Creativity in Irish traditional music: 1

Report on a talk by Mícheál Ó SúilleabháinCeol Tíre 33 (December 1989)



29 October 1988

The first of two linked illustrated talks on creativity in Irish traditional music was given by Dr Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, lecturer in the Dept of Music, University College Cork, who is also an innovative performing musician and a composer who incorporates elements of traditional music in his works. His concentration was especially on the regeneration of the instrumental music by performers, and he examined this by analysing specific examples on tape and overhead projections illustrating four dimensions of the dance music: phrasing, rhythm, pitch and structure.

These were seen within the framework of the typical eight-bar tune part, which when repeated is followed by a second repeated part to make up the full round of a typical dance tune. The traditional performer feels the part as eight main pulses, and makes his creative decisions within the part, although he has no terminology for this creativity.

The part falls into equal divisions of two four-bar or four two-bar sections, but the creative performer does not follow the ‘natural’ breaks between these in determining his phrasing. He avoids the mechanical and expected, and gives interest and musical ‘meaning’ to a piece by varied phrasing.

Although tune types such as the double jig and the reel are distinguished from each other by their metre, metrical definitions are not ultimately useful in characterising the types. To the musician they are different rhythmic feelings, which are not verbally defined. Against their basic pulses he creatively introduces rhythmic contrasts which are given their meaning by reference to the underlying motor rhythms.

Mícheál considers that ‘set’ accented tones—tones which are stable within a tune and occur at formal accentual points—are, rather than contour, what gives a tune its identity. The musician may vary the intervening tones and even a small number of the set tones, but to carry variation further will give rise to ‘new’ tunes—another aspect of the creative process. This was demonstrated with six variations on the double jig ‘The Old Grey Goose’. Adherence to the set tones enables a tune to be played in different rhythms—a jig and a reel, for instance—and still keep its identity.

By structure is meant something more than the simple form of a tune. Structure is also the complex web of relationships between its motifs and other features. A definable aspect of structure is the interchangeability of melodic segments: the creative decision-making operates not just at the level of single notes or ornaments, but also involves larger melodic sections. A decision taken in one dimension of a structure, in the areas of dynamics or timbre for instance, is worked out in simultaneous interplay with all the other dimensions.

Nicholas Carolan

Variation of the ‘natural’ phrasing (2+2, 2+2 bars) in the flute playing of J.P. Downes (accompanied by Marcus Walsh on bodhran). From M. Ó Súilleabháin THE BODHRAN Dublin 1984, p. 13.