I sat down to write for the sake of writing, with trust that something meaningful would come if I just babbled long enough.. then, I told myself, I can delete the first 30 babbled paragraphs, and start the published version of today's blog at the point where I finally arrived at something worth reading. That was the plan. But then I read Peig's post. Bingo. (A more discriminating writer would actually erase THIS paragraph, but alas... babble does have its charm.)
Peig's compelling question: If this traditional music has been played so beautifully for so many generations by people who were not formally musically trained--why even try to improve on it? Why "move it forward," so to speak...?
The answer, of course, is context. Tradition needs context to survive. Musicians imbue the "old" traditional music with "new" meaning in its contemporary context, and suddenly everything old is new again, and the kids like it. This was one of the strands of meaning in my book See You at the Hall, and it is of continuing interest to me. And it will be one of the strands in my forthcoming book (oh yes, there is one coming, and I'm just awaiting the contract in the mail... stay tuned).
To quote myself in that first book (I like the sound of that, "first..."), in an inspired moment at the book's conclusion: "What is really meant by the term 'traditional,' then? It certainly does not mean static and unchanging; a tradition that does not evolve will quickly become extinct."
"Evolve" is the key word here. Slow transformation, adaptation, but unlike Darwin's evolution where fish turn into amphibians turn into dinosaurs turn into apes turn into Republicans (okay, okay, I admit it, I did watch Obama's speech before practicing), for a tradition to evolve, the animal can't change. Tradition must still keep key aspects of the same animal. Gills must remain as gills. They can't turn into lungs, or we've lost the tradition.
So, how does the music evolve while keeping the elements that define it, yet also absorb the new so that it is meaningful in its current context? And how much can we infuse our own experiences and our own extramusical influences into the way we play traditional music, while still preserving the sanctity of the tradition from which it comes?
That's a question I didn't bother to ask myself just now, when I was practicing Arabian scales and improvised licks over Flamenco chord progressions... on the soprano sax... but those practices were for just two thirds of a three-piece concert I'll be performing in to observe Ramadan tomorrow night at Bridgewater State College. This is a short concert with Caravan, a world music trio made up of Bridgewater faculty Tom Rhode on guitar, Salil Sachdev on percussion, and me on flute and sax. The third piece we'll be playing tomorrow is an Irish traditional reel that Matt Molloy recorded so beautifully: "The Tempest." Tom's guitar style is classical in orientation but heavily inspired by the Afro-Brazilian tradition, and Salil is originally from India, classically trained, but now primarily focused on African drumming styles. So, needless to say, when we do "The Tempest" we don't do it just according to one tradition. Three, and many more, traditions also feed into our rendition. We start the tune very slowly, with a fragmented melody... then slowly the melody falls together and we speed the tempo until it's at a fever pitch. Then we end.
How much of the Irish tradition will be left in that piece? A lot. Yeah, but is it Irish? Yes, no. Maybe. Why ask? I think I smell an ape with gills.