We were on the road again in January 2018, bringing music and research to local and international audiences and engaging in discussion and action that will reverberate through the coming months.
It was back to Drogheda for another, rather cold, ‘Music at the Gate’ with Darragh Ó hÉilligh and friends. With each instalment, the backing of the people and businesses of Louth becomes ever more apparent. With the stage in place at St Laurence’s Gate, heaters lit and hot coffee on supply from Relish Café and Foodhall, the musicians rattled on despite the low January temperatures. It is the commitment of a community of musicians and listeners that generates the energy to draw others in and the event is not only a useful preparation or taster of what Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann 2018 might bring but highlights the potential for sustained musical activity in the town. Indeed there are calls for similar events in the surrounding towns so watch this space!
Elsewhere, Celtic Connections is one of the highlights of the musical calendar for many traditional musicians and this year we had the opportunity to attend and present at the ‘Pedagogies, Practices and the Future of Folk Music in Higher Education Conference’ hosted at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Professor Joshua Dickson and his team put together a fantastic few days of discussion and debate which highlighted both similarities and differences in how we and our international colleagues approach learning, teaching and research in traditional music in institutions all over the world. The RCS, ranked one of the top three place in the world to study the performing arts, was a wonderful venue for the event that not only included paper presentations but a public discussion entitled ‘Creative Conversation’ and workshops on assessment and feedback.
The focus of Thursday was ‘Tradition and Change’ with a lot of focus on the place of traditional and folk music in academic institutions and conservatoires. Papers addressed Norwegian fiddle traditions, Fado singing in Portugal, Bluegrass in Tenessee, and new contexts for traditional music and dance in Hungary. A number of presenters provided an historical overview of traditional music in their own institutions and the challenges of locating traditional music in academia, with some suggestions for future directions. The ‘Creative Conversation’, which was attended by Fiona Hyslop MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs in the Scottish Government, provided insights into the personal experiences of the varied panel facilitated by Professor Gary West, Presenter of Radio Scotland’s Pipeline. While the Minister emphasised the importance of the creative industries in Scotland and the importance of global collaboration, the focus of others drew on their own lives in traditional music and the creativity therein.
That night, Celtic Connections held their 25th Anniversary Concert. It was interesting to sit back and enjoy the concert with the day’s discourse swimming around in our heads. The concert opened with a lone, female bagpiper Robyn McKay, followed by an impressive drum corps. As the concert progressed, one of the ‘hot topics’ in current music research came alive on stage – the role and inclusion of female performers in traditional musics. Indeed, we are involved in a number of projects related to researching gender in music and, as Sharon Shannon, Cherish the Ladies and String Sisters took to the stage at different times, different aspects of related debates rose up. Indeed, The Guardian newspaper published an article by Kate Molleson during last year’s festival (25 January 2017) that engaged with the gender balance of the festival and the sense of machismo in Scottish music more generally. This year women appeared more prominent but Sharon Shannon performed, as she regularly does, with a stage full of male musicians while the String Sisters performed backed by an all-male rhythm section. In her review of the 2018 gala concert, Molleson also highlighted the gender imbalance (21 January 2018), lamenting the missed opportunity to ‘renew a mission statement for the genre’ and engage with ‘the historic force of folk music to articulate the lives of the underprivileged and the disenfranchised’. The experience of the concert, contextualised by Molleson’s writing, will inform debates with students in the coming weeks in what are very live and engaging topics.
Back at the conference, while Daithí presented a paper on the ongoing relevance of regional identities in the study of Irish traditional music on Thursday, Adèle presented an overview of traditional music studies at Dundalk Institute of Technology on Friday as part of the day themed ‘Learning and Teaching’. Papers were generally case studies from a wide variety of institutions and included insights into Technology-Enhanced-Learning, approaches to composition and creativity, solo and ensemble performance, language and dance. Daithí’s paper engaged with a regular theme of these blogs, namely the rich musical traditions of Louth and Oriel which inform his teaching, as well as enthusing students and engaging the wider community. Adèle furthered this discussion with reference to the DkIT Traditional Music Ensemble and related Summer Undergraduate Research Projects, while also providing insights into the online MA Traditional Music Studies. Both papers were well-received and informed discussions at the various networking events.
On Friday night, the conference delegates gathered at the National Piping Centre for a ceilidh led off by students at the RSC. We joined Jack Talty on stage for a song and a few tunes and were followed by a rich and varied selection of music from many of our colleagues who reflected the diverse range of music being discussed at the conference. Amongst those who performed were our good friends Anon Egeland and Ragnhild Knudsen from the University College of Southeast Norway who we had visited in Rauland last year for their Winter Festival, which you can read about in our February 2017 blog.
On Saturday, Professor Kristiina Ilmonen, Professor of Folk Music at the Sibelius Academy, University of Arts Helsinki, set the tone for the day with an engaging insight into developments in assessment and feedback at her institution. Following her keynote, we divided into four working groups chaired by Profressor Ilmonen, our host Professor Joshua Dickson, Sven Ahlback from the Royal College of Music in Stockholm and Dr Lori Watson from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. After more than an hour of animated discussion we regrouped to share some of the emerging themes and discuss plans for a follow-up event in Finland with plans for publication. Such a publication would be an invaluable tool for lecturers engaged in internationalised curricula aiming to engage in international best practice at home through the sharing of knowledge and practice.
Before leaving Glasgow, there was time to attend another concert at the concert hall featuring the String Sisters. The first act was a performance of a new work for television by Donald Shaw. Composed for the 2016 BBC series Scotland’s Wild Heart, the concert featured parts of the original score performed live to footage from the series. Amongst the performers were Mike McGoldrick, Aidan O’Rourke and Catríona McKay, as well as a double string quartet. The quality of the footage and clarity of the screen added to the audience experience and enjoyment of the music. The String Sisters, who had made their debut at Celtic Connections in 2001, were led by Shetland fiddle player Catríona MacDonald, who had visited Dundalk in 2015 to facilitate a masterclass as part of an Erasmus mobility link. She was joined by Liz Carroll, Liz Knowles (who featured on a CD recently reviewed in the ICTM journal by Daithí), Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh and Emma Hardelin. They were accompanied by Dave Milligan (piano), Tore Bruboll (guitar), Conrad Molleson (bass) and James Mackintosh (percussion). Their energy was an uplifting end to a wonderful few days in Glasgow from which we returned to Dundalk with new ideas for our research and teaching.
Back at base, we continue to enjoy working with our choirs, the Oriel Traditional Orchestra and preparing for Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann. We’ll be on the road again in February as part of our Erasmus programme so stay tuned to hear all about it.
Kate Molleson ‘Julie Fowlis/Celtic Connections gala review – Gaelic song in full force’ The Guardian 21 January 2018.
Kate Molleson ‘Why it’s time for Scottish folk to change its tune’ The Guardian 25 January 2017.