Although actually The Session predates its domain name by a few years. It originally launched as a subdirectory here on adactio.com with the unwieldly URL /session/session.shtml
That incarnation was more like a blog. I’d post the sheetmusic for a tune every week with a little bit of commentary. That worked fine until I started to run out of tunes. That’s when I made the site dynamic. People could sign up to become members of The Session. Then they could also post tunes and add comments.
In all of those incarnations, the layout was fluid …long before responsive design swept the web. That was quite unusual twenty years ago, but I knew it was the webby thing to do.
What’s also unusual is just keeping a website going for twenty years. Keeping a community website going for twenty years is practically unheard of. I’m very proud of The Session. Although, really, I’m just the caretaker. The site would literally be nothing without all the contributions that people have made.
I’ve more or less adopted a Wikipedia model for contributions. Some things, like tune settings, can only be edited by the person who submitted it But other things, like the track listing of a recording, or the details of a session, can be edited by any member of the site. And of course anyone can add a comment to any listing. There’s a certain amount of risk to that, but after testing it for two decades, it’s working out very nicely.
What’s really nice is when I get to meet my fellow members of The Session in meatspace. If I’m travelling somewhere and there’s a local session happening, I always get a warm welcome. I mean, presumably everyone would get a warm welcome at those sessions, but I’ve also had my fair share of free pints thanks to The Session.
I feel a great sense of responsibility with The Session. But it’s not a weight of responsibility—the way that many open source maintainers describe how their unpaid labour feels. The sense of responsibility I feel drives me. It gives me a sense of purpose.
The Session is older than any client work I’ve ever done. It’s older than any books I’ve written. It’s even older than Clearleft by a few years. Heck, it’s even older than this blog (just).
I’m 50 years old now. The Session is 20 years old. That’s quite a chunk of my life. I think it’s fair to say that it’s part of me now. Of all the things I’ve made so far in my life, The Session is the one I’m proudest of.
I’m looking forward to stewarding the site through the next twenty years.
In 2020, I didn’t have the honour and privilege of speaking at An Event Apart in places like Seattle, Boston, and Minneapolis. I didn’t experience that rush that comes from sharing ideas with a roomful of people, getting them excited, making them laugh, sparking thoughts. I didn’t enjoy the wonderful and stimulating conversations with my peers that happen in the corridors, or over lunch, or at an after-party. I didn’t have a blast catching up with old friends or making new ones.
But the States wasn’t the only country I didn’t travel to. Closer to home, I didn’t have the opportunity to take the Eurostar and connecting trains to cities like Cologne, Lisbon, and Stockholm. I didn’t sample the food and drink of different countries.
In the summer, I didn’t travel to the west coast of Ireland for the second in year in a row for the annual Willie Clancy festival of traditional Irish music. I didn’t spend each day completely surrounded by music. I didn’t play in some great sessions. I didn’t hear some fantastic and inspiring musicians.
Back here in Brighton, I didn’t go to the session in The Jolly Brewer every Wednesday evening and get lost in the tunes. I didn’t experience that wonderful feeling of making music together and having a pint or two. And every second Sunday afternoon, I didn’t pop along to The Bugle for more jigs and reels.
I didn’t walk into work most days, arrive at the Clearleft studio, and make a nice cup of coffee while chit-chatting with my co-workers. I didn’t get pulled into fascinating conversations about design and development that spontaneously bubble up when you’re in the same space as talented folks.
Every few months, I didn’t get a haircut.
Throughout the year, I didn’t make any weekend trips back to Ireland to visit my mother.
2020 gave me a lot of free time. I used that time to not write a book. And with all that extra time on my hands, I read fewer books than I had read in 2019. Oh, and on the side, I didn’t learn a new programming language. I didn’t discover an enthusiasm for exercise. I didn’t get out of the house and go for a brisk walk on most days. I didn’t start each day prepping my sourdough.
But I did stay at home, thereby slowing the spread of a deadly infectious disease. I’m proud of that.
I did play mandolin. I did talk to my co-workers through a screen. I did eat very well—and very local and seasonal. I did watch lots of television programmes and films. I got by. Sometimes I even took pleasure in this newly-enforced lifestyle.
I made it through 2020. And so did you. That’s an achievement worth celebrating—congratulations!
As with this site, the key to adding a dark mode was switching to custom properties for color and background-color declarations. But my plans kept getting derailed by the sheet music on the site. The sheet music is delivered as SVG generated by ABCJS which hard-codes the colour in stroke and fill attributes:
Whereas external CSS and embedded CSS don’t have any effect on specificity, inline styles are positively radioactive with specificity.
Given that harsh fact of life, I figured it would be nigh-on impossible to over-ride the colour of the sheetmusic. But then I realised I was an idiot.
The stroke and fill attributes in SVG are presentational but they aren’t inline styles. They’re attributes. They have no affect on specifity. I can easily over-ride them in an external style sheet.
In fact, if I had actually remembered what I wrote when I was adding a dark mode to adactio.com, I could’ve saved myself some time:
I have SVGs of sparklines on my homepage. The SVG has a hard-coded colour value in the stroke attribute of the path element that draws the sparkline. Fortunately, this can be over-ridden in the style sheet:
Et voila! I now had light-on-dark sheet music for The Session’s dark mode all wrapped up in a prefers-color-scheme: dark media query.
I pushed out out the new feature and started getting feedback. It could be best summarised as “Thanks. I hate it.”
It turns out that while people were perfectly fine with a dark mode that inverts the colours of text, it felt really weird and icky to do the same with sheet music.
On the one hand, this seems odd. After all, sheet music is a writing system like any other. If you’re fine with light text on a dark background, why doesn’t that hold for light sheet music on a dark background?
But on the other hand, sheet music is also like an image. And we don’t invert the colours of our images when we add a dark mode to our CSS.
With that in mind, I went back to the drawing board and this time treated the sheet music SVGs as being intrinsicly dark-on-light, rather than a stylistic choice. It meant a few more CSS rules, but I’m happy with the final result. You can see it in action by visiting a tune page and toggling your device’s “appearance” settings between light and dark.
If you’re a member of The Session, I also added a toggle switch to your member profile so you can choose dark or light mode regardless of your device settings.
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It seems like just yesterday that I wrote about hitting the landmark of 100 tunes. But that was itself 100 days ago. I know this because today I posted my 200th tune.
I’m pretty pleased that I’ve managed to keep up a 200 day streak. I could keep going, but I think I’m going to take a break. I’ll keep recording and posting tunes, but I’m no longer going to give myself the deadline of doing it every single day. I’ll record and post a tune when I feel like it.
It’ll be interesting to see how the frequency changes now. Maybe I’ll still feel like recording a tune most days. Or maybe it’ll become a rare occurrence.
Recording one tune isn’t too much hassle. There are days when it’s frustrating and I have to do multiple takes, but overall it’s not too taxing. But now, when I look at the cumulative result, I’m very happy that I didn’t skip any days.
There was a side effect to recording a short video every day. I created a timeline for my hair. I’ve documented the day-by-day growth of my hair from 200 days ago to today. A self has been inadvertently quantified.
I had a double-whammy of a stress dream during the week.
I dreamt I was at a conference where I was supposed to be speaking, but I wasn’t prepared, and I wasn’t where I was supposed to be when I was supposed to be there. Worse, my band were supposed to be playing a gig on the other side of town at the same time. Not only was I panicking about getting myself and my musical equipment to the venue on time, I was also freaking out because I couldn’t remember any of the songs.
You don’t have to be Sigmund freaking Freud to figure out the meanings behind these kinds of dreams. But usually these kind of stress dreams are triggered by some upcoming event like, say, oh, I don’t know, speaking at a conference or playing a gig.
I felt really resentful when I woke up from this dream in a panic in the middle of the night. Instead of being a topical nightmare, I basically had the equivalent of one of those dreams where you’re back at school and it’s the day of the exam and you haven’t prepared. But! When, as an adult, you awake from that dream, you have that glorious moment of remembering “Wait! I’m not in school anymore! Hallelujah!” Whereas with my double-booked stress dream, I got all the stress of the nightmare, plus the waking realisation that “Ah, shit. There are no more conferences. Or gigs.”
I miss them.
Mind you, there is talk of re-entering the practice room at some point in the near future. Playing gigs is still a long way off, but at least I could play music with other people.
It wasn’t quite a session, but it was the next best thing, and it was certainly the best we’re going to get for some time. And next week, weather permitting, we’ll go back and do it again. The cautious return of something vaguely resembling “normality”, buoying us through the hot days of a very strange summer.
No chance of travelling to speak at a conference though. On the plus side, my carbon footprint has never been lighter.
Online conferences continue. They’re not the same, but they can still be really worthwhile in their own way.
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I wonder if I’ll have online-appropriate stress dreams in the next week? “My internet is down!”, “I got the date and time wrong!”, “I’m not wearing any trousers!”
Actually, that’s pretty much just my waking life these days.
It’s funny how small efforts can build up into a satisfying corpus. It’s not like I’m attempting anything ambitious, like Matthias, who is doing 100 days of writing. Recording one tune isn’t too much hassle. There are days when it’s frustrating and I have to do multiple takes, but overall it’s not too taxing. But now, when I look at the cumulative result, I’m very happy that I didn’t skip any days.
One hundred is a nice round number, so this could be a good time to stop. I could quit while I’m ahead. But I think I’ll keep going. Again, despite what the official line might be from the UK government (who have lost all trust), I reckon I’ll be staying at home for a while yet. As long as I’m here, I may as well keep playing. I have plenty more tunes to play.
At some point, the daily streak will end. But even then, I think I’ll continue to record tunes like this, even if it becomes more sporadic.
Monitoring a radio station in New York City, the composer William Basinski hears the melody, records it. He intends to use a fragment as a loop in an avant-garde music project. The tape goes into a box. It is the 1980s.
It is decades later: the summer of 2001. Digitizing a room full of forgotten material, Basinski finds this loop again. But the tape is old; as it moves through the player, it starts to come apart, the magnetic medium peeling off its plastic backing, more and more with each repetition. Enthralled, Basinski keeps recording as the melody disintegrates before his eyes, his ears.
Standing on his rooftop in Brooklyn, Basinski watches the World Trade Center collapse. It is September 11, 2001. Suddenly, the summer’s recordings have a meaning, a purpose. He titles them The Disintegration Loops and offers them as an elegy for the dead.
I hadn’t heard this before. Listening to it, I found it incredibly moving, haunting, and strangely cathartic.
Robin included a clip in his blog post of an ensemble of computer-generated sequences made from Basinki’s source material. He called it an integration loop, pt. 1.
He also published the sheet music for the looping musical phrase:
Anyone reading the blog post was encouraged to record that phrase on any instrument (or voice) and send it to Robin. I recorded the phrase on mandolin. Jessica recorded it on a muted fiddle.
Robin then assembled all the submissions into a seven minute piece called an integration loop, pt. 2. You can hear Jessica at 3:33. I’m at 4:33.
I very much relate to Robin’s interpration of this creation:
In my imagination, each contribution is a rung in a ladder out of the pit of confusion and loss, all of us both (a) carrying the melody forward and (b) being carried by it, up towards something new, something whole.
By non-personal, I mean one that isn’t directly related to your life; photographs of family members, friends, travel (remember travel?).
Even discounting those photographs, there’s still a vast pool of candidates. There are all the amazing pictures taken by photojournalists like Lee Miller. There’s all the awe-inspiring wildlife photography out there. Then there are the kind of posters that end up on bedroom walls, like Robert Doisneau’s The Kiss.
One of my favourite photographs of all time has music as its subject matter. No, not Johnny Cash flipping the bird, although I believe this picture to be just as rock’n’roll.
This is a photograph of Séamus Ennis and Jean Ritchie. It was probably taken around 1952 or 1953 by Ritchie’s husband, George Pickow, when Jean Ritchie and Alan Lomax were in Ireland to do field recordings.
I love everything about it.
Séamus Ennis looks genuinely larger than life (which, by all accounts, he was). And just look at the length of those fingers! Meanwhile Jean Ritchie is equally indominatable, just as much as part of the story as the musician she’s there to record.
Both of them have expressions that convey how intent they are on their machines—Ennis’s uilleann pipes and Ritchie’s tape recorder. It’s positively steampunk!
What a perfect snapshot of tradition and technology meeting slap bang in the middle of the twentieth century.
No, my life’s work is connected to Irish traditional music. Not as a musician, I hasten to clarify—while I derive enormous pleasure from playing tunes on my mandolin, that’s more of a release than a vocation.
My real legacy, it turns out, is being the creator and caretaker of The Session, an online community and archive dedicated to Irish traditional music. I might occassionally mention it here, but only when it’s related to performance, accessibility, or some other front-end aspect. I’ve never really talked about the history, meaning, and purpose of The Session.
I’ve been huffduffing episodes of this podcast for quite a while now. It’s really quite excellent. If you’re at all interested in Irish traditional music, the interviews with the likes of Kevin Burke, John Carty, Liz Carroll and Catherine McEvoy are hard to beat.
So imagine my surprise when they contacted me to ask me to chat and play some tunes! It really was an honour.
I was also a bit of guinea pig. Normally they’d record these kinds of intimate interviews face to face, but what with The Situation and all, my chat was the first remotely recorded episode.
I’ve been on my fair share of podcasts—most recently the Design Systems Podcast—but this one was quite different. Instead of talking about my work on the web, this focussed on what I was doing before the web came along. So if you don’t want to hear me talking about my childhood, give this a miss.
But if you’re interested in hearing my reminisce and discuss the origin and evolution of The Session, have a listen. The chat is interspersed with some badly-played tunes from me on the mandolin, but don’t let that put you off.
COVID-19 has really made me realize that we need to be grateful for the people and activities we take for granted. Things like going out for food, seeing friends, going to the gym, etc., are fun, but are not essential for (physical) survival.
It reminds of Brian Eno’s definition of art: art is anything we don’t have to do. It’s the same with social activities. We don’t have to go to concerts—we can listen to music at home. We don’t have to go the cinema—we can watch films at home. We don’t have to go to conferences—we can read books and blog posts at home. We don’t have to go out to restaurants—all our nutritional needs can be met at home.
But it’s not the same though, is it?
I think about the book Station Eleven a lot. The obvious reason why I’d be thinking about it is that it describes a deadly global pandemic. But that’s not it. Even before The Situation, Station Eleven was on my mind for helping provide clarity on the big questions of life; y’know, the “what’s it all about?” questions like “what’s the meaning of life?”
It’s interesting to see a push-back against the idea that if society is removed we are going to revert to life being nasty, brutish and short. Things aren’t good after this pandemic wipes out civilisation, but people are trying to put things back together and get along and rebuild.
Related to that, Station Eleven describes a group of people in a post-pandemic world travelling around performing Shakespeare plays. At first I thought this was a ridiculous conceit. Then I realised that this was the whole point. We don’t have to watch Shakespeare to survive. But there’s a difference between surviving and living.
I’m quite certain that one positive outcome of The Situation will be a new-found appreciation for activities we don’t have to do. I’m looking forward to sitting in a pub with a friend or two, or going to see a band, or a play or a film, and just thinking “this is nice.”
It was my birthday recently. I’m a firm believer in the idea that birthday celebrations should last for more than 24 hours. A week is the absolute minimum.
For the day itself, I did indeed indulge in a most luxurious evening out with Jessica at The Little Fish Market in Hove (on the street where we used to live!). The chef, Duncan Ray, is an absolute genius and his love for all things fish-related shines through in his magnificent dishes.
But to keep the celebrations going, we also went on a weekend away to Galway, where I used to live decades ago. It was a quick trip but we packed in a lot. I joked at one point that it felt like one of those travel articles headlined with “36 hours in someplace.” I ran the numbers and it turned out we were in Galway for 41 hours, but I still thought it would be fun to recount events in the imperative style of one of those articles…
Saturday, February 29th
The 3:30pm train from Dublin will get you into Galway just before 6pm. The train station is right on the doorstep of Loam, the Michelin-starred restaurant where you’ve made your reservation. Enjoy a seven course menu of local and seasonal produce. Despite the quality of the dishes, you may find the overall experience is a little cool, and the service a touch over-rehearsed.
You’ll be released sometime between 8:30pm and 9pm. Stroll through Eyre Square and down Shop Street to the Jury’s Inn, your hotel. It’s nothing luxurious but it’s functional and the location is perfect. It’s close to everything without being in the middle of the noisy weekend action. The only noise you should hear is the rushing of the incredibly fast Corrib river outside your window.
Around 9:30pm, pop ‘round to Dominick Street to enjoy a cocktail in the America Village Apothecary. It’s only open two nights a week, and it’s a showcase of botanicals gathered in Connemara. Have them make you a tasty conconction and then spend time playing guess-that-smell with their specimen jars.
By 10:30pm you should be on your way round the corner to The Crane Bar on Sea Road. Go in the side entrance and head straight upstairs where the music session will be just getting started. Marvel at how chilled out it is for a Saturday night, order a pint, and sit and listen to some lovely jigs’n’reels. Don’t forget to occassionally pester one of the musicians by asking “What was that last tune called? Lovely set!”
Sunday, March 1st
Skip the hotel breakfast. Instead, get your day started with a coffee from Coffeewerk + Press. Get that coffee to go and walk over to Ard Bia at Nimmos, right at the Spanish Arch. Get there before it opens at 10am. There will already be a line. Once you’re in, order one of the grand brunch options and a nice big pot of tea. The black pudding hash will set you up nicely.
While the weather is far clearer and sunnier than you were expecting, take the opportunity to walk off that hearty brunch with a stroll along the sea front. That’ll blow out the cobwebs.
When the cold gets too much, head back towards town and duck into Charlie Byrne’s, the independent bookshop. Spend some time in there browsing the shelves and don’t leave without buying something to remember it by.
By 1pm or so, it’s time for some lunch. This is the perfect opportunity to try the sushi at Wa Cafe near the harbour. They have an extensive range of irrestistable nigiri, so just go ahead and get one of everything. The standouts are the local oyster, mackerel, and salmon.
From there, head to Tigh Cóilí for the 2pm session. Have a Guinness and enjoy the tunes.
Spend the rest of the afternoon strolling around town. You can walk through the market at St. Nicholas Church, and check out the little Claddagh ring museum at Thomas Dillon’s—the place where you got your wedding rings at the close of the twentieth century.
If you need a pick-me-up, get another coffee from Coffeewerk + Press, but this time grab a spot at the window upstairs so you can watch the world go by outside.
By 6pm, you’ll have a hankering for some more seafood. Head over to Hooked on Henry Street. Order a plate of oysters, and a cup of seafood chowder. If they’ve got ceviche, try that too.
Walk back along the canal and stop in to The Salt House to sample a flight of beers from Galway Bay Brewery. There’ll probably be some live music.
With your appetite suitably whetted, head on over to Cava Bodega for some classic tapas. Be sure to have the scallops with black pudding.
The evening session at Tigh Cóilí starts at 8:30pm on a Sunday so you can probably still catch it. You’ll hear some top-class playing from the likes of Mick Conneely and friends.
And when that’s done, there’s still time to catch the session over at The Crane.
Monday, March 2nd
After a nice lie-in, check out of the hotel and head to McCambridge’s on Shop Street for some breakfast upstairs. A nice bowl of porridge will set you up nicely for the journey back to Dublin.
If you catch the 11am train, you’ll arrive in Dublin by 1:30pm—just enough time to stop off in The Winding Stair for some excellent lunch before heading on to the airport.
Aer Lingus flies daily from Gatwick to Dublin. Dublin’s Heuston Station has multiple trains per day going to Galway.