had to happen and a winner be selected. It so happened that a Mr X, generally regarded as the best fiddle-player in the area, might well have gone in for it; however, he couldn’t be got out of the pub, except for the official free high-tea that it was his duty to attend. Deirdre was dispatched to the tea-room above the hall, and managed to inveigle Mr X into playing the requisite reel, jig, and slow air, in between the soup, the salad sandwiches, and the jelly trifle. He was then presented with an enormous trophy, much to his surprise.

And

I was once present at a singing competition in the town of —, in the province of —. The adjudicators were the well-known singers Mr Y and Mr Z. The venue was the local Temperance Hall. The competition started rather late, as the adjudicators found it difficult to leave the nearby pub. They eventually arrived with a brown paper bag which they discreetly shared under the trestle table. At the finale, everyone was awarded medals. The adjudicators sang a duet. Everyone was happy. Everyone felt well-adjudicated.

Another story, from the 1908 Freeman’s Journal:

“Our country musicians are possessed of the talent of music and have in their minds the beautiful in it, but they cannot reproduce them, for they lach the technical means of doing so.” Applause. “Were they reasonably educated they would produce a race of musicians worthy of our history. Again, we had those who believed that Irish music should be rendered in scales of unusual construction. [SJ: shades of de Selby?!] Many scales existed in ancient times, but, alas, those who could teach us have gone. Because a singer or player, through lack of technical means, sang or played with a total disregard of any correctness of intonation, that did not qualify them to claim that they were using a scale of unusual construction. The majority of them did not adhere to the accepted musical scale, not that they used any other form of scale, but that their ear being totally untrained, they involuntarily produced a music not in any one scale, but in an infinity of scales of impossible construction.” Laughter and applause.

Mr Darley then gave his violin recital of Irish airs.

Most delightful is Carson’s citation of a fine story from Mick Hoy—a caveat to reverse musical snobbery:

There were these three fiddlers once upon a time.
And they were in for this competition
And the first one came up
and he was dressed in a dress-suit
and he had a dicky-bow and bib on him.
And the fiddle-case was made out of crocodile skin.
And when he brought out the fiddle,
what was it, but a Stradivarius.
And he started to play,
and beGod, he was desperate.

And the second fiddler came up
and he was wearing a nice Burton’s suit
and a matching handkerchief and tie
and socks with clocks on them.
And he had a nice wooden case
and not a bad fiddle in it,
so he got it out and started to play,
and beGod, he was desperate.

 And the third fiddler came up
and the elbows was out of his jacket
and the toes peeping from his shoes,
and the fiddle-case was tied with bits of wire
and when he brought out the fiddle,
there was more strings on the fiddle
than there was on the bow.
And he started to play.
And beGod, he was desperate too.

Note also Alexei Sayle’s pithy critique of ballroom dancing.