Here I describe elements of the conceptual framework that have informed the practical, embodied aspects of this research project. This framework was developed through academic engagement with the coursework presented during the MA Irish Music Studies at UL, and my own research during that time period. The approach I have taken here is to discursively describe various areas of academic discourse, relating them directly to the embodied practice at the centre of this research: my bodhrán playing. This section is structured as follows:
Creativity and the Creative Process
An overview of various ways creativity has been viewed historically is given by van der Schyff et al, in an article that explores creativity from the perspective of cognitive science. Creativity has been seen as driven by supernatural forces, as by the muses of Ancient Greece; it has been seen as the divine inspiration of Christian Gods; and creativity has been seen as a gift bestowed by God or nature on the genius of the Romantic era. (van der Schyff et al., 2018, p. 2). In these cases, creativity is seen as a mysterious force originating from without the individual.
More recently, creativity has come to be viewed as “a universal human potential or disposition that may be developed in various ways” and “largely the result of sustained practice and years of deep engagement with the domain in question” (van der Schyff et al., 2018, p. 3). This perspective points to the way in which an individual engages deeply with an existing cultural domain in a process that results in acts of creativity, and resonates with Ward and Kolomyts’ view that:
the operating characteristics of individual minds allow us to build on previous innovations by storing, retrieving, modifying, and exploiting existing knowledge. From this perspective, what’s old about new ideas is at least as important as what’s new about them.
(Ward and Kolomyts, 2019, p. 175)
This view supports Quigley’s interpretation of musical tradition itself as a generative process (Quigley, 2012); without the effort and creative cultural work of those that went before (and which form processes of tradition), no context or material would exist to enable the creativity of present-day practitioners. This research project in particular is a very clear example of how the embodied knowledge of other practitioners is the material that enables new creative acts. On the upper left is a clip of Roscommon bodhrán player Séamus O’Donoghue, who used an idiosyncratic method of gripping the stick. Below him is a video of Seamus O’Kane paying homage to O’Donoghue. In this clip O’Kane imitates the effect of O’Donoghue’s style, but not his particular technique. On the right is a clip of my private practice, where I’m working on switching between the standard Mercier grip, and a grip posture that was inspired by O'Donoghue's. In contrast to O’Kane, I’m imitating O’Donoghue’s technique, but not so much the overall effect of his style.
In this view, the agency of the individual who engages in creative acts is in interplay with the cultural domain in which they operate. By developing their view of musical creativity within the framework of 4E cognition, van der Schyff et al. further develop the idea how creativity can be understood as a relational acts between individuals, social groups and their environments that “bring forth worlds of meaning through shared, embodied processes of dynamic interactivity” (van der Schyff et al., 2018, p. 1). 4E cognition is a view of the human thought process that acknowledges its embodied, embedded, enactive, and extended aspects. These aspects overlap in practice (van der Schyff et al., 2018, p. 7). In what follows I will show how I have come to understand these aspects of cognition through my bodhrán playing practice.
In considering cognition as being embodied, “the brain becomes a part of a larger network that involves the nervous system and the sensorimotor capacities of the entire organism” , drawing perception and action closely together. Thoughts are no longer only abstract entities, but can also be the felt experience of the body, which can drive cognitive processes (van der Schyff et al., 2018, pp. 5–6). In the act of playing bodhrán, I can explicitly plan about how my music-making will unfold; for example by shaping my playing along the abstract, 8-bar structures of tunes. I can also “think” with my “body-mind”, making split-second decisions in the moment that I don’t reason about in an abstract way. Additionally, rather than trying to understand the tradition of Irish music through verbalised or conceptualised accounts of it, I can look directly to how I and other musicians embody that tradition, and use that embodied knowledge to reason about the tradition.
Our body-minds are embedded in a physical environment, whose possibilities for action must be grasped in order for deliberate action to be carried out (van der Schyff et al., 2018, p. 6). The learning of a musical practice entails a gradual deepening of our embodied understanding of the affordances (Gibson, 1977) of the physical musical instrument we choose to act with. An important aspect of this research project is a consideration of the affordances of the bodhrán and stick; rather than always looking to other players to see what is musically possible, I can directly explore my own body’s interaction with the instrument. Related to this view of cognition is the view that cognition can be extended when “tools and objects from the environment can become integrative parts of mental life and the creative processes that go along with it” (van der Schyff et al., 2018, p. 7). My concept of rhythm is extended when I learn a new instrument; the rhythmic possibilities offered by a snare drum are different to those offered by a bodhrán. Each instrument affords different sorts of rhythmic possibilities, and my abstract understanding of rhythm is extended by exploring and embodying these possibilities through those instruments.
Our body-minds are embedded in, and extended by, an environment that offers us possibilities for action, but we also enact that environment through our actions, as “the subject lays down the path in walking” (Newen, Bruin and Gallagher, 2018, p. 71). In the context of social musical performance, enactment engenders “circular processes of collaborative adaptive activity” whereby musicians collectively create and respond to a musical situation dynamically (van der Schyff et al., 2018, p. 6). This dynamic is most apparent to me in duetting with other musicians. What either person in the duet plays, must mesh in some way with what the other plays; that thing that they play in turn creates the material with which the other person must mesh.
Creative Processes in Traditional Music
Now we move from the general idea of creative process as an individual’s long term engagement with a socially constructed cultural domain, to see in concrete terms the particular ways in which certain musicians have engaged with their tradition creatively. More recent understandings of the concept of traditionality acknowledge the role that creative processes play in the constant regeneration of traditional practices (Ó Súilleabháin, 1990; Glassie, 1995; Quigley, 2012). In this view, traditionality is not only defined and transmitted through specific repertoire, stylistic conventions or instrumental techniques of the past, but perhaps more importantly, lives in the specific creative processes of individuals who enact, reflect and regenerate that tradition:
the quality of traditionality is not located in the past-ness of a repertoire, nor the continuities therewith through particular transmission processes, although both of these characteristics are present. It is more centrally located in the characteristic means its practitioners use to engage creatively with the present by using the skills and knowledge they bring from their pasts to affect their futures.
(Quigley, 2012, p. 53)
In his study of Émile Benoit, Quigley pinpoints one such creative process, which he terms “melodizing” (Quigley, 1993, p. 158). In this type of exploratory, private practice, Benoit allows his fingers to roam freely over the fingerboard of his fiddle to discover melodic fragments, and gradually work them into a coherent tune in the tradition of Newfoundland fiddling, which can be recalled for later performance (Quigley, 1993, p. 158). This process of melodizing is only made possible by Benoit’s enculturation in that tradition of fiddling, where he “had learned to play in an almost archetypal traditional environment and had internalised the spirit and logic of this music to such an extent that he was utterly fluent within the idiom” (Quigley, 1995, p. 209). Benoit’s melodizing uses deconstructed fragments of a tradition he has internalised, and gradually reconstitutes them as finished pieces that conform to the learned structures of that tradition.
Rhyming: a creative bodhrán process
Quigley’s concept of “melodizing” is somewhat analogous to a creative process I use in my private bodhrán practice, which I now term “rhyming”. This process of unaccompanied bodhrán playing involves the suspension of normal concerns such as playing within a rhythmic structure or keeping to a strict pulse. Instead it is a way I have of exploring novel sequences of movement of the bodhrán stick across the skin that is “guided by the mechanics of the body” (Sheehan, 2022a, p. 15/6/2022). Emile Benoit used the notion of “rhyming” to describe how musical materials should complement and contrast each other in a musical aesthetic (Quigley, 1993, p. 179) and I think it is an appropriate term to use to describe the process by which I find sequences of movement that flow together on the bodhrán. Once I have found sequences of movement that rhyme, they can gradually be shoe-horned into the rhythmic structures of the various tune types and tempos of traditional Irish music. On the left I can be seen attempting to “rhyme” two distinct movements: one based on a downbeat roll, and the other based on an upbeat roll. These were eventually married as a jig rhythm, as is notated on the right. My “rhyming” is also similar to the process of “random play” suggested by Ó Súilleabháin :
The principle of random play in music is that every instrument lends itself to certain rhythmic, melodic or harmonic patterns. These are determined by the construction of the instrument itself [...] interacting with the accepted method of playing [...].
[...] the player finds that certain rhythms happen almost by accident. ‘Going with’ the instrument is as important at this stage as going against it will be when you advance in technical ability.
(Ó Súilleabháin, 1984, p. 9)
In the context of this research project Ó Súilleabháin’s notion of an “accepted method of playing” is of relevance. As described in the Bodhrán Literature and Practice Review section, the majority of players use variants of the Mercier grip posture (as I have termed it); this could be seen as the current de facto “accepted method” of playing the bodhrán. I problematise this notion, firstly by showing how other less-common methods have been used successfully by people in the bodhrán playing community, and secondly by demonstrating through my own practice that it is possible for one person to combine these different methods in their playing, in the creative process of “grip switching” which I will now discuss in the context of other creative process of Irish traditional music as described by Ó Súilleabháin.
Grip Switching: a new creative process of Irish traditional dance music
Ó Súilleabháin finds that ideas of process in Irish traditional music are embedded in the meaning of the colloquial phrase “turning a tune” (Ó Súilleabháin, 1990, pp. 118–119). Turning a tune is taken to mean the performance of a piece of repertoire using idiomatic processes of variation. In turning a tune there is a creative tension between the “inaudible model” of how a tune might be expected to sound, and the “fully audible” tune as it is actually performed (Ó Súilleabháin, 1990, p. 120). Processes which vary phrasing, rhythm, pitch and tune structure are used by melodic instrumentalists in idiosyncratic ways, and are shown by Ó Súilleabháin to have “generative force” that gives life to the music, serving as an “invitation” for others to participate (Ó Súilleabháin, 1990, pp. 121–123). These processes serve as “an essential basis for creative and individual selection of musical options” and allow the player to manifest the processes of tradition in personal terms that are at the same time in dialogue with their musical community of practice and the larger historical tradition (Ó Súilleabháin, 1990, p. 130). For example, one such process of melodic variation is structured around what Ó Súilleabháin terms the “set accented tones” (Ó Súilleabháin, 1990, p. 123) of a traditional Irish dance tune. These set accented tones provide the stable rhythmic-melodic structure within which a player can engage in “a form of pitch-play which takes place largely between these set tones but which may at times disturb the tones themselves” (Ó Súilleabháin, 1990, p. 126).
I have come to realise that this research project is primarily concerned with the development of a comparable ‘creative process’ of bodhrán playing, in the particular meaning of that term as used above by Ó Súilleabháin. This is the process of Grip Switching that I have developed, the ability to switch between a variety of different grip postures in the moment of performance. Like the creative processes described by Ó Súilleabháin, it is a process that enables variation and extemporisation within the framework of traditional Irish dance tunes. This process allows me to vary the texture, swing, accent patterns and ornamentation of my playing at will by shifting between a variety of different grip postures each of which afford their own characteristic ways of articulating basic quaver motor rhythms and associated ornamentation. This grip switching process is demonstrated on the left; textual annotation of the video indicates the grip posture I am using at that particular moment.
Arts Practice Research and Irish Music Studies
This research project was carried out as part of the MA Irish Music Studies programme at the University of Limerick. The course explores the broad church of Irish music from critical, cultural, historical, musicological, and analytical perspectives. Students are encouraged to engage with these discourses directly through their own performance or compositional practice, which was very attractive to me as a musician with an interest in arts practice research. Over the first two semesters of study I engaged with course materials in a largely traditional academic fashion, writing essays and giving presentations orally. During the third summer semester I continued a programme of reading, but the majority of my time was spent engaged directly in bodhrán playing. During this period, I often found that I gained insight or reflected on materials that I had read previously, in a very unforced way. Unbidden but relevant thoughts, and insights, bubbled to the surface while playing.
In this section I will highlight some of the insights I gained through engagement with the course materials, and explore the ways in which these insights resonated with and impacted on my bodhrán playing practice, especially in the context of this arts practice research project.
Change and Tradition
The Irish Music Studies programme encourages students to take a very broad view of what constitutes Irish music, not least by picking apart the Romantic nationalist ideology of the early Irish state which constructed a rigid, insular notion of Irish traditional music and dance as an “idealized rural precolonial Gaelic vision” (Williams and Ó Laoire, 2011, p. 29). Through critical study of the processes that shaped and continue to shape Irish traditional music, ideas of it as a “pure and genuine” artefact surviving unchanged as an expression of a “pristine, pre-modern Irishness” (Williams and Ó Laoire, 2011, p. 28) are dispelled. Rather, Irish music, including the ideologically over-burdened subcategory of traditional Irish music, is shown to be in constant flux, open to influence and change across time, geography, and cultural boundaries.
Exemplifying this view is fiddler Tommie Potts, who was held in some quarters to be the “epitome of tradition” (Ó Súilleabháin, 1996, p. 175), with tradition in this context carrying those connotations of fixity and authenticity as espoused by the Romantic nationalist ideology. However, Ó Súilleabháin argues convincingly that Potts was in fact:
the epitome of true innovation by virtue of the fact that his understanding of tradition was so grounded as to allow him to be primed for the innovation which flowed through him
(Ó Súilleabháin, 1996, p. 175)
Ó Súilleabháin goes on to show how Potts’ music, far from being insular and pure, was open to influence from sources as varied as Bing Crosby, Rachmaninoff, Hungarian gypsy music, Moore’s Melodies and Gregorian Chant, all channelled through the existing structures of his “inherited tradition” (Ó Súilleabháin, 1996, p. 193). This way in which traditional practitioners are inevitably subject to influence from the present in which they find themselves was also seen by Quigley in his study of the Newfoundland fiddler Émile Benoit:
Emile Benoit was the very personification of a traditional fiddler. And yet one couldn’t spend more than a short time with him without realizing that what characterized his music making was not its ‘past-ness’ but its vibrant production in response to the events of Emile’s life in the present.
(Quigley, 2012, p. 50)
This resonates with my own arts practice in many ways; sometimes in how I play and listen to whatever idioms of music come my way and as the fancy takes me. An example of this can be seen in the video on the left, and was recorded in my journal for that day (The Sultans of Ping are well-known rock band from Cork city):
Played along to some of the same African rock as yesterday - Imarhan and Mdou Moctar. Ended up landing on a swing beat that I will call “Where’s Me Jumper” after The Sultans of Ping song it reminds me of (the drum intro).
(Sheehan, 2022a, p. 24/05/2022)
In a similar fashion, cultural flows (Stuart Alexander Rockefeller et al., 2011) created by the movement of people to and from the island of Ireland throughout history are shown to have rendered the artificial boundaries of the nation state porous. Musical instruments have been introduced to this country from abroad in a continual process throughout history; for example instruments such as the flute, fiddle, tin whistle, concertina and accordion which are now regarded as quintessential of Irish traditional music all originated from outside of the island. The assimilation of these instruments into Irish traditional music had a material effect on that tradition; each instrument brings its own characteristic performance techniques and sound, pushing the tradition in new directions (Keegan, 2021).
Exposure to this view of Irish music as ever-changing and open to influence from any quarter enabled me to see my practice as a bodhrán player in a different light. Rather than being hemmed in by ideas of what is authentic, appropriate or correct, I now see how I can be at once a traditional musician and an innovator, bringing together influences from disparate sources and from across time and place. Being grounded in a tradition doesn’t imply being beholden to it. This resonated with and reaffirmed my own artistic instinct and will that has always valued ideas of innovation and originality, and the development of a unique voice. Of course, any ideas of personal creativity run the risk of discounting the importance of mimesis (Palaver, 2013) in the artistic process, and its importance in the generation and sustenance of traditions, culture and technology more generally. Somewhat paradoxically, the human tendency towards imitation can be seen as an enabler of collective, cumulative creativity:
that tendency makes it more likely that any given innovation will be copied by others and accurately preserved in a culture long enough that it can later be modified by another innovator. In the absence of such supportive tendencies, any innovations generated by individual members of other species tend to be transient and ephemeral, reducing the possibility of cumulative creativity.
(Ward and Kolomyts, 2019, p. 175)
Balancing the seemingly conflicting processes of mimesis and creativity is a theme which runs through this arts practice research. I am reminded of a comment made by Martin Hayes during a concert given by himself and Denis Cahill at the Village Arts Centre in Kilworth Co. Cork several years ago. To paraphrase (and Hayes was paraphrasing his father P.J. Hayes, also an accomplished fiddler): a newly composed traditional tune should at once have its own unique character, and at the same time, sound like all the old tunes. I am fascinated and motivated by this dichotomy of the creative process.
Historical Perspectives on Irish Music
I became interested in harping through studying the instrument’s history as part of the MA Irish Music Studies. Being introduced to the playing of Paul Dooley (Dooley, 2014a) gave me a very rich insight into how the music of Gaelic bardic harpers might have sounded, with Dooley going to the great lengths of not only reconstructing a 15th Century Irish harp, but also of reconstructing bardic playing techniques, to allow him re-interpret bardic harp repertoire. Of course, as another example of cultural flow in Irish music, Dooley’s reconstruction of playing technique and repertoire were based on the Welsh 17th century Robert ap Huw manuscript, and as such it is unclear of how closely related the music represented in the manuscript was to what might have existed in Ireland around that time. Nonetheless, it does give a tangible clue to part of the musical landscape of a region that is a close geographical and cultural neighbour of Ireland.
I was particularly struck by the tablature included in the ap Huw manuscript, seen here on the left. Although somewhat rhythmically ambiguous it contains very detailed information regarding intricate melodic motifs, termed “movements” by Dooley (Dooley, 2014b). Transcriptions of individual pieces of repertoire associated particular sequences of pitches (which correspond directly to harp strings) with named movements. These were the intricate finger movements used to perform micro-rhythmic ornamentation, and which have contemporary corollaries in Scottish bagpiping (Dickson, Scott and Hawkins, 2009, p. 8), Irish Uillean piping (Breathnach, 1977, pp. 94–100) and Irish traditional music and dance more generally (McCullough, 1977, pp. 85–86). Dart lists all seventeen movements from the manuscript, which form a well-developed, descriptive naming system. Translated examples include: “the thumb choke”, “the plait of four fingers”, “the little finger plait”, “the bee’s plait”, “the double scratch”, “the single scratch”, and “the thumb wrinkle” (Dart, 1968, pp. 62–63); Dooley refers to the “plait” movements as “weavings” also (Dooley, 2014b). Thoughts of these were never far from my mind as I sat at my instrument:
These [micro rhythmic] moves remind me of the “weaving” movements in the Robert Ap Huy manuscript, and I think it might be as good a way as any to refer to them.
(Sheehan, 2022a, p. 24/06/2022)
Over the course of this research project this theme of variation at a micro-rhythmic level is evident; the image on the right shows an attempt to tabulate such variations in my journal. Seeing how micro-rhythm has been a site for artistic expression over the historical period ranging from bardic times, through the Scottish bagpiping tradition, and on to Irish Uilleann piping and the contemporary Irish traditional music context, convinced me that this was a valid and fertile area to further explore in my own bodhrán playing. Furthermore, that a naming system had been developed in bardic times to differentiate between the various micro-rhythmic movements (as well as other higher-level metric structures), and with similar systems still in use in the contemporary traditional music traditions of Scotland and Ireland, I felt it might be musically useful to attempt to codify the micro- and macro- rhythmic elements of my bodhrán playing with written verbal and graphical mnemonics. These attempts can be seen throughout my journal, and in the Table of Microrhythmic Ornaments in the Notation section.
I was also interested in how graphical means of representation, as an aesthetic form, invite and inspire the viewer to imagine how they might be decoded. The tabulations of weavings and plaits in the Robert Ap Huy manuscript are such an invitation, as was the mysterious graffiti I began to notice on my routine journeys to and from town over the summer, as seen here.
Graffiti I noticed on walks to and from town.
Style, Articulation and Movement
In addressing the subject of ‘style’ in Irish traditional music, Keegan identifies thirteen parameters that can be used to understand, discuss and develop the performance practices of Irish traditional music: ornamentation, phrasing, articulation, variation, intonation, tone, dynamics, repertoire, duration, emphasis, speed, instrumentation, and instrument specific techniques. Keegan developed these parameters through engagement with members of the community of traditional musicians, building on the language they use to talk about their musical styles (Keegan, 2010, p. 66). They are not to be treated as fixed, distinct categories (Keegan, 2010, pp. 63–64), and there is overlap between the parameters. Style here is understood as the distinctive ways in which a musician deploys performance techniques to create an identifiable musical personality in their practice, and of course musicians can draw influence from each other in this regard, and be grouped according to similarities in their styles.
Keegan’s parameters are oriented towards the melodic instruments of the Irish tradition, with no reference being made to percussion instruments (such as the bones, snare drum, spoons or bodhrán). However, the parameters are intended to be applied cross-instrumentally (Keegan, 2010, p. 64), and as such I have found they do provide a useful analytical tool in understanding bodhrán style, in particular the parameter of ‘articulation’.
Keegan singles out ‘articulation’ as an important parameter:
Articulation is a very important parameter of style when we examine the categorisation of different styles by traditional musicians. Articulation is the way we make breaks between notes and the frequency with which we do it.
(Keegan, 2010, p. 77)
So articulation is about how we start and finish ‘notes’. Of course from the point of view of a bodhrán player, for ‘note’ it is necessary to substitute something that doesn’t necessarily have the connotation of a fixed pitch; here I would suggest that ‘sound’ is appropriate. As a bodhrán player, I would consider this parameter of articulation to be of primary importance; every sound is initiated with the articulation of a stroke, i.e. by executing a movement to hit the drum; likewise, unless the drum is completely dampened at all times, each sound is terminated by the articulation of the next stroke. As a thought experiment, and to enable analysis, here it is useful to think of the situation where the drum head is left to resonate freely, with no damping of the skin with the left hand. The movement that happens between articulating strokes determines a multitude of factors that have an audible effect on the sound and rhythmic effect produced by next the articulation, such as the angle of attack of the stroke, the region of the skin struck, and how far the stick travels between strokes. These variables are heard as the attack of the sound, the tone produced, the dynamics of the sound, and importantly, the micro-rhythmic swing and phrasing of the rhythmic structure being played (that is, subtly varying the frequency of articulation). In my view, articulation and movement are both sides of the same coin; before the momentary articulation of every sound on the bodhrán there is a particular movement that imbues that articulation with its character. Changing how one moves between articulating sounds will have an audible effect on the sounds and rhythm produced, and can be used in service of creating a distinctive style. As explored in more detail in the section Bodhrán Literature and Practice Review, I have observed that the although the majority contemporary players seem to favour a particular style of grip (i.e. the ‘Mercier’ grip), other approaches are possible, as exemplified by players such as Seán Ó Riada, Séamus O’Donoghue and Tommy Hayes. For video examples, see the Table of Grip Postures.
Unsurprisingly, powerful stylistic effects can be generated by the choice of articulatory movements on other instruments. I often accompany melodeon and accordion players when I play the bodhrán, being lucky enough to have several members of my extended family who play these instruments. Playing together we noticed how the bodhrán and melodeon always seem to fit very well together; only more recently have I realised that this is due in a large part to how notes and phrases are articulated on the melodeon, in contrast to how it sometimes works on the accordion. A melodeon has a single row of buttons, with each button allowing access to two adjacent pitches: one pitch sounds when the bellows are pushed, and another when the bellows are drawn. This configuration lends itself to a dynamic style of articulation, with the direction of the bellows often changing between successive notes of the tune. This bellows movement engenders a highly rhythmic style which marries well with dancing, and also in my experience with bodhrán playing. On the button accordion, a player has a choice of whether to imitate this rhythmic press-and-draw style enforced by the melodeon (as is the cases of Tony McMahon and Jackie Daly), but they can alternatively choose to use the additional row of keys in a way that involves less changes in direction of the bellows, and consequently produces a more legato style of articulation as was evident in the playing of Paddy O’Brien and Joe Burke (Keegan, 2021, p. 23). I am struck by how the physical configuration of an instrument can often present a musician with choices in how they might interact with it to create music. These choices can create a clearly audible effect that becomes the basis of a clearly recognisable style that people attach emotion and meaning to. There is no right and wrong here, but the choices made by the musician about how they move in relation to their instrument has direct consequences for the musician’s artistic expression. A further insight I gained here was that this situation is in fact shared across many (if not all) instruments, as evidenced by the closed- and open styles of uilleann piping (Mitchell, 1999, p. 6), and the differences between the pulsating Pádraig O’Keeffe fiddle style of Sliabh Luachra (Cranitch, 2008) and the crisply articulated fiddling of Johnny Doherty with his frequent changes of bow direction. Articulation, and its corollary, movement, are powerful determinants in the construction of style, and it is these factors I explore in this research project through the creative process of Grip Switching.