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Magee Hosts Major Folk Music Conference

18 February 2011

In the space of just 10 years, technology has radically altered “how we hear and listen to” folk music,  Dr Liz Doherty, organiser of the annual conference of the International Council for Traditional Music (Ireland) being held at Magee campus of the University of Ulster, said today. 

Scores of researchers are attending the weekend conference – the first time that it has been held in the North-West – to hear specialist analysis by speakers from Ireland, Britain, Greece, the United States and elsewhere. There will also be a series of panel discussions and workshops supported by documentary films, and several off-campus traditional music sessions.

Keynote speaker on Saturday is Professor Thomas Turino, Professor of Musicology and Anthropology at the University of Illinois, who has specialist research knowledge of the music of Latin America, especially Peru, as well as of South Africa and Zimbabwe. And he isn’t solely an academic. He plays 5-string banjo and the accordion.

Dr Doherty is chairperson of ICTM (Ireland) and lectures in traditional music at the School of Creative Arts at Magee. “Music and dance – whether from Brittany or Catalonia, the islands and highlands of Britain and Ireland, or from India or Nova Scotia – go to the heart of cultural traditions,” she says. 

“How they are expressed can represent not just a proud or respectful echo of history but also a contemporary take on that past as well as a window into the moods of everyday life now. The processes that stimulate expression are not static.  How we learn, play and appreciate music and dance, have undergone big shifts in our own lifetimes.” 

Professor Deirdre Heenan, Acting Provost at Magee, speaking ahead of tonight’s (Fri) launch, congratulated ICTM (Ireland) on choosing the North West for the conference. She said the decision was recognition of the region’s vibrant music and dance heritage and could also be seen as a tribute to the School of Creative Arts’ commitment to nurturing knowledge and talent. 

She added:  “Down the centuries, the province of Ulster has woven a tapestry ‘rich and rare’. It thrives today thanks to enthusiasts who bridge the waters around these islands with the sound of pipe and fiddle, accordion and harp. And, as they have done for generations, the vibrations ripple vast distances and enrich other traditions across the world.”   

As a UNESCO non-governmental organization with 33 national committees, the ICTM is one of the largest and most international organizations for the study of the practice, spread and cultural impact of traditional music - folk, popular, classical and urban music - and dance of all countries.

Eminent scholars and musicians in London founded it in 1947. The inaugural president was the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, who incorporated folk tunes and sea shanties into many of his most popular works.

The Ireland section acts as a lively forum for scholars, musicians and practitioners from diverse traditions.  Its focus includes not just Irish and Scottish folk music and dance but also the growth of émigré cultural traditions, reflecting Brazilian, African and Eastern European influences, among others. Dr Doherty, who has extensively researched the links between the music of Ireland, Scotland and Canada, is a well-known traditional fiddler from Buncrana, Co Donegal. 

She said: “People would have learned music at their parents’ knee, picking it up aurally without structured musical training.  I, too, learned the music that way through listening to my uncle playing, watching him and listening to records but I also went to regular weekly classes.  These have become the traditional different entry points into music. 

“Now internet technology is opening up all sorts of new avenues of learning. For instance, from time immemorial, playing a tune on the fiddle has always been a one-off experience, in a fashion that can never be precisely repeated either in the hearing or in the playing. 

“In the past decade alone, web technology and downloading has transformed our hearing and understanding. Without ever having set foot in Ireland, someone in Tasmania, for example, can quickly download the tune, listen repeatedly and through practice try to replicate every inflection in the way it is played. 

“All these changing aspects of hearing, and of how we ‘consume’ music and dance, have given us the theme for this year’s conference. The theme is ‘Listening’.” 

Anyone with an interest in musical traditions is welcome to come along. Dr Doherty said: “Yes, much of the conference will be a conversation about specialised research but there’ll be a lot, too, for non-academics and the players, singers and dancers who keep the traditions alive.” 

Downloadable conference programme at: