Disturbing Trend Watch:
Every now and then I gaze around during a session. Most of the sessions I’m playing in these days are populated by a good few folks who are pretty much beginners or, if they have been playing awhile, don’t know many tunes. I see them sitting, instruments at rest as the session wave tosses out tunes they haven’t yet learned.
Sometimes I see people sitting round the session circle who can play maybe less 10% of the total tunes in the session.
And yet I see no recording devices in evidence. No cassette recorders. No palm-size pod gizmos. Nobody with their whatever-e-thing recording the tunes they don’t know. And clearly need to learn if they want to grow in the tradition.
When I started out in ITM, I recorded the entire session. One, to learn tunes I didn’t know but were being commonly played.
Two, to get different versions of tunes I did know so I could compare and possibly improve my setting.
Three, to record some amazing players whose music would never be otherwise documented.
I suppose these days Number 3 is less critical; it seems every hour brings forth a new commercial recording of ITM somewhere in the world, and the airwaves and archives are bursting with aural examples of great players. So it’s not like the music is inaccessible anymore.
But a modern ITM session is thoroughly open and the players highly sophisticated. Nobody’s going to upbraid you for “capturing their soul” with your little recording thingy. Nobody’s going to be worried you’ll bootleg the session and exploit their artistry.
It’s not just sessions, either. I taught at a wonderful music camp last summer, which shall remain named — the outstanding Pipers Gathering at Killington, Vermont www.pipersgathering.org. Over the weekend I had 12 students in my workshops. Only 2 of the 12 brought tape recording devices.
I thought, “You people have paid serious money and traveled great distances to take these workshops… you have master musicians at your personal disposal… and you’re not bothering to record any of it?”
I wasn’t insulted; I was just curious. At the workshops I remember attending 30-some years ago, everyone was recording.
And I don’t believe it’s laziness. I mean, if those students and the folks I see at sessions were lazy or didn’t give a hoot, they wouldn’t be there at all. Clearly, they love the music.
Maybe folks taking up Irish Traditional Music now figure they can learn tunes from the scores of available tunebooks or from Youtube or any of a hundred internet tune databases. Or an instructional DVD like the kind I make or the hundreds of commercial recordings with thousands of ITM tunes, more than anyone could ever learn in five lifetimes (except Paddy O’Brien, possibly).
So why in the 2010s should anybody bother recording tunes at a session?
Because that’s where The Music lives.
Before Irish Traditional Music was a performance art safely rendered on Broadway and PBS, it was a music that exemplified the culture that bred it. It was a little subversive, sometimes dangerous, always brutally honest at the core.
That culture is pretty much gone. The Ireland that birthed the music in past centuries, even the stellar musicians of the early 20th century we know and cherish — it’s all vanished. . . that time and place and those legendary players we celebrate are mere wisps floating through the songs and tunes we hear today.
The session isn’t just about tunes. It’s about what happens collectively when musicians — often complete strangers — meet and perform this music together in a fluid, totally unpredictable context that never was before and never will be again.
If a musical idiom can be said to possess something of an Essence or a Spirit, you’ll come closest to finding it at a live session. It’s the session’s very randomness and spontaneity, the warp in the weave, the molecules moving among the aural wormholes, the oceanic ebb and flow from which an epic wave can arise at a second’s notice. . .
The session is where you’re going to find yourself playing things you never thought possible. Things you never even thought about thinking were possible. And there they are. And there you are.
For a few tantalizing, exhilarating moments you’ve let that ancient culture slip inside you and shazam! It reached across the ages and spoke its truth and beauty and pride and defiance in your voice.
So that’s what you might be able to record at a session. Not every session, of course; certainly not every minute of the session.
But it’s there, if you want it.
I’ve been playing ITM for 38 years. Know what? I still record tunes at sessions.
I’m funny like that.
* My friend and bandmate from high school, Barry Foy, wrote a great book called Field Guide to the Irish Music Session: An Authoritative Guide to Enjoying Irish Traditional Music in its Natural Habitat — http://www.frogchartpress.com.
I haven’t read it in a while but think I’ll open it up tonight. If you haven’t read it, you should. It’s humorous but has a lot of insight into ITM and the session format.
Maybe it’ll get you jazzed about your next session.
** players in photo above at Hoban’s Tavern, Chicago, 1974: (l-r) Seamus Cooley, John McGreevy, Pat Cloonan, Jimmy Thornton.