Reclaiming the Mongrel:

a practise based exploration of Irish and Indian musical sympathies



A summary of intentions

          This research has attempted to explore my own mongrel musical practice as a case study for broader issues of globalization and cultural flux.  I have argued throughout this work that most research into inter-cultural musicking does not focus enough on the individual as a locus for hybridity, particularly from a somatic perspective.  I hope that this thesis has addressed the imbalance of previous research into this area and offered insights that may be relevant beyond my own practice.  At the outset of this thesis, I described two main purposes: exploring the metaphor of the mongrel through my own artistic practice and examining sympathies between Irish traditional and North Indian classical music.  Much of the realization of these objectives, I would argue, is in fact presented in the performances that accompany this thesis.  These performances, and the films which document them, are in a way conclusive statements of the research outcome in themselves. Upon even a cursory viewing of these performances, it becomes apparent that Irish traditional and North Indian classical music are in fact very different aesthetic systems.


Irish-Indian musical divergences

        Despite some similarities in the features of their social and cultural organization, such as aurality and the approach to apprenticeship, to make these musics come together in a meaningful way in performance takes considerable work.  Musically speaking, this research has demonstrated that Irish and Indian music are different on a number of fundamental levels including the conception and structure of melody, rhythm and time. The reality of these musical differences became pronounced during the Indian tour with Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill.  Despite working with extremely talented musicians, albeit in a short space of time, we were mostly unable to move beyond the limitations of each tradition.  In fact, most of the collaborative performances consisted of simplified versions of both Irish and Indian music, utilizing a predominant structure of an Irish melody played over Indian rhythmic accompaniment with some element of improvisation.  The music only found its sympathy in being beside each other.

After this tour, I identified rhythmic organization as a key area of difference between Irish and Indian music.  For example, the temporal frame of Irish music is in the micro, minute detail of the tune.  The temporal frame of Indian music operates in the macro, expansive space of the raga.  The rhythms of Irish traditional music are closely linked to the micro-world of the tune.  The rhythms of Indian classical music are purposely separate from the melodic macro-world of raga.  Indian classical rhythms offer a temporal space for extended improvisation.  Irish traditional rhythms provide lift for the dance.  Investigation of this clear rhythmic divergence became the focus of my performances with percussionists, Tommy Hayes and Debojyoti Sanyal.  In these performances, I explored how Indian classical rhythm simply does not groove in the same way that Irish music does.  North Indian tabla, and the broader tala structures in which it operates, despite being nuanced and diverse, at times does not fit the ‘feel’ of an Irish tune.  For the tabla accompaniment to work with Irish melodies, a less disciplined and more 'folk' orientated approach to rhythm was often adopted.  On the other hand, I explored how the rhythms of Irish melodies are so strongly linked with dance that it was difficult to establish a clear framework for extended improvisation which is such a key part of Indian classical musical practice.


Irish-Indian musical sympathies

             And yet, I would argue that this research has demonstrated that there is sympathy between North Indian classical and Irish traditional music, but this sympathy lies not so much in musical product but in musical process.  This sympathy only becomes apparent in the process of musicians making music.  This is an understanding of sympathy as active, as a verb, as a performance, rather than denoting similarities to be found among isolated musical artefacts.  While the concept of a tune and a raga, the tal and the lift, are very different, through the performance process the musicians involved in this research necessarily found some sympathies.   I would argue that the figure of the mongrel is crucial figure in realising this sympathy.  In fact, perhaps, the sympathy is to be found in the mongrel.

The liminal figure of the mongrel is attuned to that sympathetic moment of recognition of a relationship, a recognising of the Self in the Other. This embodied sympathetic feeling deeply influences my musical practice and is exemplified in the way that I have begun to hear and understand and therefore, perform both Irish and Indian music in a relational and sympathetic manner.  When I play a slow air, such as Junior’s Lament in the second performance, I understand it as a prelude to the aesthetic character of the whole piece, in parallel with an alap and raga expansion.   When I ‘scoop’ or slide up to a C natural in the hornpipe Caislean an Oirr, I hear and understand it in a manner sympathetic with the emotional evocativeness of a meend in Hindustani music.  When I improvise with a tune, I naturally am searching for an ‘internal logic’ akin to the concept of the raga’s chalan or as my teacher might describe ‘the way the raga moves’.

In reflection on the second performance, I explored how groove may move us in the broadest sense of the term, both physically and emotionally, and groove encapsulates the inherent affective power of musical time.  I argued that despite the obvious differences in the structure and experience of musical time between Irish and Indian traditions, a sympathetic process could be realized in constructing a defined groove as a vehicle for improvisation.  This involved some alteration from both rhythmic traditions, namely the tabla player needed to learn how to somewhat relax the strict syllables of standard classical tala and the Irish percussionist was required to become more rigorously explicit in creating sonic ‘space’ for improvisation.  The key shared concept for both percussionists was the importance of a clearly expressed undulating cycle of strong and weak accents.  When this kind of groove was realized in performance, the scope for my own melodic improvisation expanded, in turn expanding the possibilities for a feeling of personal expression.   


The role of the mongrel

          The musical sympathies of this project are very much idiosyncratic to my own practice which I have characterised through the mongrel metaphor.   The role of the mongrel in inter-cultural music exchange is that of a sympathetic agent. This sympathetic process is crucial to understanding how the figure of the mongrel plays an important part in inter-cultural music exchange.   The sympathy of the mongrel involves translation: literal, musical and internal.  Examples of literal and musical translations were numerous during the Indian tour and with Debojyoti and Tommy in the final performances.  For example, I translated the Irish tunes into Indian notation (sagam) and scale type (thata) for the Indian musicians in Delhi and Mumbai. More musically, I also converted the Indian rhythmic structures into an equivalent Irish dance groove for Martin and Dennis in Chennai and also with Tommy in our collaborations in Ireland.  

These translations also happened internally, within my own understanding during the course of this research.  This sympathetic internalization process did not just happen in the collaborative encounters of the performances but are an intrinsic part of my continuous critical meta-practice.  From the moment of hearing Seán Ó Ríada’s exposition of Irish-Indian similarities, to learning my first polka on the sarode, to learning Junior Crehan’s music, to taking up the fiddle, to the creation of a new instrument, and an acquisition of an entirely new repertoire, I have constantly been absorbing, reflecting, comparing, and critiquing Irish traditional music with my understanding of Indian classical music.  At the same time, in unearthing my other musical influences beyond Irish and Indian music, in embracing my mongrelity, I have developed a practice which is rich, complex and more embodied.  This process has allowed me to inhabit multiple musical worlds.  Rather than having to jump between them, I feel I have begun to integrate these diverse musical experiences within my own self.  To reiterate, the sympathy is the mongrel in me.


Sympathetic processes

          Broadly speaking, Irish-Indian musical sympathies are subtle, their processes of musical production vary, and their musical products varied.  Yet, part of the mongrel’s ability to facilitate the sympathetic process is the knowledge of that which can be brought from the other side.  Within the context of this research, I am reluctant to summarize a list the sympathetic moments of recognition, as I believe the performances themselves are the most embodied representation of this concept.  However, very simply put, some of the sympathetic musical processes may be summarised as follows. These processes are musical devices which are apparent, in differing degrees in both Irish traditional and Indian classical music. Focussing on these particular processes within the very different rhythmic and melodic structures of the two musical systems made much of the performative aspect of this project possible.

1. Improvisation: variations on the ‘internal logic’ of a melody.
2. Microtonality: using non-tempered scale material withaffective associations.
3. Modality : an understanding of melody based on mode and a fixed tonic.
4. Use of a drone: sustained tonic textural accompaniment during performance.
5. Dynamic temporal arc: the construction of suites of melodies with gradual increase in tempo.
6. Affective groove: the construction of an undulating pulse of strong and weak accents creating a frame for extended improvisation.
7. Repetition: the deliberate reiteration of melodic phrases as an affective technique such as in mantra chanting.


Affect as sympathetic process

        The above list is a summary of musical and extra-musical processes which I believe are sympathetic between Irish and Indian music in the way they generate feeling tone in performance and also in the body.  During this research, the concept of affect or 'feeling' has often arisen as way to sympathize between Indian and Irish music.  During the Indian tour, Martin Hayes suggested that Irish and Indian music had a 'similar world of feeling' and in my own practice, I explored the shared 'feeling tone' of my final performances. Feeling tone is a term I adopted to try and describe my own powerful somatic response to both playing and listening to music, regardless of genre. I have documented this feeling response to a variety of musics in a variety of contexts.  The commonality among these varied instances is not the musical style, genre, instrumentation or tradition but my own physical and emotional body. 

This research does not suggest that any ‘feeling’ is universally shared outside of cultural frames.  The best way to understand the role of affect in music is in relation to the subjective experience of the individual.  I argue that feeling and musical experience is fundamentally a somatic response in which (culturally determined) emotions may overlap. This understanding of feeling operates as an embodied ‘third space’ in inter-cultural mingling.  It relates to the “inner nature of phenomenon” (Schopenauer in Storr, 1992, p. 72).  This brings new meaning to Ó Súilleabháin’s use of the expression lobality, a confluence of the local and the global as a site to understand musical hybridity (2003, p.193).  The inner nature of the body's felt-sense or what I describe as feeling tone of listening is a 'third space' in which the sympathies between Irish and Indian music reveal themselves, which in turn reveals, to paraphrase Heaney “a music that you never would have known to listen for” (1997, p. 3).

The shared feeling tone, which I have experienced in both Irish and Indian music has helped me not just to identify sympathetic processual structures in the performative sense but also has assisted in creating order, a new structural sense of the world, which has personal meaning and resonance.  The metaphor of the mongrel, which arose at the outset of this research, has become the central pivot of my new sense of order in the world.  Rather than being torn between cultural and musical worlds, through reclaiming the mongrel I have become more at ease in the convergence amongst them all.  This has not been achieved intellectually or purely sonically, but through the somatic internalisation process which is at the core of hearing and listening to music. So, the sympathy between Irish and Indian music is not just in the mongrel, to be more concrete, it is in the mongrelity of the feeling body.   

Yet the sympathy of the mongrel is not just one of accord and harmonious resonance.  Recognizing difference and limitations is an important process of developing sympathy.  The mongrel is pre-disposed to recognize difference and be empathetic to its existence because of its own mongrelity.  In this way, the Australian colloquial slang of having ‘a bit of the mongrel’ expresses not just physical resilience but also, I argue, points to “ a prototype of conflict resolution” because the journey of making peace with difference has to be done for the self first (Johnson, 1991, p. 107).   Ó Súilleabháin agrees with my supposition that Irish traditional music is a process which may be applied “to whatever it turned its ear to” (2004, p.10).   Yet he argues that such a practice does not serve to illuminate the similarity between different musical systems “but rather their essential separateness: even as they come closer they reveal themselves as far apart” (ibid, p. 10). We could equally argue that North Indian classical music is a performance process more than formal product.  Likewise, when we apply the processes of Indian classical music to Irish traditional music, we reveal just how far apart they are. The sympathy between Irish and Indian music is not in musical product but in the seeking for a “unique sonic integration” (Ó Súilleabháin, 2004, p. 10) which is embodied in the individual and manifested in performance. 


Limits of the research and future opportunities

            Yet, perhaps my focus on subjective experience also points to some of the weaknesses of this project.  While this research may have vindicated the need for practice based research into Irish-Indian musical sympathies, it is very much idiosyncratic to my own practice.  It is difficult to assess whether the musical processes I have identified would be useful for other performers.  The processual sympathies I outlined earlier are also relatively tentative and only became testable in practice towards the end of this project.  Much of this research so far has been spent developing methodology with which to navigate this new terrain.  Only in the final performances was more detailed musical analysis possible. I would suggest that the performative aspect of this project could benefit from further analytical approaches. This is the strength of an arts practice approach, in that it allows scope for trans-disciplinary research. I would envision that this practice-based inquiry could be enhanced by further application of traditional ethnomusicology methodologies such as the use of performance analysis techniques involving video analysis and sonic mapping.  The work of Martin Clayton (2007) (2011) and Wim Van de Meer (2015) in the realm of Indian musicology could prove especially useful for future performance based research into Irish-Indian sympathies.

In the future, I wish to look more at more melodic considerations within this project, particularly the concepts of microtonality as referenced by the terms sruti and draoict.  The concept of sruti in Indian classical music has a substantial theoretical and scholarly history (Holryde, 1964; Jairazbhoy, 2011; Van Der Meer, 2015).  A parallel in Irish music is the idea that music possesses draiocht or nyah, a concept that is mostly evidenced in anecdotal references.  Further extending the performance based trajectory of this current research, and by deepening its analysis in the melodic realm, would introduce more practice based research methods into ethnomusicology, expand the methodological frame of arts practice, and also possibly further harmonize my own musical development.