Fiddling with criteria, or, accomplishment versus assessment

In a previous post, I talked about playing music as a form of tacit skill. I’ve also been thinking about accomplishment and assessment: what gets done, so to speak, and what value it has.

Tom Gilbert made a useful distinction between measurement and evaluation. Measurement is a description in terms of a more-or-less objective standard. A person’s height can be expressed in inches or centimeters, measures of length that people can agree on and verify. If you also measure the person’s weight, you can calculate yet another measurement, his BMI (body-mass index).

Evaluation comes when you compare the measurement with some set of criteria–e.g., a BMI number between 25 and 30 puts someone in the “overweight” range, while a number over 30 puts him in the “obese” range.

I chose BMI as an example because there’s disagreement about how useful an assessment it is. In other words, in that area where health, medicine, and personal fitness overlap, it’s not always an easy task to choose the best assessment.

I’d go further to say that there might not be a best assessment. The term “best” implies its own assessment: best on whose terms? Best under what conditions?

Which is why I found so intriguing two essays that accompany volume 4  of Traditional Fiddle Music of Cape Breton from Rounder.

The first, “‘Correctness’ in Cape Breton Fiddle Music,” is by musicologist Kate Dunlay. She takes up the value that fiddlers down home place on “correctness” in playing a tune. What does that mean? How do they know it when they see (or hear) it?

At one time, Dunlay thought that in traditional or folk music, there would be “a great deal of variation, improvisation, and melodic freedom.” She also thought that folk musicians wouldn’t be “musically literate” because traditional music couldn’t be learned from books.

Only later did I realize that although traditional music indeed cannot be learned from books, traditional tunes (including those composed by real known individuals!) can be learned from any source by musicians who know how to interpret them in a traditional style.

She found that Cape Breton fiddlers would tell her which books had the best settings–and that “best” usually meant “closest to what was played in Cape Breton.”

Dunlay quotes folklorist Richard Bauman:

There is also ample evidence to show that rote memorization and insistence on word for word fidelity to a fixed traditional text do play a part in the performance system of certain communities…. the point is that completely novel and completely fixed texts represent the poles of an ideal continuum, and that between the poles lies the range of emergent text structures to be found in empirical performance.

Think about that in terms of non-musical fields. We’re prone, I think, to use absolutes–they’re simpler, they’re cleaner. This is the wellspring of prescriptive grammar (“Double negatives are wrong!” “Don’t end a sentence with a preposition!”) and sometimes the potting soil for ritualistic belief and behavior. Just today I was reading about the “protocol” that requires orchestral soloists to perform without a musical score.

Why? Well, it’s…um… better?  It’s… the way it’s been done?

Back to Dunlay, though. She talks about the differences between Irish and Cape Breton traditional music, noting that in Ireland a musician can vary a tune “more radically” than a Cape Bretoner can. That’s because the traditions treat their sources differently. As long ago as 1802, the Scots  Niel and Nathaniel Gow sought explicitly to make their Complete Repository a standard reference.

The one stream isn’t better than the other; they’re just different. “Personal style is greatly valued in Cape Breton music,” Dunlay writes, “but it is expressed in ways other than by creating variations of tunes.”

In particular, she points out that since recorded music became common, in Cape Breton the accepted version of a tune is most likely the first recorded version, or some classic recording, rather than a particular book version.

“If the tune is judged to be better, the authority of the book has been overruled.” As the highly regarded Winston Fitzgerald said of his version of “Miss Gordon of Park,” “Nobody would play it the way it was in the book anymore… Never.”

In fact, she says, “the term ‘bookish’ is sometimes used to describe music that is dry and uninteresting — too exact.”

If you try, you might come up with other expertise-related situations in which too literal an approach yields less than satisfactory results.

Another shift that Dunay describes, interesting to me: at one time, an authoritative reference for the rhythm of a tune was puirt-a-beul (“mouth music”), a form of Gaelic singing in which the voice imitated the notes and rhythms of a tune (example here). As the use of Gaelic faded in Cape Breteon, recordings became more important.

Mark Wilson, in notes following Dunlay’s, touches on other facets of how “traditional” music evolves. He’s looking, to borrow Jane Bozarth’s term, at how the (very loose) community around Cape Breton fiddling looks at its own tradition and renders its judgments.

In our own research experience, the violin music native to a particular locality sometimes shifts rather dramatically over short intervals of time… many aspects of “folk culture”… have been shaped, to an extent not always recognized, by somebody’s conviction that ‘in the past, things must have been so…’

Wilson says that many Cape Bretoners believe their style closely resembles the way their pioneer forebears would have played, though there’s little evidence for this. In fact, fiddlers around Antigonish (a city on the Nova Scotia mainland less than 40 miles from Cape Breton), despite similar roots in Scotland, have a style “closer to a standard Scottish country dance group of the late 1920s.”

In fact, despite the high regard that many fiddlers have for collections like James Scott Skinner’s Scottish Violinist, Wilson reports very little interest in how those tunes might have been performed. Skinner himself recorded tunes on wax cylinders as early as 1899. When Wilson played these for a Cape Bretoner who knew the collection by heart, the fiddler was “greatly surprised” by how Skinner played (“I found it kind of weird, you know”) but not in the least troubled by the difference.

Wilson points out how Don Messer’s radio and TV broadcasts “homogenized” Canadian fiddle styles, in something of the way that bluegrass and the Grad Old Opry shaped the american country music scene in the 1950s. Cape Breton was an exception to this trend, he writes, partly because of a local audience who appreciated the music and partly because of the “large numbers of reluctant economic emigrés who would usually return to the island for lengthy summer vacations” and who would want to hear what my dad always called “good Scotch music.”

If there’s a “so what” here, it might include these points:

  • Calling something an assessment doesn’t make it one.
  • Calling something a standard doesn’t make it one, and doesn’t mean it’s standardized.
  • Werner Heisenberg could have been talking about accomplishments.