Part V: Translanguaging–the playlist

–Rule 3, Surrick…there are a lot of rules in the book, in the show…

First Movement:

So now it’s time to strap in for a little theory, and what better way to kick that off than with a truly intricate and bombastic piece of music–the finale from the Turangalila Symphonie by Messiaen. It features an instrument called the ondes martenot, which is like a theramin on steroids.

Lost yet? The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra did it this year, definitely a “clearing the hurdles” sort of affair. You may find that a little of it goes a VERY long way (unless you are my husband, in which case, you’ll just stop here and listen to it over and over again).

If you are not my husband and need some other (read more accessible) musical inspiration to get you through some theories of language, culture and folklore, might I suggest a song that runs in the opposite direction–Alice Merton’s No Roots.

If you want to know more about how this song came to prominence, check out this Rolling Stone article:

The first song I’ve got here today is a massively structured, commissioned work based on an ancient love story (Tristan and Isolde). It requires a conductor. The second is an unplugged, unbound story of individualism that had a hard time finding its way in the commercial market. The first composer created a mashup title from the Sanskrit, the second took inspiration from a modern family endlessly moving and leaving everything behind.

If you don’t want to read any theory at all (and heaven knows, I don’t blame you)–I think that Ensemble Galilei’s show takes Alice Merton, runs her through language of Messiaenic proportions in rehearsal and emerges with something at once accessible and unattainable. I think they can do this because of the number of languages they speak and the number of languages they are willing to hear. I also think they are doing most of it by instinct, informed by a variety of techniques and that they tap into what Michael Dylan and Jeffrey A. Tolbert call the folkloresque.

An old ballad:

That almost-accusation-of-inauthenticity there might spur a reaction, especially since several of these performers kick authentic butt in competition playing and/or have years of training that informs their practice. Old recordings are important to them. Old songs are important to them. Old sounds intrigue them. They certainly don’t pretend to be Celtic.

Eamonn Kelly is profiled by the scholars of the final article mentioned in this post.

A scholar named Patrick Ryan interviewed traditional storytellers living and working in Ireland and Scotland a few years back, to get at issues of identity and authenticity. He creates a distinction between storytelling performance and storyteller performance. Storyteller performance relates to mega-identity, which is a “sense of what the storyteller role is” (Ryan, 315) and that mega-identity determines both the kind of story one might tell and the way it should be told. He feels that revival tellers get particularly caught in this trap, questioning whether connections to historical stories and landscape are personal or even private to the “authentic” storyteller and consciously exploited by the festival or revival storyteller. He argues that traditional storytellers go about their business totally differently in their own communities than in front of a more heterogeneous audience, which might expect them to be a part of an uninterrupted chain of the oral tradition stretching back centuries. For him, there’s the kind of audience that understands you implicitly–for whom you let the story itself do most of the performing and the audience that only understands you if you exaggerate what is Celtic (and therefore “Other” about it).

By far the most useful and powerful vignette about authenticity and transmission in the piece is John Campbell’s story of a gathering of singers and musicians at the Ardmore Hotel:

A famous collector was recording music styles–styles of singing–sean nos (or old singing) and styles of playing (like sligo fiddling). An argument starts up about how it is “not a good thing to imitate. You should take the music and then you should make your own of it.” (Ryan, 321) At this point, the man doing the recording, Sean O’Boyle, asks different people to take turns singing the same ballad. The first man to sing is asked where he learned the song: his father. A woman sings next–very different interpretation and she also learned the song from her father. Then O’Boyle plays a recording of the song with yet a different interpretation. He reveals to the crowd that the voice on the recording was the father of both singers who have just performed: “Three different versions of the same song, but they listened, they heard their father sing it, and they made their own wee thing of it, their own version. And there you have individuality. In the one house.” (Ryan, 322)

What Patrick Ryan presents, then, is a massive contradiction. On the one hand, he introduces a construct where storytellers are constrained by what it means (when outside of their own communities) to be a storyteller in the first place. On the other hand, he tells a famous story where singers in the same physical location in front of a heterogeneous audience, still manage to give totally unique, distinct performances that they nonetheless attribute to the man they learned it from. Apparently they do not need to live up or down to the audience’s “universal sense of Celticity” where other storytellers who make their living at it (and Patrick Ryan seems distinctly suspicious of anyone making a buck) go all in on the trappings.

I suggest watching this in split screen, if you can, for the rest of the blog.

To be overly reductive, it seems that some performers can trust both to their material and to the transmission of tradition enough to bring themselves to a performance and some get trapped in a caricature, because that’s what the audience seems to want. There is a haunting, going on with Celtic traditions–not the ghosts of old stories and songs but a ghost of emptiness–of sound only, of shape only, of texture only–there is a Tartan, we know where we are.

“I wish you’d been there-“ Anne says, about the rehearsals when the group put together the show–testing music against text, using embedded Celtic knowledge to continue down a path that Carolyn and Sue had already started at Walter Reed. The knowledge that this song will work in this time and this place. This song will fit into this landscape and somehow bring its own landscape right along as well.

And now, my remix of ethnomusicologist Thomas Turino’s experience playing in with Peruvian musicians at the Fiesta De La Cruz–scored for academics:

thick description though we can’t hear it/history-politics-dwindling numbers-self importance-broken festival-dissonance/Gramsci (we are strangely composite)-DeCerteau (for good measure)-Bourdieu (habitus, habitus, habitus)/ “Once they were playing together, they acted “as if” they were from the same village: the context of musical performance itself indexing community.” (405)/how do we decide what a group is?/inside-outside/how do we choose what to say and how to say it/why do others listen?/”music is not just socially structured, but in addition,…society is partially musically structured since musical activity comprises one important public domain through which the internal dispositions are externalized.” (401)/common sense/tradition/what can we say about time?

Some musicians in Ensemble Galilei learn mostly by ear, others read music-notes on a staff–they all understand how to respond structurally (the A section, the B section). They all play in other contexts, some of which have appeared on this blog, and when they come back together they must relearn how to engage with each other, how to act as if they are from the same village. The notion of being “strangely composite” just means there is no one identity, no one motivation. It means that rules are guidelines, at best, while somehow still recognizably being rules.

When Turino embedded himself in a musical community, he was struck by dissonances–performers who came together and played together for a public, cultural function. They couldn’t adapt to each other, didn’t correct each other, in a sense, they played at each other. Turino seemed to feel he was watching the music vanish, the tradition vanish, killed by a larger, hegemonic structure. He was playing with them and also a stranger with them–they were all following each other, it was hard to gauge their relationships to the tradition whose notes they were shaping with fingerings and breath support. It seems to me we always think we are watching the old ways die. Unless we really learn how to use them and understand the power that they have–not by themselves as notes on a page or a melody to memorize, but as the rites of passage: calls to arms, mourning songs, announcing competition, songs of love.

The members of Ensemble Galilei do just show up, in a way–they bring their instruments and get together, a bit like different musicians across a region in Peru–but they now bring 28 years of memories (of their own) every time, to say nothing of the countless musical and life experiences that have shaped them outside of the circle. Neal and Anne show great deference to the musicians–it is not overt, but it is there in the way they engage in rehearsal. They must reestablish the network–the connection that says we all tell the story. For a player like Jackie who often plays and sings–carries the storytelling on his own, he is adapting, infusing his range of storytelling abilities into the rhythms. For Carolyn who wrote the words, who played music with the veterans, who brought together performers, who helped to choose these new venues which are not the concert halls of the fall tour, but churches with their own resonances, their own memories–she must find a way to give part of her soul to Anne, part to Neal, to Sue, Preston, Ryan and Jackie for safe-keeping, and then pour the rest of it through her instrument. I’ve made her sound like Voldemort, don’t know how she’s going to feel about that one.


Michael Dylan Foster and Jeffrey A. Tolbert have a definition for their new word “folkloresque”: “consciously cobbled together from a range of folkloric elements, often mixed with newly created elements, to appear as if it emerged organically from a specific source. In some cases the form rather than the contents provide this veneer of folklore: the folkloresque can reference folklore in either langue or parole or both.” (Foster and Tolbert, 5)

What they open up here is an idea that a traditional form needn’t be a copy of what used to be done in order to still be identified with that traditional form. Passed down from generation to generation only comes with a twist.

They don’t want Christmas music…only Irish music.

Sue says that Carolyn was always the one watching the veterans as they went past at Walter Reed, engaging them and their families. Her playing was only part of the conversation, it provided the shock of recognition that made people stop, and occasionally make eye contact, occasionally smile. It allowed her to play music not just for the people there, but with many of them as well. People came and found her because of the music. The music allowed her to go looking for them. There was a certain sound she brought with her (and Sue brought and Ginger brought)–perhaps it was a universal Celtic sound that was instantly recognizable, meaning different things to different people. The three ladies never tried to exploit that sound. They made recordings and gave them out. Some veterans learned and played the whole CD back to them.

Another author in the collection on the folkloresque, Chad Buterbaugh, takes this notion and develops it: a central idea for this text as a whole is that stories can travel far in time and space from their origins, picking up new kinds of resonance and authenticity that have little to do with the involvement of profit-seeking corporations (which often are seeking to monetize powerful responses to “tradition”). Buterbaugh notes that “discussions of folklorization [another form of the folkloresque] tend not to suggest that the folklorized form is a devolved copy of an authentic ancestor. Instead, they recognize the multimedia interchange through which folklore may take on new and unexpected forms.” (Buterbaugh, 146)

Celtic music can be the simplest and the most complex stuff going. We think of players and singers gathered around a fire in darkest night, people from the neighborhood invited, listening in. We imagine bardic characters, songs from childhood, songs from childhoods centuries gone. It is old, old language we imagine and it feels timeless when we hear it. There are certain tones, the sounds of certain instruments, even the shouting and tapping of feet. But in order to be old, rich, continuing language, it must also be cared about and cared for–it must bounce off of something present and real.

Everything I’ve seen has been about embodiment, from rehearsal to performance to the way everyone speaks about their work around the table–they are all master storytellers there–the layers of gesture, facial expression, humor, who they direct certain remarks to, how they weave in different experiences to make a point. I audio recorded the dinner conversation, which in effect means I captured very little of it–just an echo, but it is enough for me to remember how it really was.

Between war and here, veterans’ physical lives transforms. Their corporality, their wholeness is filled with holes. Carolyn must have believed that music is regenerative in order to have started this project. That her gestures could speak into a void. That being in her body could allow others to start process what was happening internally as well.

And once a new-old group forms around these stories, a group that has trained their bodies and voices to an expanded range of expression–a group whose personal storytelling is both adaptive and ingrained–a group who forms a village and is unafraid to correct, make changes, do it wrong to get it right–a group who allows classical and Celtic traditions to merge with others and take on new forms–they create something recognizable for all of us, something we cannot quite describe but feel to be true.

They stand on ceremony, but this is no empty pageantry. These soldiers stood for each other and their country–that was no empty promise. We stand in the presence of the ceremony and sacrifice–it’s not really a “show,” it’s an evening by the fire where everyone gets to be heard.


Turino, Thomas. “Structure, Context, and Strategy in Musical Ethnography.” Ethnomusicology, Vol. 34, No. 3 (Autumn, 1990), 399-412. (accessed 02/24/2019)

Ryan, Patrick. “Celticity and Storyteller Identity: The Use and Misuse of Ethnicity to Develop a Storyteller’s Sense of Self.” Folklore, no. 3 (2006): 313-328. (accessed 02/24/2019)

Turino, Thomas. “Structure, Context, and Strategy in Musical Ethnography.” Ethnomusicology, Vol. 34, No. 3 (Autumn, 1990), 399-412. (accessed 02/24/2019)

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