Celtic Modern: Music at the Global Fringe


Martin Stokes and Philip V. Bohlman (eds.)


The Scarecrow Press; paperback; 2003; 293 pages


Much of Celtic Modern resembles those eighteenth century scholarly theses seeking to prove the reality of the imaginary element phlogiston. Most of the authors of articles in this high-flown collection seem to believe that there is an actual entity identifiable as “Celtic Music”, rather than being adopted as a catch-all description by commercially-minded record companies and lazy journalists. Those unconvinced by this argument should ask themselves whether they have actually met anyone who defines himself or herself as a “Celtic musician”!


Take, for instance, one of the contributors, Graeme Smith, whose bizarre article “Celtic Australia” states that one of the key moments of “interaction between Irish music and Australian constructions of nation and identity ... is the incorporation over the past decade of the didjeridu into Irish traditional instrumentation and a generalized conception of Irish music”. Apart from obviously questioning just what constitutes Smith’s listening habits and wondering about which fantasy sessions he attends, this isn’t just over-egging the pudding, but gilding it with albumen.


Furthermore, some of the contributors have little grasp of the musical histories of the people defined as “Celtic”. Scott Reiss, for example, believes that ensemble playing in Irish traditional music began with Seán Ó Riada’s Ceoltóirí Chualann which would be news to those who belonged to céilí bands in the 1930s or played at sessions in London during the late 1940s and early 1950s where, according to Reg Hall, “There was very little solo playing, the custom being that everybody played together.”


Nevertheless, there are exceptions. Flute-player Desi Wilkinson writes cogently about traditional music in Brittany (his knowledge based on having lived and played in the region). There’s a telling interview with accordionist Stan Reeves about the current state of traditional music education in Scotland while Fintan Vallely’s contribution, “The Apollos of Shamrockery” is an extended, if somewhat outdated, though informative rant about the conflict between tradition and innovation in contemporary musical Ireland. However, these three swallows do not make a summer.


This review by Geoff Wallis originally appeared in fRoots magazine – www.frootsmag.com/.

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