Italian native digs deep to plumb the essences of the Irish session: BU anthropologist Ferraiuolo explores its traditional ‘communality and subjectivity’

Boston University anthropologist Augusto Ferraiuolo: “In Boston, I was fortunate to meet so many musicians, most of whom I consider friends. So I consider myself at home in the sessions around here, and that for me is the vibe I associate with Boston sessions."

And you thought an Irish music session was a bunch of people playing tunes in a pub.

Well, it is, of course. 

But a session also is a veritable wellspring of social mores and interpersonal dynamics that offers insights into how a given community defines, promotes, and organizes activities that express and emphasize its collective identity. 

Furthermore, a session is a multisensory experience: While music may be its most conspicuous feature, our perception of the event is also affected by what we see, taste, smell, and touch, as well as what else we hear besides the music. 

In short, it’s not just the playing of jigs, reels, hornpipes, and occasional song that make a session; it’s also what’s happens in the intervals and at the margins – summed up in that all-encompassing term “craic.” So is the combination of individual interests, motivations, and principles that bring these musicians to the session in the first place. 

That’s the essence of Boston University anthropologist Augusto Ferraiuolo’s lengthy research project, which he has distilled in his recently published book “Rites of Spontaneity: Communality and Subjectivity in Traditional Irish Music Sessions.” Much of Ferraiuolo’s fieldwork was conducted at Irish sessions and other music events in the Greater Boston area for the better part of a decade. 

Ferraiuolo is by no means the first to explore the inner workings of Irish music sessions through an academic lens. But he brings a unique perspective as an Italian native whose affinity for Irish music led him to take it up himself (he plays bodhran and concertina). Being an anthropologist, Ferraiuolo is clear about his dual role as participant and observer in many of the fieldwork experiences he relates in “Rites of Spontaneity.” This lends the book an innately personal touch, as Ferraiuolo not only recounts his revelations about sessions and Irish music, but also his introduction to various facets of American culture, such as televised college and professional sports.

In fact, Ferraiuolo feels “Rites of Spontaneity,” though it includes sections heavily steeped in anthropological or other academic-related terminology, will have appeal beyond the scholarly realm. It’s sure to hold resonance for habitués of Boston’s Irish scene, what with anecdotes involving local music venues (some now sadly defunct) like the Green Briar, the Skellig, Hennessey’s, Bunratty’s, John Harvard’s, Brendan Behan’s and The Burren, and numerous area musicians – especially the late Larry Reynolds, a seminal figure. 

Farraiuolo also recounts – often verbatim – conversations at sessions, as well as discussions in online forums like on topics beyond music, to give a flavor of the social interaction that takes place in an Irish music setting. And if you’ve ever wanted to know popular Irish music jokes (“What’s the difference between an accordion and an onion?”), you’ll like Chapter 3.

Yet Ferraiuolo did not have this project in mind when he began attending Irish sessions.

“I did not plan to write a book from the beginning,” he says. “Frequenting the sessions was just a lot of fun, and an opportunity to improve my way of playing music. I tried to resist bringing the professional aspect into those parts of my day and my life which were supposed to be for relaxation, a moment of just enjoying friends and situations. But I could not stop myself being amazed by the complex world of the sessions. So, slowly but surely, I started thinking that I could write down my own ideas about it. And then, step by step, you start reading other books. A bibliography on Irish music is basically immense, but it narrows down a lot if you focus on the specific scenario of the sessions, which was my primary interest. 

“The session, from an anthropological perspective, is much more interesting because involves not only music but a lot of social dynamics, roles and rules, linguistic games, even power relationships. It is a complex world, where the group and the individual play a multifaceted, intertwined, ‘game.’”

The book’s title hints at the complexity to which Ferraiuolo refers: “Rites” suggests a regularly occurring event with a proscribed set of activities and praxes; but “spontaneity” implies spur-of-the-moment attitudes and actions, some of which might seem to contradict the whole idea of the “rite.” 

A session is generally thought of as an informal, casual musical gathering, Ferraiuolo observes – but at the same, there is a performative aspect to the event, and an expectation that less-skilled or inexperienced participants will refrain as necessary from playing so as not to be a distraction. Similarly, it is practically axiomatic that tunes at an Irish session be played in unison by the group, he notes. Yet individual musicians can and do insert variations – some based on the characteristics of their instruments, others relating to the source from which they learned the tune, or simply personal whims. 

Irish music sessions, Ferraiuolo points out, are not just plentiful in Ireland and the US, but – as with Irish music itself – are practically a global phenomenon, found in his native Italy and other parts of Europe and even seemingly far-flung places like Japan. By extension, this means that Irish music’s “related social spaces and symbolic norms have become a commodity available worldwide,” he says, and the session has been an important component in this proliferation.

Yet Ferraiuolo himself first encountered Irish music in a whole other medium: the Stanley Kubrick film “Barry Lyndon,” which features The Chieftains on its soundtrack. He was struck by a sound that seemed simple and catchy in the manner of other folk music, but full of melodies, rhythms, and musical structures that were new, interesting, and complex to him. As played by The Chieftains, Irish music also had a convivial, rustic and romantic quality to it that he found appealing. He went on to discover other Irish bands, like Planxty, De Dannan, and The Bothy Band, “and became addicted.” 

It wasn’t until he moved to Boston at the end of the 1990s that Ferraiuolo began to play Irish music himself, nudged by BU colleague Tony Barrand, a long-time folk music performer in the British Isles tradition. Besides taking lessons, Ferraiuolo made the rounds of Irish sessions, in Greater Boston and elsewhere in the US, later on in Ireland and Italy.

 Over time, his observations and impressions of Irish sessions intrigued the anthropologist in Ferraiuolo, a persona he’d cultivated in the 1970s. As Ferraiuolo explains, the folk revival that caught on in the US, UK, and Ireland also encompassed Italy. He took an interest in listening to and performing Southern Italian folk music, and then set out to interview and record traditional singers and musicians. This led him to specialize in anthropology and ethnomusicology, as a means to not only effectively research folk music but also to better understand and relate to the communities that produced it.

“I have to say I consider myself lucky for being a person who is ‘easily amazed,’ even now,” he says. “This ‘amazement’ is probably the first requirement for an anthropologist, so you can ask yourself the necessary questions to understand what’s going on. Another basic requirement in this line of work was summed up by one of my mentors, Fredrik Barth: ‘It is important to have fun when you are doing research.’ From this point of view, approaching the traditional Irish music sessions was the best research ever.”

Ferraiuolo says he felt welcomed and accepted by Boston’s Irish session community – as musician (“Even though I am just a bodhran player,” he quips), anthropologist, and non-Irish, non-American. Other participants, including this writer, were happy to share their thoughts and experiences with him about sessions and Irish music in general. He remains grateful to Larry Reynolds, who in addition to his prowess as musician, promoter, and organizer was universally acknowledged as the leading goodwill ambassador for Irish music in Boston.

“When I asked Larry if I could join the session at the Skellig and the Green Briar, he was very encouraging,” says Ferraiuolo, who dedicated “Rites of Spontaneity” to Reynolds’s memory. “He always made me feel at ease.”

The spirit of session fellowship is evident throughout the book, expressed through extracts of conversations between musicians on musical matters – the source of a tune, for example, or which note is played in a particular phrase – but also personal subjects like health, work, and family. Some exchanges may be more problematic, like gossip or criticism about a mutual acquaintance, or a round of “slagging” – generally good-natured, well-intentioned teasing of an individual, who usually, but not necessarily always, will take it gracefully and respond in kind. 

These kinds of interactions are not exclusive to Irish sessions, of course, but their presence is an important dynamic to them, Ferraiuolo says. They speak to the ways in which session participants each view themselves and their relationships with their fellow musicians: What ways does the session leader wield authority? Which persons do I have the best rapport with? Whom should I ask advice or guidance in regard to technique? Whom should I sit next to? 

The non-musical interactions are at the heart of the aforementioned craic (a word that, as Ferraiuolo details in the book, is a subject of some contention among musicians and scholars), comprising the physical, social,mand sensual environment where the session takes place. As Ferraiuolo illustrates with various citations and quotes, musicians experience a session not just as a succession of intermingled tunes and chatter, but through various perceptions: how crowded the place is; whether the lighting is bright or dark; how the food smells; what the beer and other drinks taste like – even the amount of woodwork in the room (which might affect its acoustics, and therefore the sound quality of the music). 

Are there characteristics that distinguish Boston sessions from those in other US cities, or in other countries? Ferraiuolo has mixed views. Musicians at Irish sessions in Italy tend to speak Italian, he says, which is significant in terms of linguistic analysis. But structurally, he doesn’t see much difference between Boston, Belfast, or Rome.

More relevant, he says, may be an individual’s own sense of self in relation to the place in question. Ferraiuolo recalls feeling anxious and under scrutiny when he first attended sessions in Ireland, perhaps implying a desire for acceptance by those he considered “the authentic guardians of the tradition.” Intellectually, he knows this to be a faulty concept: “Authenticity is a very ambiguous concept, there are no guardians around, and tradition is a term in need of discussion and definition.” Nonetheless, that feeling colored his initial impressions of the sessions he visited in Ireland.

“In Boston, I was fortunate to meet so many musicians, most of whom I consider friends. So I consider myself at home in the sessions around here, and that for me is the vibe I associate with Boston sessions. Of course, vibe is something easily changing, and perception is a fundamental factor. In other words, it is always a dialogue between the group and yourself. Inevitably, my perception about sessions in Boston will be always different.”

Since finishing up “Rites of Spontaneity,” Ferraiuolo says, he finds himself better able to enjoy sessions for their own sake.

“I guess I am more aware of what’s going on around me, which allows me to catch dynamics, nuances, accents, variations, and so on. Just like Irish music itself, the beauty of a session lies mostly in these almost hidden features. The session may be a short moment and a small event, but if you look closely it is such a lively phenomenon that deserve to be fully lived, experienced, and studied.”

 “Rites of Spontaneity” is published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing [].