On the nature of Music

There was something doing the rounds on Facebook this week that got me thinking. Well first it got me annoyed and then it got me thinking. Enough, in fact, to write the blog (or should that be rant) myself this week!

It started with a copy of the London Underground map, only it’s titled a ‘Map of English Folk Music’ and the coloured lines are labelled Songwriting, First Folk Revival, Bands, Squeezeboxes, Fiddle, Guitar etc. It sounds like it could be quite funny and clever, but in fact, I didn’t think so, and nor did some of the people whose names appeared on it.

So I got to thinking, what precisely was it about this image that bothered me so much? And after a while, I realised that it was precisely the same thing that bothered me last week when I heard Howard Goodall being interviewed on Radio 4 about his Story of Music programme on BBC TV.

What riled me with Howard was his presentation of music as a linear progression from something primitive and simple in the past, to something grand and sophisticated. This seems to stem from the belief that classical music is somehow the culmination of hundreds of years of effort, and that other traditional and ethnic musics are somehow less important. I was also frustrated to hear him write off exploring music of other cultures as not relevant enough to include in a six part series, even though the UK has had links with the Indian sub-continent for centuries and trade along the silk road goes back millennia, bringing music, instruments and folklore with it. Surely the early arrival of the bow in Northern Europe deserved a mention!

So back to the Map. Is the attempt to classify and pigeon-hole folk music and folk musicians to this degree is to be barking up the wrong tree? I can see what they were trying to do – make a simple guide to the main aspects of English Folk Music. But does that really achieve anything?

I think I might be getting to the nub of my irritation here. For a start, there are so many folk instruments, it would necessitate the expansion of the underground throughout the UK to accommodate all the possible contenders And yet, not a whiff of a hammered dulcimer, whistle, crowd or harp, all of which have been played in England at least as long as the guitar and the fiddle. And what about ‘found’ objects – spoons, bones, tables, washboards, saws…? There are so many instruments that make up ‘folk music’ that it would be impossible to categorise every last one of them and still have a coherent map. Not to mention how you can represent amateur and professional folk musicians who excel at playing more than one and should therefore appear on several tube lines in the diagram.

And then, the revivals, of which there have been 2 according to the map. Isn’t every rediscovery of traditional song a little revival? There are always articles popping up in the Guardian about the new fashion for folk music – this week I was pleased to see that it was the Child Ballads that made it into the Review section. There have been revivals on and off since people started collecting songs back in the Victorian era. Revivals do not necessarily require electricity and record studios. Even the fashion for collecting wasn’t new then – Shakespeare, Rabbie Burns, Ravenscroft etc were all collectors in their day.

And what of the tireless amateur musicians? Would they not need a whole underground system of their own? It’s all very well listing all the people who have sold records, but they are but one tiny part of the English Folk Music scene. There are many people who week in, week out, sing the songs of their fathers and mothers, and make new ones of their own. And they are the ones who buy the records of the people that made it onto the map. There are few songwriters in the folk world who haven’t steeped themselves in traditional material or other people’s songs, or, like me, have started out as a song writer but then turned to other older wells for inspiration. Where do you put those people?

So my point here? Are not both these representations of music – the TV show and the Map – attempting to distil something undistillable. It seems we are looking at 2 different definitions of Music here, one which requitres clear genres of music for sale that the staff in HMV would know where to put a new CD on the shelves, and one which is about people making music. What I’m saying, is that music doesn’t boil down to a few linear progressions. It’s a web of relationships, cross-fertilisation, experimentation. It can’t be frozen in time, because careers and hobbies take lifetimes, and people change, and so do audiences. People look to field recordings made in the early 20th Century, as well as modern technology. I might listen to some 60’s folk revival recordings to inspire my songwriting and versions of traditional material, but my version of English Folk music can also be informed by Arvo Part, Danish field recordings, Sigur Ros, and Delibes, not to mention our loop station. And you can’t really show that on a map.

And so I was immensely relieved to see someone’s answer to the Map. It was a colourful scribble, with no stations at all, just all the colours messed up and random. Like Music.

posted by Kate

 

 

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1 comment
  1. I'd Rather Not said:

    Well written!

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