Siobhán Long on University of Limerick’s Irish World Academy of Music and Dance (Taj Mícheál)

Traditional music and academia may seem strange bedfellows, but Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at UL is challenging certainties while helping to keep the music alive, writes Siobhán Long

Cúl Aodha sean nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird, a member of the groundbreaking Afro Celt Sound System, needs no convincing of the benefits of bringing traditional music within reach of academia. A PhD Programme in Arts Practice commenced in September 2009, attracting internationally renowned performers including Ó Lionáird.

“My reasons for pursuing an academic route are purely personal,” he admits. “I like learning. It isn’t really about having hard and fast opinions. It’s about having a place where everybody can have diverse opinions.

“Where that is a challenge to oral-based traditions is to their sense of some overarching or underlying truth,” Ó Lionáird continues. “Some might consider that our traditional arts are laden with certainties. They have shaped us through generations and are the root of who we are. The academic gaze challenges those precepts, and for some that might be de-stabilising, but I find it enlivening.”

“There are younger musicians who are less inclined to feel the need to support this bulwark of notional truths: a mythic ancientness. Now, I can assure you that I’m not doing my work to devalue my tradition. I have an abiding love for my tradition, but there are people who would say I display scant regard for it, and perhaps endanger it with my creative frolics.

“But this is the beautiful thing about academic discourse. It allows for different opinions. You have to state your case and you have to be prepared to be gainsaid by better proof, if it’s there. I think that’s very valuable. I have no time for sacred cows myself anyway.”

Donal Lunny:

“I think we have to accept that the oral tradition is vanishing, and it’s vanishing everywhere,” he notes, “but I don’t think that the existence of these courses is accelerating it. There are pros and cons, but the pros are that the students are acquiring a great deal of knowledge, even if it’s not of the same cultural depth. I feel that a lot of the gaps will be filled in, in time. A lot more people will be carrying the tradition with them into the future.

“It also gives substance to the whole notion of pursuing traditional music as a career, rather than making it up as you go along – which is what I did!” “I have to confess that there were huge gaps in my knowledge about traditional music around the country, even though I’ve been involved for years and years. My first few years of teaching consisted of back-pedalling from the beginning of the lesson to the end,” he laughs. “It’s been a revealing process for me, because teaching is a skill; being able to see things from the learner’s point of view.” (Times) >>>

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