Creativity in Irish traditional music: 2

Ceol Tíre 33 December 1989




26 November 1988

The second talk on creativity was given by Dr Charlie Lennon, well known as a fiddle player, whose compositions of recent years have been eagerly taken up throughout the country, and, through the accelerated process of transmission made possible by the recording media, seem already to have been accepted into the tradition. He believes that the deriving of new tunes from old by variation and the creative altering of tunes in performance are only parts of the overall creative process, and gave his personal view of creativity as a traditional performer from a traditional community in North Leitrim and as a composer in the traditional dance-music idiom. His talk was illustrated by live and recorded music and overhead projections.

Creativity in young learning players was discouraged in Leitrim, probably in order to ensure the continuity of the tradition in the period before tape recorders. Older players were unhappy if learners departed from the ‘correct’ local settings of tunes. The general feeling was that the body of the music had always been there, and had to be handed on. There was no discussion of how it had come into existence. Good older players were allowed a certain licence in the variation of tunes, and some would have different settings of a tune, inherited from known musicians of a previous generation. There was however a general suspicion about people who would tamper with music, which contrasted with a relaxed attitude towards traditional verse and song. There were local songwriters, but no tunemakers.

As Charlie progressed as a player he became conscious of evidence of the creative process within the tradition: variation, different local settings of tunes, contrasts between local versions and versions on 78s (especially Michael Coleman’s ‘Bonnie Kate’), the existence of composers as commemorated in tune titles (‘O’Dowd’s No 9′, Jackson’s Jig’, etc.) He first heard Ed Reavy, the Cavan and Philadelphia composer, on radio in 1955, and later became aware of contemporary composers such as Martin Wynne and Paddy Fahy.

His own innate taste for experimenting with music led him to make his first tunes in the early 1960s. He discarded his earliest attempts, with the exception of a reel ‘Master Seamas’ which he wrote for Seamas Maguire of Sligo, and only began composing again in the 1970s. His ‘Road to Cashel’ was recorded by him on LP and was quickly taken up. Frankie Gavin popularised ‘Dogs Little and Dogs Big’ (names for local hills) and ‘The Moving Pint’ on a solo LP and, with the group Dé Danann, ‘Ríl an Spidéil’ and ‘Na Beanna Beola’. Other compositions have also gone into circulation, and different versions of the tunes are already appearing.

Charlie thinks that the ability to compose comes as the result of an apprenticeship. After learning to play, the acquisition of techniques and repertory, comes the questioning of existing tunes and the trying out of changes. Trial and error in experimenting with ornamentation and variation leads into purer composition, the creating of something out of nothing. This is helped by the wish to express a mood or the atmosphere of a place or an event. He usually starts with some feeling for which he tries to find a suitable motif or phrase. Thinking of the tune in totality, he rejects ideas that do not suit, and ultimately relies on ‘inspiration’, which he describes as an excited mood in which suitable musical ideas come easily. If possible, he tries first for the opening section of the tune, which establishes the character of the piece, and proceeds from there, over a period of time, accepting or rejecting ideas as they come. When nothing more can be done, he lays the piece aside for weeks until he can come back to it with a fresh ear, and will then try it out on friends. He prefers to launch a tune in recorded form so that his original composition is preserved. He composes mostly on the fiddle, rather than on the piano which he also plays, or in his head, although he occasionally uses both these methods.

Charlie’s most recent published compositions have been on the theme of the Aran Islands and can be heard on the Gael-Linn LP DEORA AN DEORAÍ (CEF 112, 1985). They include some slower pieces.

Nicholas Carolan

Added to list of archived articles 17 November 2003