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Sean-nos singing - A Bluffers Guide
- by Anthony McCann
Issue 24 June/July '98


One of the Irish papers once told of how, while on a lecture tour, singer Seosaimhin Ni Bheaglaioch had been asked to introduce her Chicago audience to the art of sean-nos. But unaccompanied traditional singing in Irish was not quite what they wanted to hear. "It was awful", she was reported as saying, "These people had come for a lecture. I sang a few songs, and there were little children running around with their hands over their ears".

As Seamas Mac Mathuna has written, "Sean-nos singing is at once the most loved and the most reviled, the least often heard and the least understood part of that body of music which is generally referred to as Irish Traditional Music ... It is the least understood because, technically and emotionally, it is the most complex part of that body of music, and many of those who dislike it do so because the techniques of sean-nos singing are not the techniques which they have come to regard as the "proper" or "correct" ones. For the feeling and emotion of sean-nos singing is not expressed by the standard European 'bag-o-tricks', and so it is that to some not unbiased ears it sounds 'uncouth', 'untuneful', and 'unmusical'.

But where on earth did the term come from in the first place? Donncha O Suilleabhain's history of the Oireachtas, the major annual Irish language festival, which includes competitions across many disciplines, reveals that the term 'sean-nos' was first used in competition in 1904 as a translation from the English 'traditional singing (in the old style)', to differentiate it from the more prevalent parlour-room vibrato style. Its obvious association with a pastoral nostalgia and an implied 'authenticity' would suggest some association with the romantic zeal of the Gaelic Revival (especially post-1893), a term applied 'from without' by English-speaking, urban-based enthusiasts who required a label, a frame of reference with which to juxtapose their modernised, 'sophisticated', 'nos nua'/'new way' existence. The popularity of the west of Ireland in the revival and the largely accepted association of 'sean-nos' with Connemara would support this, if tentatively.

That the term developed 'from within' is improbable. One of the great singers, Maire Aine Ni Dhonnachadha, stated in 1980, "Ni raibh an darna nos ann, na aon chaint air mar nos, na aon tuiscint go mba rud faoi leith e." [There wasn't any other way, or even an awareness that it was a 'way', or any understanding that it was something apart.]

In the belief that the term 'sean-nos' referred to a readily definable style, it has been reduced convincingly by academics and afficionados to a series of characteristics which have been well documented, most notably by Sean O Riada in 1962 and Seoirse Bodley in 1972. The following is an amalgam:

1. A bare voice (not 'sweet', with a certain 'natural fierceness').

2. No vibrato.

3. No dynamic. (loud/soft)

4. Emotion is expressed through the use of vocal ornamentation, which varies from singer to singer.

5. Free, non-metronomic rhythm used by the singer.

6. The meaning of the words dictates singing from the heart, with 'soul'. (Without dynamic - see above).

7. Often there is an emphasis on the consonants l, m, n, r to facilitate the free rhythmic pulse and to create a drone effect.

8. Occasional nasalisation.

9. Music takes precedent over the lyric.

10. Often extra meaningless syllables are introduced, e.g., "Thug (a) me".

11. The use of the glottal stop/dramatic pause.

12. It's unaccompanied.

13. The melody varies from one verse to the next, and from one performance to the next. This is often referred to as the 'variation principle'.

14. And last but not least, the singing is in the Irish language.

All very neat and tidy. However, that grey area where public perception meets the term is a lot less prescriptive, leading to quite a few problems in conversation. The term 'sean-nos' has assumed a myriad of meanings when used in the public arena. Tom Munnelly, a well-respected song collector, singer, and folklorist, has deemed it, "an extremely hazy label covering a good deal of current misconceptions". Often the term acquires a definite article and a capital letter, as in "Singing in the Sean-nos". It is used to attribute an undefined quality to a song per se, as seen in an Altan concert review, "The group's rendition of the wonderful sean-nos song 'Taim i mo Shui' is likely to be one of their classics".

It can be applied to a particular style of melodic composition, as in an article about Padraigin Ni Uallachain, "Chuaigh si i mbun oibre leis an fhile Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill agus le cheile cumadh 'Caoineadh Bhranwen', ar an tsean-nos". [She got together with the poet Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill and together they composed 'Branwen's Lament' in the 'sean-nos']. Its most common usage is as a blanket term to refer to all singing in the Irish language, and even occasionally, by apparent analogy, to refer to the singing traditions in both Irish and English languages, as in the title 'Sean-nos Weekender' that headed an information bulletin in The Irish Times about the Clare Festival of Traditional Singing in Ennistymon, ironically a predominantly English language gathering. In the public arena the phrase seems to mean lots of things without meaning anything in particular.

Some singers object to the term, feeling that it marginalises their work. Its very existence is highly indicative of the perceived split between Irish language and English language song traditions and cultures in Ireland, the identification of the Irish song tradition as 'other', with the here-unexplored implications of an Irish label in the English language. It could be argued that the existence of the label 'sean-nos', however, stringently (academically) or vaguely (in the wider public arena) it is now applied, allows for the perpetuation of protectionism and assertions of purity in an actual affirmation of the 'other'.

Despite this, there are nonetheless regular sean-nos competitions at which the virtues of individual singers are judged, and the extent to which competitions and sometimes notoriously subjective judging have aided the creation and regulation of a concept and definition of 'sean-nos' cannot be underestimated. One judge at a recent gathering declared her criteria by saying that she was looking for singing 'from the heart', with good breathing technique, and voice control. The same could be applied to a menagerie of styles without specifying that it's something called 'sean-nos'. There's also the problem of apples and oranges. Some of the unaccompanied singing styles in Ireland are so diverse, and brilliant in their own right (the three apparently identifiable styles being in Ulster, Connacht, and Munster), that it seems ridiculous to lump them all together in competition with one another. Often criticised for slowing the songs down to almost murderous speeds to allow for elaborate ornamentation to impress judges, in much the same way as dance tunes were dragged down in solo dance competitions, competitions make the song a vehicle for the singer, rather than the singer being a vehicle for the song, and you have to take your own stand on that one. On the positive side, competitions have given people an incentive to sing and to learn new songs, and a national community in which to sing and enjoy other singers' company. Many recognised singers wouldn't be singing today if it wasn't for competitions.

Some would argue that sean-nos (as in, the common styles of unaccompanied traditional singing in Irish), exists as a separate aesthetic, a musical language, that it is worlds away from the dominant Western Art Music aesthetic, epitomised by the 'Pianoforte', preferring instead to convey emotion, as previously noted, in other ways (like most Indo-European traditional musics). Practically speaking it is increasingly difficult to perform appropriate ornamentation the more open or operatic the voice becomes. The previously mentioned characteristics of sean-nos, important as general but not exclusive guidelines, are becoming increasingly problematic in the context of a growing cultural contact between incompatible, arguably diametrically opposed musical aesthetics. An important point to be made is that the Western Art aesthetic is the one with the backing of the music business, and the media, and therefore the most attractive to musicians and singers with a self-conscious artistic aspiration to creative and financial success. Almost unnoticed, the Western Art dynamics are becoming more prevalent in Irish traditional music, and whether they are another technique to increase the emotional effectiveness of a performance, meeting unschooled audiences half-way, or an unwanted aesthetic marker that annuls the un-dynamics of traditional music's aesthetic by sheer power of numbers is a debate for another day. This is not to champion one as better than the other, but rather a cautious note of the need to protect a minority aesthetic. As it happens, the loud-soft contrast has been particularly evident in the singing of some from the Cuil Aodha tradition in County Cork, from which one of the younger and now internationally known singers, Iarla O Lionaird, comes, which reminds us that absolutism is a dangerous thing.

In the following article I hope to take a look at what has happened as singers have come into contact with the recording process.


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