Focus: Irish Traditional Music

By Reily, Suzel Ana | Yearbook for Traditional Music, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Focus: Irish Traditional Music


Reily, Suzel Ana, Yearbook for Traditional Music


Williams, Sean. Focus: Irish Traditional Music. Focus on Music Series. New York: Routledge, 2010. xxii, 284 pp., maps, photos, musical examples, glossary, listening guide, indexes, CD.

Irish traditional music has fans across the world, many based in Ireland and within the numerous communities of diasporic Irish in America, Australia, and New Zealand, but also among people with no Irish links whatsoever, such as its large fan base across Europe, Russia, and Japan, to name a few. Yet an extended introduction to this repertoire and its practices directed at contemporary interests has been lacking for some time. Focus: Irish Traditional Music has been conceived primarily as a textbook for use in an (American) academic teaching environment, but it is likely to be useful to anyone with a serious interest in Irish traditional music. Along with discussions of the sounds of Irish traditional music, Williams introduces a range of ethnomusicological topics, locating the sounds within their wider social settings.

The book is organized around three broad themes. Part 1 is titled "Irish Music in Place and Time." It provides a concise historical survey of the soundscapes of the island from the time of its earliest inhabitants to the present, highlighting critical historical junctures that have shaped the music and the ways in which it is conceptualized. Major forces include Christianity, its dissemination, challenges, and developments; invasions and political shifts and struggles; agricultural activities, rural modes of sociability, famine, and immigration; urbanization and the emergence of the "Celtic Tiger." Now, surely, one would also have to contemplate the effects of the Economic Crisis.

Part 2, "Music Traditions Abroad and at Home," takes an interesting approach by beginning with an overview of the wider "Celtic" world, identifying links with Ireland and Irish traditional music, whilst also showing how this concept was constructed and its links with contemporary marketing strategies. We then move to my favourite chapter in the book, "The Green Fields of America." For me the special richness of this chapter resides in the way in which Williams demonstrates the complex ways in which the musics of successive waves of Irish immigrants interacted with local musics, the immigrant experience, and American dreams. But perhaps the chapter many students are likely to linger on is the final chapter of this section, which, alongside an inventory of Irish traditional instruments, invites the reader to learn a series of standard instrumental pieces, enthusing them to "join the session." Alongside issues of form, the reader is provided with basic information for distinguishing between regional styles and such musical practices as bowing, ornamenting, and repertoire selection.

In the last section of the book, Williams focuses upon the vocal traditions of the island, dividing them into two main categories: Irish language songs, primarily sean-nós, and songs in the English language. In these chapters the reader is introduced to the ways in which distinctions between Irish and English inflections are evident in song style, particularly the practice of ornamenting the unaccented syllables. …

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