100 Days of Practice Round 3 Day 4: Expressiveness in Traditional Irish Music

Yesterday, I asked students in my music listening class to express what it is that they like about the music they like. After what felt like an extended period of silence, here were the first three answers:

1) The beat (how it makes you move)
2) The emotion (how it makes you feel)
3) The lyrics/the message (how it relates to your life)

While it's likely that none of the students were thinking of Irish traditional music when they offered these ideas, we can certainly apply this to Irish music. Lucky us, players of Irish traditional music, we've got the beat part down.

The jigs, reels, and hornpipes of Irish traditional music are all about rhythm, because, of course, the music's original intent was to liven up a dance floor, get people moving, connecting with each other, and having fun. A lively, steady pulse is one of the most important things we can put into our tune when playing the music as it was originally intended. As a music intended for dance, a jig or reel is wildly successful if it can do two things for listeners: enhance moods and get people tapping their feet.

Of course, the music presents a unique challenge to anyone who wishes for music as a vehicle to express the wide range of emotion that defines human existence. The emotion is not built in there with Irish tunes. If you want it, you gotta put it there yourself.

It's not like Beethoven or Wagner, those most emotive, even sometimes melodramatic of composers. Inherent in any single one of their symphonies (and please, I do not speak for all of their compositions, just the Top 10 Hits) is deep drama, ranging from rage to fear to joy to reverence. They wrote it in. The conductor then interprets this for the orchestra, and boy, we get the message.

So what do we do with Irish traditional music? One solution is that you can play slow airs your whole life, and some do that with such mastery that they can make you cry with just one note. Or, you can keep playing the dance tunes but do what fiddler Martin Hayes does: venture beyond the music's original intention, leave the rigid pulse behind because no one is intending to dance at this concert anyway, and then let the music breathe. His musical pulse quickens or slows depending on the emotion at hand. He makes the music human, philosophizing with every note, gently coaxing true confessions in every phrase. The tune comes to trust him so deeply that it doesn't even realize until the next morning that it gave him all of its bank account numbers and the keys to its Prius.

There are a few tunes out there that seem to have the emotion built in... especially some of the minor ones. It's easy to milk intensity out of just about any E minor tune, and easy to put nyah into one of those D/C or G/F tunes. But what the heck do you do except be happy when playing one of those carbonated, relentlessly major tunes like the New Policeman, the Silver Spear, the Maid Behind the Bar, the Wise Maid, the Galway Rambler? Can you deliver each one with a different emotion, or are they all just saying, "Come on in! The dance floor's open!" I suppose they are. And that's just fine. Fun is good.

But this is where we start talking about improvisations. About venturing a bit from the prescribed melody and making up wee bits that are your own, wrapping a little bit of emotion into tiny melodic packets, lighting them, then tossing them out on the floor to see if they detonate. There's a bit of risk taking involved... sliding out a little further on the limb, putting your heart on your sleeve, then lifting up your arm for others to see. You're risking making mistakes, of course, and you're also risking yourself... cracking your exterior, showing a little bit of the anger, fear, insecurity, ego, sadness, or oblivious joy hidden within. There's a shadow back there, too, and we look to our finest musicians to share it with us because we would rather not do it ourselves.

Carl Jung says that we all have it:

“It is a frightening thought that man also has a shadow side to him, consisting not just of little weaknesses and foibles but of a positively demonic dynamism. . . . We know that the wildest and most moving dramas are played not in the theatre but in the hearts of ordinary men and women who pass by without exciting attention, and who betray to the world nothing of the conflicts that rage within them except possibly by a nervous breakdown." - Carl Jung, New Paths in Psychology (1912)

I found this quote in a beautifully written article about Mel Gibson in the Boston Sunday Globe, in which film critic Ty Burr likened Mel Gibson's public fall from grace to Carl Jung's writing on the human dark side:

"He is not a well-behaved star, and that is oddly welcome: We need to see the beasts beneath our icons. The vileness that poured out on a Malibu roadside three years ago - not just the blotto racism but the anger, megalomania, resentment, insecurity - are kept carefully hidden by an industry and a society that just don’t want to know. But it’s in them and it’s in us, and Gibson can’t help bring it to the surface. Something in him - religion or the devil, entitlement or booze - prompts him time and again to go too far, to release the shadow. In so doing, he illuminates what we ask of our stars: How we demand they behave and how we punish and enable them for stepping over the line."

Okay, we're not going that far here. I don't necessarily need to see the beast behind the sax player in the Boston Highlands Ceili Band. And I don't want you to, either. Not yet.

Such a range of possibility.

I absolutely savor the effortless mastery of players like Shannon Heaton, who seems to have boundless creativity in her interpretations of tunes, who never plays a tune the same way twice, whose flute always delivers creative improvisations with ne'er a slip up, with perfect diction, with a carefully sculpted sound that is very much her own distinct voice. There is discipline in her sound, the beautiful, pristine intention of a Japanese rock garden. It makes you want to sit down and stay awhile.

There are also times when it feels awfully good to see a musician on stage step over the line, go too far, risk a little too much. Like watching a tightrope walker, we love to watch our artists work in perfect balance. We marvel at their skill, but always sit at the edge of our seats... What if today were the day they slipped? Fortunately, they've got a big, wide net to catch them, and that's us, the listeners. We love our performers, we'll catch them when they fall, and as long as they smile and say "thank you," we'll gladly help them back up the ladder to try again.

So perhaps that's the next discussion. We love our music, we love its beat, its ability to move us both physically and emotionally. But we also love our musicians, our stars, and we're willing to give them all the latitude that we so often do not give to ourselves.