Notes from NAFCo 2018
The North Atlantic Fiddle Convention is more than an academic conference, it is a conversation that includes participants of all ages through academic presentations, music and dance workshops, public discussions and interviews, performances, céilís and music sessions with participants from all over the world. Taking place this year in Aberdeen, where it was established in 2001, I enjoyed participating in as many aspects as the programme would allow, much of which is included here in what is only a snapshot of the event.
My conversations began at Dublin airport as I met with Heather Sparling, Colin Quigley and Jean Duvall, all on their way to present at the symposium. Conferences provide time and space for what is a global research community to catch up. Social media has impacted on peoples’ awareness of research projects and performance activities, as well as changes in Higher Education and much communication between researchers utilises email but the opportunity to have a face-to-face conversation is still valued. Aberdeen would be a very hospitable place for these conversations.
The Aberdeen hospitality was evident from the point of landing as Ali met us with a bus at the airport. Having settled into our accommodation, Jean Duvall and I set off for a dinner to discuss a number of musical thoughts. Jean’s MA research was of particular interest to me and his framework for considering composers and their music in Irish, Cape Breton and Quebecois music was very relevant for my research on Josephine Keegan and my paper at the symposium. Jean had met Josephine and is himself a fine composer. We shared a wide and interesting discussion on composition and creativity in traditional music.
On Wednesday morning I listened with great interest to Emma Nixon’s discussion of Scottish traditional music in Australia. Later we spoke further of her efforts to develop a National Folk Orchestra in Australia and I shared some reflections from working on the Oriel Traditional Orchestra and with Ceolta Sí. Also focusing on international contexts, Newfoundland fiddle player Evelyn Osbourne discussed her experience of English Morris dancing in Hong Kong, where she now works as a Suzuki teacher. The theme of (dislocated, relocated, dispersed) communities was further developed by Mats Nilson who reflected on the change from dance in communities or ‘community dancing’ to ‘dancing communities’. Mats theories could be applied or used to interrogate a wide range of contexts for music and dance, including the NAFCo community and wider community of academics, who construct communities through events such as NAFCo.
NAFCo itself is an international community and the symposium included sessions of brief introductions, which were a great opportunity to put names to faces and discover a little more about the research interests of others attending the symposium. On Wednesday evening, there was a reception in the Town Hall hosted by the Lord Provost. With speeches kept short, the evening featured a number of performers who provided a taste of some of the musical diversity presented at the festival. I went from there to a music session (conversation through music) with Pat Ballantyne, Iain Richardson and a host of others at the Black Friar. I had an opportunity to share and explore research ideas in conversation with Stuart Eydmann, whose studies of various aspects of traditional instrumental music revivals in Scotland are of particular interest to me.
Concerts, Music Sessions and Film Screenings
There were a series of lunchtime concerts held during NAFCo at The Lemon Tree, presenting snapshots of the different musical cultures at the festival and which also built upon the discourse of the academic papers, often unconsciously. The first I attended included the Nordic Fiddlers Bloc whose clever harmonies drew on their Shetland, Norwegian and Swedish musical traditions. After lunch I attended the concert in St Andrew’s Cathedral. Matt Cranitch and Caoimhe Flannery treated the audience to some great Sliabh Luachra music on two fiddles. They were followed by Figelin from Germany, whose combination of Klezmer and North German fiddle music and song was a delightful surprise and followed neatly from Mark Slobin’s earlier keynote. Slobin is a seminal ethnomusicologist whose theories of micromusics informed my PhD studies and continue to challenge me in my ongoing research.
On Thursday, I had the pleasure of hearing sisters Natalie and Brittany Haas during the lunchtime concert. After, I attended a piano workshop with Neal Pearson and went for a few tunes in the Blue Lamp before attending the screening of a Smithsonian film on dance in America. Talking Feet introduced me to dancers that I was unaware of but who reminded me of what existed in North Kerry and was documented by Fr Pat Ahern, Catherine Foley and others. The content of the film related back to many of the dance-themed papers at the conference.
After dinner on Thursday, I headed to the Blue Lamp where Figelin were first up. As with Wednesday, I was impressed by their approach, innovative arrangements and the expression of each of their three distinct personalities. Sophie Lavoie, Fiachra O’Regan and André Marchaud combined to capture some of the essence of NAFCo, presenting a mix of Irish, Quebecois and new music. Brazilian Luiz Moretto took this a step further with music drawing from Brazil and Cape Verde with jazz influences. I went from the soirée to a Swedish and Galician dance, enjoying the familiarity of aspects of the Swedish dances and the happiness of the Galician muinieros. Dancing at the end of the day allowed me to better feel the rhythms of the music, in addition to sharing the experience with more of the conference and festival participants. Finishing the night with a session, people allowed the musicians of their various cultures to flow in a shared space. The combination of activities I engaged in highlights the different ways in which NAFCo facilitates research and learning through varied modes of engagement, dissemination and presenting research.
After the #performingresearch session with Catríona MacDonald on Friday I attended the fiddle talk with the Nordic Fiddle Bloc before attending the screening of the Alasdair Frasier documentary The Groove is not Trivial (2018). The film inspired rich critical dinner time discussion with Jo Miller and Jean Duvall, as well as Conor Caldwell and Danny Diamond. The different perspectives brought by each of the individuals around the table enriched the reflection on and critique of the film.
After the lunchtime concert on Saturday that featured young musicians including Caoimhe Flannery from Cork and DADGA from Galicia, I enjoyed listening to symposium convenor Frances Wilkins in a performance role alongside Claire White as part of the Blyde Lasses. The afternoon continued with an opportunity for me to attend a concert by the Shetland Fiddlers – the same group that inspired Josephine Keegan to begin a fiddle group in South Armagh many years previously, as I had discussed in my paper at the symposium. Their performance included some images of Shetland and Shirley Mills and Charlie Simpson provided a geo-historical and social narrative for the music. Mr Simpson had joined Catríona and I for our #performingresearch panel the previous day, accompanying Catríona on piano for a tune, and told me some of his memories of Josephine in Shetland, which I hope to return to in developing my research further.
I also attended the #performingresearch events in the afternoon where, on Wednesday, Nic Gareiss, Scott Harding and Toby Bennett had a great discussion about music, dance, creativity and sexuality. On Friday, I shared this space with Shetland fiddle player and Senior Lecturer at Newcastle University Catríona MacDonald. We led a wide-ranging discussion that considered performance in and as research, our pathways to academia and the importance of performance to reaching our positions, how our lifelong engagement with performance informs our research and teaching, and more besides. NAFCo, perhaps more than any other conference, facilitates a coming together of performers and academics and values a dual identity amongst many presenters and participants. Catríona and I began with some consideration of how performance and research were interconnected in our own lives, work and institutions, with consideration of how that included our lifelong engagement with performance and our homeplace. Performance is also integral to our teaching, which is, in turn, informed by our experience as performers. We played a few tunes to illustrate our talk and I danced a few steps, thus moving beyond words in our expression of performing research.
#performingresearch was coordinated by Nic Gareiss and Lauara Risk and sought to make more explicit the interaction between academics and performers or, perhaps more accurately the dual roles of academics as performers and vice versa. Throughout the conference, performers were included in academic sessions as respondents, which creatively raised questions and prompted discussions that allowed the further development of conversations and the sharing of artistry and creativity.
While the range of events and activities was impressive, my raison d’etre for attending NAFCo 2018 was the symposium convened by Dr Frances Wilkins. The papers had a very international dimension and engaged well with the conference theme of dialogue.
The first session of papers I attended included Emma Nixon’s reflections on her engagement in Scottish traditional music in Australia, Newfoundland fiddle player Evelyn Osbourne’s reflections on engaging in English Morris dancing in Hong Kong, and Mats Nilson’s reflections on dispersed ‘dancing communities’. These were followed by Mark Slobin’s excellent presentation on klezmer, which placed people at the core of understanding ‘tradition’.
Ronnie Gibson, whose website www.scottishfiddlemusic.com is a useful reference point, read Chris Goertzen’s paper on American fiddle contexts on Thursday morning, in which Goertzen questioned the disconnection between music and dance and the impact of competitions. The interconnection of music and dance was again raised by Mats Melin in his paper, which also raised questions about developing performance from interpretations of archives and field research. Nic Gareiss’ artistic response to the two papers was inspiring and led to continued discussion on the themes of the session.
Thursday’s keynote was an enthusiastic expression of a research project that brought Shetland fiddle player to Greenland and back again. His photography provided wonderful illustrations for his story, which initially centred on the character of Strong Johnny Hunter and led him on a discovery of the musical connections between Shetland and Greenland. His experiences led him to critically reflect on music and dance in Shetland. The theme of forgetting was further developed in Saturday’s keynote presentation. Heather Sparling’s excellent paper on music contexts in Cape Breton explored the act of forgetting in the construction of narratives for music. Her critical interrogation of memory and forgetting has implications for my own research, particularly in relation to Siamsa Tíre. A balanced, methodological approach to research that can include archival research, interviews and field experiences informs writing through the interrogation of different perspectives and sources and challenges to continue to question our understanding of culture.
Matt Cranitch gave the opening paper on Friday morning, which critically considered dynamics in Sliabh Luachra fiddle music, highlighting the nuances of performances that are not always understood by performers. Although my doctoral studies also engaged with Matt, our approaches are very different although complimentary and I always enjoy engaging with Matt’s research. While my work on Sliabh Luachra has often focused on the concept of a region with the tradition, underpinned by geographical concepts, Matt engages more thoroughly with the sound, musical style and transmission of this tradition. Moreover, he readily illustrates his presentations through his own playing, capturing the style of past masters and revealing some of their secrets.
Margarethe Adams’ presentation on Kazakh fiddle music was of particular interest to me because of her focus on pilgrimage and the monuments constructed to musicians, which echoed some elements of my PhD and presentations at various conferences between 2008 and 2011, as well as my entry on monuments in Fintan Vallely’s Companion to Irish Traditional Music (2011). The similarities that Adams evoked in my mind reminded me of debates that I regularly have with Fr Pat Ahern relating to cultural acts and beliefs that are shared across many peoples located in many parts of the world.
The excellent keynote paper on West African fiddle traditions from Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje preceded the session in which Catríona MacDonald and I presented papers that related to Shetland. Catríona’s ongoing research, which includes the editing of a book of Shetland music and, as presented in her paper here, a forgotten engagement by Norwegian ethnomusicologist Arne Bjorndal, as well as her ongoing performing schedule with String Sisters (whose performance we attended at Celtic Connections this year) reverberated with the types and dimensions of research being done by so many others at NAFCo. We found common ground in Shetland, despite the fact that I have not yet visited the place.
The diversity of fiddle musics performed in the concerts was further exemplified in the final session of papers on Saturday considered the fiddle in ensemble contexts. Colin Quigley explored the Trio-Transylvan but it was Ian Russell’s paper on carolling around Sheffield that struck a chord with me (pardon the pun). His presentation suggested a reference point to find answers to recent questions relating to musical culture in Youghal and, in particular the bands of the early and mid-twentieth century that performed a wide range of music, often based on familial groupings.
As with other good conferences and research events, I have a notebook full of notes that will guide my own future research, inform my teaching and challenge my thinking. I have new references to follow up on, ideas to consider and critical friends that offer insightful support and a form of mentoring that is invaluable as we face the challenges of continuing to develop, undertake and disseminate research.
The Saturday night concert represented the climax of the festival and my NAFCo 2018 experience. Sitting in the grand surroundings of His Majesty’s Theatre, I observed that the large local audience was interspersed with conference delegates and festival performers. The NAFCo community extends beyond the lecture room and workshop space and makes connections with the host communities, something that was further extended in 2018 through a series of concerts held in venues throughout Aberdeenshire. The audience mix was reflected on stage as the performers alternated between the local and the global. The concert opened with the Aberdeen Strathspey and Reel Society under the baton of Ronnie Gibson. Again, the connection between research and musicking is evident in Ronnie’s role and his knowledge and research into the ‘Golden Age’ of Scottish fiddling. As conductor, he brings to life his research with great passion and knowledge.
From the very local to the exotic, South Indian fiddle player Jyotsna Srikarth introduced many in the audience to Carnatic music. Along with two percussionists, she gave an outstanding performance that demonstrated the adaptation of the fiddle into other traditions. She was followed by local fiddler Paul Anderson, whose introduction traced his lineage back through the generations of teachers to Neil and Nathanial Gow, two of the great fiddle players and composers of the North East region. He mixed his own compositions with the older repertoire, the familiarity of which drew a reaction from the audience. His celebration of a regional identity was further reinforced through his use of the Doric dialect.
Alfonso Franco and his young group of fiddlers from Galicia brought the first half to an energetic and enthusiastic close. His work in Galician fiddle music, as a performer and through the Vigo School of Folk and Traditional Music (ETRAD) and the Galician Folk Orchestra Sondescu is inspirational and can inform some of the musical activities Adèle and I are involved in, including our roles in the Oriel Traditional Orchestra and relationship with Music Generation Louth. The inclusion of Mexican singer Osiris Ramses Cabellero de Léon added another layer of internationalisation and his singing reminded me of my trip to Mexico in 2007 with members of Ceolta Sí for the Olin Kan festival. The abilities of music to conjure up places and events while simultaneously bring musicians from different places and generations together is a recurring theme of NAFCo.
The second half of the concert opened with the participants of the fiddle camp and included a premiere of a new composition by Patsy Reid. My highlight for the night, and indeed the week, was the #performingresearch element. Nic Gareiss and Laura Risk, who had co-ordinated the series of events under the title #performingresearch, began by setting the groove with fiddle and dance, incorporating quotations from papers and discussions. I was honoured to be quoted early on. The series of events sought to more fully integrate the performance and research sides of NAFCo 2018 and, to this end, they were aided here by a great team and a clever idea. Mark Slobin, Heather Sparling and Colin Quigley took to the stage in a performance capacity that, utilising humour and comedy, sought to demystify ‘research’ and academia and highlight their own engagement with performance. They were joined on stage by Britanny Haas, Ana Su Lee and Adam Sutherland who, as performers, demonstrated how their performance practice is informed by research and the similarities in the questions raised by ‘performers’ and ‘researchers’, implicitly questioning the distinction between these categories. This element of the concert was simultaneously the most innovative and entertaining performance and research output I have encountered.
Brittany Haas remained on stage to perform with her sister Natalie before Alasdair Frasier joined the latter for the final act. I had previously enjoyed Frasier and Haas at the Canberra Folk Festival in 2012 and admire their interplay. The connection of local and global was reinforced by Frasier, now resident in America, who reflected that his father had performed on this stage as part of the Aberdeen Strathspey and Reel Society. Mixing old and new compositions, they were joined by Nic Gareiss and, latterly, Brittany Haas and Laura Risk. Haas and Risk were ‘products’ of Frasier’s renowned Moon Valley Fiddle Camp, which had featured prominently in Thursday’s film and appears to have influenced many other fiddle camps since its foundation in 1985. Indeed the concert concluded with all performers on stage finishing with a trademark Frasier ending, conducted in his own inimitable way by Frasier himself.
NAFCo 2018 raised a number of important themes and provoked questions that are closely related to our ongoing research. I could not get to everything but the programme provided me with an insight into the diversity, quality and relevance of the material, as well as the passion and enthusiasm of all of those involved at every level. The intersection of performance and research was ever-present through the week. The concept of tradition, including memory, forgetting, invention and revival, was a recurring theme and, in both papers and performances, it was clear that ‘tradition’ includes ongoing creativity. The tradition of being creative and expressing creativity through performance and composition, informed by historical and field research, is at the core of the A Louth Lilt project.
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Foley, Catherine. Irish Traditional Step Dancing in North Kerry: A Contextual and Structural Analysis. North Kerry Literary Trust, 2012.
Kearney, Daithí. ‘monuments’ in Companion to Irish Traditional Music ed. Fintan Vallely. Cork University Press, 2011, p. 462-464.
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Small, Christopher. Musicking: The meanings of performing and listening. Wesleyan University Press, 2011.