Saturday, July 09, 2011

music and listening

Recently I’ve been hearing the idea that the digital age has forever changed the way we tell stories. That is because, I hear and read, people now demand constant interaction, instant connection, and immediate participation in the story. That has set me thinking about sean-nós singing.

What? Sean-nós is an ancient style of sharing music in Ireland and Scotland which isn’t that widely known or widely practiced today. Am I thinking about how to update this for the digital age, you might be wondering?

No, as it happens. This idea had me thinking about the quality of attention and intention that takes place in both old style sean-nós and in the way singers who have studied it incorporate the ideas from in their work here in the twenty first century.

As the words sean-nós actually mean old style, I suppose it is a bit redundant to speak of old style sean nos. As it was done in earlier times, however, it was unaccompanied singing, the details and the larger picture and the power of the story conveyed only by the way the singer chose to present it through his or her voice. The primacy of the story, the idea, was foremost. The singer often sang with eyes closed and sometimes with head turned aside from those who listened.

That power of emotion and focus on story have been carried forward into the twentieth century by artists who have worked with tradition bearersand studied sean-nós. Cathie Ryan, Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, and Roisin Elsafty, all of whom you’ve met here along the music road, come to mind. When songs are taught in sean-nós, the singer is given the song but the ornamentation, the individual style of the telling, is for the singer to work out on his or her own. Each of these women has carried that idea forward as well, by giving thoughtful consideration to adding backing instruments and additional voices to the core and heart of sean-nós, which, for each of them, remains the voice. They have also found ways of weaving aspects of what they have learned from this older style into other songs they offer today.

fireside ireland copyright kerry dexterWhen sean-nós was shared around the kitchen table, at times the singer would reach out for a hand, or someone who was present would offer a hand, for the singer to hold, a connection to carry with them through the intensity of the story and the song. That is not, I think, the sort of connection and intention that is being proposed or enjoyed, if those are the right words, by those who wish for greater interaction and more instant connectivity. Stories, and songs, and the stories which live within songs are meant to be listened to, to be loved, to be understood, and yes, to be shared. First, though, they have to be heard. That is an aspect which is being overlooked, I think, in the quest for constant interactivity.

Naturally, this is a subject with many viewpoints, and one to which I'll return. I’d welcome your thoughts.

you may also wish to see

Music Road: Dual: Julie Fowlis & Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh
Music Road: Cathie Ryan: Songwriter
Music Road: old songs, old stories: Elsafty Armstrong Browne

Labels: , , , ,

Bookmark and Share
posted by Kerry Dexter at


Anonymous sarah henry said...

The digital age has likely changed how we tell and hear stories, no doubt. I hope for all our sake, though other traditional story-telling ways endure.

8:11 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home