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Living Tradition

Posted by Tom Hanway on Wednesday, May 18, 2016

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Here is a comparison between Irish music and Irish dance revealing a difficult problem that faces composers and choreographers who compose or choreograph something new and try to add it to the tradition. This problem extends to contemporary Trad artists when they seek to add something new or original to the tradition. It is a social problem — not the fault of composers, choreographers or innovators. 

living tradition:  The dynamic interplay of continuity and change, of repetition and variation, lies at the heart of the various Celtic traditions, as in all living tradition. It is possible to be an “original” and still be “traditional”—the terms are not mutually exclusive. Ironically, an original dance or tune may be traditional in style, but because it is new and unrecognized, the critic does not perceive it as “traditional.” It has no history in the tradition and has yet to be picked up by other performers. On the other hand, a new tune or dance may not be given a chance or get the appreciation it deserves because some connoisseur maligns it for being too much like a previous endeavor. The effect on the performer can be devastating. It is a catch-22 for performers who attempt to compose or choreograph in a traditional style; either their work is considered original and non-traditional, or a clever copy or adaptation. 

Consider Irish dancing. Form and footwork in céilí dancing is uniform, while set dancing allows individual style and footwork variation. Set dancing has never had a “book,” and some céilí dancers who go by their “book” would trivialize the work of set dancers who embrace a broader traditional range, including regional styles and original sets. 

Among some Celtic musicians and dancers then, one might recognize distinct attitudes. First is the curmudgeon, who, in seeking to uphold (or save) the tradition, views it anachronistically, overemphasizes certain aspects of it, and ignores or deprecates change—especially the work of contemporary Celtic artists who stray beyond his notions of what can properly be called “traditional.” Many brand the critic a “purist,” but, to his credit, he is merely trying to preserve certain aspects of the tradition (e.g., sean-nós singing or regional styles. Yet, sadly, the purist recognizes and enjoys only certain aspects of the living tradition. He believes, with good reason, that the encroachments of non-Celtic, other Celtic, and classical forms are jeopardizing the most subtle aspect of the tradition, and this bothers him. So he looks down his nose and sternly admonishes beginners and innovators who adapt traditional forms for personal enjoyment. In all likelihood, such a way of dealing with a perceived threat to the tradition only fuels the fires of imagination of the “sinners.”

A second curious attitude is the know-nothing-know-it-all: an unaware but overeager performer who, lacking in experience, willy-nilly ignores and tramples over the music or dance, or both.

A third type is the creative standard-bearer: a performer or innovator who works steadfastly yet creatively within traditional forms and styles and, by freely contributing, keeps the tradition a living one.

Last, is the interested beginner: one probably better off developing into the latter than ending up as one of the others.”

This is from the Glossary to Complete Book of Irish & Celtic 5-String Banjo (1998).

Beir bua agus beannacht ~ Tomás



2 comments on “Living Tradition”

5stringJim Says:
Saturday, June 11, 2016 @8:48:45 AM

Sorry for intruding, Tom, but it was the only way to get to you soon.....sad to say, Robin McKidd passed last week, from cancer on top of emphysema. Funeral is here in Fife next Tuesday 21st.
Jim Hyndman.

Tom Hanway Says:
Tuesday, July 5, 2016 @9:12:09 PM

Sorry, Jim, oh dear, I don't read my own blog, so, ah, I missed this.

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