Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Reclaiming the tin whistle

The living tradition of whistle playing is being gradually squeezed out of existence by a pincer action from music colleges and American Irish traditional musicians. Rather than being traditional music we are creating a false tradition. It is not possible to teach a folk tradition. You can document it, but as soon as you start to teach it you have to create a snapshot of something which will become the standard. Sadly, our snapshot was at a time when whistle playing was at a low ebb.

This low point is typified by the homogenisation of traditional music into something called "Celtic" which subsumes all music of Irish, Scottish or even Welsh origin into something like an Irish style (but a very lazy approximation of the joyfulness that used to typify Irish traditional music). This change is quite recent - certainly during the second half of my lifetime. It originates in the USA, where maintaining an Irish identity is very important to many people,  and is further reinforced by the teaching of whistle in music colleges with examinations, even here in Scotland (if you can believe that). It may even relate to the popularity of the film Titanic or the Riverdance stage show.

A while back when I was working in a community centre we had a traditional music course for young people booked in and they all played their instruments in what I would call this pseudo-celtic style. I regularly get comments on my YouTube videos saying that I am doing it wrong because I am not doing it in the Irish style. I went as far as to do some recording in Irish traditional style to show that I can do it, but simply choose not to unless the music requires it.

The difficulty with this is that in Scotland we do have a more staccato style of playing with less slurring because our music requires it. Scottish whistle playing is part of a living tradition, with music learned from other people and handed down. Once it is prescribed by music colleges it will end up like the sort of regimented non progressive (and quite frankly joyless) jazz that tends to dominate that genre of music.

Combined with this is the trend towards more and more expensive instruments. Part of the charm of the penny whistle is that it is a cheap instrument which requires no maintenance, can be carried with you and replaced if it gets damaged. Now that people are moving more to wooden whistles (which require as much drying out and maintenance as a clarinet or oboe) whistle playing is loosing some more of its spontaneity.

I have tended to play on the Clarke whistles a lot which sell for less than £10. I also have Shaw and Dixon. My most expensive soprano whistle was £17 (a Shaw C) although I do own a Dixon alto G and a Shaw low D which were more expensive. There are two local music shops selling whistles with prices up to £250. Quite incredible. There is also a move to larger whistles like the Chieftain to produce more volume, when volume is really as much about a solid sound achieved through resonance rather than just putting a lot of air through the instrument. These very large whistles reduce the ability to play nimbly and the large finger holes make playing in tune chromatically much more difficult.

The tin whistle is, of course, an English instrument (invented in 1843 by Robert Clarke). An awkward fact that is denied by many an Irish American musician for reasons that make no sense or have any logic behind them. Yes, there were six holed flutes before Clarke, but the cheaply available instrument taken up in Ireland was his invention and we should not be surprised by this as Ireland was part of Britain at the time.

On another stylistic note, I have also pioneered the playing of classical music on tin whistle, rediscovering the 19th century flageolet tradition and using some of its techniques (such as bell stopping and chromatic playing). This has tended to be more appreciated by orchestral woodwind players rather than folk musicians, but it has proved what's possible musically with an instrument that costs so little.

So where does it go from here? Sadly, given the experience of other folk traditions like jazz, the battle is probably lost. Watching the whistle players in bands on the hogmanay TV shows there was a clear domination of low whistle and pseudo-celtic or Irish playing styles. It is probably too late to do anything about it, but by raising the issues here it will hopefully start a debate.