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At the vanguard of antiquity

Eoghan Neff, an award-winning Irish fiddle player and musicologist from Cork, recently received his PhD from Cardiff University. Eoghan’s thesis, supervised by Dr John Morgan O’Connell, was titled ‘At the vanguard of antiquity: seeking the avant-garde of the Irish Fiddle in C20th performance practice’.


This thesis examines twentieth-century Irish fiddle performance practices in the search for the avant-garde of Irish traditional music. The central analysis focuses on processes of music structuring, particularly at a macro-structural level. Music structure defines the “terms of tradition” by way of permanent symmetric constructs, whereas it defines the avant-garde by way of transitory asymmetric constructs. 
If musical individualism is represented exclusively by traditional micro-structural ornaments that areinconsequential to traditional macrostructure, then the musical individual contributes to thepermanency of macrostructure under of the terms of tradition. Instead, the avant-garde fiddler seeks musical transitoriness where macrostructure can define and redefine, or be defined and redefined by, both itself and its micro-structural parts throughout the progression of a single musical event. The determining nature of the fiddler’s musical interaction with the fiddle is that both human and artefact follow (thus become influenced by) the procedural dimensions of each other. Therefore, the method of analysis in this thesis has an ergonomic basis, which furthermore benefits from the emic perspective and practical expertise of its author. 

Accordingly, some of the more demanding performances by a selection of the country’s leading exponents are drawn upon to illustrate distinct aspects of where the fiddle instigates the negation of traditional modes of music structuring. Each example represents a different quarter point of the last century. Ultimately, this thesis not only provides a clearer and more radical conception of the musical past, but it also provokes a traditional music avant-garde that emerges from inside fiddle performance practices of the recent century.


The full text can be found in ORCA, Cardiff University’s online repository, at: 

For more information on Eoghan – including videos, a discography and upcoming performances – visit


PhD in Musicology (including Ethnomusicology)

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