I was at TradTalk on Saturday, where I’d been asked to kick the day off with a toned-down reprise of a deliberately combative talk I recently gave in Newcastle about ‘The problem with “traditional”’. I thought it was a bit of a brassneck to tell a group of people I really admire who call themselves traditional artists that ‘traditional’ doesn’t really mean anything anymore, but I got away with it, and it was a fascinating day.
Definitions of traditional music (especially the famous one from 1952) date from a time when classical music was considered the norm for theory and cultural policy. When you don’t have to differentiate everything from classical practice, which is itself a bit of an outlier and quite unusual, you soon find that everything is traditional: is there any art that isn’t to some extent dependent on inherited characteristics or practices? And the problem with defining only some art as ‘traditional’ is that all traditions change, so pretty soon something that’s outside your definition is going to find its way in, and vice versa. This may not be a big deal until you start using the term ‘traditional’ as part of your national cultural policy, or you suddenly find yourself on the wrong side of the borderline, whichever that wrong side may be.
I’ve never found the exercise of defining things or practices particularly interesting of itself; I only really get engaged when the defined things start to interact with one another. I mentioned this to my more philosophical colleague Martin Parker Dixon, and he told me that rather than sticking with Aristotle’s ‘individuated substances’, I was moving towards the Buddhist philosophy of ‘dependent co-arising’ or Pratītyasamutpāda. Similarly in higher education, disciplinarity purity is becoming an outmoded concept, in favour of the encouragement of porous boundaries. Occasionally I get asked what kind of music I’m involved in, and I usually mumble something about being a keyboard player and being interested in lots of different things. But putting it in terms of the interaction between two individuated substances, where I often work is in the relationship between historical and traditional ways of looking at the past.
Anyhow, precisely as I was standing up at TradTalk spouting forth on this subject, Radio 3’s CD Review was featuring our new album Purcell’s Revenge, and in her review, Anna Picard had quite a visceral reaction against it. It’s always exciting when someone reacts strongly to your work either way; I think relatively few artists would prefer what they do to function as wallpaper. You can hear her reaction here at about 2h13’40. To me, the most fascinating part of what she says is this: ‘Heard separately, the different components in this disc which unites early music specialists, folk music performers … I would like each of these elements separately, but somehow bolting them together just makes me feel really quite distressed’. This is a much more revealing reaction than ‘and I really don’t like the constituent parts either’ would have been. She earlier says ‘I’m worried that this disc has unearthed a deeply buried ultra-conservative streak in my tastes’.
I don’t take pleasure in distressing people, but this admirably honest response to our record says some very useful things. (I’m big enough not to take offence at ‘bolted together’!) Specialism in itself is very important. If you want to get really very good at something, you have to figure out precisely what it is you have an aptitude for and sufficient interest in, and that can often turn out to be a very specialist area indeed. I spent a couple of decades working mostly as a continuo player on harpsichord and organ when such beings were still quite rare, albeit one who might spend the morning before a gig writing and recording music for TV. The difficulty with having a specialism is that you can then fall into the trap of assuming that you can only collaborate with people who share it. When you do collaborate in this way, this can of course be uniquely rewarding and valuable, but it’s not the only way to work. Keeping everything in ghettos as ‘individuated substances’ is not good for art or for society.
In music, have we become so habituated to operating only in specialist zones, that when we reach out across those now-porous boundaries, some of the audience actually find it distressing? At the TradTalk discussion on building a life and career while earning a living as an artist, porous boundaries were very much in evidence, as it’s becoming ever more difficult to earn a living as a specialist musician: in the present economic climate this will probably continue to be the case. For early music folks, the days of well-paid CD recording sessions every day are well and truly over, and in traditional music in Scotland, there’s a fast-growing community of talented and knowledgeable young musicians chasing gigging opportunities which are not growing much, if at all. Is it time for multiple or changing specialisms to be the norm? I certainly wouldn’t want everyone to end up in a grey mush of having much the same set of skills: think how dull that would be.
But after the experience of Saturday, I’m now finding it much easier to think about our forthcoming fiddle band project – we start rehearsing four weeks today! I was getting anxious about how the various specialists were going to communicate, or not: can we combine traditional music, historically-informed practice, source studies, dancing, and make it all comprehensible (and enjoyable) as an experience for an audience? It’s only taken a little practical experience of porous boundaries in action, including a bit of stepdancing with Mairi Campbell at TradTalk, and everything seems easier, and less distressing.
P.S. There’s a website redesign on the way. The gallery stopped working: that’s why there’s no behind-the-scenes Purcell photos up yet …
The Edinburgh International Festival launched its programme this morning, and it looks rather good. I was curious to see what music would be included at this stage, as the classical music programme was launched separately some time ago. Sure enough, The Hub is going to be an amplified music venue, long overdue as part of the festival. It’s a wonderful space, but to be honest a difficult venue for acoustic music, so I really hope they can make it work.
But I am rather perplexed at the separating out of classical music from the rest. Yes, its audience wants a list of performers and a list of pieces rather than an account of the experience, and the core classical European festival audience books its diaries up months in advance. However, the implication (hinted at here) is that other kinds of music have more in common with the rest of the arts world, and therefore, unlike their precious classical cousins, they can exist in the same performance spaces, and be promoted and discussed at the same time.
To be honest, I agree. The classical music world and its way of doing things can at times seem utterly disjointed from other forms of culture, and to an extent irrelevant to them. I moan about this a great deal. But separating it and its audiences further from the rest of the arts is no way to do anything about it.
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I'm on my way back from a welcome day out in Cumbria. The sun shone, the hills looked great, the air was fresh etc.
I had a morning meeting in Keswick with Andrew and Gill from Splash Classics about our fiddle band gig in August, with a chance to look in the theatre and have a think about promotion. These days I rarely drive for longer than an hour at a time, so I was wary of making the journey (I like travelling by train), but it was really valuable to stand on the stage and get ideas for how the shows will go, and also to talk about how we might get some attention for them: a very useful meeting I think.
And while I was in Cumbria, where I haven't really spent much time since working for Pocket Theatre in the late 1980s, I had the chance to visit Ursula Leveaux for lunch, something I used to do a lot from the early 90s onwards, when she lived in Edinburgh and we would both be playing in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. No nostalgia necessary today, but we had time for a walk around Great Langdale in the sunshine, keeping company with the Herdwick sheep.
Oh yes, and our Purcell album comes out next week: you might have noticed that it has sneaked onto our albums page where you can sneakily buy your copy before the release date ...
I signed off the proofs for the Purcell CD booklet this morning, and as I write, Barnaby Brown is behind me at a table, editing video of Bill Taylor playing four-note pibrochs on a 9th-century lyre. Last night I was on telly playing keyboards in Grit (watch it online here), and a huge pile of 18th- and 19th-century fiddle books await my attention to choose repertoire for the ConCal fiddle band project in the summer. I’ve even been out to some gigs at Celtic Connections this year: special mention to Sarah-Jane Summers and Juhani Silvola for being effortlessly virtuosic and brilliant, and great company too. Now that I’ve tried Skruf snus, I never need do so again (I thought Juhani was carrying some hair product around with him for some reason).
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