Going to the well for water: traditional oral/aural aesthetics and the performance of the modern self in contemporary Irish traditional music

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Streit, Kaylie Eleanore
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University College Cork
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Irish traditional music is a living tradition in which participating members both play the music and discuss questions about what defines the tradition and what the tradition can become. Exploration of these questions through informal talks between musicians, musical explorations, and formal discussion of musical changes in academic settings helps to keep the tradition alive alongside performance of the music. With this thesis, I join this ongoing discussion and engage with Ó Súilleabháin’s (1990; 1999), Ní Shíocháin’s (2021a; 2018; 2009), and Cowdery’s (1990; 1984) ideas about creativity, flexibility, aural transmission practices, and melodic development within Irish traditional music. I extend their work to compare practices across three different performance contexts: 1) highly traditional; 2) crossovers between genres; and 3) explorational, improvisational performances. Through interviews and performance observations, I found that these musicians use traditional material to perform their musical identities, much like Bourdieu found that individuals use the habitus to express aspects of themselves and their culture (1990; 1984; 1977), and to create meaningful expressions of self. Through my analyses of fieldwork, I developed the concept of musical regeneration as a lens to discuss the musicians’ creative practices. It provides an analytical language for discussing creative processes which intertwine oral/aural traditional practices with contemporary performance practices as well as a framework to discuss expression of the self and performance of identity through music that references traditional material. I correlate musical regeneration with the concept of “going to the well for water.” This phrase refers to the process of returning to traditional repertoire, structures, and ideas as a source of nourishment, refreshment, and inspiration in the creation of new musical works and, thus, new expressions of the self through performance. A key example of this process is Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh’s performance of the tune “Going to the Well for Water,” which he first performed in a traditional manner then used as a foundation for an improvisation. This performance, which contributed both to the phrase and the title of this thesis, is a key example of musical regeneration in action. Chapter 1 defines musical regeneration as a creative process used by experienced musicians to create new musical expressions. This process combines elements of composition in performance (Lord 1960; Ní Shíocháin 2021a; 2018), rapid composition (Gjerdingen 2007), and improvisation (Berliner 1994; Evans 1982). Chapter 2 contextualises my fieldwork by exploring the development of creative practices in Irish traditional music over time. This chapter also focuses on case studies of current Irish traditional musicians within highly traditional performance contexts who participate in the re-creative process of “making the tune your own,” which is an inherent component of this living musical tradition. This demonstrates that musical regeneration, through re-creativity, is used by musicians to create personalised expressions of self which connect the past heritage of the music to the present. Chapter 3 investigates how musicians reference multiple aspects of their musical background, including vernacular aesthetics and structures, within a single performance through musical regeneration. Chapter 4 focuses on how traditional aesthetics, sounds, and approaches to creativity are re-interpreted and applied to contemporary, and often experimental, contexts. The musicians featured in these case studies create improvisatory music which explores the idea of expanding vernacular aesthetics beyond their original tradition. They often combine multiple musical influences in the process of exploring musical possibilities and expressions of self from an alternative perspective. Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh’s performance of “Going to the Well for Water” is analysed in this chapter. Chapter 5 investigates how musicians in each of these performance contexts use musical processes and formulas as habitus and technologies of self to express their identity through music performance. This tells us how musicians use traditional material, through the creative practice of musical regeneration, in the process of meaning making and modern expression of the self. This range of performance practices also demonstrates the vitality of Irish traditional music today and the multiple veins through which the music and its practices are successfully carried on to future generations.
Irish traditional music , Musical regeneration , Recomposition , Improvisation , Composition in performance , Performance of the self , Subjectivity , Oral traditions and modernity , Vernacular aesthetics , Contemporary music , Ethnomusicology , Musicology
Streit, K. E. 2023. Going to the well for water: traditional oral/aural aesthetics and the performance of the modern self in contemporary Irish traditional music. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.
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