It is truly a wonder that music from earlier ages can still fire up the artistic impulse. Within and among its various aesthetically-linked genres it not only provides an ample comfort zone for older players to pursue and in which to develop expressivity, but it also continues to attract, absorb and challenge both outside learners and young novices. Musics, like languages, if they can resist the seduction of assimilation and redundancy, are timeless. Like languages too they may be old in form and have developed considerably over centuries, but they still have the power to express taste, identity and place. Traditional musics have of course changed – subtly perhaps in matters of rhythm and repertoire, but radically with regard to their most visible aspects, contexts and function.

NAFCo 2012 addresses all of this flux, centering on its most remarkable feature, the shift of Traditional musics from being predominantly about providing melody for dance to being rehearsed, promoted and presented for ‘sit-down’ concert, broadcasting and festival performance. The issues dealt with are those which engage with this transformation – the impulse to move to music, the freeing of repertoire from conformity with dancers’ instinct, the loss to community of indigenous dances, the separation of communities from local music culture, the profusion of musicians who have never played for dancing, the potential for thrilling complexity in dance-free music, the exclusion of ‘soul’ by technical virtuosity, the impulse to try text and technique from other cultures, new compositions and instruments for new needs. NAFCo 2012 therefore explores relationships between melody, rhythm and the kinetic impulse, conflicts between authenticity and star culture, and the pervasiveness of boundless transmission, borrowing and potential innovation.


Summary of the sessions

1/ ‘Liberating melody’, the opening session, lays out the elements of the conference topic – the relationship between what is played and what is danced, the interplay of aural and sensual in music for dance, and the additional dimension of ‘listening’ in the music-movement synergy.


2/ ‘Professionalism’ as a major consequence of the separation of dance from music is observed for its power to influence taste and for generating a hazard in the ‘art-tradition-commerce’ tightrope, negotiation of the past-present continuum with regard to senses of authenticity.


3/ ‘Third Level Learning’, a logical development of the ‘classicisation’ or re-contextualising of Traditional music is scrutinized in a specialist panel by one of its pioneering institutions, the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at University of Limerick.


4/ ‘Dance and music’ are observed in a further panel with regard to structure, social form, style, origins and community essentialism, the price of ‘smoothing out’ of technique for unison-playing simplicity, and the effect of the absence of appropriate dance contexts on a music’s aesthetic.


5/ ‘Playing together’ covers the community > individualism challenge, the nature and standards in dance bands, issues of acceptability, aesthetics and dance relevance in arrangement, and the cohesive power of fiddle music in forced exile.


6/ ‘Collection’ addresses the key cultural capital which Traditional music represents internationally in discussion of contexts of Scottish fiddle music in Australia, analysis of an English fiddle music collection, the local influence of an all-formats recordings collection, and the reappraisal of local music through a major Irish collection.


7/ ‘Percussive rhythm’ is taken beyond the incidental and viewed as intrinsic to Traditional musics: its tambourine expression now interpretable on fiddle in both Galicia and in Mississippi, its presence in percussive footwork seen a component of Cape Breton melody – rhythm – movement interplay, and as being transferred to bodhrán frame drum in Ireland.


8/ ‘Mixing and borrowing’ are viewed in their ‘both ways’ travel aided by recordings, their role assessed with regard to the Irish-Appalachian Connection and that of Scotland-Cape Breton where musics are deduced to be simply ‘of their own place’; Classical and other influences are found in the playing of Donegal fiddler Néillidh Boyle, and a mosaic affect rather than hybridity is found in New Brunswick fiddling.


9/ ‘Tunes’ addresses the diversity of responses to place and migration: the Donegal ‘highland’ tunes are an Irish form of the Scottish strathspey, but driven by dance, and, latterly, ‘listening’, Canadian tune composers are analysed for closeness to tradition, personal improvisation is considered as spontaneous composition which has creative and aesthetic limits, and ‘crooked’ tunes (with non-standard beat patterns) are now sought for their regional voice.


10/ ‘Accompaniment’, a feature of all traditional musics since the advent of disc recording, is observed with the cello in revival Scottish music, with regard to gender in Cape Breton music, harmony in Irish music, and done by the fiddle itself as ‘self accompaniment’.


11/ ‘Irish Styles’ acknowledges the location of NAFCo in Ireland, with insider observations on the playing of West Clare musicians, the broadcasting influence of Paddy Canny of East Clare, the impact of Fred Finn of Co. Sligo and the public versus private music of Pádraig O’Keeffe of Co. Kerry.


12/ ‘Revival’, the key movement in all cultures, covers the ideology-free boosting of Cape Breton fiddle music, the modern-day revival of the fiddle music of the English Lake District , the nature of Irish Feis competition adjudication in defining or directing ‘standards’, and the key roles of categories of non performers in revival movements.


13/ ‘Community Context’ looks at practice-based virtual communities and those which are geographically defined: the Irish session is observed with regard to listeners, the changing role of the musician in community in a Newfoundland Outport is noted, Appalachian community fiddlers’ use of folk tales for orientation in revival is discussed, as is the use of the fiddle outside of dance in community carolling in the English Pennines.


14/ ‘Teaching’, is explore in a variety of music contexts – gender reversal and performance orientation as its consequences in Shetland Isles schools, the effects of its inclusion in curricula in Finnish schools, the use of the fiddle as a symbolic creative therapeutic tool in music therapy, the pooling of archive resources to service the needs of music researchers.


15/ ‘Style & technique’ deals with that common palette from which only certain elements are needed by or attractive to particular styles. Internal dynamics in duet playing in Sliabh Luachra music are observed as intuitive and creative use of this, the change in technique and hold on the Hardanger fiddle is likewise interpreted as a cultural decision, as is the use or non-use of the ‘chop’ – a percussive string technique among violin-family instruments, and, too, the bowing style of Donegal fiddler John Doherty with regard to his cessation of playing for dancing.


16/ ‘Hidden fiddlers’ deals with styles and practices which have remained below the horizon in Irish music: a locality in Co. Monaghan, the playing of Antrim singer Joe Holmes, players in North Cork/South Limerick as found in manuscripts, and the style of Mayo born fiddle player John McFadden retrieved from cylinder recordings.


17/ ‘Transformation Parallels in Song’ is presented by the IWAMD to address issues of authenticity by a study of movement and modification in a selection of song lyrics: ‘The Bonny Boy’ in Ireland, Scotland, the Appalachians and in classical arrangement; ‘Tá Mé i Mo Shuí’ found in other airs and on the international stage; ‘An Binsín Luachra’, found as a tune, and a song in Irish and English languages, found in Canada, America and England; how Country and Western song has become a major participatory music in the Irish Gaeltacht.


18/ ‘Innovation’ is seen as having generated new repertoire and virtuosic stylistics in Norway, in violin design is seen to have contributed to a legacy of technical and cultural consequences worldwide, to have opened up professional opportunities in Norwegian fiddling, and can inspire hybridity in instruments, techniques and fresh repertoire.


19/ ‘Visual imagery’ as a key instrument in the documentation of music-making is demonstrated in a motion-image digital conversion which ‘draws style’; paintings and sketches are used to latterly interpret 19th– century American fiddle music rhythm and style, and digital photography and textual words of interviews are used to construct all-informative portraits.


20/ ‘Authenticity’ is the topic of this session devised by Newcastle University. Tom Anderson’s formalization of transmission is questioned with regard to eclipse of earlier styles, authority via nostalgia and oldness is seen in the iconography of album and poster design, web images and PR material; the hospitality and warmth of small scale music is set against the brashness and aggression of professional presentation, and singers own assessment of their authenticity is used to inform contemporary practice.