Posts Tagged With: Martin Hayes

Ryan Young. A CD Review.

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It’s not everyday that an album comes along that completely stops you in your tracks. That you just listen to over and over again and keep discovering something new. There was a real buzz at the Traditional Irish Music Festival in August 2017 about this album and the room was packed out at Peppers Bar on the Thursday evening with people peering in the window to get a look.

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He was supported by Clare ‘royalty’ Mary MacNamara and Dennis Cahill and I listened from outside the door along with the others who couldn’t get in.

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I didn’t remember meeting Ryan Young. But he assured me we did, two years ago at Feakle at a Martin Hayes workshop. And we have been Facebook friends since then so we must have met.   In 2015 Ryan was visiting Ireland for the first time from his home in Loch Lomond in Scotland and meeting Martin also for the first time.  Too shy though to speak to his idol he sat through the three days silently.

A lot has happened for Ryan since then. I met him again this year at Feakle and as before he sat in on Martin’s workshop. This time though it was a different matter.  Martin was well acquainted with him.  In the last two years he has achieved second in this year’s BBC Musician of the Year, supported Martin and Dennis Cahill at Celtic Connections and produced a CD after a You Tube clip was spotted by renowned producer Jesse Lewis.  And he deserves every ounce of this success.

Although hailing from the Highlands he is an adherent of the Clare style of fiddle playing, particularly East Clare. He had grown up with recordings of PJ Hayes, Paddy Canny, Bobby Casey and Martin. It was inevitable that he would bring this style of playing to his native tunes.

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And that’s what his eponymous CD does. But for me it is done in an extraordinarily sensitive and sensual way. The clarity of sound and the sweet accoustics reflect that it was recorded in the Opera Theatre at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.  This, with the brilliant controlled and expressive playing make this an outstanding recording.

The music is sometimes irresistibly Scottish but, even though all the tunes are ‘Scottish’, it often doesn’t sound like it. One can imagine purists would not be too impressed. Many of the tunes though are familiar sounding;  I am sure I heard elements of Rakish Paddy in there somewhere.

It is of course hard not to reference Martin Hayes while you are listening but there is so much originality and thought in the music that it does take on a life of its own.  There are a number of longer tracks that explore different rhythms and textures in the same way that Hayes and Cahill do and the use of the piano at times is particularly pleasing.

But for all this, it is not Clare Music, it is not Scots, it is Ryan Young. That’s quite an achievement.

 

 

Categories: Stories, The Fiddle, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Immersion Therapy, Part 1.

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Part 1: The path to being a better fiddler?

OK so this is my 100th blog.  It’s hard to believe that I have pressed that Publish button 100 times since I’ve come to Ireland.

I wondered what I should write about for this centennial event and really the answer was pretty obvious.  I came here specifically to immerse myself in Irish music and to learn to play the fiddle ‘properly’.  To catch up on all the lost years when near enough was good enough for Aussie Bush Music and to learn from players steeped in the tradition. I realise that this may not be of great interest to many of my blog readers, so sorry about that, but I know there are many musician friends who would love to do what I have done and might be interested in the results.

So has it worked?  Am I a ‘better’ fiddler?

This is hard for me to write because there is no absolute here.  I can only talk about how I feel.  For me ‘better’ is ‘am I sounding more like I want to sound?’, not ‘am I technically better?’.  So I thought I would approach it first by talking about the process.  It has been fascinating for me learning how to learn; learning how to listen and the whole process of getting inside the music.

I’m not the first to do this of course and there is a school of thought that adult foreigners can never really learn to play Irish music because they didn’t grow up with it.  It’s not in them.  Well there are plenty of top-notch musicians based all around the world who play Irish music at a high level so the jury’s out on that one.

Despite playing on and off for forty years I came here as a beginner.  Since my arrival I have wrapped myself in the music.  I have been to dozens of Festivals and concerts and I have attended hundreds of sessions.  I have done workshops, private lessons and seen and played with so many musicians of quality.  Something should have rubbed off.

I know it’s a cliché but this is truly a journey. As I progressed there have been some clear stages in the process.  While this is obviously just based on my own experience and it may or may not apply to others setting out on the same voyage, I, nevertheless, think there are some fundamentals here worth sharing with those who have learnt their Irish music elsewhere but are serious about improving their understanding of the music and lifting their playing to another level.

I have recognised six stages in this Immersion process.  The process is naturally a continuum but it is helpful to think of it in stages.  Maybe all stages are not applicable to all however, especially if they may have been lucky enough to have had lessons from, or played with class trad players.   If not then they have picked up their music from books, CDs and local sessions, like me.

This is not rigid.   The stages can overlap and you may go back occasionally but I think each stage is a fundamental precursor to the next.  You can’t jump ahead.  If nothing else it will put some context around the difficulties adults have in learning Irish Music.

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Stage 1.  Delusion

Many when they arrive here are deluded that they can actually play Irish music.  This is soon put into stark reality anywhere in Ireland, but particularly here in Clare, where the standard of musicianship is so high. You come to Ireland with your packet of tunes and firstly no one plays them or you are playing with the wrong rhythm, and when you start one you find yourself often without support.  Undaunted you play on and wonder why the session comes to a halt.  Or you come into the session with your pile of tune books and turn to page 11 and play the set to a largely disinterested pub (I have seen this on a number of occasions!).  Most people realise pretty quickly that there is a problem here and back off but unfortunately some don’t.  They don’t read the signs and plough on regardless getting nothing out of being there.  Hopefully one moves out of the Delusion stage quickly.  In fairness some people may skip this stage either because they realise they can’t play and that’s why they’re here or they are truly advanced players.

Stage 2.  Confusion

Delusion transitions into Confusion.  You have realised you can’t cut it but you are unsure of the way forward.  There are hundreds of tunes you have never heard, you can’t even recognise the ones you know and when you do you can’t play along because the rhythm is different or it’s too fast.  You realise that the countless hours you spent learning tunes back in Australia is pretty much irrelevant.  You sit endlessly waiting for a tune you know and trying to join in, keep up.   It is hard not to avoid being a bit star-struck when you realise who you are playing with and you freeze when asked to play a tune.  In fact after a while you are grateful just not being asked to leave.   You hear a tune you like and if you are lucky enough to get someone who knows a name you look it up on The Session or Tunepal and learn it. Weeks later you find you have a different version or it sounds nothing like you thought it did.  At this point you feel sometimes like opting out. The danger here is that Confusion can lead to Disillusion and then it’s all over.  Unfortunately for many short-term visitors, this is where it ends. They go home, not really having learnt anything and confused about the way forward and then fall back into the comfort of playing with their musician friends back home and contented in their mediocrity.

If they are lucky this process ends soon enough; but for me it was at least six months.  But the fiddle has that pull and you can’t stop.  You keep going to sessions.  Gradually you are starting to recognise tunes even if you can’t play them.  You are now entering the next Stage.

Stage 3.   Absorption

It is hard to know when you have passed out of Confusion to Absorption but one of the fundamental triggers is a realisation that it is actually OK if you don’t play on every tune.  That it is OK to just sit and listen.  And it is also accompanied by a change in the way you listen.  I’ve been listening to Irish music since I was in my 20s but I was never really ‘listening’.  I was hearing it yes.  Listening involves feeling it and catching little nuances, all the different layers and the way the sound works. It means hearing the structure of the tune, recognising the patterns in the tune and how they are put together rather than just focusing on the notes.   And then listening to it again and again.  I remember some wise words at a lesson from Siobhan Peoples, telling me to lie out on the grass (when it wasn’t raining) and just listen, eyes shut, to the sounds: dogs, birds, cattle, tractors, insects, wind, cars in the distance.  It is amazing how much the brain automatically filters out and we have to retrain it.

With this listening skill, comes recognition of tunes and gradually an understanding of the structure of the tunes: chords, arpeggios, links, turnarounds, ornamentation and dynamics and this then flows on to improved bowing, tone and intonation.  Along with this comes the ability to pick up tunes by ear, something I was never very good at, needing the music in front of me.  And then you find yourself playing tunes that you don’t actually remember learning.  This is a wonderful time.  It’s when the music starts to grow inside you and your whole body becomes at one with the tune and the conscious and the subconscious start to work together as your fingers automatically find the notes. The breakaway from the dots and the skill of picking up the music by ear is absolutely essential and there is the realisation that until you can do this you won’t be able to play.

Stage 4.  Consolidation

Then comes the Consolidation.  You can now listen and truth is you are starting to play along with maybe 60, 70, 80% of tunes in a session.  But you still don’t ‘know’ them.  You can’t play most of them alone if asked.  This is the exciting stage but you are still not a musician.  You can’t start a tune for the life of you but you play along with hundreds.  Don’t be fooled that you can play Irish music because you still can’t.  But what’s also happening parallel with this is you are developing a style.  Whether you consciously have chosen to play in a certain way or not your own style is developing.  This comes from listening and remembering the bits you liked; subconsciously.  And soon your fingers are doing it automatically.  And all those hours you spent on bowing patterns and ornamentation is paying off, you are doing it without thinking.  Development of your style also comes from the choices we make of which sessions to go to.  If you like the ‘East Clare’ style (whatever that is) then you will be drawn to those players and will make intuitive stylistic choices on that basis.  Maybe you’ve found that nyaah you’ve been searching for.

Practice at this time becomes a joy.  You play along with CD’s or recordings and eschew the printed versions.  This helps reinforce the learning process.  It is a feeling like no other when you play a tune that a couple of months ago would have been impossible.  But you can’t get carried away with yourself and who knows how long this Consolidation phase will last.  I have spent the majority of my time at this stage and but I think I am still quite a way from entering  the next Stage.  At least I know what I have to do to get there.

Stage 5 Explosion and Stage 6 Exploration

The last two stages Explosion and Exploration are theoretical at this point as I haven’t reached them yet.  To me they seem the logical extension of the first four stages.  Arguably when you reach the Explosion stage you are a fiddler. I use this term because by this time you have hundreds of tunes in your head bursting to get out.  You are listening to new tunes all the time outside the session situation and learning them off CDs and taking them back to sessions.  You are rapidly picking up new tunes at sessions.  Maybe playing them after hearing them a couple of times and remembering them next time they are played.  You are starting sets you haven’t planned and effortlessly  launching into tunes because it seems right not because this one always follows that.   If asked you could lead a session.

Technically, you have sorted your problems of tone and intonation.  You play with feeling.  You have your own style and tempo that works for you but you can readily adapt to a session that is fast or slow if required.  You can change key if required or if someone starts the tune in G minor instead of E minor.  Many will be happy to rest here.

The last stage I imagine is when you explore the boundaries of your fiddle playing.  Try different things, maybe reinterpret tunes your way.  Play music from different traditions. This is not to say you have to become a virtuoso but it is about exploring your own capabilities and that of the instrument.

Hopefully you hover between Exploration and Explosion for the rest of your playing days.

I look forward with eagerness to these last two stages.

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Anyway that’s it.  I stress again that this is how it seems to be working for me.  Maybe it’s not the same for everyone but the sooner you realise you can’t just jump from Beginner to Player by attending a few session the better

The problem for many is that most can’t do what I have done.  They can’t give up two or more years of their lives.  So they learn in tiny increments.  I’m not saying you can’t become an Irish Fiddler but immersion with loads of practice can shortcut a process that would otherwise take many, many years.

So where am I now as a player?

I have already said that I feel I am still in the Consolidation Stage but striving  to enter the Explosion phase.  Initially I was obsessed with not knowing the tunes and trying to build up a repertoire, but I wasn’t improving as a fiddler so of late I have been practicing tunes I know and playing them over and over until they sound how I want them to sound.  Of great value to me were the words of Yvonne Casey, “Love every note; feel every note”.  And that has become my mantra.  Caoimhin O’Raghallaigh was also inspirational in showing me how many choices are available when we play a note and not to be afraid to experiment in terms of dynamics and bowing.  And how could I forget Martin Hayes who spoke with so much wisdom about being clear on the sound we want to make even singing it out.

The greatest buzz I get from playing Irish music is with others and creating a sound together.  That means listening to them and listening to yourself and ensuring your playing is both sympathetic and empathetic. Often this can’t be achieved in a large session.

So here’s the bottom line. For the first time in my playing life, I like the sound I make.  I am getting closer to how I want to sound.  So at the risk of sounding immodest, Yes I think I am a ‘better’ fiddler.

Part 2 will look at some specific things that I have found over the last two years that have helped my playing.I will address this in a future blog.

Categories: My Journey, Stories, The Fiddle, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, Kilkee; November 2015 – A Review

Winter has arrived on the west coast of Clare.  After an unseasonal spell of sunshine and balmy weather, well into the second week of November, the wind from the Atlantic has now brought the rain, sometimes horizontal, and hail and with it the cold air.  So situation normal really.  But none of that matters.  Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill played  at Kilkee on Thursday night 12th November, about a half hour’s drive away and thanks to fiddling friend Yvonne, who solved my transportation problem, I found myself upstairs in Cultúrlann Sweeney staring with eager anticipation at two empty seats on the bare stage. Kilkee is not on the must-visit venues for international music stars but how lucky West Clare was to have enticed them this time.  The theatre is located behind and above the local library and is a terrific space with capacity for 102 lucky patrons.  The place was full of people and full of expectation.

I have heard Martin and Dennis a number of times in Australia but never in Ireland and never in such an intimate space.     This was the perfect place for their music.  You could almost feel it wash gently over us while almost in harmony with the rain and occasional rumble of thunder from outside.

A live performance of Martin and Dennis is truly a captivating, almost mesmerising, experience.  He plays long sets which build slowly, generally with an air to start and then through a succession of slower tunes, which may be barn dances or jigs or slow reels, picking up the pace and the intensity, building excitement and usually finishing with feverish reels.  An example from the first half started with the slow  air, The Lark in the Clear Air and then a jig from Peter O’Laughlin (the name of which I missed)  to Micho Russel’s version of The Boy in the Gap, which as Martin explained has had all the unnecessary notes stripped out, then Charlie Lennon’s Road to Cashel and finishing with Toss the Feathers and a truly wild, Wild Irishman.

All the way Dennis’ inspired accompaniment enhances the journey.  He assists in creating texture and sometimes filling space and other times creating it.  Always with great sensitivity.  Less is more with Dennis and his ability to create mood and anticipation with a single chord or even one note and also to drive the tunes with a pulsating beat is extraordinary.  At times you are not even aware he is playing as he just reinforces the internal rhythm that Martin’s virtuosic playing engenders.

I attended a workshop with Martin earlier this year at Feakle Festival and it was an experience I will treasure.  His knowledge and understanding of the music is deep and he was more than willing to share his insights.  I was particularly taken with the way he explained how he finds what he terms the ‘groove’.  This was in ample evidence this night with both Martin’s feet moving in perfect synchronicity and creating an almost percussive base to the music. All the time his body sways and moves as the music appears to take him over.  In contrast Dennis is a model of intense concentration.  They sit angled toward each other and their eyes hardly ever leave each other reinforcing the extraordinary musical connection.  Martin even joked about it on stage calling it telepathy.  Indeed Martin announced what tunes he will do and then promptly does something else and unfazed,  Dennis is there.

There were many familiar tunes to those aware of Martin’s body of work.  It was especially exciting for me to  see the links many of these have to Clare and to hear of the players that influenced him such as his father and Micho Russell and Patrick Creagh.

Martin was in a relaxed mood engaging the audience in a conversation, at times the sort of interchange you might have in the front bar of Peppers, in Feakle, between tunes. I loved his explanation as to how he ended up as a musician working for tough man Johnny Moloney from Carrigaholt which convinced him there was a better life. Dennis was quite happy to let Martin be the front man.

Audience response was vigourous.  Excited cheers rang out after each number almost as a collective release of  breath, which the audience held throughout the set.  Perhaps the sound of breathing would put them off their music?

The lonesome touch that Martin is of course famous for was there however often his  playing was feverish. But there was always that groove, that lilt and the ‘nyah’ in abundance.  The playing of both was technically brilliant.  Not one wrong note or one note out of place.  This was as good as it gets and as a wannabe fiddle player truly an inspirational performance.   He is constantly varying in particular with the bowing sometimes getting exquisite tone with just the slightest movement of the horse hair and then using long bows to provide dynamic variation.  He is a magician.

A word on the sound.  It was so good and so unobtrusive I was never conscious of the fact they were miked up.   I really felt I was listening to a truly acoustic performance. That was quite an achievement.

The final set of the night kicked off with one of his signature tunes, Port na bPuca, played with intensity and passion with its invocation of the sounds of the wind and the ocean. This was followed a a haunting slow jig and then into another jig and then seamlessly into Lafferty’s Reel, but typical of Martin, almost unrecognisable at times, as he plays in unfamiliar keys and wanders in and out of the tune, and then another reel and then he brings it back with a slow march with a strong pulsating accompaniment from Dennis, then a slip jig  with that lovely rolling rhythm and then he builds it up again into another reel and then into P Joe’s Reel, paying homage to his father, and then into Brendan McMahon’s Reel, an East Clare favourite, which he took into unknown places and then finished with yet another reel which I didn’t recognise,  this time displaying full pyrotechnics. The crowd would not let them go and gave a prolonged standing ovation.  A breathless Hayes returned for an encore asking what they would like to hear.  Names came from all directions: “Sailor’s Bonnet”,  “Morning Star”, “Farewell to Miltown”.    So that’s what we got and a few others thrown in finishing, of course, with a spirited rendition of the Bucks of Oranmore.  Another ten minutes!

And afterwards they mingled in the foyer making one lucky girl’s night by signing her pink fiddle.  What’s left to say?  A memorable concert that’s for sure.

All I could think of afterwards was that I had better get home and practice.

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Categories: Concerts, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Feakle Matters

Since I last posted on Willie Week I have been to schools and festivals at Tubbercurry, Drumshanbo, Achill and Feakle.  So I have a bit of catching up to do. I will start with Feakle and post on the other festivals as I have time.

As I write this, the sun is shining and the Quilty coastline looks stunningly gorgeous outside my study window. I should be out there and I will but first I need to say a few words about Feakle before it becomes too distant a memory. Does Feakle matter? (well I thought it was funny at the time – last year in a Guinness-fuelled creative frenzy the idea of a local newspaper with the name Feakle Matters popped up so it seemed logical as the heading for this blog) The answer: yes.

Feakle is an otherwise sleepy village with the four pubs and a fifth, the famous Peppers, about half a mile down the road. It is legendary as the home of PJ Hayes and his illustrious son Martin, and the surrounding villages are the home of many musicians, now and in the past, some of them icons of Irish music. On this weekend it is a one lane street choked with musical pilgrims visiting the spiritual home of East Clare music and the Tulla Ceili Band.

Feakle markets itself as an International Festival. That ‘international’ flavour comes from the hoards of overseas visitors who come specially, though there was one international act ‘The London Lasses’. The music however is pure Irish. I won’t say pure Clare, because visitors from Kerry and Sligo and Galway and elsewhere see to that, but the influence of Mary MacNamara, Martin Hayes and the legacy of Paddy Canny and PJ Hayes shines through everywhere.

There are many highlights and I can’t begin to list them. You could have done a lot worse than to just grab a seat in Peppers and stay there for the full four days. You would have heard Seamus Begley, Martin Hayes, Cliare Egan Paraig Mac Donagh, Derek Hickey Gerry Harrington, Conal O’Grada, Benny Macarthy, Andrew MacNamara, The London Lasses, Pat O’Connor, Mark Donnelan, Cormac Begley, Anne-Marie McCormack, Eileen O’Brien, Dave Sheridan, Charlie Harris, Joan Hanrahan, Brid O’Gorman, Conor Keane, Joe Fitzgerald and the rest.  What separates Feakle from the other summer schools and festivals is that people here come for the music. Yes they come for the craic and the Guinness but there is a reverence here that I didn’t find everywhere and often the music was so good that the pub was stunned into silence without the need for a chorus of ssshhhsshh’s. Peppers is one of the best places to listen to Irish music. It is intimate but there is room for both the listener and the player and there is room for the occasional set dance. Sessions at Festivals can be a mixed bag and there are always some that disappoint (I will talk about this in another blog) but here at Feakle the quality is so high that whether you play or listen you can’t fail to be satisfied.

For me. Two days of workshops with Martin Hayes and a day from an equally impressive Yvonne Casey was a major highlight. Martin spoke at length of his approach to playing and there was much wisdom. We were also treated during his class to an impromptu concert from Martin and Mary MacNamara.  Wow.  Yvonne’s workshop complemented this beautifully and I came away inspired just as a School should.  Best of all there was a tutor’s session where a privileged few of us had the opportunity to play for two hours in PJ’s Corner with Martin and his nieces Aiofe and Ciara. It was 4pm so the pub was quiet and it was sublime, respectful and not just a highlight of the festival but of my stay in Ireland.

I was also very lucky to catch up with Joe Fitzgerald. Joe lives in Melbourne with his brothers and is at the centre of the session scene there. He was making a rare visit back to his home near Feakle and I was surprised with the reverence he was held in here. We had a great chat and it turned out he was a sometime prospector and had worked the area around Kookynie in the WA goldfields where I cut my gold exploration teeth in the early 80s.  TG4 were filming him for a documentary and afterwards he joined in a session in Peppers. This session was memorable as it had Aiofe and Ciara Hayes and Amy and Sarah Donnelan and other young Feakle/Tulla musicians and amply demonstrated the continuity of the musical tradition in this part of the world. Almost like a handing over of the baton from Joe to the new custodians of this great tradition.

While on the young players, there was a tremendous opening concert with groups of local young musicians, many of whom are County and Provincial champions and will no doubt come home from Sligo as All Ireland champions. Mary MacNamara and Eileen O’Brien and all the others who put so much time into ensuring the young inherit the strong local tradition of quality dance music, with the characteristic bounce and ensure that it is played with honesty, passion and heart are to be commended and thanked.

Feakle is a great meeting place and if the weather is good there is no better place to spend time than on the benches outside Peppers. May this continue well into the future.

There’s plenty more I could say and should but I’ll just put a few pics up. I was so busy playing that I left the camera behind on a number of occasions so I haven’t caught everyone or every great moment but I think you’ll get the picture.

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Categories: Festivals, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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