Stephanie Conn

writer, researcher, producer



The mystery of musical affect (and effect)

I once found myself unexpectedly moved to tears by the singing of a Flemish folk song. I do not speak Flemish and I don’t have any particular connection to the subject matter, that of a woman whose seven sons immigrate to Canada from Belgium. Later that day I could not even fully remember the melody. But the very visceral effect it had on me ­­— and as I later learned, on others who were in the audience that day — has me thinking about why it is that a musical performance can have more or less impact than expected. Continue reading “The mystery of musical affect (and effect)”



St. Ann’s bay, looking towards River Bennett

Cape Breton looks different in every season. In summer it is dark green and blue and smells of salt and pine; the fire- and churchhalls are bursting with dancers and spilling over with fiddle music. In the winter it is quiet, the snowy hills carved like stone, every social visit celebrated and wrung out for all it can be. But here is Cape Breton in the Fall, all contradictions: soft yellow marsh grass, bays as still as a millpond one day and as wild as the North Atlantic can be the next. Cafes closing for the season, and the Celtic Colours festival club pressing on into the wee hours. Continue reading “transitions”

Legacy and nostalgia

Screen shot 2011-05-17 at 11.21.37 PM

I just received my copy of the Last Will and Testament of Peter MacLean. He left me books ― two of the ones we used to pore over together. I am touched by this last gesture from him, which seems in keeping with his sharing of personal artefacts and souvenirs on our many visits, but in receiving these physical objects that I will doubtless treasure I am also prompted to think about the role that nostalgia plays in the practice of Gaelic singing.

Svetlana Boym writes that nostalgic longing is “defined by loss of the original object of desire, and by its spatial and temporal displacement.”[1] Nostalgia, however, is not sentimentality, or need not be, and how it inspires us to reflect and act is quite different. Boym writes that the exiled state which gives rise to nostalgia is intrinsically outward, and so the exiled “cannot be retroactive (i.e., merely nostalgic); he has to be reflective, flexible toward himself and others.”[2] This attitude seems especially apt for Gaelic singers today (or any time, perhaps?). We cannot simply reproduce the practice of those who precede us, not only because it is impractical but also because it is unproductive.

Peter MacLean asked that we be ‘faithful to the song’ and its bard’s wishes, and to sing it in a way that is inspired by great singers we have heard. He left us his books, and he left behind recordings, and those of us who knew him will carry his words and uphold his standards. We must also, however,  consider in which outward direction we will carry his legacy, and how his voice (and those of other friends and culture-bearers) might be best presented and shared with future singers and listeners.

[1] Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (2001), 38. [2] Boym, 341

Occupation and Identity

ethnomusicology[First published on Flickr. July 9, 2008]

Try as I might, I can’t stop thinking that I am defined by what I do at any given time. But as long ago as Grade 5, I was told by a teacher that my generation would probably not stay in one ‘career’ as our parents did but instead would have as many as six. By the age of 46 I’ve already had several distinctly different jobs. But in a society where what we do is often confused with who we are, what is our identity?

Recently I froze during an otherwise great conversation when the other person asked me about my occupation. It’s not just the big changes which can cause this uncertainty. What if you’re using the same groundwork or training to do a completely different job? What if it’s your ‘role’ within a group or organization which changes? How do people view you differently? What if you gain, or lose power, in reality or the eyes of certain people? Is it possible that you might gain or lose friends as a result? (Sadly, I can attest, it is.) And what of all your prior accomplishments, the years of accrued skill, the colleagues, and one would hope, the wisdom? Are they lost forever or can you carry them over into your new world?

In moments of clarity I believe that everything is connected. My experience, talents, and probably sense of humour, are the constant in whatever job I choose to do, and it’s how I view the world and move though it that defines who I am.

So just because I’m holding this journal “Ethnomusicology” doesn’t mean that I am no longer a singer, a broadcaster, a hack pianist, a snowboarder, a lover of LA but also of New York, a wife, a daughter, and as you can guess, a procrastinator.

Peter’s Tapes

demos the reetoreel machine

A highlight of my visits with Peter MacLean were sessions at his reel-to-reel machine. As we meandered thorough hours and hours of his recordings of Gaelic and English song, violin and piano, I felt like a time traveler eavesdropping on house parties, quiet visits, concerts and radio shows. Once we had fallen into that rabbit hole where long-vanished sounds came back to life, we were not likely to surface for many hours.

Peter MacLean’s collection of 48 multi-sided reel-to-reel tapes stand as a significant piece of Cape Breton musical history. They are a connoisseur’s collection of songs in Gaelic in English, fiddle music, party chatter and radio shows; an example of a personal archive; and a source of songs that sustained his own practice and along with other tape archives, which will aid in the future transmission of Gaelic song in CB.

When he moved into hospital Peter asked that we help to preserve his tapes, and so Paul MacDonald made digital copies of the precious ribbons. Coming soon on this blog: a preview of my article about this remarkable collection.

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