Monday, November 24, 2008

Day 43 (Round II) "In the trenches" (Pattern Language edition)

Re-reading Tony Barrand’s magnificent treatise on the Morris, Six Fools and a Dancer, which I first read via an Inter-Library-loaned copy a couple of years back when we made the decision to try to include dance as part of an English program in the Celtic Ensemble. We dug around for all the info we could find, both dead-trees type and online/digital, and I quickly discovered that there’s a bit of a disconnect in the available literature: the stuff that’s printed (in either format) is mostly either very general/observational from the outside, or else it is technical description (dance choreographies, etc) intended as mnemonic or for expert insiders—not really suitable for a group trying to get started, in the middle of isolation from any relevant community. I’ve played morris tunes off-and-on, mostly under the influence of the beyond-great Martin Carthy and John Kirkpatrick, for at least 25 years, and I’ve watched and even played for the dancing—but trying to get a dance corps (Morris “side”) started from scratch confirmed for me just how much I couldn’t do that. So we brought in area experts (Thank you Carl Dreher! Thank you Joseph Pimentel! Thank you Heather Gilmer!) to get us started on the various dance aspects of the musics we were playing. In the meantime, I read Tony’s book.

Now, I’ve known Tony Barrand’s music since I first saw him and singing partner John Roberts in the North Shore coffeehouses in the early 1970s, and since their appearance on the great National Geographic’s Songs of the Sea that I wore out in LP version from my home town library. But I knew him as a singer, not as a dancer or scholar—and didn’t realize just what an incredible resource he represented in those latter roles (hell, I was sufficiently impressed with him just because of his songs). Many years ago Dharmonia and I would have seen the Black Jokers side on the banks of the Charles at dawn on May morning, and I remember the Bloomington Quarry Men from our time in Indiana.

But, as with so many music and performance idioms I’ve eventually come to love, play, and teach, I only really understood Morris years after I first witnessed it—and, in fact, only when I came to have to teach, or at least facilitate, its learning. There’s something about the task of having to explain a body of knowledge to someone else that locks-in the final stage of learning it yourself: you have to decide upon or discover the underlying structural organization of the information (in a music history context, I will often articulate this to grad students as consisting of answering the question “what story do I want to tell?”), how to chunk it out in a fashion that is appreciable but that avoids distorting the overall organic relationships, how to sequence those chunks in a fashion that keeps all students (both adept and swift, versus less-skilled or slower) moving forward in concerted fashion and ideally with good morale and shared group esprit, and how to weave those chunks—once learned—back into an organic whole. It will not be the same organic whole as the originals upon which you are modeled your rendition, but using the above method provides at least improved odds that your version, because arrived-at with the tradition’s own methods, will replicate the dynamics, processes, and—ideally—the impact of the original.

Re-reading Six Fools, in addition to being reminded of just how much I love participatory and traditional art forms—art forms that say “make it yourself, don’t ‘buy’ it!”—I am also struck by the remarkable consistency, and occasional synchronicity, between many of my major scholarly and intellectual models. I first met Tony as a young teenager, around 1975, when he was right then (I now discover from the book) engaged in learning Morris for the first time, as an English ex-pat teaching at a small liberal arts college in Vermont. The “Introduction” to Six Fools cites Henry Glassie’s magisterial Passing the Time in Ballymenone, an ethnography and cultural history of an Ulster community, as an influence on Tony’s work. I first worked with Henry around 1990, at Indiana, when I was in the process of transforming myself from an MM/Jazz recipient to a PhD/Musicology candidate. I pulled out Henry’s All Silver and No Brass when, around 2002, we decided to try to include his Fermanagh mummer’s play in our Celtic Christmas fundraiser, and I used Ballymenone again, from 2005, in teaching my annual “Music, Folklore and Tradition” Irish seminar. In 2006, I ILL Six Fools as we’re trying to get the Morris side rolling—and now in 2008 I write to Tony, conversing (over email) with him for the first time in literally 30 years, to buy a copy of Six Fools (seems only fair, considering how essential it is to what we’re doing)—and he runs across the “100 Greats” blog post about the Songs of the Sea LP I heard before I ever met him in ’75.

Partly this is simply a reflection of the remarkable small (OK, borderline-incestuous) circles that North American traditional musicians move in—and of my own advancing years and expanding range of acquaintance—but it’s also got to do with the fact that the basic sanity of traditional ways of thinking and being in the world, one’s community, and the seasons recur across these situations is quite noticeable in a variety of art forms—and because that sanity, even to someone encountering it for the first time, is obvious. You may not grow up dancing the morris or playing Irish tunes or planting a garden or building houses by hand, but even if you have not, the right teacher at the right time can reveal to you the essential, underlying, logic and sanity of those old art forms, and in such circumstances that logic and sanity is evident, in comparison to the banality, greed, irrelevance, and passivity of so much of what passes for “leisure activity” in post-Industrial America. So it actually doesn’t surprise me that the music that struck me as essentially sane and logical in 1975 should have similarly struck me in 1990 and 2002 and 2006, and down to the present.

Barrand makes reference in Six Fools both to Glassie’s Ballymenone book—which can’t really be summarized, because, as my old comrade The General said, “I think if Ulster ceased to exist entirely, you could still reconstruct Fermanagh from that book”—and the architecture Christopher Alexander’s concept of the “pattern language”: a “structured method of describing good design practices within a field of expertise”. What in other fields would be called a “gestalt”, or perhaps a “semiotic”, or (in historical studies) a “zeitgeist,” or (in fine arts criticism”) an “aesthetic” is here called a “pattern language: a set of design principles—in a house, a ritual, a performance, or any other art from occurring in specific times, places, and locations—which, because they are functional and efficient, reflect a very practical kind of beautiful, grounded sanity.

Watching a good carpenter swing a hammer, a good baker knead the dough, a good musician play an instrument, one is struck—even if without special expertise—by the efficiency, flow, and bodily focus that such “good practices” manifest. Alexander and Glassie both use “pattern language” as a way of getting at what makes good vernacular architecture—that is, housing design that has evolved to accurately and intelligently take into account both local materials and local conditions—and at what such architecture reveals about a community’s aesthetics. In the Ballymenone book, it’s the gradual replacement of thatched roofs (local materials, labor-intensive but hard-cash-cost-free) with tin roofs (more permanent, requiring less upkeep, but also requiring no special local thatching skills, yet demanding the earning of cash, off the land, to pay for them).

In contemporary North American society, many of us live lives which are so completely dependent upon complex financial infrastructures to deliver goods, services, building supplies, food, water, heat, light, and other essentials that it’s virtually impossible for us to reconnect with our own, local “pattern languages.” When community living is entirely portable (by car, by moving van, by “virtual communities” on the Internet) and comparatively passive, our sense of connection with the cycle of weather, the seasons, and the natural world in our locality erodes, and with it our sense of place and of pattern language.

But even if those senses are eroded, or dormant, we were local and active participants in our landscapes for many more generations than our more recent modern experience (or lack of experience) would argue. So, even in the absence of the same kinds of necessity—we no longer have to know how to grow our own food, doctor our own ills, or generate our own fuel or shelter—the instinctive recognition of the sanity of such patterns is still deep in our cultural DNA. And so, when we encounter those patterns, their sanity and simultaneous antiquity and contemporaneity are evident. Watching somebody competent knit, cut turf, swing a hammer or an axe, sail a boat or paddle a canoe, provides—if you pay attention—a deep, deep sense of centeredness: the sense of “yes, that’s a good way to know how to be, to integrate mind and body, need and aesthetics, work and play.”

I’ve blogged before bemoaning the geographic and cultural isolation that seems to be a constant in my own artistic arc. In such environments, it’s a subtle—and slow!—art to re-introduce a community of individuals to the kinds of collective, participatory, expressive arts that I’m suggesting the old patter languages like dance, song, music, and storytelling evolved to crystallize. It’s a slow process, and there are no ready-made audiences, and there is no ready-made familiarity with whatever the hell is the traditional art form you’re trying to share as relevant. I get jealous sometimes (OK, many times) of old friends and comrades-in-music who live in places where the receptivity to the new—or the old—and unfamiliar is higher than it is where I live.

But, that would seem to be my karma: as the great Zen pioneer Sokei-An said, “you have to have the patience of someone holding a lotus to a rock, waiting for it to take root.” It certainly tests your resolve—but it also purifies your intentions, and your attachments. In a place like this, you don’t get attached to the “permanence” of some new tradition you’re trying to establish, or re-establish.

So you conclude that you damn better make it worth the doing,

just for the sake of the doing.

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