Celtic Modern, subtitled Music at the Global Fringe, examines the phenomenon that is Celtic music in its many varied strands. While on the surface this volume looks at Celtic music from a number of different standpoints, the content is academically inclined, rather than acting as a general reader, as would, say, a Rough Guide type publication.
This is a collection of academic essays on various aspects of the traditional music of Ireland, Scotland. Brittany and Wales, with their counterparts in Australia and Canada also mentioned. The material is delivered in a series of papers and essays written by both musicians and musicologists. Cherry-picking through the authors involved I see that names such as Fintan Vallely, Dessi Wilkinson and Scott Reiss show up on my radar as musicians I know. In the case of Fintan Vallely, editor of The Companion to Irish Traditional Music(Cork University Press,) I know him from having been a contributor to that publication. Dessi Wilkinson I know both as a friend and as member of Cran and Scott Reiss of Hesperus, the latter having met me for interview purposes in 1998 while he was in Ireland.
These names are familiar to me for those reasons, as well as their musical prowess, which I feel must be outlined at this early stage of this review. However, I wish to clarify that personal acquaintance does not cloud my judgment of their written work or engender bias towards them at the expense of the other contributors involved. While each of these people have contributed essays to Celtic Modern, their individual works stand on their own merits and qualify the individuals as experts in their chosen fields.
Fintan Vallely’s essay, ‘The Apollos of Shamrockery: Traditional Musics in the Modern Age’ and Scott Reiss’ ‘Traditional and Imaginery — Irish Traditional Music and the Celtic Phenomenon’ both hover round the same basic subjects, although they adopt different points of view. Vallely laments the fact that Irish music, now part of the mainstream, is becoming a victim of its own success (Vallely, p. 283). Here the main practitioners live like rock stars while the Irish Bar captures the tourist trade abroad while also catering for the emigrant and offering a slice of Gucci Paddy fashion conscious Irishisms. This is just one aspect of Vallely’s argument, but one that sticks out for its enlightened viewpoint. Scott Reiss’ essay looks at Irish music’s position in the overall Celtic game plan.
Elsewhere Desmond Wilkinson’s essay, ‘Celtitude — Professionalism and the Fest Noz in Traditional Music in Brittany’ covers the social context in which the music is welded into the everyday lives of the people. It also offers an introduction to Breton music and the workings of the machine behind the artists and the festivals drawn from personal experience: Wilkinson lived in Brittany for some years during the 1990s.
As an academic book rather than a coffee table book, the focus differs from simply presenting facts. The essays offer critical analysis of the music in question, as well as placing it within a sociological, geographical and musicological context. They also beg for open discussion, dialogue and debate. As befits the title Celtic Modern — Music at the Global Fringe, the book also looks at Celtic music on the fringe of globalisation. In fact, with globalisation becoming the lexicon of modern sociological thought, the term could be tagged onto the title as a between-the-lines reference,
General readers looking for fact files on the varied strands of Celtic music would be best served elsewhere; some persistence is required for the contents of Celtic Modern to reveal themselves to passing ears. For those who want to debate the hows and whys and look at the interior conflicts that inhabit Irish and Celtic music as a whole, this collection comes recommended. The point of the essays is that, while descriptive of their subjects, they themselves are meant to foster discussion and further reflection on the many-faceted subject that is Celtic music in its varied styles. Taking that into consideration, Celtic Modern is a worthwhile, engaging and challenging reading.
(Scarecrow Press, 2003)