Friday, June 10, 2005

Friday Pub session, O Reilly's 6:30-8:30pm

A session is an informal musical gathering--historically in a home kitchen, since the 1950s often in pubs--in which players of Irish traditional music come together for tunes and sociality. It's neither a private party nor a public performance, but something in between. The musicians are playing for themselves, but often listeners (call them "punters") will come along to hear the music.

Many North Americans have a hard time figuring out the exact dynamics of a session--who can play and when or why, whether requests are acceptable or are required to be honored, even whether to applaud. This is probably because, in North American mercantile culture, there are few opportunities to hear music for which someone is not being paid. That is, whether on electronic media (TV, Muzak, radio, internet, iPod) or in person (concert, recital) there is usually an exchange of dollars for services. And, even if no cash is exchanged (say, a student recital or a church service), there is still a sense of "performance"--and that sense of performance is contaminated by late-19th century ideas about the "sanctity" of the music.

If you've ever attended a classical concert and overheard someone unwrapping a throat lozenge, and witnessed the resultant glares & shushing which occurs, you'll recognize this syndrome. In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, musicians and critics with a vested interest in enhancing music's "sacredness" set up a whole new set of expected behaviors--quasi-religious ones.

But in the global communities from which most vernacular music originates, the music is usually both a social tool and part of a specific social situation: birth, death, marriage, festival, harvest, worship, war, or celebration. And specific music and musical behaviors are contrasted in contrasting situations.

In the Irish traditional context, music is only one part of the social environment of the pub or kitchen--a cherished part, but not something to be treated with hushed reverence. Over the course of a session or house-party, everyone would be invited and expected to deliver some form of participatory contribution: music, song, dance; a joke, riddle, or story; food, drink, or applause This meant that the boundaries between "performer" and "audience" were much more fluid, and that everyone took responsibility for "passing the time".

Of course, manners counted. It was impolite, obtuse and awkward either to insist upon one's own participation or to sit back and consume the entertainment without contributing.

It takes a while for many North Americans to learn this. They see a music session happening in a public house, and they are enculturated to assume that its public setting must also mean a completely egalitarian democratic free-for-all. In fact, Irish trad music is a meritocracy: those who play better, have played longer, play one of the core instruments (flute, fiddle, or pipes), know more tunes, are chronological elders are perceived as entitled to a degree of authority which novices don't receive.

That is not only socially but also musically appropriate. For a session to really take off musically--for the transcendent kind of session which everyone present feels lucky to hear--it is essential that those who are the best players be able to set the pace. That may mean the top players play more, that novices play less, that the roles of those playing inappropriate or superfluous instruments are minimized, so that the music will be better, for all present.

Is that "fair"? Probably not. But remember the goal in a traditional music session is not democratic inclusivity. Rather, it's to use the music to create a social environment which is available to everyone--provided they display good manners.

Is the music better in a session wherein participants--particularly if they are of different skill levels--recognize and accept the hierarchy? Almost always.

Last Night's Fun hosts a pub session at O'Reilly's Irish pub (1704 Buddy Holly Ave in Lubbock's Depot District) Friday evenings 6:30-9pm (when we're in town). The music is good, the sociality (the "crack") is usually great. Worth the trip. This is real music, played by the musicians for the musicians, and for any punters who would like to come along for the ride.

No comments: