A Session — Nuts and Bolts and Memories
A link to this piece came up on IRTRAD, and I thought it was a very good account of a session, and sessions in general. I don’t know if the author is a member of this site or not, but fair play to him — nice writing.
A Session — Nuts and Bolts and Memories
by Gerry McCartney 2005
Traditional music sessions can be awful strange beasts altogether. To the outsider, what happens inside that tight little circle may never be fully understood or appreciated. For example, is there any formal structure, does anyone lead, how do players communicate?, etc. Nevertheless, as most people have experienced, what comes out of it, i.e., the music, quite definitely has the power to override any of these paradoxes. But as to the dynamics of the session itself, clearly, body language plays a vital role as, obviously, the act of speaking in the course of playing a tune is not easy - especially for flute players! This gives rise to all types of nods, winks and nudges from one player to another and may, on the arrival in the bar of one individual in particular, cause eyes to be raised, knowing glances exchanged and bar-stools to be shuffled together more closely, in a sort of silent circling of imaginary wagons.
However, there’s no real mystery behind it at all. It’s basically a human activity in which there are accepted parameters of behaviour. Rules do exist - unwritten, of course - and there are also well-established orders of precedence and protocols which most musicians, after a short while, adopt by some strange method of osmosis. For instance, the older musician, in his local bar, is usually at the top of the traditional equivalent of Burke’s Peerage - but, then again, this may depend entirely on the quality of his music. Next, you may have the local boy or girl ‘made good’ — someone of note who either plays in a major group or is recognised by his peers to be an outstanding musician. After that, several divisions are evident whose members tend to be from the surrounding district, who play regularly in the weekly sessions and whose ability, in descending order, can range from the fine to the ‘ho-hum’. But, ultimately, it’s all about getting along with whom you are playing and giving the regulars their rightful place as they are the custodians of the tradition in their area. Just good manners and simple social skills, really.
These observations began to dawn on me some time ago when I was just out of my teens and feeling my way around sessions and fleadhs up and down the country. At one point on this path of growing awareness and on a night that I remember as clearly as if it had happened yesterday, I was playing in a very middle-of-the-road session in a pub in North-West Clare with two local musicians, on fiddle and flute, and an accordion player from Mayo. It couldn’t be said that any one person was at fault as the standard of the music was quite reasonable but we were just unable to ignite that vital spark which should have set the session alight. And then into the bar came a crowd of Dubliners. Slightly loud-voiced, they were recognisable by their accents and by their mode of dress which, at that particular time, was a good deal more outrageous than in the rest of the country. Just at that, the reel we were playing seemed to skip a beat while I and the other musicians mentally weighed up what we should do if these same bowsies demanded Fine Girl You Are or The Wild Rover - nonsense like that which wouldn’t be tolerated in a pure music session. How should we tell them to piss off, in other words, without starting a row? But there was also a slight touch of musical elitism at work here as well. Singing?? God Almighty! Most traditional musicians would rather break a finger than interrupt a good string of reels for a mere ‘come-all-ye’.
However, to the surprise of the company, the Dubs produced, from amongst the folds of their scruffy parkas, a concertina, a fiddle and two flutes. And fair play to them, in retrospect, they had us all sussed out. Testing the atmosphere, they had quietly checked the tuning of their instruments and, edging to the perimeter of the session, sat themselves down and began to join in; tentatively at first, but, remarkably, within minutes the whole pub had perked up. Ask any musician - you can be playing for years with the best of them, night after night, week after week and, slowly but inevitably, the robots take over. Everyone starts to play like an automaton. Then someone comes in - a stranger. Before you know it, feet are tapping more vigorously, the whole atmosphere changes and the crack, as they say, is ninety. I don’t know what the reason is; it doesn’t really matter. But whatever it is, the new musician seems to act like a catalyst and a spur to his colleagues to play just that little bit better. Tunes are retrieved from the bottom of memory barrels, quickly given the kiss of life and then launched unceremoniously into the middle for the next round. Also, during these occasions, a strange bonding develops among the musicians which never loosens and will, even years afterwards, be recalled with pleasure. It’s very difficult to describe but if you consider all the emotions inside a musician when he or she plays in public - the uncertainty, the sensitivity, the pride, the ego, (God, it’s a jungle in there!) - it’s a wonder any of us speaks to each other, let alone bond. But it happens and is never forgotten.
This was one of those sessions. The late July night was very sticky and I remember at one stage it became so hot that perspiration was dripping from my face onto my banjo. But it was not that type of oppressive heat in which the entire company sits around staring lethargically into their pints. On that particular night, the air was electric. It has happened only occasionally since, but, to my recollection, this was the first time in my life when tingles of excitement ran up and down my spine from the sheer enjoyment of playing traditional tunes. The hairs on the back of my neck were actually standing on end. It was, quite simply, magic. It wasn’t that we were all technically brilliant - we weren’t. It wasn’t even that we knew one another and had played together regularly - we hadn’t. Most of us there were strangers to each other. It was, nonetheless, as if each musician had fused totally with his neighbour to the extent that the whole group was playing as one giant instrument. The walls of that old pub quite literally vibrated with the energy of the music.
All the more popular tunes, which every musician knows, were played at first. This is normal practice which is done to settle each performer, to put him at ease with the rest of the company and in order to loosen up fingers and lips. They are also played, more importantly, for pure pleasure because most are excellent tunes that have withstood the test of time. Then we went on to the not so famous; the ones everyone knew but couldn’t quite put a name on. And, in the usual lulls between sets, when we all come up for air or a bit of chat, the solos would start. This is where the virtuosos show off their individual skills, weaving magical patterns on the notes of their instruments that leave the rest of us sitting in mouth-opened awe. Time took its leave as a flute caressed a slow air whose very notes clung to the smoky fug of the bar like pearls of dew on morning mist.
And maybe that struck a chord in someone’s mind for we were away again with a tune that had just been remembered and which, now that it was underway, was as familiar as the smell of the sea. The usual pattern is - a fiddle (or anything) scrapes out a few notes as if frowning to recapture a half-forgotten face; these are haltingly picked up by another instrument, enlarged upon by someone else and, without a word being spoken, the whole gang is hammering away once more at full pelt. That’s how it was for the rest of the night, solo pieces alternating with mad communal frenzies which, to the ignorant, were as chaotic as a stampede of cattle but, to the people involved, had the delicate precision of the humming bird’s beak. And, it should be noted, everyone’s playing was directed only towards the other members of the group because, strange though it may sound, in sessions such as these, the audience, although an important constituent in that mysterious and, sometimes, necessary interplay between listener and performer, becomes very much the secondary partner. Each member of the session plays only to and for his fellow musicians. Certainly, you can get a buzz from the feedback of hearty appreciation - and there was plenty on that night - but applause is merely the icing for an already eaten cake and the listening public, on these occasions, quite frankly, need not exist.
But all good things must come to their natural end and so it was with this memorable session. Yarns were swapped, promises of future meetings pledged and, before very much longer, we had left our small, closed world of music and, minds still reverberating with tunes, we stepped outside, elated and pleasantly exhausted, into the cool morning air of the West.