“Because of “distance and today’s availability of personal recording devices, the culture of recording has permeated traditional Irish music. Musicians have, however, incorporated technology while respecting the tradition. Recording without permission at informal settings is frowned upon, and those recording will usually defer to those musicians being recorded.” - Scott Spencer.
Scott Spencer’s quote above from his essay “Traditional Irish Music in the Twenty-first Century: Networks, Technology, and the Negotiation of Authenticity,” is immediately applicable to just about everyone’s experience with traditional music today. Technology changes the way we engage and interact socially. However, rarely does technology entirely supplant or replace our already existing methods of social interaction. More often, they augment or add to the list of methods already in place. For example, I spend less time using the phone and some time using facebook and e-mail these days. Before e-mail, facebook, and multi-use handheld computers, I spent much more time on the phone exclusively. Musically, it has become easier to refer to an audio recording of a tune before referring to written forms. Mr. Spencer is writing about how culture dictates how technology is used in today’s world of Irish traditional music. But why record at all? Before we question the etiquette of using recording technology let’s explore why it’s so widely preferred as a means for learning tunes.
I learn from recordings more often than “dots” or written musical transcripts. Because of this, I actually feel closer to the aural tradition. Written musical literacy has not been the norm for folk musicians and methods of learning reflect that. I still prefer to get my tunes from an individual in real time, but if that’s not possible, one should note that getting a tune from someone’s recording of the tune captures several things that a written transcript cannot:
- the name of the person who is giving the tune – they need not say their name in the recording, I know who the player is.
- the rhythmic imprint that is both Irish and individual to the Irish musician giving the tune
- the choice of articulations, variations, personal instrumental style – tone, timbre, pulse, tempo
- the story that comes with the tune, if there is one, and if the giver chooses to include it
- and sometimes the name of the person from whom the giver received the tune – the pedigree
Some of this information can be included in written forms but not all of it. With so much information available within a single method of transfer, audio recordings can be the most efficient and comprehensive forms of transferring or “giving” a tune, when one cannot obtain it from someone personally.
So, while such a method of “taking” or “receiving” a tune is preferable to learning from the “dots,” how one goes about recording makes a difference. Spencer includes an example of how cultural etiquette dictates how one is expected to obtain such a recording. It’s “frowned upon” to simply whip out a recording device and begin recording without first gaining the consent of the player(s) being recorded. Few people like having their conversations recorded, and given that much of the music played is done so as a means of social interaction, recording the tunes shared at a session can easily be considered extremely rude, if carried out without prior consent. Spencer quotes Tim Collins, a well known concertina player, who explains:
“Normally, you’d just ask and listen. Especially younger people would come in and say, ‘Listen, I heard you playing a lovely tune recently. I’d love to learn it. Could you record it for me?’ With etiquette, you wouldn’t really accept them coming in and trying to covertly record anything.”
Spencer goes on to say that:
the recordings gleaned from such formal and informal settings are then coveted, learned, and passed from person to person throughout the irish music scene. . . [and tend] to follow established paths between friends, often through mutual interests such as regional repertoire, shared instrumental tradition, or through admiration for the music of particular players.
Spencer’s point here is that recording is perfectly acceptable, but how one goes about recording makes a huge difference socially and culturally. I agree. My reasons stem from my own personal experience. My musical seniors, peers, and teachers have taught me that giving a tune to someone has a high socio-cultural and personal value. It’s a gift, and in some cases combined with other social behaviors and interactions it can even function as a rite of passage. It can become extremely intimate and highly personal. To take a tune from someone is a privilege and a sign of acknowledgment from the giver. In a mass-media culture bereft of such important and humanly significant acts such as passing on a tune, such an exchange, for me, warrants my respect and I cherish and cultivate it.
Others have blessed me with many gifts of tunes and musical opportunities. Having had such experiences, I feel deeply that it is my duty to carry such methods of interaction forward. Indeed in many cases it was clear that my sense of this duty and my behavior that communicated it was often times the very reason I received further opportunities. This is not to say that it need be highly formalized. It rarely is. But when one behaves with respect according to the values inherent in a culture, one’s culturally valued behavior is acknowledged over time.
For those who follow etiquette as a matter of course it is rarely discussed or made mention of. Often times it is explained or exemplified in one’s early life by elders. But this is not the case when one doesn’t grow up in the culture. Etiquette is so often elusive because it’s boundaries and rules shift and bend according to the immediate social environment. Strangely, it becomes strikingly noticeable only to those who don’t quite understand it or didn’t grow up with it. A session full of young people may seem to be a free-for-all until a senior steps in and suddenly the session changes into a slightly more formal affair. To an outsider this shift may seem abrupt. But it would be a matter of course to the sessioners. Deferring to the senior community musician would be a normal shift in behavior for the younger players. But that would be likely only if the senior musician is from their immediate community or is widely known as a teacher and/or player of note. If a stranger enters, the stranger may be ignored entirely, or treated as a possible peer rather than a senior musician, regardless of apparent age or experience.
Etiquette is never quite so rigid or as clear as most of us would like. Which is why it is always wise to listen and watch intently and carefully whenever we ‘visit’ a session or group of players outside our immediate close-knit communities. Every session is different and every community’s needs are different and they both change over time: as we grow as individuals, so do our communities. Paying respect to those who taught us and to those in a community to which we don’t specifically belong is rarely considered poor taste.
Recording tunes at a session where it is openly acknowledged to be a common practice poses no problems. The established etiquette in this case would be ‘open recording with no need for permission.’ But again, would a visiting musician automatically know this? So, the visiting musician may feel compelled to ask prior to any recording – even if others are obviously recording tunes. The polite visitor may likely assume that those who are recording have obtained permission and/or are students of the musician being recorded. So, the visitor would feel the need to ask for consent. It’s different wherever we go.
Keep in mind that people have fun when everyone knows what’s going on. Trying to play softball at a baseball game is going to ruin it for everyone. When everyone understands the rules we all feel comfortable playing together, even bending the rules a bit – knowingly. So, if you’re going to record tunes, make sure that everyone being recorded is comfortable with it. Once comfort is established, let the tune trading begin!
*Spencer, Scott. “Traditional Irish Music in the Twenty-first Century: Networks, Technology, and the Negotiation of Authenticity.” pp. 58-70. Crossroads: Performance Studies and Irish Culture. Sara Brady and Fintan Walsh, eds. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009.