Fiddling with words 2 : The Exponent

The language we use in talking and writing about music can often tell us much about our values and attitudes to the subject at hand. This is particularly true of so-called folk musics, including fiddling. In academia we try to adopt value free approaches, using terms such as tradition bearer or source singer, but here too, there are issues. More popular usage, including music journalism and promotional writing, is less constrained but perhaps more influential and telling.

One expression that seems to have attached itself particularly to Scottish fiddle music is that of the fiddler as “exponent”. Here is a short selection harvested from the internet with the musicians’ names removed:

AB. One of the most respected exponents of the Scots fiddle tradition today…
CD was possibly the greatest exponent of the Scots fiddle tradition of his generation…
Australia’s foremost exponent of the Scottish fiddle, EF…
GH, one of the most respected of all exponents of the Scots fiddle…
IJ is now one of the finest exponents of the Scottish fiddle in the world today,
KL is a fine exponent of traditional music and leads a very successful and exciting Scots Fiddle and Song career.
MN …will play compositions by many of the country’s historic composers and chat about the lives of great fiddle exponents from centuries past.
OP, QR (fiddle) and ST (piano) are all internationally known exponents of the traditional Scottish music repertoire.
UV are the finest exponents in the world of this kind of music.
WX is one of the leading exponents of traditional Scottish fiddle music of the 18th and 19th centuries, having played a major role in reviving interest in this music, over the last three decades.
YZ who took up the fiddle at the age of eight, is now recognised internationally as a leading exponent of Scottish music.

And it has attached itself to performance practice, and the Strathspey tradition of the North East in particular:

  • In order to grasp the spirit of the Strathspey there really is no substitute for listening to skilled exponents of the art…
  • Playing the strathspey can become a very sophisticated art. In the hands of a skilled exponent the rhythms, bowing, and ornamentation add a unique character to tunes which can, in essence, be very simple.
  • Exponents of this style have produced some truly great music in the Scottish idiom.

What is going on here? What are the boundaries between a “player” and an “exponent”? Is this part of a deliberate attempt to separate the art player from the folk? Do we talk of exponents of the Irish tradition? I wonder when this expression came into common usage but suspect that James Scott Skinner had a major role. Now, he really was an exponent:




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