On Andy Conroy…

Okay, geekiness was promised and here it comes…

I’ve been thinking a good deal lately about certain aspects of rhythm and duration in Irish traditional music, and specifically the uilleann piping tradition. I’ve not gotten far but I’ll share what I’ve been thinking.

This is Andy Conroy. A bizarre and eccentric musical innovator. Not the recording of his I’ve been spending most of my time with but this one is freely available online. I’ve actually done a transcription of this setting of the Dublin Reel. Looks simple enough – quavers, triplets and semiquavers, some (well, mostly) staccato, the odd grace note. I can play my transcription to a reasonable degree of faithfulness (which is no small technical challenge) but it sounds abjectly ridiculous –  it’s completely lacking in the lift and swing that he imparts to that tune. It’s not that my transcription is wrong as such, but it just doesn’t give all the required information.

This is something that conventional Western notation, and every other musical notation system I’m aware of, has no recourse to deal with. I need to assimilate the tiny nuances of rhythm and duration that transform it from a technical exercise into dance music, but these nuances are so small that the quantity of information required to express them in staff notation becomes completely unhelpful. We’re into New Complexity territory if we go there, which is all very well, but it brings the music into a completely foreign conceptual space and one that I think will never actually produce the desired result. What I need is an understanding of style and Conroy was a stylistic law unto himself. I’m not interested in playing exactly like Conroy but I think the closer I can come to understanding how he makes music (not to mention Touhey, Doran, Clancy, Ennis, Reck and the rest of them), the richer my own playing will become.

I’m not pretending that this is fundamentally different from playing bass in a funk band, or stride piano, or Balinese gamelan. If you get the subtleties of rhythm even minutely wrong in any of these styles you end up with music that is stilted, lifeless, humourless and banal. Whereas if you get Ferneyhough wrong no-one will even notice…

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