"a ruthlessly unsentimental music"

"a ruthlessly unsentimental music"

The blurb for Ciaran Carson’s book ‘Last Night’s Fun’ describes Irish traditional music as being "a ruthlessly unsentimental music." I can’t quite figure that one out. Does this make sense to you, and if so can you explain it?

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The whole blurb for context.

"Last Night’s Fun’s is a sparking celebration of music and life that is itself a literary performance of the highest order. Carson’s inspired jumble of recording history, poetry, tall tales, and polemic captures the sound and vigor of a ruthlessly unsentimental music. Last Night’s Fun is remarkable for its liveliness, honesty, scholarship, and spontaneous joy; certainly there has never been a book about Irish music like this one, and few books ever written anywhere about the experience of music can compare with it."

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It’s a rare performance of Shebeg Shemor that isn’t cringingly mawkish. Not to mention most of the songs. But the jigs and the reels, ah. Now those exist in the moment. Spontaneous, robust, life-celebrating.

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I don’t disagree with what you’re saying Joe, but here is a long list of antonyms for the word sentimental. There are a few, like practical and serious that I guess could apply, but the majority are some of the last words that I would ever personally use.

https://www.powerthesaurus.org/sentimental/antonyms

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As far as I’m aware, authors rarely have any influence over marketing blurb of the what’s written on book covers.

I think the phrase is just some book editor trying to think of what to put on the book cover.

In strict terms of course, it’s not the music that is sentimental, but the people who play and listen to it.

What is music other than sentiment, emotion, good vibes, nostalgia etc. Without that it’s just some mathmatical exercise. Now I’m sure some mathemeticians get emotional over mathematics but I think you should see my point.

Tunes and sets that I know have all sorts of memories attached to them. Some tunes I avoid just … because. Others have memories of places, good times, nostalgia for great sessions, great gigs where I’ve played. So many have memories of people, players and friends who’ve I’ve lost contact with or have died. Tunes that they loved playing (another emotion), that they taught me, or the memory of stopping in the middle of a street after a session to get out instruments to demonstrate some run or turn in a tune. In fact I know precisely the tune (Getting upstairs) and where we stood (Hearsall Lane) though it must be the best part of 25 years ago. I’m sure I’ve remembered the best parts of that night which is pretty much the definition of nostalgia.

"Ruthlessly unsentimental" … rubbish.

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That’s my feeling on the subject summed up very well, Andrew. It just seems bizarre, you are a professional writer who chooses to describe Irish traditional music with two words, and ‘ruthlessly sentimental is what you come up with?

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Does ‘cringingly mawkish’ go for all O’Carolan’s works, Joe, or is Si Bheag Si Mhor singled out particularly?

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From Londoner’s viewpoint everything Irish is tinged with sentimentality if not totally drenched!! Death, music, family, history…

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It’s such an unexpected phrase I’d be surprised if it didn’t come from Carson himself.

A lot of music is deliberately trying to push emotional buttons, country, pop, much classical.
Irish traditional music, rooted in dance music, the jigs and the reels, is itself. It’s not trying to push buttons. For many people it can be deeply moving but the music isn’t trying to do that, you bring it to the music.

What Andrew W says above about meanings and associations is totally true, for him. I won’t find any of those things in the tunes or sets he mentions, just as the ones that are most important to me might mean nothing to him.

The music itself is inherently unsentimental (maybe "ruthlessly" is there as a poet’s word) yet we’re all on this forum because of the special things and the meaning it brings us, perhaps in the playing, perhaps in the listening, perhaps in the associations, but the music is not setting out to do that to us, it is just itself.

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Cheeky, I wouldn’t rely too much on a word list generated by Power Thesaurus to interpret what the reviewer is saying. Antonyms do represent the far opposite pole of meaning, but if the writer had meant to describe Irish session music as ‘cynical’ he or she would probably have said so. I suspect the writer was trying to convey the thought that traditional music is alive and well and living in the present day, not just a backward looking curio from days gone by, embalmed by preservationists. Then again, maybe I’m putting a bit of myself into that interpretation too (ya think?).

Christy, I single out Shebeg Shemor as being a fixture for cringingly mawkish players, along with tunes like Ashokan Farewell, or any of the "breathtakingly beautiful" waltzes from the Celtic Women catalog.

But hey, I’ll wallow in the mawk myself on occasion! There’s a sweetness and innocence to it that’s hard to be too mean about.

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It might highlight the divide between Irish trad in Ireland, and the sentimental pseudo-Irish music of the Irish diaspora in the United States.

What most Irish-Americans think as "Irish music" was composed here specifically to feed the nostalgia of the children and grandchildren of 19th century Irish immigrants.

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I would tend to think that "unsentimental" here means non-mawkish - in this case I would agree that ITM is "ruthlessly" so. Addressing sean-nós singing, Jim Cowdery in his book The melodic tradition of Ireland speaks of «easthetic of understatement» and quotes Tomás Ó Canainn, Traditional music in Ireland:

«Those who expect the traditional Irish dancer to throw his arms about and shout in the style of another country just do not understand that the normal Irish artistic restraint combined with a minute attention to intricate patterns is exhibited in the dance just as surely as in the sean-nós style of singing. It is not difficult to see an analogy with traditional visual art in Ireland: the same attention to minute detail is evident, combined with a determination to let the art speak for itself unaided by any form of gimmickry».

I’m a newcomer here playing the flute for less than one year, but it seems to me that this applies to instrumental music as well - certainly whenever I watch a great flute player weaving subtleties with an almost still posture.

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It’s a long story.

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In literature, there is a important and time-honored difference between "sentiment" and "sentimental."

In literary terms, sentiment is a feeling that arises in the reader from the author’s highly skilled use of character, plotting, dialog, and imagery. It happens without the author explicitly telling the reader to feel that way.

Sentimentality is feeling that arises from the INTRUSIVE use of the narrator’s voice, not from characters, events, imagery, or dialog. It is generally considered an inferior and artless way to write.

Sentimentality in music is also undesirable IMO for the same reasons. Sentimentality in music is too cloying, too bombastic, too weepy, too overtly manipulative in some manner. Learning to do just enough is the art.

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It’s probably just intended to warn those unfamiliar with the genre, letting them know the book deals with a musical tradition that isn’t remotely like "Danny Boy," or any similar mawkish and faux-Irish music. The "ruthlessly" might be a bit tongue-in-cheek, making fun of how seriously some folks take the playing of the tunes. Great book, by the way.

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Some really interesting perspectives here.

AB, I’m not sure why, but your comment cracked me up!

Only "ruthlessly unsentimental music" if playing makes it so.

What is sentimental, mawkish, or "resolutely unsentimental" isn’t the tune — it’s the player.

I believe in Aesthetic Relativism… and the hanging curve ball.

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"Last Night’s Fun’s is a sparking celebration of music and life that is itself a literary performance of the highest order. Carson’s inspired jumble of recording history, poetry, tall tales, and polemic captures the sound and vigor of a ruthlessly unsentimental music. Last Night’s Fun is remarkable for its liveliness, honesty, scholarship, and spontaneous joy; certainly there has never been a book about Irish music like this one, and few books ever written anywhere about the experience of music can compare with it."

Wow. Sounds like the greatest book ever written.
If indeed,
"Irish music" = jigs & reels
then "unsentimental" is one of the adjectives that could reasonably be applied to it, although probably not the first that would come to mind.

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Sadly Ciaran Carson is no longer with us. A prize-winning poet and a demon flute player. He cannot embrace or refute the quote. A ´norn-Irishman’ he was born and grew up through the ´Troubles´. Like Paul Muldoon, he had a great love of words. And like anyone living through such times he had a steely-eyed view of what is, not some misty eyed view of what it ´ought´ to be.

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"Wow. Sounds like the greatest book ever written."
Well, I don’t know about that but it’s essential reading for anyone interested in Irish music. A great book indeed, well worth spending time with.

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Ciaron Carson wrote , [as best I can remember] ‘my father was not a good melodeon player, he knew no jigs or reels, but song tunes only’ so maybe his life and attitude was a reaction against the music his da played - which probably was sentimental and mawkish!

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No matter who you are, if you play or are interested Trad Irish Music, you will find Mr Carson’s book fabulous! He explains everything about this music.

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And breakfast!

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@Daviec. Yes, he was a great fan of an ´Ulster Fry´. I can feel my arteries congealing and clogging every time I read his description 🙂

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I just received this book in the post two days ago. It’s a good read so far.

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One a very few books that I’ve read more than once. I’m really enjoying everyone’s perspective on this

Davy - “Aesthetic Relativism” - I like that.

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Joe Fidkid : re Sheebeg Sheemore, you certainly hear lots of performances of that tune, said to be Carolan’s first! Perhaps boredom sets in, but plenty of non-sentimental performances. Try Maire Ni Chathasaigh (harp) and Chris Newman (guitar) - track 8, good. The compilation "Celtic Treasure - legacy of Turlough O’Carolan" has it played by William Coulter, steel-string guitar I like this (though my brother’s not keen). Each to his/her own, I suppose.

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Last Night’s Fun is probably the best book ever written about the experience of playing sessions and music, and what makes amateurs (in the sense of those who do it for the love of it) tick. It’s not a history of the music or an attempt to justify or analyse it (although there are elements of all of those), it’s an evocation of the companionship and love of the music that binds a good session together.

I’ve read loads of music books over many years, and Last Night’s Fun is still probably the one that gets closest to expressing what the actual experience of playing is. Writing about music may indeed be like dancing about architecture, but Carson gets a damn sight closer than most.

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Oh, and post-session food. Loads of food!

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I think "ruthlessly unsentimental" only makes sense in contrast to the tin-pan alley "Irish" songs - otherwise, why bring up the idea of sentimentality a-tall, a-tall?

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ruthlessly sentimental …….Celtic Thunder Make it STOP

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Ouch! I’m with you on that one. lol