Trad Talk 2015: Crossing Points

This year’s Trad Talk day, which took place at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on Saturday 28th March, had the theme Crossing Points. Where are the points where our interests and experiences converge? And what can’t we agree on? How do traditional artists, as a community, find our feet in the rapidly changing Scottish cultural scene, and harness our energy to make a difference?

Guest blog by Erin Farley

This year’s Trad Talk day, which took place at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on Saturday 28th March, had the theme Crossing Points. Where are the points where our interests and experiences converge? And what can’t we agree on? How do traditional artists, as a community, find our feet in the rapidly changing Scottish cultural scene, and harness our energy to make a difference?

The day – chaired excellently by Miles Harrison – got started by asking the big questions. Composer and pianist David McGuinness’s keynote speech, The problem with “traditional”, discussed previous definitions of ‘tradition’. The use of words like ‘folk’ and ‘traditional’ has shifted over time, and there’s nothing to say that in a few decades we won’t look back and marvel at the inappropriateness of our current definition. There’s a sense that we will know folk music ‘when we hear it,’ but people hear very differently. The idea of change, fluidity, improvisation: this is central to many people’s idea of ‘traditional,’ as is oral transmission. But what of the collectors who received lyrics and tunes, written down, in the post? What of musicians who sought to establish one version of a tune?

As one always should in such situations, McGuinness contacted a philosopher, who helpfully pointed out that we may be relying too much on Aristotelian individuation of substances. What happens if we accept that boundaries are porous – that the world is a series of networks and co-dependencies? This is an idea we would return to over the day.

The next session was a series of short talks on Making the Traditional Arts Inclusive. First up, Thursa Sanderson talked about her work with the Drake Music project, which uses adaptive technologies like Brainfingers (which controls computer software by using sensors to register movement and brain activity) to give young disabled people the opportunity to learn to play music, something often denied them in schools. Assumptions that ‘traditional’ music should steer clear of digital technology have been in decline lately, and this project is an excellent illustration of why – technology allows more people to take part in a tradition, bringing new voices and perspectives. And the only tradition that doesn’t change (as they say) is a dead tradition… Alpha Munro then told us about her work with Kiltarlity Fiddlers and ArtLink Highland, where she teaches fiddle to visually impaired people. One project took a group of young musicians to Sierra Leone, where they exchanged songs and styles with people there – finding that waulking songs and African percussion went well together.

Emma Faragher, from the Living Voices project, which works with elderly people in care settings to enjoy and create poetry, music and song, emphasised the importance of co-production. The Living Voices sessions showed the power of the ceilidh, creating a situation where care home staff could sit down and participate in something along with the residents – so both staff and residents got to see another side of one another, seeing the person instead of the age, the dementia, or the uniform.

As is always a hazard at these glamorous star- studded events, our next speaker couldn’t be there and had to contribute by video. Tim Porteus gave a heartfelt and hard-to-forget virtual talk on the power of storytelling with disadvantaged young people. He quoted a figure estimating that one-third of children in the UK grow up without a secure attachment – without a safe relationship where they can talk about their anxieties, fears and hopes. Storytelling can create that empathetic space, a place where the metaphors and images of stories can be used to express feelings, somewhere they can listen and be listened to. You can find the video of his talk here.

Miles sent us off for lunch with strict instructions to get chatting, creating new links as well as catching up with old friends. Then we heard Fiona Hunter and Kathleen MacInnes, accompanied by Mike Vass, talking about their recent work which seeks the crossing points between Scots and Gaelic song. From the start, they were clear that they would bring Scots and Gaelic songs together, finding rhythms and lyrics which worked with each other. Rather than spend too much time explaining theoretical backgrounds, they quickly got to singing. And then they got to getting us singing. Fiona and Kathleen spoke of how, in order to make the collaboration work, they had to make time to hang out, experiment with different things, play around and not rush a finished product. It had to be fun. Listen to a snippet of their new material created for the project here.

The next section of the day comprised of three workshops, running twice each, so everyone could attend two. They were on Storytelling and Music, Music and Dance, and Making Things Happen or Letting Things Happen? Sustaining a Career. I opted for Storytelling and Music, thinking that I could at least do half those things. Janis Mackay told her version of the Selkie Wife story, while Gica Loening played an array of familiar and unfamiliar instruments – from a fiddle to a gigantic roaring ocean drum. The group, reflecting on this, felt the music let us connect in a deeper way to some of the feelings which are very much present, though not explicitly vocalised, in the story. Janis and Gica found that you need to be in tune with one another during the performance – it has to be a sharing of the narrative, not a competition for the audience’s attention.

Sustaining a Career’s on-stage panel was made up of Martin Green (Lau), Patsy Seddon (Edinburgh Harp Festival), Emma Tomlinson (freelance traditional and classical musician) and the inimitable Simon Thoumire (Hands Up For Trad). Some of the questions were timeless – how do you establish yourself? Everyone emphasised the importance of never stopping learning. Simon recommended trying everything once, except… well, folk dancing’s worth a go, actually.

But much of the discussion touched on how traditional artists can adapt and cope in a changing cultural scene. The emails-and-mobiles culture we have now can leave little room for creativity – if your head is always full of that other thing you should be doing, there’s not much space for new songs. Simon swears by software which allows you to get all your projects written down in one place (notebooks are also available from all good newsagents), so that nothing exists purely in your head. Emma suggested always making sure you do your least appealing task first each day – but only after you’ve done your invoices.

That is, if you’re lucky enough to have invoices to send. How do we go about actually getting the money coming in? Emma and Patsy talked about the fact that instead of regular ceilidh gigs, many trad musicians’ main income source is now teaching. This can have disadvantages if you’re trying to build up a concert-based career at the same time – can you abandon that Wednesday afternoon class if you’re invited on tour?

While traditional music and arts have a higher profile than they have in many years, it can be hard to see how this translates into opportunities for artists, especially when session and gig fees haven’t exactly been keeping pace with inflation. Although the recession has limited many people’s ability to spend money on music, people are still going to gigs. So why aren’t more of them coming to ‘traditional’ ones? Could that ‘trad’ label, the searching for definitions that McGuinness talked about earlier, be making younger audiences think “this music isn’t for me”?

photo credit Edinburgh International Harp FestivalThe panel, and the audience, could have talked for hours. But the other workshop attendees were waiting to get into the theatre for the final part of the day, updates from the Music, Dance and Story branches of TRACS on their recent work. Alette Willis, from the Scottish Storytelling Forum, noted that the Storytelling Directory is growing – which is of course a welcome development – but it can be hard to make such a large group work in a meaningful way. Alette said the Forum hoped they could develop smaller shared-interest groups within the storytellers on the Directory – for example, of people with interests in intergenerational storytelling.

David Francis spoke on behalf of the Traditional Music Forum, who have recently focused on the diversity within Scottish culture. Their ethos can be summed up by the ‘Three Ps’: Previous Practice (the traditional material we have), Pathways (the ways this material moves into the present and future) and Performance (getting it out there!). Audience development is also central. The Traditions in Place days, which have taken place in Inverurie, Hawick and Greenock so far, aim to develop regional networks, and enable people to implement these ‘3 Ps’ in their own communities.

Mats Melin represented the Trad Dance Forum, the newest addition to the TRACS family. They’ve been working on digitally mapping dance events and societies across Scotland, but have found that many people still rely on paper to get their information about these. They’ve also been working with a variety of organisations to focus on dance’s physical and mental health benefits: working with groups with Alzheimer’s, for example. They’ve also been investigating ways in which dance is used in education, at all stages of life.

Somehow, it was coming up to 5pm and we were due to wrap up, heads still buzzing from the day. In the summing-up discussion, Donald Smith summarised a theme from the day: the distinctiveness of what happens in traditional arts is not particularly about the tunes you play or the lyrics you sing. It’s about good relationships, and time spent with each other. The pressure of schedules and performance can make us forget why we began doing all this in the first place. This is no easy solution to our worries, when we’re struggling to get bookings, and need to make sure we have the word ‘traditional’ prominently displayed on all our funding applications. But if we could make time to enjoy each other’s company and hear each other’s songs and stories as often as possible, the world might just make a bit more sense.

So, see you in the pub?

Erin Farley is an oral historian and storyteller. Find her on Twitter: @aliasmacalias