Q & A
The Traditional Music Session: Irish
Prof. Sean Ferguson
1 - What's the difference between
Irish and Scottish traditional music?
While I’m not an
expert on this, I do know that the West
Coast of Ireland is the furthest you can get
from Europe and the U.K. without landing in
the Atlantic Ocean. For various reasons,
traditional culture in Ireland appears to
have become concentrated along this coast in
relative isolation from external cultural
forces. As a result, the traditional music
preserved in this region may be in some
senses less influenced by music from other
areas, which gives it a unique character.
Scotland, on the other hand, as part of the
United Kingdom, has in general been more
exposed to other influences, which has
naturally caused its traditional music to
evolve in a different way over time in
comparison to that of Ireland.
2 - Do you need to be able to read
music to play in a session?
At its foundation,
Irish traditional music is an oral
tradition, passed on between musicians
through direct personal contact, rather than
through the intermediary of notation. Many
important aspects of this music cannot be
notated, such as its rhythmic feel, its
ornamentation, etc. While there are
literally thousands of notated scores in
different formats freely available on the
internet, it isn’t necessary at all to be
able to read music to become an expert
performer of this repertoire. Based on my
experience, there is a distinct qualitative
difference between pieces that I’ve learned
from reading a score and those that I’ve
learned by ear, since the latter highlights
important elements that can be heard, but
3 - How much did you have to
rehearse for the Mini-Music performance?
We didn’t rehearse at all! In fact, I
didn’t even tell the performers exactly
what tunes we were going to play.
Spontaneity and musical interplay
between the performers are hallmarks of
Irish music that would be lost in an
overly-rehearsed performance, especially
in the context of a session. At a
session, you never even know who will
show up, so it would be impossible to
rehearse on a regular basis.
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