Perspective and Meaning in Celtic Music
by Tom Hanway
The term Celtic music1 is often found in catalogs, record shops, and bookstores, especially when used to distinguish this idiom from other styles of music, e.g., folk, rock, bluegrass, jazz or classical. Yet there are six Celtic nations, each with its own distinctive musical style. Within each style are regional2 and local sub-styles, some of which have developed into distinct traditions within the broader Celtic diaspora, e.g., in the Shetland Islands, Cape Breton, and Prince Edward Island. Its only recently, and as a marketing ploy, that these national musics have been presented as a single category.
Modern Celticists know that the six Celtic nations have close links and parallel histories.3 Yet these tribe-nations are not and have never been one-in-the-same. Each Celtic nation has its own language, culture and musical traditions, related perhaps but not interchangeable. Accordingly, traditional musicians have often resented the recent blurring of national, regional and even local distinctions. For them, the music of the six Celtic nations is too rich, subtle and variegated for haphazard mixing. Everyone has a bit of it and no one has it all.4 Homogenized Celtic-inspired music may be commercial, and even pleasing, but it is also often shallow and can never claim to be authentic.
Although written collections exist, Celtic musicians have mostly passed their traditions on orally (and aurally). This direct transmission helps keep the music modal, melody-oriented (linear) and rich in variation whether pre-planned or spontaneous. Some Celtic players are passive holders of the tradition while others are creative collaborators who take more chances musically.
Written transmission necessarily simplifies the music. Attempts to distill Gaelic music into major or minor keys for ease of notation trivialize the complex tonality5 and aural nature of traditional Gaelic tunes,6 which use ornamentation,7 such as melismatic8 variation9 to generate interest. Tunes are not harmonically conceived (using vertical note-stacking principles) they are monophonic or single-line oriented. Harmonic principles are secondary since the music moves horizontally in an ever-changing present that offers endless ways of individual expression and interpretation. This is also true for tunes from other Celtic nations.
If Celtic tunes are harmonized and the tendency is great they can be re-harmonized again and again. This is the case at the session10 (seisiún ceoil), where a rhythm player (called a backer), typically a guitar or bouzouki player, uses chords and tunings which may leave out major and minor thirds yet highlight tonal centers11 in the tunes, which are based on modes12 and use gapped scales,13 typically pentatonic (five notes) or hexatonic (six notes). Some of these modes are the Ionian14 (corresponding to the classical major scale), Mixolydian,15 Dorian,16 and Aeolian,17 each whose unique step-pattern of notes fall on the white keys of the piano, starting on C, G, D and A respectively. Some Cornish and Breton songs use the Phrygian 18 mode; its unique step-pattern of notes fall on the white keys of the piano starting on E. A popular mode on the Continent, we hear it more often in Spain and in Mediterranean countries, though it can be heard in the music of Riverdance, a composed Irish dance musical, which traditional musicians point out is noticeably lacking a single traditional jig, reel or hornpipe.19 The mixing of Irish traditional music with non-Celtic music may be entertaining and provocative, but it blurs the distinction between Irish and non-Celtic styles.
Traditional Celtic players also consider jazz-, bluegrass-, rock- and classical-inspired arrangements of Celtic tunes as emanating from and ultimately lying outside the core of the tradition. This does not mean composed music cannot be absorbed into the tradition. However, it takes time for new tunes to be acknowledged and incorporated within the many Celtic traditions. Not all of them make it and none of them make it for everybody.
While the term Celtic music is more utilitarian20 than World music or Folk music for selling various artists and styles that might otherwise fall between the cracks, it has taken on a dreamy,21 non-traditional aesthetic. Authentic styles down-to-earth tune-playing found at sessions and ceílís,22 are not commercially inspired or sales-oriented, in stark contrast to the windswept mood music that is mass-marketed as Celtic, which may claim to be relaxing and tends to lull listeners into a kind of New Age trance. This insipid product relies heavily on synthesizers and crosses over into easy listening, elevator and meditation music. Tennysons mild-eyed melancholy Lotus-eaters come to mind: There is no joy but calm! The generic dreck pushed by record companies as Celtic is no such thing, but what is it? (Marketing manipulation for starters.) Fortunately, authentic players still rule at sessions and the real music lives on and evolves.
Regrettably, the term Celtic music has become a chimera for players who work within the core of Celtic tradition. The playing of tunes is very situational and contextual yet timeless and ever changing. The dynamic interplay of continuity and change, repetition and variation, lies at the heart of all Celtic artistic traditions, as in all living tradition.
Riverdale, New York
This article draws heavily from the glossary to: Tom Hanway, Complete Book of
Irish & Celtic 5-String Banjo (Pacific, MO: Mel Bay, 1998). Tom Hanways website