I heard many years ago, in Limerick/Ireland, that “a session is an organic environment”. It changes; it comes and goes, it grows and depletes in size, it has highs and lows, with acoustic dynamics.
I experienced that in the Monaive Festival last weekend. It is hard to pin point all the changes. But there are ‘rules’ to a session, unspoken (mostly) yet evident. These rules are sometimes broken, but generally every one learns the rules and those that don’t find a corner somewhere to play in, alone or with likeminded people, and a different type off session begins… where strangely enough, the same rules apply but under different leadership. Is there a leader in a session? I think there is a general leadership, someone might suggest a rule in the beginning of it, saying who goes next, or what rules are to be used e.g. “we will go in a clockwise rotation of performers”) or, in a instrumental session there is often someone who leads a few sets then is over taken by someone else… and so it continues.
We entered a session in a back room at Monaive, it was in progress with guitars, singers, whistles etc. it was relaxed, with breaks between songs/tunes. We sat on the outside of the circle and waited and listened, after 5 minutes there was time to understand ‘the rules’ and we started to play when there was a pause. It went down ok, then the main group started up again, and so it continued.
A short time later one of the new comers started to tune his drones half way through their set of melodies… the players/group stopped automatically, a pregnant pause occurred, the “rule had been broken”, politely they had stopped to let the newcomer do his thing even though they were into their set (politeness is a rule) but since the new comer was new to “the session” (it was his first festival) how was he to know the rule? No one had told him, no one corrected him (except me). He learned his mistake, seemed apologetic, then a new melody started (the same melody did not continue).
After a while some more people joined the session, pipers, like us. They hung around for a while, listened, learned the rules… and joined in. it was going good, the session had grown, had changed its acoustic dynamic, more original performers still had their inner circle but the newcomers had join and had harmonized.
Then a mass migration happened, a group of new musicians entered, they did not stand and listen, they did not feel what the rules were, they changed the session completely by moving chairs to the bottom of the room, physically moving people down there by persuasion (“it will be better down there for everyone”) the movement occurred while one of the performers was playing a melody, I saw him still playing while he was herded to the bottom of the room, I saw him moving down to the “inner sanctum” of the new “temple” of the newcomers, with themselves as the high priests dictating to the congregation, constructed by themselves. It was no longer an organic session, but a constructed session, a creation with a core of leaders.
The original session had now disbanded, some packed up and left others hung around, watched, talked… I left.
I had seen this happen once before in Newcastleton Folk Festival. Interestingly they played the same type of music too… their type…and you either played it their way or you did not play, there was no room for anything other than themselves. You joined in their session or you were not included.
No one said anything, about this break up, was it accepted as normal? Musicians tolerate… even when the noise levels increase by the “listeners” as more beer is poured down their throats, musicians, singers say nothing… sometimes there is a “shshshs” from a listener to the room, but a few seconds later the noise increases. It is not surprising the festivals are changing, few musicians are going, fewer musicians are camping at festivals… they are changing.
I think ‘the session’ is a microcosm of a society, whether it is in some ones house, or in a bar, or a festival it shows the humanity and the lack of humanity in people.