Friday, 8 January 2010

Cultural artefacts and their musical tonality

Music in Irish Cultural History By Gerry Smyth Irish Academic Press, 196pp, €24.95

IN RECENT years Gerry Smyth has led the way in establishing popular music as a legitimate field of study within the ever-expanding landscape of 21st-century Irish studies.

This volume combines previously published and new material which constitutes an extended critical meditation.

The fact that Smyth writes not as a musicologist but as a cultural historian means his is a less “disciplined” approach than some purists might prefer, but the book is all the better for that.

The interdisciplinarity that drives his critical practice – encompassing literature, history, politics, film studies, philosophy and psychology – produces many instructive readings that expand the parameters within which familiar texts are usually considered.

The chapter on music in Joyce’s story The Dead is a good example of the insights such a methodologically flexible approach can yield. Smyth’s analysis of the significance of Joyce’s invocation of The Lass of Aughrim in the story’s key scene begins with a short history of the ballad’s mixed Irish and Scottish pedigree. He then proceeds to discuss the different musical traditions represented in the story, after which he draws our attention to a seemingly incidental textual detail, namely, the fact that Gabriel Conroy is “gazing up the staircase” at Gretta as she listens to the ballad. Smyth seizes on this scopic detail to explore the philosophical implications.

His chapter on Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments makes a convincing case for why the book succeeds as a novel and film but fails as a representation of local music-making because of the characters’ marked reluctance to compose their own songs. Other contemporary novels in which music is overtly thematised – John B Keane’s The Bodhrán Makers , Dermot Bolger’s Father’s Music and Patrick McCabe’s Winterwood – are critiqued for their failure to do justice to the subtlety of traditional Irish music practice. Conversely, Ciarán Carson’s Last Night’s Fun is praised for its sympathetic engagement with the elaborate patterns of traditional music.

Smyth’s analysis of Bernard MacLaverty’s Grace Notes is no less insightful, particularly his explication of how the text’s double structure mediates the paradox of transformative repetition in the context of Northern Ireland. However, his keen attentiveness to MacLaverty’s neo-romantic aesthetic makes Smyth somewhat deaf to the strand of the novel that conceptualises music as the “grace of God”.

But the chapter that lingers longest in the mind is “Paddy Sad and Paddy Mad”, in which Smyth addresses the intriguing question of whether there is something inherent in the particular tones and rhythms of Irish music which elicits the reactions it does.

He argues these sonic signifiers – “Paddy Sad” connoting a melancholic response to a history of dispossession; “Paddy Mad”, a comic, carnivalesque response – are closely bound up with long-established racial stereotypes of the Irish, which viewed them as unfit to deal with the modern world. Smyth’s piquant analysis leaves us to ponder why such disparaging Celticist stereotypes continue to flourish today, and why Irish musicians and film-makers are content to perpetuate and profit from them.

Liam Harte’s latest book is The Literature of the Irish in Britain: Autobiography and Memoir, 1725–2001 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). He teaches Irish literature at the University of Manchester

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