folk music, sessions and intellectual property

L'Arrebatu by Tejedor on Grooveshark

First, a tune and an apology for the silence on this page. For the past year I have been writing a book — the book that was promised years ago. It is now in the editing phase and will be out in the coming months. Since my writing efforts were focused there, I ended up not writing much here at all.

One of my recent lifestyle changes was to start attending Irish music sessions. A music session is basically a rehearsal in a pub or venue: a bunch of traditional musicians get together and practise tunes they know. While this is the main historical background story of these happenings, in practice, sessions are more fun than gigs because there is no official audience and no official performers. There is also mostly no original repertoire: it is all from the vast troves of public domain music available. And when a tune isn’t public domain? Well, you steal it.

Back in the days when recorded music was for a small select group of elite musicians, folk musicians had no other option but to learn by ear and follow an oral tradition of transmission. Bagpipers in Portugal were no exception, in that if they liked a bagpiper’s style or tune, they’d hear it and copy it and start playing it themselves. Piracy isn’t new — it’s as old as our capacity to communicate and to understand.

These pipers had a fundamental community purpose: they were the DJs and entertainers of their time. They played for dance halls for the sole purpose of making dances and festivities more enjoyable. The music itself always served the practical purpose of feeding the party, instead of any other particular high aesthetic (with exceptions, maybe, for airs and religious themes).

Whenever a particular tune was a hit among crowds, that meant more money for the pipers. It is no surprise, then, that most pipers took issue on teaching how to play pipes — if they couldn’t control the tunes themselves, they had to control the medium to prevent competition from other pipers.

Times have changed for folk musicians, but not too much. One of the things that has changed is the fact that the quantity of folk music that has been written down and documented and published as public domain is tremendous — more than any single musician could ever remember and play in a lifetime. This has an interesting side effect in the folk music scenes: authorship is a curiosity about a tune, not the main point. The main point, instead, becomes the interpretation and performance aspects of the tunes themselves: the interpreter effectively brings the public domain material to life. Learning and mastering the art itself becomes the main focus of the artists, and the tunes vehicles to express their creativity.

Traditional artists that record their own tunes quite often let their friends play them at sessions — authorship respected, playing with fellow musicians dissolves the economic interests that might have mediated their interactions with others.

This, to me, is one of the incredibly powerful ideas that comes from the folk scenes: music isn’t theirs to begin with, but that is accepted as part of a tradition, even when the tunes themselves are less than 50 years old and would therefore fall under copyright laws. In folk music, ownership of a tune is meaningless. It either is a hit for dancers and fellow session musicians, or it isn’t, and the way that success is measured includes how many other musicians like your tunes and decided to cover them (or better put, copy them and modify them).

While the way traditional music is studied and passed on has this interesting characteristic in regards to intellectual property, it also has another interesting idea in what a performance really is.

Here in Sydney the art scenes are ripe with “Look at me” type events where everyone has a shot at the stage, yet doesn’t watch what others do there. Be it an exhibition where the exhibitor doesn’t see anyone else’s work, or the gig where the band leaves early and doesn’t watch others play, the idea of stage and performance is fundamentally different to the one represented by sessions and dance halls.

In a session, musicians are rehearsing and having fun together, collectively exploring and practising tunes they don’t own and most likely didn’t write. There is usually no stage, and the venue is usually a pub where most people are interested in the big screens with matches than the music. The music in these places isn’t a commodity — it’s a collective experience. While a gig represents a ritualistic relationship between the musician and the audience, a session breaks that down and turns music it into an every day thing we do with our friends and acquaintances.

Like jam sessions, DJs mixing for a live audience, jazz dance halls, it is in the commoner’s world that music is alive — prevented from being merchandise simply because it is a vehicle for a communal experience. And while the congregation spaces where this happens might shift over time, the idea remains that we prefer art to be free to interpret and modify, since that serves the public enjoyment of that very same art. If property is an idea of alienation, then folk music is a perfect example of the opposite: how creativity persists and is enhanced by the absence of property, and how it creates bridges between people and communities that thrive.

That is why I abandoned most other music scenes and moved to folk music — it is where I find this rich balance of creativity, community spirit and a surprising lack of self-commodification persists and thrives. And in such an alienating world, it is a great source of fresh (moving) air.