A pattern language for traditional music and resilient community

Appalled by the inhuman failures of modern architecture and planning, critics such as Jane Jacobs reflected on the capacity of traditional, vernacular, unplanned and organic development to produce pleasing, diverse and human scale architectural designs and townscapes. Taking this insight further, Christopher Alexander observed that the so called slums and shanty towns that ringed Third World cities, often engendered greater social integration, cohesion and social capital than the planned slums associated with North American project housing and UK council flats. The question is whether organic and vernacular solutions and landscapes can be ‘designed’ and produced intentionally. In The Pattern Language Alexander attempted to delineate a series of nested design patterns from the smallest scale (window seats, light from two sides) to the largest (central church + market square), which if followed consistently would produce forms of development that were as intuitively aesthetically pleasing, convivial, compact and diverse as an Italian hilltop town, Old Dehli or the old quarter in Quebec City.

In this SSHRC Insight Development project, Anna Beresford and I are applying pattern language theory to the phenomenon of Celtic ‘traditional music and dance’ (TMD). The oral/aural character of traditional music involves patterns of inter-generational, place-specific and community-bound acculturation that were characteristic of all pre-modern, pre-literate forms of education. Ernest Geller contrasts such oral cultures with the ‘exo-education’ that is a necessary concomitant of nation-state formation. Exo-education involves the imposition of a unitary ‘high culture’, through specialist state-directed agencies, using standardized language and curricula – with the explicit goal of producing interchangeable, spatially and socially mobile citizens. In this ‘society of individuals’, citizens are required to become relatively detached from their families and place-bound communities of birth, and more dependent on the institutions of the market and the state.

Against this background, traditional folk music first of all declined precipitously – particularly as the context of cohesive, ‘gemeinschaftlich’ rural communities became disorganized by processes of economic decline, globalization and urbanization. But since the 1950s, in many countries, TMD has made a significant come-back. Such revivals are, however, typically leavened by formal exo-education institutions, the growing national and international circuit of venues and festivals, and juxtaposition with other musical vernaculars in the context of an increasingly self-conscious and global ‘world music’. In this new context, traditions have garnered their own curricula and canons, as well as an impressive array of specialist musicians, tutors, academics, promoters and social entrepreneurs. And the meaning of ‘tradition’ has become more reflexive, self-conscious and attendant to wider processes of political and cultural signification relating to nationalist movements, volkish identity politics, cosmopolitan affiliations etc.

Most significant, at least in practical import, has been the use of TMD as a vehicle for local economic development and arts-led regeneration. In an increasingly footloose and mobile world, rural, rust-belt and otherwise marginal or peripheral places have used place-specific forms of culture to embed forms of economic and investment (tourism, heritage etc) that are less vulnerable to capital flight and divestment. Cape Breton fiddle can’t easily be relocated unlike a cod factory or a pulp mill. The best Irish-session would be in a pub in Ireland.

The goal of our project is to explore the dynamics of both successful and ailing TMD cultures – in Ontario, Quebec, PEI and Cape Breton but also Northumberland (England), Ireland and the Shetland Islands – and through comparative research, to identify a pattern language for (i.) successful music culture revival, (ii.) TMD as a vehicle for social (bridging and bonding) capital formation, and (iii.) place-marketing and more resilient forms of culture-based economic development. Our SSHRC Insight Development grant will pay for Anna to do extensive interviews across Central Eastern Canada. I will be doing interviews in Northumberland and Ireland as part of my sabbatical research programme (with a formal attachment to the music department at Newcastle University). Anna is applying to the MITACs international programme to work for 3-6 months with Professor Watkins at Aberdeen University on the TMD revival in the Shetland and Orkney Islands. Eventually, we are hoping that Anna’s research will provide a template for social entrepreneurs, educators and policy makers who wish to use TMD as a vehicle for resilient communities, place-marketing and local economic development.