These journals cover the year I spent in Ireland, from September of 2004 to June of 2005, studying traditional music at the University of Limerick. Kind of a rambling approach, but you might find something of interest.
A week now that I've been in Limerick, and the weather turned noticeably cooler today. I'm starting to feel my feet beneath me, but admit to some pangs of transition, some questions of just why I've upended my life.
The first day was one of exhaustion: after a lovely ride to Logan airport and an uneventful plane ride, I arrived in Shannon at 6:30 in the morning (1:30 a.m. back home), found a taxi into Limerick and to the student apartment I had booked through the University. At 7:00 a.m., though, there was no one at the reception to let me in, so I sat outside the door, in a light drizzle, until someone showed up. Which should be a pathetic enough image to have you all sending me chocolate chip cookies, by the way, but eventually the Greek shopkeeper, Dmitri, appeared and gave me a cup of tea, as sure a symbol as any that I had arrived in Ireland.
Once I was able to unpack and shower, I wandered into the University to find what I could find about my program (a Masters degree in the performance of traditional Irish music). Nominally, the day I arrived (Monday, the 27th of September) was the first day of classes, but not much was happening. There was a short meeting, for which I was only nominally conscious, that explained the basic outline of the semester, and then I returned to my new apartment and endeavored to keep myself awake until a respectable hour.
The rest of the week consisted of settling in and banging my head against the bureaucracy of the University. Much is circular: I went to enroll right off the bat, but was told I had to pay my fees first. So I went to open a bank account, but was told I couldn't do that without a student ID card. Back to the University to find out that one only gets a card after enrolling, which you can't do without paying up… I've worked out the bank issue, but am still waiting to enroll. The University will only accept the full fee for the year, and I'm waiting on a possible grant and other funding avenues. I was frustrated, immensely, through the first day or two of the struggle, until I realized that it doesn't actually affect me. I can still go to my classes, can still go about learning and practicing. Once the money is together, I'll pay the University, but until then I won't bother myself about it.
The first week of the course got off to a slow start: outside of a few meetings to go over the plans for the semester and a brief lecture on the parameters of style in the Irish tradition, nothing happened. I'll admit to some frustration over that as well, and to feeling a bit at sea. I would feel at sea anyways, having left home and friends to come to Ireland to learn to play the fiddle better, but I was hoping that classes in the first days would provide some structure. Meandered through those first few days, and when the weekend came around I hit the road for Ennis, a charming little town, not far away and full of music. Walked out of Limerick city far enough to thumb a lift, and didn't have to wait long. Hitching is a wonderful thing altogether, leastways it is when you get picked up by nice people and don't have to stand in the rain for too long, and both going and coming I had good luck. A wander around Ennis, a session at night with Siobhan People and Murty Ryan, and back to Limerick on Sunday for week two.
Things are starting to move along in the course, and on Monday I had my first session with an ensemble I've been assigned to for the semester. To my good fortune, I'm in that group with Paul Brock, a great box player with a strong recording history. Paul is a member of the band Moving Cloud, who have recorded at least two albums with Green Linnet, a giant of American-based Irish music labels, and recorded a classic album with Frankie Gavin in 1986, Ómós do Joe Cooley. Needless to say, I'm excited to be playing some tunes with him. Also in the group are Patrick, an American flute player, and Sile, an Irish woman who plays the harp and sings sean nos, the old style of Irish song. A lot of possibilities for us to explore: currently we're looking at a harp/guitar duet on some slip jigs that should be lovely and a song or two. I expect that tomorrow we'll dig into a rake of reels with Paul on the box.
This weekend I'll head for Dublin, where I'll visit family and spend some time with Caoimhin O Raghallaigh, one of my favorite fiddlers. (His album with Mick O'Brien, Kitty Lie Over, is one of the best Irish albums that there is, period.) And next week, Matt Cranitch will be in to work with the fiddlers in the course. So, even in my impatient rush to be a better fiddler, I can see that things are starting to happen.
In Dublin this past weekend, visiting family. It's a great thing altogether, having people who have known you since birth and around whom you can act like an fool and still be loved the next day, because they have to. My father was from Dun Laoire, a town just south of Dublin proper, and was the only one of five siblings to leave: all have moved out of the tiny house by the sea where they were born, but my auntie Val still lives in the house where she looked after my grandfather, William; Jean is a block and half away; the block and a half to Declan's forms the third leg of a triangle, inside of which Jane, one of Jean's daughters, lives with her family. Siobhan was the daring one and moved all the way out to Bray, just across the county line in Wicklow. So on Friday I had my tea with Val and Tony, and drinks later on with Jean and Billy; on Saturday I saw my brother in Dublin; and on Sunday I had lunch and a walk in the Wicklow mountains with my cousin Tony, his wife Aoife, and their garrulous children Peter and Ruth.
In the past, my visits to Ireland have been much shorter, so there was always a rush to see everybody in a short piece of time. Knowing that I'll be here for the year, these visits were much more relaxed.
It's a funny thing that both my brother and I have ended up living in Ireland by such separate paths. Padraic has been a chef for over a decade at this point, and a wandering soul. He's worked on cruise ships in the Mediterranean, in Germany and France, a mafia joint in Chicago, and now lives in Dublin, the heart of it, with his wife. He works at a restaurant in Ballsbridge, lives on a street full of antique shops, just around the corner from Dublin Castle, where my grandfather worked as a civil servant for his entire life. Growing up I never came to know my brother well. We were at different schools, with different friends and interests and quite separate lives: one of the things I'm looking forward to in this year is the chance to come to know him a bit better.
At some point I'll muse at greater length on what it means, identity-wise, to have grown up with an immigrant parent in America, what it is to be Irish-American. Certainly, it was stressed growing up, by our father, that we were Irish. Homemade certificates declaring us "Princes of Ireland;" custom-made sweatshirts with the plough and stars, symbol of the 1916 uprising; an early indoctrination in the Chieftains and Planxty. But, all the same, our physical location was in the States, and the greater part of our cultural bearings. There was a time, around 20, when I felt very confused by the matter, lamenting that the confusion put my true home place somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic. I've less angst over the matter now, and it's a liminal state, being Irish-American; a certain sense of otherness no matter where you are.
And I got a bicycle, something I'm very excited about. After years of being very accustomed to the freedom of having a car –how's that for an American conceit?—the transition to being a pedestrian and relying on city buses has come as a bit of a shock. It's been ages since I've used a bike much, and my quadriceps are feeling it a bit, but the freedom is a wonderful feeling, not having to wait on a bus schedule, or grab a taxi back from the session at night.
Among the images that Ireland brings to mind is that of the island of poets and dark genius: Joyce, Beckett, Yeats. And, sure enough, it's an image cherished by many—my grandfather, William Bonaventure, wrote quirky little stories, always signed W.B. Taaffe: I think he enjoyed the resonance with another, better known Irish writer. My father always mean to write a novel, but—to my knowledge—he never got past the opening lines, which he repeated to us endlessly, when we were young.
On the shores of Amerikay, two men stood, pissing into the wind…
or was it:
Two men stood on the shores of Amerikay, pissing into the wind…
Memory is weak sometimes, but that last phrase is indelibly etched. Anyhow, of great curiosity to me are the differences in the rhythm of everyday speech. One of the consistent differences between Irish and American pronunciation is the placement of emphasis: in multisyllabic words, Yanks will tend to stress the penultimate syllable where the Irish will stress the last and first syllables
(con-TRI-bute vs. CON-tri-BUTE). It's especially clear in the surnames that have emigrated from Ireland to the States: COS-tel-LO here and cos-TEL-lo in the States; Kinsella, Mahony, and more. There are certain words, place names especially, that Americans seem unable to pronounce. Donegal (a county in the north of the country) is one of the most noticeable, and the emphasis is always wrong in the U.S. In the case of place names, like Donegal, it's clear enough that the pronunciation comes from the Irish Dún na nGall. One wonders if the pronunciation of a word like contribute is a carry-over from the Irish language. (As an aside, Irish is how the people here refer to the language that people in the states call Gaelic. The word Gaelic would come from An Gaeilge, the language's name for itself, and used to have broader currency here, but now everyone calls it Irish.) If that's so, that the Irish language has subliminally influenced the pronunciation of English words, then one could see the language as a hidden current, something that informs the use of language from beneath the surface. Possible even that it influenced the writing of the literary giants mentioned above, though they came out of a time when the language was alive only in small enclaves, the Gaeltacht. The English had been both active and successful in suppressing the language, at one point it was a crime punishable by death to speak, but there has been a great renaissance in recent decades.
And if it influences spoken language, then surely it must influence the music, just another form of expression. This past weekend in Dublin I had a chat with Caoimhin O Raghallaigh, a phenomenal young fiddler. It's a common saw in the trad circles that one must have Irish to play a slow air well, for the airs are but the melodies of sean nos songs, an unaccompanied, Irish language song tradition. But Caoimhin took it further, putting it forth that having Irish influences the way one approaches music in general. There is a different appreciation of language in Irish, and of the people who speak it. You would say of someone that they 'have beautiful Irish" for the scrumptiousness of their spoken language – not something you'd often hear said in the States, "Ah, they have beautiful English"—and there is a culture of savoring words. To convince you I'd have to reproduce the spoken examples he used, so you'll have to trust me, but his point was that the cultural savoring of language translates to an approach to music in which you savor the notes. Think of someone like Martin Hayes, as far as well-known fiddlers goes, and the way he caresses each note. Traditional musicians talk about the 'nyah,' the ability to make a note speak and moan: it's that savoring, the willingness to dwell in one place for a time.
A few years back, when I interviewed Matt Cranitch for a piece in Fiddler, he told me about a party in Sliabh Luachra that was one of the highlights of his year: a dance in a cowshed, with whiskey and tea and cake and sandwiches aplenty in the back, and the neighbors dancing 'til all hours. So when I heard that the party would be this past weekend, I made sure to find my way there. Hired a car and had a meander down through the countryside. The car in itself was something of a pleasure, given my American upbringing: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and a car to drive… So I made off along the narrow country roads, and just outside of Ballydesmond had a ramble along the path to Gneevegullia. These are fabled names for fans of Irish music, and it was beautiful countryside, rolling and open. Across the river young lads were playing hurling, the sweet smell of silage in the air, and a clear evening: lovely indeed.
Then the first of dark, and a light bit of rain, so I made my way to Boherbui. All I knew was that the fellow's name was Jer O'Connor, that he was somewhere outside of the village, and that the party didn't start until around 11:00. I had a bite to eat at the only place in the village, incongruously run by two Indian men and serving onion bhajis and chicken tikka as well as fish and chips, and then found two older women who talked me through some directions, obviously skeptical that I would ever find it all. Luckily there was a sign at the bottom of the little road that led to the old farmhouse, or their prediction would have come true and it would have been a long way to drive for a bit of a walk.
A fair amount of things in Ireland involve waiting, most famously music at night. A lot of tourists come here and go out to the pubs, hoping for a pint of Guinness and some music, only to be disappointed when there's nothing of sort. Pshaw, they say, it must be a fabrication to get us all here, but the problem is that they'll go to the pub after dinner, which was at the respectable hour of 7:00, and by nine they'll have had their drink and be ready to go home. And the music won't start until 10:30. But this party was a notch beyond the normal, and nothing really started until midnight—there were a few people lingering about before that, chatting, but it was late by the time the first musicians started and the first set was formed. Johnny Cronin on the box and Paddy Jones, who took lessons from the legendary Padraig O'Keefe, on the fiddle. Set dancing takes place in the same formation as an American square dance, four couples facing into the center. Someone announces what the dance will be–the Polka Set, the Plain Set, etc, sets are formed, and music is played. Each set has a number of figures, set progressions of different moves, and there's a break between figures. What there isn't is someone telling you what to do while it's all going on, no one calling out the dance as there would be for a contra or square. A fairly limited number of dances crop up, and people just know them – a bit intimidating for the novice, but I managed to enjoy myself anyhow.
Periodically through the evening, the dancing would be broken up: by a man doing bad card tricks first, then a woman telling some jokes and stories, and later on Michael Tubridy, an older man and a well-respected flute player, played a solo tune while his wife and two other female relations did a step dance. Ah, such a sweet moment, and so soaked in meaning. At this point, Riverdance dominates most people's consciousness as to what Irish step-dancing is—flash and black costumes and wigs with ringlets for the girls. And devoid of any meaning beyond the marketplace. But here was this lovely and slender older woman, short-cropped white hair, stepping lightly while her husband played, the whole thing speaking volumes about community, and continuity. The world now is a much different one from the society that gave birth to this way of playing and this way of dancing, and in days of yore, before television and radio permeated our lives, music was one of the sole things in the community that could transport us, throw our heads back and close our eyes and take us someplace else, and far away. Music is everywhere now, piped into the elevator and on the television and the radio always on as background noise, and is rarely transporting. But to see that dancing, in the middle of the night in a converted cowshed up a dirt road in County Cork, was to be transported.
It was 3:00 in the morning before I left, hornpipes were being danced, and that was early by local standards, where everyone was expecting to dance until dawn. Early on in the evening, one of the young teenagers had complained to his mother, wanting to know if they'd have to go straight to Mass from the party in the morning, as they did last year.
And it took a day or two to recover, but well worth it.
I will speak now of something I don't have in abundance: patience. In addition to the good parties I've spoken of earlier, there has been a certain amount of frustration in the first month of being here. Granted, some of that would be inherent in any transition of this nature—leaving a life that I was quite comfortable in, for one in which I've no established routines—and some of that is inherent to the bureaucracy of any university—things don't happen on a personal level, nor as quickly as I might like them to. But at the core of it is my impatience for transformation.
I have a great desire to be a better musician than I am now, to be a great fiddler, to light it up. One of my hopes in coming here is that I will be transformed, that some magic switch will be thrown and that I'll able to play music the way I hear it in my head. So, when—on top of the indignity of living in student housing with an ex-Navy guy who can't remember to turn off the lights and considers KFC to be fine cuisine, and the change of not having a car for the first time in fifteen years, and, in general, being in less control of my days than I have been in quite some time—when, on top of that, it turns out that there's no magic switch being presented me at all, it's hard to remember that the music will grow of its own accord, and at its own pace. Eight years ago I was in Ireland for two months, having returned from a seven month sojourn in Sri Lanka, India and Nepal. After visiting family in Dun Laoire, I rented a room in a cottage in Oranmore, outside of Galway, where I practiced incessantly, took some lessons, and made it to as many sessions as I could. The thing is, I really wasn't very good at that point, and knew next to nothing, so after three weeks of that routine I felt like my head was going to explode for not getting anywhere. It wasn't until six months later, at that point working on a farm in Wisconsin, that I felt like the work I had put in came to bear some sort of fruit. It's as if the music that you take in needs time to set, the way that when you first pull a sweet potato out of the ground it won't taste like much. It's not until a month later, when the excess water has had a chance to evaporate, the sugars concentrate, that the sweet potato melts on your tongue.
I try to remind myself of that experience, the other time I was in Ireland, focused intently on learning more about the fiddle, when I get frustrated about my lack of progress on the little wooden box that makes up my life these days. And, again, I think a certain amount of that frustration is to be expected if you have the temerity to study music at a university. For the old players who move me so deeply—Patrick Kelly, Aggie Whyte, Sean Ryan, Denis Murphy, Junior Crehan, Bobby Casey—music was part of their life, but not the sum. It sat in with other things—families and farms and jobs—and was a way of expressing the meaning that came out of those other things; was a way of being transported away from the daily world. But when music is your daily world, it can hardly serve to transport you away from itself. There's an old jig in the Irish tradition called 'Contentment is Wealth,' and I will be a rich man indeed should I come to remember that music, and growth, will take their own time, not to be rushed.
And for relief, I play around on the guitar a bit, or the whistle. Since I've invested less of my identity into those instruments, the bobbles and mistakes don't bother me nearly as much and I'm more able to enjoy the sound of it. On fiddle, I'm always thirsting for a new tune to learn, a new threshold to cross, but there's this jig (Seamus Cooley's) I've been playing on the guitar for the past year and I'm hardly tired of it yet. Funny creatures, aren't we?
The 'pure drop' is colloquial Irish for the authentic thing—the 'real deal' being an equivalent Americanism—and yesterday we certainly had a full dose of the pure drop. James Byrne was down from his home in Meena Cross, in Glencolmcille, Donegal, to lead a master class with myself and the other fiddlers in the master's course. He's a gem of a man and a tasty player, and the day was a treat.
The course is structured so that we have periodic, intensive days of master classes with a variety of different fiddlers, about six different people in the 14 week semester. This exposes us (there are six other fiddlers) to different styles of playing, different repertoires and different styles of teaching. Last week we had in a fellow named Brendan Mulkere, a prominent teacher in the London area, who, frankly, I found to be somewhat of a repulsive personality. He's certainly a legend in his own mind, and the size of his ego got in the way of his music, as is often enough the case. I think the role of a traditional player is to be as transparent as possible, to be the vessel through which the music is brought forth, the music being a much larger entity. Mulkere's playing, by contrast, was mostly about all of us noticing just how clever he is, and left a number of us turned off.
How wonderful, then, to have James Byrne in for the day. A quiet, unassuming man with a mountain of music to share. The Donegal style sits outside of the mainstream of traditional Irish music, having a unique repertoire and a different bag of tricks. Mainstream sessions are reels and jigs and the odd hornpipe, mostly reels: Donegal has all of those, but is also rich in highlands, barndances, mazurkas and 'germans' and has been historically influenced by the music of Scotland. Where most poor rural folk in the rest of Ireland would have gone to Dublin looking for work in days of yore, Donegal people made for Edinburgh, and brought the tunes back with them when the harvest work was over. James gave us a bunch of those tunes: reels specific to Donegal, jigs he remembers his father playing when he was young, a mazurka they used play for dancers, a barndance and a hornpipe. And with the tunes came stories of the people he got them from, and the house dances they used to play.
Glencolmcille is a little village on the northwest coast of Ireland, nestled between cliffs that keep the sea at bay, and holds a special place in my memory. When I was a boy and my father was still alive, he brought my brother and I to Ireland a few different summers. On one of these trips we rented a thatched-roof cottage in Glen, the ones with the white washed walls you see on the postcards and the red door. I remember walking with him to get peat to burn and picking up a German hitchhiker, but mostly Glencolmcille is one of those places with mythic significance in my memory, my own private Tir na Nog, the place where we were happy and whole and unblemished. I was 12 when we were in Ireland for his funeral, but I've no memory of that, and it was eight years before I made it over again at 20. I was with my friend Nelle on that trip, and we went to Glen: if I recall right, Nelle and I had some sort of spat there, but it was good to see those cliffs again. I'm of two minds about going there again: perhaps the myth should be left alone, the memory allowed to stay the same. But then again, it might be a grand thing for my brother and I to make a weekend excursion to Donegal, to see a place where we were young. As in the poem by Garcia Lorca:
My heart of silk
is filled with lights,
with lost bells,
with lilies and bees.
I will go very far,
farther than those hills,
farther than the seas,
close to the stars,
to beg Christ the Lord
to give back the soul I had
of old, when I was a child,
ripened with legends,
with a feathered cap
and a wooden sword.
All this sparked by the fiddle playing of a fellow from Donegal, and I haven't talked about what he was doing with his bow, or the ornaments with his little finger, or his warm, enveloping tone.
A dark and sleepy Irish evening—sleepy, anyhow, when you're awash in a pattern of staying out late at night and making it in to the University in the morning, groggy-eyed through the day. I used to take pride in my farmer's schedule: up with the sun and out at it early and long. Relished the quiet of those early mornings, when the chatter of bug and bird slowly increased, shadows receding into the trees. Precious little of that now, and the days getting shorter.
This past weekend I went out to Clare to visit a friend and to do some research on Patrick Kelly, one of the older fiddlers I find inspiring. One of the best recordings of Irish music I've ever heard is an album that was put out in 1979 called Ceol an Chlair (The Music of Clare) and has recordings of a number of Clare fiddlers: Junior Crehan, Bobby Casey, Joe Ryan, John Kelly, and Patrick Kelly. They were all amazing, but there was something singular about the tracks of Patrick Kelly, tucked in there at the end of the album, playing The Morning Star and The Foxhunter's and Banish Misfortune like I hadn't heard them. Arguably that album is one of the more influential recordings in the tradition, even though it's near impossible to get your hands on a copy these days, other than by knowing a friend who has a copy of a copy of the record. Patrick is dead and gone, in 1976 at 71 years, but I was able to meet with three of his sons, one still living in the family house in Cree. Some incredibly friendly and generous people (and brought there by Barry Taylor, another friendly and generous soul), and I was five pounds heavier with apple pie and fresh baked scones by the time I left the kitchen, where we talked about their father and I got to see the fiddle itself, now sadly in need of repairs. One of the things I've enjoyed about digging in to the lives of these old fiddlers is meeting the families and being led into the past, a world now sadly gone. Consider this image:
I remember my mother describing looking out the window one morning, waiting for him to come home and bring in the cows to get them milked. And she looked out and there he was out on the road, sitting up on the pier of the gate, in the morning, and there was a fellow that lived in the house right across the road from us. He was step dancer by the name of McInerny, nothing to Paddy now, but he was on the road dancing. And this was before the road was tarred, and my mother could see the dust coming up over the fence. Wasn't that some picture? Of a six o'clock in the morning, of a fine summer's morning, and she could see the dust coming up, and he above only playing the fiddle and your man dancing out on the road.
It's easy enough to wax nostalgic about the old days, and I'm sure people then would have gladly traded up for the comforts we have now, but it would have been a grand thing altogether to be on the road that morning.
The day before meeting the Kellys, I had visited my friend David Levine in Kilshanny, and at night we made our way to the Roadside Tavern in Lisdoonvarna for a session with Christy Barry and Terry Bingham. Two phenomenal musicians, flute and concertina, but—to be honest—it was a dud of an evening. The pub was almost empty, and both Christy and Terry seemed tired, maybe a bit bored, grinding out the session until it was time to go home. And I was about to ready to go as well when two Nepali guys who were living in Lisdoon, working at the fish smoker down the road, got out their instruments. One fellow had a sarangi, a cousin of a fiddle but with a ghostlier sound, and the other had a two-ended drum that was tuneable, from which he pulled out melody. They started to playing, and they were absolutely stunning, polished musicians. And they were taken up in the joy of it in a way you don't often see here. The body language of Irish music-making is one of subtlety, you might say, and for the most part, musicians stay dead still, eyes closed, and lash out the tunes. By contrast, the Nepali "fiddler" was rocking back and forth, a smile beaming out, his happiness a tangible thing.
And, I suppose, there's the trade-off for having lost the world that Patrick Kelly lived in: to be able to hear a sarangi player in the Roadside, of a Friday's evening.
Sunday afternoon, and grey: the kind of weather one would expect in Ireland at this time of year. But I feel much rosier to be watching the skies darken from the window of my new apartment. I moved last weekend, after returning from the Ennis trad fest (late nights, good music, sleeping on the floor of a hotel room…), spending Sunday ferrying backpack loads to and fro on my bicycle, then getting a lift on Monday morning with the rest of it. In the way that we often keep from admitting to ourselves how bad something is when we're in the middle of it, it wasn't until I'd moved out of the student housing complex that I realized how little I liked it. A cramped little bedroom, but for all its lack of virtue, it was still a more comfortable place than the living room and so I spent all my time in the bedroom, like a sullen teenager avoiding the family. This place, by contrast, has a much more open feel, bigger rooms, and I've a very congenial roommate. Kate is also a fiddler in the course, and by quick consensus we've covered over the television, share meals, and play tunes together. What a difference a comfortable home makes, and a decent kitchen.
The highlight of the week: Steve Cooney. Big barrel of a belly and dreadlocks and bare feet, Steve is a genius of a guitar player and has an incredible pair of ears. He was in to coach our ensembles, and I had three hours with him to myself on guitar. Incredibly constructive work with the ensemble pieces, grabbing details right away and, with small changes, dramatically changing the energy of a piece. And as a guitar tutor he was an absolute joy: we went over a number of backing ideas, from imitating a bouzouki to working reggae bass runs into an Irish rhythm, but what impressed me the most was the consciousness with which he's thought about his backing. Steve takes his rhythms from what's happening with the dancer's feet when they dance the sets in Kerry. This means he's thinking not just about the meter of the tune, but what happens across the phrasing of it: there's a different emphasis in measure 4 of a polka, for example, than in measures 1-3, because that's what's happening with the dance. By contrast, most of the time I'm just playing a rhythm that generally fits the tune, not having thought about it to that level of sophistication. Also some great ideas for what to do with songs, but best of all was the man's warmth. He was friendly, interested in what I had to say, and when it was all over gave me a nice hug. Hugs are a rare thing in Ireland: the culture, generally, isn't very demonstrative. A hug from a relative stranger, then, was just wonderful: only my fifth hug since being here, and three of those were from relations. And if I can capture half of what he was talking about on the guitar, I'll be a monster.
The week ahead has a lot of space in it: ensemble rehearsal on Monday morning, and lectures on Thursday and Friday. It's a good thing to have some space now, as the end of the semester deadlines are fast becoming quite real. On December 13, I have my major performance of the semester. Only 20 minutes of material, but the space we perform in is dead acoustically and the audience will consist primarily of people assessing the performance for a grade. So I want to be well rehearsed for that, and am putting hours in now on the tunes that I'll be playing. The beginning of January is the dues date for the major paper: in my case, a piece on Patrick Kelly, and the following week will be a presentation that feels much less demanding—but then, it's also farther away and I haven't thought about it much. It's a funny thing: even though I've gigged loads of times, this upcoming performance feels somehow artificial, and I find myself not as excited for it, nor as calm, as I usually would be. Ah well, it's only 20 minutes, and I figure if I flub it, it will be all the more impressive when I nail the final performance in May.
an irish thanksgiving
Though there's not a can of pumpkin to be found in any grocery store in Limerick, nor a pie dish deep enough to make a proper pumpkin pie, Thanksgiving was celebrated in great style, Wednesday evening as it turns out, with a crew of eight around the table, pies waiting, instruments all round the edges.
Preparations started the day before, when I spent a solid six hours cycling around Limerick getting what I needed. Given the limitations of a bicycle and a backpack, it was one trip out to find a butcher that had a fresh turkey—Loughnane's, and the only one in Limerick to have it, a trip to find a baker that would sell stale bread for the stuffing, four separate trips to different supermarkets to get the various other bits, casting a hopeful eye about for the elusive pumpkin. Shopping done, and a bit of a rest, I started in on pie crust and stuffing the night before. Now, though I certainly had strong Luddite tendencies ten years ago, I have to admit I've grown quite used to making pie crust in the Cuisinart. No such luxuries here though, so it was back to the old school.
Wednesday I spent cooking, much of it—given the spartan nature of the kitchen—in improvisatory fashion. Wine bottles make for good rolling pins; once they've been emptied, that is, which wasn't a huge imposition the night before. No turkey baster, but I managed to contrive a multi-roasting pan system which left me access to some drippings for basting; and I'd no pot big enough for the potatoes, so I did them in shifts. As far as culinary exploration, the stuffing was the most adventuresome dish, featuring coconut milk and roast hazelnuts. Not too bad for bad, if I do say so myself.
And then the table was full—Kevin, Ronan, Alan, Ultan, Edel, Anto, Kate and myself—and the food eaten. A break, and then on to the pies, and a small attempt at some tunes, but our bellies were all so heavy laden that we played very slowly, one eye on the sofa and thinking how lovely a short nap would be. Leftovers the next day, and a good clean of the kitchen. I'm still on the turkey sandwiches, but life is mostly back to normal.
In recent years back home, I've been taken in at a number of different homes for holidays, a bachelor far away from family. Those have been lovely affairs, but beyond bringing a pie or some such, they haven't entailed much work. This Thanksgiving, by contrast, was a vast effort—two full days, nearly, and a decent portion of money. But often enough, it's the things we work for that we appreciate and the things that come easy that are taken for granted, and I'd say I'll remember this Thanksgiving for a long time to come.
Much in my life has come easy—school wasn't too much of a stretch, I had a solid roof and plenty to eat growing up—and that's something to give thanks for. But it's the things I've had to work for—like playing the fiddle—that mean the most, and I give thanks for that work as well. And to be in a place with friends around the table.
An image, then, for what it is like to be here: when I was a boy, in Minnesota, I used go to the northern shore of Lake Superior with my best friend and his family, where they had a cabin. A lot of memories wrapped up in those trips, including the time we took off in a 4 hour joyride in a car that neither of us really knew how to drive so that we could get up into the woods, and watching a full moon rise over superior, rocky cliffs and loons calling and a wolf in the distance. But the image I am thinking of now is in the spring, and was on a trip with Karl (the friend) and Rudy (his father). Spring, and the smelt were running from the lake upstream into the rivers where, presumably, they were going to spawn and start the cycle all over. We went smelt fishing that day, and the fish were running so thick that all you had to do was wander into the stream and put your net down, pull it up full of struggling, silversheeny smelt. The music here is like smelt in that river, thick and everywhere, and I'm trying to catch them barehanded. Put your arms in the river and grab for what you can: most of the fish slip on by, but there are so many, you're sure to come up with something.
This past weekend was like that: a session at the Horse and Hound on the Thursday, a concert and party afterwards on Friday, concert and party on Saturday—music in the day as well, and Sunday was the Gradam Cheoil, the Irish music awards ceremony, for which I landed a free ticket, and which featured an embarrassment of riches: Lunasa, the Chieftains, Gerry O'Connor, Mary Bergin, and other greats. And a party afterwards to rub shoulders with them all. As you might intuit from the description, sleep did not feature heavily in the weekend's affairs.
And sometimes you're more conscious of the fish that slip by. Master classes the past two days with Caoimhin O Raghallaigh, an amazing fiddler and an idol of mine, made me feel like putting the fiddle in the closet for the next ten years and stopping the pretending. I do think, bluntly, that a certain amount of musical creativity is innate: that Caoimhin was born with something I was not, and that no amount of practicing can make up for the fact. I imagine it similar in the other arts: Yeats, or Gerard Manley Hopkins, or the poet of your choice, were particular incarnations of the flesh, their genius something innate that cannot be replicated. Which begs the question, if we are born with our portion, what I'm doing here, trying to increase mine.
The best answer I've heard comes not from me, but from a friend, Kevin. Before coming here to do the four year BA course in traditional performance, Kevin was at a three year course in trad music in Falcarragh, Donegal. When he told me that, my immediate response was to say, jokingly, that after seven years of study, you'd want to be a savage player. And he set me right by saying that didn't matter to him at all: he figured if he wasn't doing the course, he'd have some job he didn't like and would be playing at night, when time allowed. This way, he was doing what he wanted and having some fun with it. Sure, he said, at the end of the day, what does it matter if you're great or not? What does it matter if a thousand smelt slip by in the river, if you've more in your hands than you can eat for supper?
A walk along the north edge of the Burren yesterday, up from Kinvara and past a hermit's church, abandoned now, and into a hazel woods, trunks and boulders moss-covered and rich with a sense of magic. And a sense of what it must be to stand there in the summer time, the leaves overhead thick and blocking the sky, the air still: a good way to mark a close to the past few weeks, which were full enough with day-to-day busy-ness and stress, and with their fair share of darkness.
The beginning of December marked the twentieth anniversary of my father's death. Twenty years is two-thirds of my life: that means I've spent twice as much time missing him as I did being with him, and though I've rich memories, one can't help but wonder how life would have been different. The day of the actual anniversary I spent mostly to myself, a long walk by the Shannon, and the following weekend I went to Dublin for the anniversary mass at the parish church and a dinner with family afterwards. In amongst those events, my mother came over from the States with my little sister, Colleen, and we all (my brother and his wife, who live in Dublin, myself, and the American contingent) went to Bunratty Castle for a banquet. Kind of an absurd tourist event really, with fellow dressed up in tights singing 'Danny Boy' to make you think you're in the middle ages, but Padraic and I drank a lot of mead and acted silly. My mother and I have a mottled history, and visits are usually stressful. That was the case this time, as well, but when I remember the trip to Dublin in years to come, hopefully it will be a piece of music that I remember.
When we were growing up, and Irish music was only of the only things allowed on the stereo, one of my dad's favorite records was by the Furey Brothers. And every time that record came to Finbar Furey playing an air called For Ireland, I'd Not Tell Her Name he'd tell us that was what he wanted played at his funeral. At the tenth anniversary mass, I played that air as part of the ceremony, in my beginner way. Coming over this time, I wanted to do the same: indeed, this being the twentieth anniversary and wanting to play in the mass is part of the reason I wanted to be here this year. I had been working on my interpretation of the air, and when Fr. Tuite nodded to me, giving me space before the offertory, I played the air better than I ever have before. 'Twas pure lovely playing in the church, the notes being lofted up and filling the space, and taking my time with the music. Playing the air well meant much to me, and to the family as well, and I relished the feedback from the aunts and uncles at the finish of mass. The dinner afterwards is one of the few times that all of the siblings are together—my aunts Jean, Valerie, and Siobhan, and my uncle Declan—as they all have their own families to attend to at Christmas and through the year. And they let their hair down quickly, which was lovely to see.
Immediately after that trip to Dublin, I came back here to Limerick to give my lunchtime performance, the major piece of work that will be assessed for the semester's marks. It wasn't fantastic, but it wasn't awful either: I played a set of three jigs—The Lark on the Strand, Old Man Dillon, and The Hawthorne Hedge—a hornpipe into two reels–Martin Rochford's and the Galway Rambler, an old-timey piece called Queen of the Earth, Child of the Skies on a cross-tuned fiddle, flowing into one of Crowley's reels, a song and then a blast of French-Canadian tunes to close it off. Rochford's is a tricky tune, and I didn't pull it off to my satisfaction, but the others were decent. The best part of the process, easily, was putting in so much concentrated practice time on such a limited number of pieces. For a few weeks I played almost nothing else, to the point where I was nearly sick of the tunes. And, to be honest, I've hardly played them since, but I know that when I do come back to them it will be with new insight and comfort. The performance was not an enjoyable part of the process, with the course directors out in the audience scribbling away with their pens. Getting music I like to a new level of refinement is a great part of the process: too bad it takes the spectre of performance to put in that work. Next semester I'll have another twenty minute lunchtime and a forty-five minute final performance to prepare. In the heat of it, I'm sure I'll feel stressed, but it will be lovely to put that work into another set of pieces. The day after my own performance, I backed up a classmate for her performance. Joanne has a lovely swing to her playing, and picked nice tunes, so it was fun to be her guitar player. And an experience with no stress: since I wasn't the one being evaluated, I could focus on the music and appreciate what she was doing with the tunes.
And now, with the bulk of the semester's work behind me, I'm working on a research project on Patrick Kelly, a fiddler from West Clare, and wondering when I'll next make it to the hazel woods, the trunks and boulders all covered in moss.
'Tis early in the evening on the first day of a new year, and I am sitting at my desk, listening to a tasty fiddle and accordion duet, recovered—mostly—from last night's session with Ronan, Kate and Enda in Salthill. A year ago this time, arriving late to the party in Shrewsbury from packed houses in Burlington with the Field Mice, I set myself the goal of playing 100 gigs in 2004, wanting to spend more time on music.
I made it to 85, short of the goal. But I'm cutting myself some slack because in the midst of the year I decided to uproot and come to Ireland, which has to be worth 15 gigs in the grand scheme of things. Of those gigs, more than a third were on the fiddle, and a good twenty were as a caller, a skill I wanted to develop. By far, the bulk were playing for contra dances, and I came to realize that I prefer the on-stage camaraderie of dance musicians and the logic of playing for dancers: we play lively music, they dance. It's not the rapt attention of a concert stage, but there's a feeling of being a part of a community, and I enjoy that. Miss it, in fact, and I'm looking forward to doing a whole bunch of dances when I'm back in the States for a few weeks at the end of the semester. All the music contained in those nights of playing made for a good year, with opportunities to work with a lot of fantastic musicians.
Having been mostly successful in reaching the goal, you'd think I'd be anxious to set myself another, but my head is almost completely clear. Much of the trajectory of the year is set: I'll be in Limerick until the beginning of June, completing the course; leading a Village Harmony session in Vermont in the month of July; and touring with Northern Harmony in Germany, England and Ireland in October and November of the year. Since that tour will land me back in Ireland, I'll probably hang around the west of Ireland for a bit and that carries me to the end of next year. Which is just as well, as I've little to no idea what I'll be looking to do at the end of all this gallivanting.
Certain words here carry vastly different meanings: to be bold in America is one of the cardinal virtues of the culture. Pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, grabbing opportunities, and the myth of the frontier, where anyone with the gumption could stake their claim and make their fortune. Being bold in Ireland, by contrast, is the reprimand for a misbehaving child. "Ah, you're a bold boy, " when the lad isn't minding his nanny or is being willful. I'm sure that were I to bring up this deep insight at a pub, someone would comment that, sure, 800 years of oppression will teach a culture to keep their head down and not make much fuss. Whatever the reason, the approach to life is much different here, and it's a rare person who would be forthright about their aspirations, or set ambitious goals at the new year. And why would I want anything different than what I have at the moment? A life absolutely swimming in music, and enough friendship to keep me going.
I am aware that it is the utmost in arrogance to be focusing on my own life in the aftermath of the tsunami that devastated Asia. The three months I spent in Sri Lanka in 1996 are treasures of my memory: kotu rotis at the Muslim Hotel in Kandy, learning traditional dance in that small community hall and riding on the crossbar of my teacher's bicycle to a recital, harvesting rice and eating fresh jack fruit. 'Tis too much to consider.
an ocean of music
The major academic work of the semester done and handed in, a signed receipt of submission from the secretary, and a sense of satisfaction: seventy pages on a fellow named Patrick Kelly, a great musician who lived in West Clare from 1905-1976 and played some lovely music on the fiddle. I've been entranced by Patrick's music for a number of years now, ever since my friend Brad gave me a second-hand copy of an out of print album called Ceol an Chlair, issued by Comhaltas in 1979. I found Patrick's music compelling and highly singular, with his settings of tunes both personal and heartfelt. But outside of the album, I could find little more. There is a wealth of information, both written and orally within the trad community, about many of the luminary players of the same generation: Junior Crehan, Bobby Casey, Willie Clancy and the like. Very little on Patrick though: doing the research project was a bit of detective chase, and led me to interviews with his family—incredibly hospitable, and wonderful apple tarts—and archival material. And along the way were some conundrums: Patrick left the house little, and lived in a small village in West Clare, so I found myself with a great curiosity as to where he got his music and inspiration. His father, Tim, had learned from George Whelan, a traveling fiddler from North Kerry (possibly blind) who had crossed over the Shannon estuary in 1880 and left "an ocean of music" in his path. But, as remarkable a player as Whelan must have been, that trip was 25 years before Patrick was born, and 88 years before he played some fiddle tunes into Séamus Mac Mathúna's tape recorder, tunes he said he had from his father, dead when Patrick was 14, who had said they were from Whelan. While there are some other leads reinforcing the presence of Kerry repertoire in West Clare, and a mountain of conjecture, what fascinates me is the power of memory and the loyalty to the music Patrick inherited from his father. But then, were I to have been given some lovely music by my father, I'd certainly be playing it, so perhaps the word I'm searching for isn't so much fascination as it is admiration.
In the course of writing the project, I had to transcribe and analyse Patrick's music as well as garnering the details of his life story. It's a good thing I started off loving the music, or I'd be well sick of it after the many hours of close listening: as it is, I have a much better sense of what's going on, and even allowed myself a little whoop when I figured out how to play and notate one of the fancier bits – quadruplets in his playing of Banish Misfortune—that I had only been able to marvel at before. It's music of infinite depth, and every time I go back, I notice something I had missed before. And this from someone who spent their life in Cree: I've been around much of the world, without half as much creative insight as that old lad.
Now that the project is handed in, I've a few more things to finish up by the end of the semester, in a week's time. We've had our lunchtime performances and handed in the fieldwork project: next week I have to do a classroom presentation on what I've learned from the various master classes, do a short finger-style guitar recital, and perform with my ensemble, a group consisting of a button accordion, flute, harper / sean-nos singer and myself. We've got some decent sets together and our box player is the legendary Paul Brock, so there shouldn't be much trouble there. And then a much-anticipated break: a month before we're back in classes, and during which time I'll be back home in the States, playing a bunch of gigs and seeing friends.
An archetypal Irish winter day—grey and driving rain—but I'm in great spirits. The semester ended in style last week, I had some great singing workshops in Dublin over the weekend, and I fly home tomorrow.
After handing in the research project, I gave a 20 minute oral presentation, a 10 minute guitar performance and played in the ensemble performance. That all went well—enough, anyhow, that they'll let me return next semester. And the weekend in Dublin was fantastic: Phil Callery sang with a group called the Voice Squad, an a capella trio that did harmony arrangements of traditional Irish and English material, something that's very rarely been done. Phil has a choir that meets in a stone church in Hollywood, Wicklow and invited me to sing with them. The sound in the church, lit only by gas lanterns along the walls, was absolutely lovely, and the singers were a good group of people. I love what the Voice Squad was able to create, and it's a treat to be able to do some work with Phil. On Sunday I led a workshop at CREATE, a community arts centre in Dublin, and was able to share songs from Anglo- and African-American folk traditions and from the Sacred Harp. Harmony singing is such a special thing: playing instrumental music with other folks, at least in the Irish tradition, has been described as 'group solo play'—each person or instrument is complete unto themselves, and can play or be heard on their own—but harmony singing makes no sense without the other parts. As my roommate Kate learned, to her dismay, while I was preparing for the workshops, the different harmony parts aren't very interesting on their own, but when the pieces are put together it's a magical thing. Interesting, too, how singing and playing the fiddle occupy very different places in my mind, and how they've very often held different places in our cultures. Singing in parts in church but the fiddle is the 'devil's box'—only for dancing, or for places where alcohol is served. Both are transporting, but in different ways—I find a wilderness in fiddle music and a cleansing power in singing.
I hope to be doing more harmony workshops while I'm here, and now that the first seed is planted a couple of more opportunities are popping up. Next summer I'll be leading a Village Harmony session with teens, and I want to be as well practiced as possible.
And on a plane to Boston tomorrow. I'm looking forward to the trip; to being fairly busy with dances; to seeing friends; and to being in the mountains. I'm playing a lot in the three weeks, starting off with a dance in Kingston, NH on Friday with Ethan Hazzard-Watkins and Anna Patton. That should be groovy, and the next day I'm playing a dance in Jamaica Plain with Ted Davis, a great guitar player. A solo concert on the 26th at the Good Times Café, dances in Tinmouth and Montpelier on the 28th and 29th, a short tour with George Wilson to the VFW dance, Providence and Petersborough, calling with Yankee Ingenuity at the Scout House, a dance in Burlington with Bibelot on Feb. 11th and a house concert in Middlebury on the 13th. The kind of holiday I'll need a break to recover from, but it will be good fun.
"Home" now, after a three week break between semesters, where I went home to Vermont and played a mess of gigs, saw some old friends and drove a lot. The word 'home' came up a lot while I was traveling: I found myself flying west and east across the Atlantic, in both directions feeling like I was headed home, home being somewhere with a long trail of memories and a bundle of people close to my heart. It's nice, ultimately—if sometimes confusing in the moment—to have more than one home.
I got in on a Thursday, was picked up and taken care of by a singing friend, and played my first dance on Friday in Kingston, NH. Another dance in Jamaica Plain the next day, and then a record-breaking blizzard hit Boston, dumping about three feet of snow overnight. That changed my travel plans a bit but it was lovely experience to walk down the middle of Beacon Street and see people out on skis and sleds, smiling and talking to one another. Normal weather leaves everybody in their urban shells, scuttling from one thing to the next, but a mountain of snow brought out everyone's warmth. Up to Vermont then, once the roads cleared, where I was taken in and fed by a host of folks, often showing up just in time for dinner and a warm bed.
The best moment of the break was playing my home dance, in Tinmouth, with George Wilson on fiddle. Playing on Mars with George would be fun and, for my money, he's one of the best dance fiddlers in New England: coupling that with an ocean of warm faces and hugs and the satisfaction of coming back to something that I had started and left, and returned to find stronger than ever made for a fantastic night, the adrenaline pumping so fast that it took ages to actually sleep. Dances in Montpelier, Cambridge, Providence, Peterborough, Concord and Burlington, a trip to Montreal for a Bibelot rehearsal, a recording project at Castleton College, and concert gigs at the Good Times Café and the Marble Valley Correctional Center kept me occupied for the rest of the time. It was a bit on the tiring side, all that constant motion and never being in my own space to truly relax: that's where coming back to Limerick has felt like coming home, because I'm back in my apartment, sleeping in the same bed more than two nights in a row, and having some moments where I've only myself to entertain. By the end of this year, I'll certainly have a good idea of whether I like touring with music. Counting these past three weeks and looking ahead to the Village Harmony and Northern Harmony tours, I'll be spending about 18 weeks of 2005 on the road, which is a bit over a third of the year. It's probably good to try this out while I'm still relatively young and have a quick recovery time: even so, I know that it will be tiring to tour so much. Energizing in almost equal measure though, especially with good crowds—the kind that I had at these dances—and neat to see how other people live.
More and more I realize that playing for dances is what I like the best. It's fun: fun to play with George and Richard and Roger and Ted and Ethan and Pete and so on—the community of dance musicians is a likeable bunch; fun to make good music and see people responding with their bodies; satisfying to be part of something that's so central in people's lives, playing away and knowing that out on the floor people are falling in love and healing from broken relationships and getting their happiness fix for the week and meeting new friends. And I like that people come for the dance more than for the musicians: you wouldn't go to a concert of someone you had never heard of, but you'd go to the VFW dance every Thursday because you know that it will be fun and the music good. That takes away pressure from the ego, the blow when the concert crowd is 10 people or something and you can't get the energy up in the same way: takes the pressure away and leaves room to just play. A great antidote to the seriousness and intensity of being at music school, with tutors looking on critically and myself looking on critically, little able to relax into it.
Now that I'm back, the second semester is out of the starting gates at a good clip. With the first week just over, we've had a day-long master class with East Galway fiddler Liam Lewis, a seminar on the Irish musical influence on 19th c. American minstrelsy with Mick Moloney and Lenwood Sloan, an ensemble rehearsal and time in the studio where we'll be making recordings as part of the work of the semester. It means I'll need to be a bit more disciplined with myself than I was last semester, and work towards a solid final performance and a solid recording. Already I have a bunch of notions about what I might record, and the fun part is to think of all the fantastic musicians that are floating around the hallways at school and whom I should be able to coax into the studio. The performance will bring its share of stress, I'm sure, but fresh off of a bunch of successful gigs I can look forward to putting together some good music. All in all, this is clearly the more important semester, now that we all have our feet wet. It matters twice as much, for one thing, in the official policy: the final performance is weighted equally with the first and second semesters, meaning that two-thirds of our marks will be determined this semester. No pressure there, eh? And if you don't play well at the final performance, there's no degree to be had. Like I said, there will be some stress later, but for now it's been nice to come home, see a lot of friendly faces and get back to work.
Seamus Ennis, a mighty piper and music collector, would tell the story of a piper who, on his rambles home one night, came across a fairy rath. Entranced by the music, he spent the night hiding behind one of the stones that ringed the outside of the rath, peering around to see the little people dance and play. At sunrise, when they returned into the rath to sleep, the piper went to investigate and found a tiny gold ring, left on the ground. The music he had heard danced through his head all that day, but elusively, for when he tried to play the tunes he had heard they slipped away.
The next night, he returned to the rath to listen to the music and heard a fairy piper lamenting the loss of his ring, declaring that he would do anything to get it back. The human piper stepped forward and offered the ring, explaining that he had been hiding the night before and had found it on the ground. He was granted a wish, and the piper said he wanted one of the tunes he had heard the night before, a particular jig that kept slipping away from him. The wish was granted and the tune in question is known as The Gold Ring, popular in sessions still.
Now, I've known a bunch of stories about the fairies and their music but it was only this afternoon, walking along the Shannon and the swans preening, that it struck me they might serve as allegory, if one can accept the fairy world as that of our emotions and hungers, gay abandons and burning sorrows, and the world of mortal men as that of analytical thought and criticism, responsibility and time tables.
Since coming back to Limerick from the break between semesters, we've been heavy into it with master classes each week. The first, with Liam Lewis, was nice and gave me some new tunes to work on. The second, with Kevin Crehan, was fairly devastating: since coming here, I've been swinging between confidence and despair, having moments where it seems like folly to pursue something that I'll never attain, and the class with Kevin was yet another where the chinks in my armor felt all too exposed, with me stumbling through some reels hastily. Kevin gave me some things to work on, and as those suggestions became more and more basic, my heart just sank. Later on in the day, I played something slow for him, the Swedish visa that I favor. He had spoken of how slow pieces are much more difficult to play and since I had made a hash of the reel, I doubt he was expecting much from the air. But I was able to close my eyes and summon something up, and he was visibly impressed; it also led him to remark that given the control I displayed in the air, the problem with the dance tunes wasn't in my hands so much as in my head. And I have managed to get my head tied in knots, mostly driven by desire—wanting to be a great fiddler—and wanting acceptance, particularly from the musicians I admire, like Kevin. When I play other instruments, like the guitar or whistle, or other styles, like Swedish or French-Canadian, I'm not too fussed about what people think of how I play because I don't identify myself as a guitar player or a Quebecois fiddler. Ironically, and because of the lack of attachment, I do that stuff better than the thing I care the most about, playing Irish music on the fiddle. How's that for a trick, the desire itself making attainment all the more difficult, or impossible? And it's hardly a phenomenon limited to music: were this not such a public forum, I might extrapolate to relationships and other bits of life. But we won't travel that path—besides, I'm sure I've never made any mistakes in a relationship. Just ask my exes.
It's not an entirely comfortable place to come to, realizing that I'd be better off with a therapist than a fiddle tutor. It's also not surprising, in the least, that it would happen at a music school, or that it would happen in the context of Irish music. The academic environment is about examination and dissection, picking apart our playing from the inside and trying to build a higher degree of technical competence; it is about criticism and self-criticism in the quest for better playing. In such an atmosphere it's hard for creativity to flourish: seeds, after all, need time in the dark before they can sprout. And the culture of traditional music in Ireland is one of great certainty and protectiveness: there is a right way to do things, and anything that falls outside of the well-defined aesthetic criteria of the tradition is simply not Irish music. Piano accordions and bodhrans fight an uphill battle. Playing with a different swing or emphasis—not trad. Lacking an indefinable something—not trad. More about the reasons for that another day.
An oasis in the desert then, mired in these thoughts, to have a master class with Martin Hayes on short notice this week. Martin is the player that first turned me passionate about Irish music: hitchhiking from Belfast to Dublin about 9 years ago, I was picked up outside of Newry by a fellow who took me home and gave me some lunch. He played the pipes and we tried a few tunes together, but I was at such a basic level, having only been playing for a few months, that we didn't get very far. But he gave me a tape, telling me that the fellow on there played nice and slow and that I might get something from it. I didn't pay it much mind, thinking that nothing of value could be given away so lightly, and made my way back to my aunt's house in Dun Laoghaire, where I was riveted at the kitchen counter, listening to a live recording of a concert with Martin Hayes and Steve Cooney. When I left for Sri Lanka and India a few weeks later, that tape was one of two that I brought, and it sustained me for the seven months I was away. But I hadn't been listening much to Martin's music in recent years, and wasn't all that excited, to be honest, about the master class. I had heard that he mostly rambled on, and didn't think we'd be able to delve much into our playing. And he did ramble, but in an insightful and salient fashion, touching on where our minds need to be when we play and how to have our heart lead in music. Not losing sight of the fact that he has a supreme technical command of the instrument and gave us a number of exercises that would improve our own abilities, he stressed that the most important thing is to play with feeling, and to convey that feeling to the audience, be it the three of us in the room that day, or the packed concert halls that he's used to. Echoing others, he spoke of how the conscious mind needs to step to the side, as in Zen or sport, so that our creativity and emotion can speak through. He also spoke of how you are always imagining a music that is better than what you can play, and always moving forward. I am playing the music I might have imagined five years ago, or ten, but having reached that point allows me to imagine something more beautiful, and so I stretch for that.
It was exactly what my head needed, and put me in mind of an experience I had just before leaving Vermont to come here. An adult student of mine had wanted to take me golfing, to share something that he cared about in exchange for my having shared fiddle music. To be honest, I wasn't all that excited about it: my first job was as a caddy, which left me associating golf with servitude. But I found myself enjoying it, and once I had some idea of the grip and the swing, Jim let me have at some of those little white balls. It was fascinating: when I looked down and thought to myself how I was just going to clobber that thing, hit it out of the park and show everybody how buff and mighty and strong and powerful a guy I really am… well, the ball kind of dribbled off the tee. When I let myself go with the swing and flow through the ball, I was amazed at how far it sailed. So here I've been, having totally forgotten that lesson, trying to clobber the ball whenever I play the fiddle. The desire blocking the attainment.
Tir na Nog, the land of the fairy folk, is a timeless place. In one of the most famous stories, Oisin fell in love with Niamh, a fairy princess, and went off with her to Tir na Nog. They were happy there, basking in the sun and eating well and playing tunes, but time passed and Oisin grew lonely for his friends. Against Niamh's protestations, he returned to Ireland to find them. What Niamh knew that he did not was that a few days in Tir na Nog are centuries in this world: the Fianna were all gone and when Oisin touched the ground, accidentally, he turned to dust. In a timeless place, there is no desire for what might happen in some far off day, only the enjoyment and freedom of the moment. And perhaps this is what all those stories are getting at, the ones about the mighty musicians who got their music from the fairies, some night out against the stones of a rath—when we play, we need to come from that place, one of timelessness and presence, not of desire and yearning.
Home last night from a weekend in Dublin, singing Friday night with the Hollywood Choir in Wicklow and giving a workshop on Sunday in the Liberties at CREATE, an arts organization that hosts a weekly community singing group. I went into the weekend with a worsening cold, one that had moved from my head to my chest, leaving my throat raw and me apprehensive about teaching songs in poor voice. By Sunday night I was lifted up by the power of singing harmony and sharing music, my throat opened and energy reserves filled with other people's voices.
The Hollywood Choir meets at St. Kevin's Church in Hollywood, Wicklow under the leadership of Phil Callery, a lovely singer. Phil formerly sang with The Voice Squad, an a capella group that I've admired for years, and it's quite an honor to be working with him now. As I start to feel more comfortable teaching material groups, I've started taking more risks: this time in Hollywood I introduced a song of my own, Chasm Lake. An hour and half is a short time to work with, and we spent most of the time on the things we started last time: Peter Amidon's lovely arrangement of I Will Guide Thee and Ysaye Barnwell's Amazing Grace.
I had more time with the group on Sunday, and was able to go through a whole pile of songs. In the morning we learned Rise, O Fathers Rise, a hymn from the Ozarks, worked on Chasm Lake, and concluded with Batone Bo, a healing song from the Caucasus Republic of Georgia, something parents would sing to their sick children. I suppose I was in mind of that because of my own personal need of healing, and once we had learned the song and its crunchy harmony, I invited everyone to take a turn in the middle of the circle, where they could best appreciate the song and allow its healing energy to sink in. That was a magical moment, as people moved in and out of their own rhythm, many of them visibly moved in the middle of the circle. In the afternoon session I took a new risk, introducing a song and not teaching the harmony lines. Turkle Dove is one of my all-time favorites, and comes from the singing of Bessie Jones with the Georgia Sea Island Singers. The song came up in a recording session with Alan Lomax, the famous music collector, and he captured the chat before the song, where Bessie told him that the others wouldn't know this one, but they were welcome to join in. And join they did, with fantastic and intuitive lines. Thinking about that song before doing the workshop, I was struck by our need now to get things 'right,' to sing the harmony the way it's written down and to be authentic. When any transcription is just capturing one moment in time of an improvisatory and oral tradition, one where they wouldn't have sang the same harmony line each time. So I introduced the song to the group and invited them to make up their own harmony as we went along: the result was fantastic, and very fun. Definitely some harmonies I wouldn't have thought of, and everyone enjoyed the freedom.
I can't say that I am fully recovered today from the cold because of the songs, but I feel significantly better for the singing.
The other thing I'm having a blast with this past week is my new button accordion. Each semester here we get to choose an elective, and for a laugh I thought I'd start on the box from scratch. Danny had a Hohner Black Dot at home for me to borrow, a little red fellow with orange bellows and mellow-ish sound. I got it off of him a few weeks ago, with my first lesson consisting of five minutes in the parking lot, Danny showing me a C scale and telling me to work out The Geese in the Bog, a handy enough jig. The trick of the button accordion is that each button gives you two notes – one on the press and one on the draw—so it takes some getting used to. There are two rows of buttons: the inside row is in the key of C and outside row the key of B. Together that gives you a fully chromatic scale, though some keys are certainly handier than others. I pecked around on my own for a week and half, managing to rattle out of couple of jigs and a French-Canadian Valse Clog, before getting to sit down properly with Danny. Now that we've done that, and I've got some idea how to shift my fingers around and position myself, I'm having a blast. My first tunes are a set of Sliabh Luachra slides, the aforementioned jigs, and I worked out an air last night. Just picking the thing up makes me smile, in part because I have such license to be bad at it, and can enjoy all of the honking and bleating that comes from missing the notes. And there's a great satisfaction when something goes right, even at a slow tempo, and the novelty of a new toy. And the daffodils are blooming.
the hole in the hedge
Some quirky things about Irish culture, and about the musical community.
Drink holds an incredible sway over the collective identity: I suppose I'm thinking about this because Paddy's Day is just passed and amounted, for the most part, to a massive piss-up. Everybody had Thursday off, and most had Friday off as well, so the party started on Wednesday night and, for a lot of folks, didn't end until Saturday. If one were able to calculate the sheer volume of Guinness consumed in the nation over the holiday, I think it would be a frightening, and staggeringly high figure. Now, I'm no tee-totaller: I enjoy good ale; and Guinness; and red wine; and whiskey; and gin and tonics in the summer. One of my fondest memories of the farming life, as I've told everyone who knows me, was coming home from the market on Saturday afternoon, after working far too much all week, having a gin and tonic and then falling asleep for good, long nap. But the level of drinking that goes on here is worrisome, as is the general attitude of permissiveness. Approval, even, though everyone can rattle off the names of people whose lives have been derailed by the drink.
My grandfather, William Bonaventure, was a drunk, and when the family gathers to tell stories about William, it is with fond affection. Laughing about the times he would be coming home from the Thatch, leaning against the hedges for support and falling into the hole of an untrimmed hedge and getting stuck. If William wasn't home by a certain time, Val would dispatch Tony to pull William out of the hedge. Tony would protest that he would still be down at the pub, but invariably Val was right and when Tony arrived at the prostrate old man, William would look up and say, "Ah, you're a grand son-in-law." Or about the time he went out to stay with Siobhan and Ger in Bray and went out drinking. He got back late that night and was rattling around in the kitchen to make himself some tea. When two people appeared, in their robes, that he had never seen before, William yelled at them to get the f*** out of his daughter's house. Which was two doors down.
Now, in the States, such stories would be told, if at all, with a great sense of shame. I wouldn't say that my granddad was a drunk; I would say that he was an alcoholic, a word with a much stronger sense of approbation. I would be worried that you might know about studies showing a genetic predisposition to alcoholism, worried that you might think I had my own troubles, you know, with drinking, and so I would keep it to myself. But here the story about the hedge is worth a good laugh, and we say that he had a heart of gold and was a lovely fellow. Indeed, if someone didn't drink at all, you might think them a bit dour, not 'good crack' at all.
In a pub setting, which is where most everything happens, there's added pressure to drink because of going in on rounds with people. Ireland has a strong tradition of generosity, and one of the first ways it gets shown is by offering to buy someone a drink. If you arrive in at a pub, say, with three friends, one of them will offer to buy a drink and you're off and away. Coupled with the tradition on generosity is one of reciprocity: each person in that group of four will want to buy a round, and you'd be impolite to refuse a drink, so automatically your drinking is multiplied by four, and you can't get away with less than the four pints. Which equals half a gallon, by the way. I've tried to evolve some coping strategies: I don't buy the first round so that I can buy a later round and get everybody a drink except myself, going for a water or blackcurrant instead. That cuts at least one drink out of the night, but isn't a full solution.
Money is another funny thing: there's a great effort on the part of the trad community to pretend that it just doesn't exist and isn't a part of the session. But at any pub session there are two or three people getting paid by the pub, usually €50 per person, and those are the people making sure there's some lively music, enough to bring in the crowds that buy the drinks at the bar. And of those three, one person "owns" the session, and invites the others. So, at the end of the night, the owner of the session will go up to the bar, often bringing back a house round for the players, and will get paid by the publican. They'll pass money to the other players, usually as discreetly as possible, the bills crumpled up, hands below table level—a secret, clandestine exchange. As if preserving the myth that it's all for the love of the music and that money plays no role in being there. And it is for the love of the music: someone who is getting paid at night will be at a session just for the crack the next, but it's okay to make a bit of dosh off of your passion as well. I've a big soapbox about how musicians deserve to make a fair wage—I won't go into that now, but I do think the crumpled up bills passed beneath the table are pretty funny.
Your fearless reporter, making sure that you don't think it's all leprechauns and thatched cottages.
Quoting yourself is a dubious practice, at best, but I'm going to indulge. After Paddy's Day, I went off exploring, hiring a car and driving around Cork, stopping for a great hike on the road to Glenville, finding sessions in Buttevant and Cork City. When I got home, I found an e-mail waiting from someone who had found my website and wanted advice on how to go about becoming a Irish fiddler. It's ironic, because I feel I'm in no position to be giving advice, especially now that whatever notions I had about playing have been cast to wind by all the tutors that have come to the University. But a lot of his concerns resonated with questions and desires that I've had, so I gave it a go. Now, I certainly won't be starting an advice column for musicians, but I thought the question and answer might shed some light, on my thought processes at least, if on nothing else.
I found your site on the web! I've been playing Irish fiddle for almost two years, after having played guitar for 18 years. When I decided to learn Irish fiddle, something I'd obsessed over for years, I sold my guitar and haven't picked it up since.
I was hoping you could offer some advice. I am 34 y/o now. Is it conceivable to gain a level of mastery with such a late start? I know the question is sort of airy and speculative. I am wondering if you've ever witnessed a late bloomer become a fine fiddler.
Other folks have given me encouragement; I saw Kevin Burke play last night in Rhode Island and he mentioned someone who started playing at 78 years old. Those sort of anecdotes are great, but I don't want to be a fiddle hobbyist, I want to be great.
Lastly, and sorry for the long winded message…since I started playing, I practice an hour per day…NO EXCEPTIONS…and to the detriment of most everything else. I am hoping to make up for lost time…as well a gain a good playing foundation before my wife and I have kids, and I can't practice as obsessively. Part of me feels like I'm in a race against time, having started playing so late.
Would love to hear your thoughts, suggestions and/or experience! Thanks for listening!
I'll start off with some necessary prevarication: without knowing you, I can't speak to your inherent musicality, your body awareness and mechanical aptitude, your knack, or lack, for language, your ability to listen, your social fluidity and comfort. All of those factors, I believe, are a part of your quest. I'll imagine, because I have no reason not to, that all the answers are 'yea,' that all winds are blowing in your favor.
You want to be great. The odds, to be honest, are probably slim, as they are for my hopes to start learning French at 31 and to speak without an accent. To be fair, though, we need to know what our definitions of greatness are: I reserve that term for a very select number of musicians, those who combine technical mastery of the instrument with vision, taste, and emotion in a way that moves me. There are a number of great musicians; there are many more very good musicians. Of the finest musicians I've had the chance to spend time with, none of them have been concerned with greatness. They haven't spent a lifetime practicing in order to be great, but because they love the music and want to give voice to something within themselves.
Learning a style of music is very much learning a language, and adult learners do face significant challenges, not least of which will be the envy of those who were fortunate to grow up within the tradition, surrounded by lovely music from the cradle. There are a lot of examples of people who have come to the music from outside of the tradition and are fantastic players: Patrick Ourceau and Randal Bays spring to mind, and there are a good many others.
I wanted to put the discouraging bits first, I suppose, because I think that encouragement without realism can lead to disappointment. I absolutely think that you can gain a technical command over the instrument. I absolutely think that you can become a fine fiddler, with good diction and a grasp of the repertoire. But I worry about the thirst for greatness, because I think it eludes most of us mortals. If you spend too much time worrying about it, it will do your head in. And I worry that I'm being far too pompous and over-blown in my answer, but it's the end of Paddy's Day weekend, I haven't slept nearly enough, and I've wrestled with a lot of these questions myself.
I started at 20, and have been pretty obsessive myself, swinging between periods of playing an hour a day to bouts of three and four hours a day. I love the music; I love playing the music; I want to be a great fiddler, absolutely. I came to Ireland in September to spend a year studying and to see how good I could get: in many ways, it's been a discouraging process, and I don't honestly think I will ever play with the sheer naturality of someone who started when they were six, who holds the fiddle like it's an extension of their body. And when people look back and talk about the significant fiddlers of the early 21st century, mine certainly won't be one of the names that falls off of their tongues. Which leaves me with the question of why I still play–I can't fully answer it in words, but I also can't keep my hands off the fiddle and don't know what I'd do if I wasn't playing.
When I was 18, I was completely taken with the idea of becoming an organic vegetable farmer. I eventually did just that, running a moderately successful 3 acre diversified market garden, but when I was still figuring out if I was going to be able to make it happen, I asked someone I respected, a farmer in Wisconsin, if I should go for it. He had been asked that question before, and he liked to answer with a question of your own: Is there anything else you can imagine doing? He figured if you could imagine doing something else, then you shouldn't go into farming. If you couldn't envision another path, then you didn't have any other choice, really. I think that same question applies to playing music: we do it because our hands keep leading us to the fiddle, like some magnetic pull.
There now, that's clearly enough deep philosophizing. What do you do on your quest to become a fine player?
Get a teacher, if you don't have one already. I don't know the teaching reputations of the Boston players, but I know there are a lot of excellent players. Eric Merrill is a fantastic player; Laurel Martin, I believe, has done a lot of teaching; Mark Simos is quite good. But great playing and great teaching don't always appear in the same person, so you may need to shop around a bit. Ask around at music shops and sessions.
Sessions are a great environment for hearing music and for playing along yourself. Be wary, though, of running before you can walk. I know there's a lot of activity at the Burren, in Davis Square, and at a number of other places around town. Listening at first is probably best, especially if you're still getting the hang of it and the level of playing at the session is high. A few years back I did an interview with John Carty (how's that for name-dropping?) and was struck by his descriptions of 'sessions' in London in the 60s. Nothing like what we think of now, at the time a session meant that you'd trundle off to the pub in order to listen, that's right—listen and not play, to the likes of Bobby Casey, John Bowe and Raymond Roland. Mary Bergin concurred, saying that a long period of careful listening is better than trying to play along before you're ready. Ask around at the session for recommendations of teachers, where other sessions are, if there are any 'slow' sessions. There is a Comhaltas Ceoltoiri na hEireann (CCE) branch in Boston – they would have recommendations for teachers.
Listen, listen, listen – as important, or more so, than the time you spend playing is the time you spend listening. Listen both as a passive exercise, letting the music wash over you while you cook dinner and clean the bathroom, and as an active exercise, training your ear to the nuance of the music. Solo and duet albums will probably be more helpful than bigger bands where the fiddle might be buried. But it's not a fiddle tradition, after all: it's a dance music tradition, so listen to the tunes played by accordions, concertinas, flutes, pipes, whistles, etc.
Grant yourself patience. It won't happen quickly, and will probably happen more easily the less you are concerned with progress. Detachment is everything. And always remember – it's not about you, it's about the music. This is music that has been around for a long time before us, and will be here for a long time after. The best we can hope for is that we find ourselves a comfortable niche in the stream, one that feeds us and makes for a richer life.
all best, and good luck
It's been a healthy amount of time since I last wrote something here, and in that interim, everyone's focus—including mine—has turned to the end of the course and the work that needs to be done to get there. This is the time of heavy lifting. In the next two weeks I need to finish a CD that I've been working on in the university studio, prepare a 20 minute performance on the fiddle and a 15 minute performance on the accordion, wrap up a few small pieces of writing, and put together a 45 minute final performance. That final performance is where the serious money is riding, being worth a third of the mark for the full year. But the other stuff bears consideration as well, and I've been putting in a good piece of time in at the studio.
Recording is an uncomfortable process at best: you have to listen closely to your own playing and your attention is drawn, inevitably, to the weaknesses, both glaring and subtle. It's compounded in this instance by the premium placed on time in the studio—we all have to produce something, to the same deadline, and most of us are trying to do it out of the same facility—and the fact that we have to serve as both engineer and performer, setting up the equipment and running the computer program (pro-tools) and then sitting down beneath the microphone to play the piece. For myself, those are separate parts of my brain, and in the 20 seconds between record-enabling the track on Pro-tools, pushing the button, walking to the other room and closing the door, I find it difficult to leave the engineer behind and find the musician. At first, I had thought this would be a great opportunity to create an album that would reflect the time I've spent here, one that I could release when I got back to the states. And I'll admit to idle daydreams of smashing success—most musicians would fantasize about such. But as the process has come along, I've stopped seeing that as the goal, and am using the recording as an educational tool, an opportunity to put my playing under a microscope. Not something to make a lad feel great, but it is a good chance to identify some areas to change, and I think there will be some long-term benefits.
Indeed, the general word is that the real benefit of the course doesn't manifest itself until 6 months to a year after the course is over, when all the work has had a chance to settle into our bones. I see some changes now—mostly a greater clarity in expressing the tune—but I fall back into old habits, particularly when I get tired. There is a sweet spot in the middle—when I've been playing long enough that the conscious mind has relinquished some control but when the body is not yet tired. There has been some phenomenal access to tutors: this second semester I've had the chance to work individually with Siobhan Peoples, who is an incredible teacher, and we've had some very good days in the master classes: Martin Hayes was particularly inspiring, and Kevin Crehan gave me a lot of food for thought. I was recently asked, via e-mail, if the course has been worth the time and money. For me the answer is clearly so: it hasn't always been an easy process, this self-examination, but it's certainly changed the way I understand traditional music and myself as a musician.
The irony is that it was just as I was feeling fully comfortable in my life here that my gaze turned to the end: I've a routine down now, know where to get groceries and where to find the farmer's market, have friends to doss about with and favorite sessions to go to, a general routine established in the home life and at school. I'm looking forward to the things I have planned when the course ends; a trip to Sweden, back home to lead a Village Harmony session, some gigs and knocking about Vermont for the remainder of the summer, and then the Northern Harmony tour of Europe in the fall. After that, there are some big and unanswered questions, but at least I'm sorted until the end of the year. But for now, most of my energy is put towards finishing off the work of this course, and hopefully walking away with a piece of paper at the end of it. There are a load of specific adventures to relate: hopefully I'll get around to jotting those down soon. Easter weekend on Inisbofin was magical, and we're just back from a small tour with the MA class, playing in Castlebar and Sligo, and tonight in Limerick to the hometown crowd. And some more adventures to come.
Outside of all the work to be done for the course, there have been some adventures, three of them set down here.
'Bofin: Good Friday this year saw me in a car headed north with Kevin, Alan and Roisin, three friends from the University. North to Inishbofin, an island off the tip of Connemara, the ferry sailing from Cleggan. Bofin is a small enough place: three miles long and a few hundred who live there, but Kevin grew up on the island so we had the insider's scoop. The car ride up was jolly, with a sense of escape adding to the fun, and a sunny day across the hills of Connemara. Living in Limerick, I forget that Ireland is a beautiful place, and these periodic reminders are precious. To Cleggan with Kevin dying for a nice pint before getting on the ferry, only to realize that the pubs are closed on Good Friday, so just a bit of kicking stones on the pier and waiting for the boat to leave. And then off the boat and the stuff dropped at the hostel and to Murray's pub for some tunes and a few drinks. Up to this point I hadn't taken much notice of my surroundings, but when I stepped out of the pub—round about three in the morning, to a world awash in moonlight, the moon full and the dark rock rising out of the sea and nighttime shadows across the road, light enough yet to walk home and wispy clouds drifting across the sky—I felt enveloped in magic. It is said that Inishbofin, which in Irish means the Island of the White Cow, was an enchanted island, shrouded in mists. Though it's natural harbor is one of the most protected in Ireland, it wasn't until two men in a small craft, a curragh likely, came around to the back side of the island and its rocky beach that the island was 'discovered'. On shore they saw, through the mist, an old woman following a white cow, but when she turned to see them she touched the cow with her stick and both turned to stone. I harbored that sense of magic through the weekend, Saturday spent walking about, down to the beach and across the boggy uplands to the sea caves, back to the pub at night and playing with Inishbofin Ceili Band, and music throughout the day on Sunday, after another bit of a walk. Back then, the next day, to Limerick and school and the real world, where that sense of magic fades quickly enough. Ah, but the lingering memory…
the tour: Just past this weekend was the grand tour of the MA course of the Irish World Music Centre of the University of Limerick. Now there's a mouthful, and it take as long to do as it did to plan and say it all, but most of us on the course went up North and played in Castlebar, Co. Mayo and then in Sligo town, returning home to do a concert in Limerick on Sunday night. I'll freely admit to having given out about the tour beforehand, along with the majority of my classmates, thinking that it came at an awful time with all the work we have to do at the moment (which, in fairness, it did) and just generally not feeling all that excited about it. But it was a lovely time: we started off with a set of jigs altogether, and then the set list consisted of each person putting together one number. My moment of glory was playing a set of jigs on the guitar with Síle Denvir, a lovely harpist, and Jim Higgins on bodhran accompanying me, but also sat in on a number of other sets, especially the night in Sligo when the other guitarist was away. We had a full house in Castlebar, Ultan's hometown, and 9 in Sligo. Harder to boost yourself for a small crowd, but we played well nonetheless, and there really was some lovely music as part of the evening. There are some absolutely incredible players on the course—multiple All-Ireland winners—and that does make for a good night of tunes, one that was fun to be a part of. And grand, yet again, to get out of Limerick and see the rest of the country. I have been coming to Ireland since I was a child, but there are still loads of bits I haven't seen yet. I've been thinking I'd like to get down to Kerry this spring, where I haven't been since I was a child and my father thought it essential that we do a tour of everything associated with my namesake, St. Brendan, patron saint of sailors, who sailed from Kerry to Newfoundland in the 6th century. Which fact earned me a certain amount of derision when I proudly proclaimed to the second grade class at Kenwood Elementary, Minnesota, when they kept going on about this Columbus fellow.
Bottled: Not all adventures, it would seem, are happy ones. Walking home last night from working in the recording studio with Patrick, I stopped to chat to Roisin as she was walking the other way along the dark little road that's a shortcut from where I live to the University. As we talked, a fellow came up from behind and smashed a bottle over my head. The rest of the night is fairly surreal: he didn't try to steal my stuff –neither the guitar on my back nor the fiddle in my hand—and he didn't run away. There were two others with him, all quite drunk, a tall fellow who assured us that he was a trained medic and an obnoxious woman—girlfriend?—who was determined to help. In the midst of that, the first fellow hit me a second time, this time on the front of the head for good measure, and still didn't run away. The mate and the girlfriend were determined to get the blood stopped, which was copious, and the gobshite wasn't leaving, protesting by this time that it was all an accident and not his fault at all. Have I mentioned yet that they were drunk, and chronically stupid? I asked, repeatedly, for everyone to just go away and leave me alone, but the girl refused to leave until an ambulance came because she didn't want to leave the sweatshirt that was being used to soak up the blood coming out of my head. They had, by the way, gone through the motions of calling for an ambulance on a mobile phone, but no ambulance ever came, so I don't know who they actually called. Roisin was a great help in keeping the situation calm, and I managed not to lose my cool either, and finally persuaded this dynamic trio to make their way on home.
At which point Roisin and I headed towards a Maxol station, and people, and rang the police and an ambulance. The gardaí came around directly and picked up two of them—the fellow who hit me and the girl, who had just continued walking wherever they were walking—with an ambulance shortly behind. The wounds are moderately superficial, enough so that I didn't need stitches, but my head is some sore today, with quite a goose egg rising on the back. The funny thing is that it wasn't until I was home, wasn't until I was alone and quiet and trying to go to sleep, that I started struggling. After I refused to go to the hospital, preferring to just come home and feel settled, Roisin had come back with me to make sure they I was alright, not passing out or vomiting or any of the other signs the ambulance crew told me to watch out for. In the confusion of it all, she had put down her rucksack, with her flute and other valuables, and when we went back to look for it, it was nowhere to be found. So Roisin was feeling fairly upset at this point as well. So it wasn't until I was home, until I had had a cup of tea with Roisin and washed the dishes, wasn't until I laid down to get some sleep, that my heart started to race at the thought of someone coming up behind you, unexpected, with a bottle.
It's a hard thing to grasp, this world of ours, one that holds both 'Bofin and bottles. I don't know what to make of it.
I can pick out the moment when, post-bottle, I started feeling optimistic again about life, music and the next presidential election. Walking home from the university on a Thursday afternoon, the sun shining, I was thinking about my upcoming lunchtime performance and realizing that I needed a better set of tunes to kick it off. I had planned to do some slides, but somebody had just played Rathawaun, the tune I was going to play, so I thought I'd be better off with some jigs, and that I'd play Farewell to Gurteen, a lovely tune I had gotten off of Paddy Ryan, and that that would flow nicely into The Rollicking Boys of Tandragee. But I needed something to finish it off, and as I passed the spot where that young gurrier came at me with the bottle, I decided I'd write a tune to complete the set, and that I'd write it in A—a bright key, and that I'd call it Never Mind the Bottle.
And, by God, I went home and made myself a decent supper and wrote a tune (which you can see, shortly, on the tunes page) and played for hours that night, barreling through tunes I hadn't played for ages. That was a turning point, and I've been having more fun since. Part of what had thrown me off track about being attacked was that it made me look at what I was doing—as traumatic events do—and nothing that I saw seemed all that important: me, being here and learning some new fiddle tunes—what matter is that? But for something that wasn't all that important, I had managed to get myself tied up in knots about not playing at a sufficient level of mastery, blah blah blah.
At the turning point, when I started having fun playing again, I looked around and saw that what I was doing wasn't all that terribly important. But this time, the fact that it's not important meant that I was released from some of the pressure I had been putting on myself, since there aren't, after all, any lives hanging in the balance if you miss some rolls in Lucy Campbell. There followed a fairly intense week in which I: gave a 20 minute fiddle performance, gave a 15 minute accordion performance, a 25 minute ensemble performance, mixed and mastered the CD that I had been working on, and gave a classroom presentation. And then a big gasp at the end of it when we all realized that the work of the course was done, minus the final performances coming up next week. A few days to recover, a few pieces of written work to finish off, and then I was off for a week, first to Dublin, where I gave three singing workshops, and then to Donegal with my brother, where my dad had taken us when we were young.
And now I've six days to the final performance, 45 minutes of music that count for a third of the entire course, and then I'm off for a week to Sweden, where I'll go to a fiddle festival and hope to learn a second hambo. And then home, flying into Boston on the 23rd of June and playing the dance in Tinmouth on the 24th. It's quite amazing how quickly this experience, not quite a year, has sped by. Time moves ever too quickly, but I had thought that this time in Ireland would be monumental, with space for a thousand more adventures than there've been. But instead it feels, at the moment, like a quick blink, like I shut my eyes in September and I'm waking up after a short nap, having picked up a few new tunes. Coming to an ending time, especially as a writer, there's an urge to wrap everything up with some sweeping, insightful conclusions. But most of the lessons and changes I take from this year are specific: a change in the way I hold the bow, and less of a rush in my ornamentation; less false confidence in my fiddle playing, but much confidence gained in leading harmony workshops, and a great anticipation for working with Village Harmony this summer; a new accordion, and a pile of music from Danny O'Mahony, the fellow who was teaching me to play; a more careful ear.
If anything, I feel like this education has put me in a place of beginning, stripped away the bad habits I had let slide in my playing and started down the road of learning to play traditional music on the fiddle, this time with a more solid foundation. When I first started, ten years ago, I didn't have a very clear path in mind: I'd hear some old-time music and try that, and some irish and try that, and some cajun and try that. And my ear wasn't very careful, nor my approach patient, so I just ended up circling around the outside of something good, and not making much headway towards the inside. In a new beginning, perhaps I can be more patient this time, and more careful. If doing this course is to have a pay off, I hope it is that: that I pay close attention to the details, and let the music ripen in its own time.
Of course, intentions are always good. I've meant to update this journal many more times than I have, and even now I'm thinking of all the things I'd like to say before I head off to Sweden. Ah, time is the devil of it all…
Back in the fall, when we first started having a parade of phenomenal fiddlers come in to do the master classes (a parade that eventually included James Byrne, Matt Cranitch, Martin Hayes, Kevin Burke, Tommy Peoples, Liam Lewis, Kevin Crehan, Oisin Mac Diarmada, Paddy Ryan, Nollaig Casey, Liz Doherty, Manus Maguire, Siobhan Peoples, John Carty and Caoimhin O Raghallaigh) I felt a bit befuddled by the fact that they had different, and often contradictory, ways of going after the basic foundations of the fiddle. Bow holds were different, ideas varied on ornamentation, tempo, settings, intonation: for the student, it presents a dilemma, no? I tried out the various ideas in turn, noticing that they changed the way the instrument sounded, changed the music that issued forth, and figured that it was these things—the different approaches to the basic mechanics—that account for the distinctive and easily recognizable personal styles that characterize the great players in the tradition. But I'm just after realizing that I had the cart before the horse: it's not that these folks happened on a personal style through an accident of mechanics, it's that they had a goal, a sound in their head that they were chasing, and they developed their technical foundation to support the aesthetic. Maybe that 's such an obvious statement—a great musician shapes their technique to fit the sound they're looking for—that no one reading this will be much impressed, but when I clicked in my head I felt like my eyes had just been opened.
Kevin Burke, for example, has a feather-light bow grip, so light that when the bow changes angle to touch another string his hand doesn't shift with it—that is, the bow moves within his grip, and his only focus is moving the bow up and down, not bearing pressure into the string. He figures that the bow is designed supremely well—a uniform length and shape, weight falling within a range of 5 grams—to do a specific job, which is to stay on the string, and that any pressure beyond the minimum would only interfere. But then Kevin is looking for a super-smooth legato style of playing, and his light bow hold makes for smooth fiddling. A tense grip creates a tendency for the bow to jump briefly when crossing strings or before a triplet, creating small gaps in the music, making a more staccato sound. Siobhan Peoples, by contrast, wants to be a fiercely strong player, and her bow hold is one of strength, giving her a lot of control and power in expressing the rhythm of the tune, her main concern. Siobhan's music is driving and fierce, and she bears down on the bow: Kevin's music swings jauntily, his bow hold light.
We can make no better music than what we hear in our head: Martin Hayes described it as if we are chasing after something always ahead of us, an ideal vision of tune that we try to recreate. For me it is like when I swim in Spring Lake of the summer—once I've crossed to the other side and am swimming back to shore, there is a pair of loons that often plays a bit of a game with me, coming over to inspect this odd creature and letting me swim towards them, but only so close until they dive under and swim away. But not too far, popping up and letting me follow them again, pulling away once I get too close, repeating the cycle all the way to the far shore. When he was reminiscing about the older musicians who inspired him—Junior Crehan, Martin Rochford, Bill Malley, John Naughton—Martin said that it was almost more interesting to hear them lilt a tune than play it on their instrument, because the lilting was a much more direct picture of what they heard in their head, unencumbered by the physical limitations of the instrument. A picture of the music they wished to create, held out before them like those loons. For me, once of the best parts about becoming a technically more competent musician, is that the music in my head gets better as I learn to listen better. It's still out ahead of what I can do on the fiddle, but what I can do on the fiddle now is probably ahead of what I could hear in my head ten years ago.
I don't know how one could develop an aesthetic without a process of experimentation—listening to different styles and trying out different approaches to the fiddle—but I do think that developing an aesthetic and having an intentional direction is a crucial step in music-making. There are probably sweeping parallels that could be made here to other parts of life, but I'll let you connect the dots in your own way.
As I've said to anyone who will listen, and probably to some who are tired of the revelation, learning to play the button accordion has been one of the most enjoyable parts of the year, and just two days ago I got myself my very own box—a Saltarelle Bouëbë, B/C box for a decent price at Custy's, in Ennis. I had been borrowing an old black dot from my friend Danny O'Mahony, but wanted to have something to bring home. The Saltarelle is pretty as all get out—natural wood, and the smell of new leather and rich red bellows, and has a great sound—and I'm having a blast playing it. It's that sense of discovery, starting out from ground zero and finding out something new about the instrument almost every time I pick it up. Last night was my last session gig at the Horse and Hound with Danny, a fantastic box player and a good buddy who's been one of my biggest musical influences this year, and there was a bit of a farewell drinking session afterwards, so the head was a bit fuzzy today. And it was grey and the rain falling so I just sat around and noodled on the accordion, my fingers finding new tunes, a waltz that I wrote a few years back (the Lillinonah) just seeming to fall out of the box, but in a different key. God, it's a total blast to be discovering brand new things, and on a new toy.
Over. Done. Finished. Sorted.
It's about ten days now since I gave my final performance, the forty-five minutes on which the whole year rested. I'll admit to having been somewhat nervous—that performance counted as much as a semester in the academic scheme of things, and we had been told that if we didn't play well in the final we wouldn't receive the degree at all—but the weekend before the performance I was able to convince myself that there was no way I would be playing much differently in three days time. Given that epiphany, there wasn't much to constructively worry about: the only thing that I had control over was making sure I had a good program and that I had rehearsed with my backer. Alan Jordan, a friend who's doing the BA course, played guitar for my concert, and we were able to have a number of productive practices. Alan was responsive to my suggestions of what I was looking to create in each set, had some lovely stuff going on with the guitar, and was easy to work with. I was happy with the tunes, and when the time came for the performance there were a number of moments that I was quite happy with. There were others that were less than perfect, particularly some missed triplets on a solo guitar piece, but nothing that upset the apple cart too much. I tried, in the performance, to give a sense of what I had learned over the year; that included my exposure to the Donegal tradition, a new approach to bowing and ornamentation, and starting in on finger-style guitar. I also tried to play some old favorites: Tunes that I've been playing for years but now, hopefully, have some new level of insight. 45 minutes isn't all that long when it comes to demonstrating that kind of stuff—there's a lot that I learned that I wasn't able to fit in, but there'll be concerts to come in the future.
After the performance my main feeling was one of relief, the next of exhaustion: in the way that when I was farming I would be tired in the autumn, not because the work of an October day was so very tiring—indeed, those were handier days than the ones in July—but because the season had come to an end and I was able to let down my guard and feel the tiredness, and satisfaction, of the accumulated work. Having passed through an academic year of more practicing than I had ever done, an intense scrutiny of my playing ability and my approach to music, recurring crises of confidence—coming to the end and giving a good performance was cause for satisfaction, and for tiredness. But when I went back to the flat that afternoon and laid down for a nap, my mind started racing, going over the tunes, thinking of what comes next, and it was a day or two before I slept well.
Two days after the performance I headed off to Sweden, treating myself to a holiday and exploring a place, and a musical tradition, that I've long been curious about. Through a variety of connections, I had some people to meet up with, and my first stop was the Ransäter spelmannstämma (music festival), where I kipped in with Bert Deiverts and his family: I met Bert through Karen Tweed, the piano accordion player, and he was a gem about taking me in for the weekend, loaning me a tent and a sleeping bag, and having a breakfast ready of moose sausage and caviar after a late night dancing. Also along for the ride was Tom Paley, one of the original New Lost City Ramblers. The stämma was a cool affair – lots of dancing, lots of young folks, some fantastic fiddling. Instead of night, there was wtilight that lasted a couple of hours, with daylight starting up again around three: I learned how to dance the polska, and learned some cool new tunes. The last night in Ransäter I played irish music with a crowd there, and followed some of those folks to Uppsala, nyckelharpa capital of the world. A nice night in Uppsala, followed by a relaxing night in Leksand, on Lake Siljan in Dalarna, and then I went to Bollnäs, where I stayed two nights with Ross Campbell, a fellow Deep Springer. Deep Springs College (www.deepsprings.edu) is my alma mater, a unique and powerful (uniquely powerful? powerfully unique?) educational experiment in the desert of California. With 26 students, it's the smallest college in the U.S. and that means that there only some 800 alumni in the history of the college. So even though I had never met Ross before, we shared this bond, and it was special for me to hang out with another Deep Springer, reminding of the time I spent in that valley and the ideals that were formed there. And Ross and his daughter Linnea play the fiddle, so I learned some more cool tunes, went for a bike ride and a really cold swim, and ate some good food.
More and more I find myself a quixotic traveler. I don't buy guide books, and I'm not really interested in the usual kind of tourist affairs. I like to stop people and ask for directions, and I don't make much of a plan. That last bit was a small problem in Sweden, where everybody books ahead and they looked at me with unmasked surprise when I showed up at a hostel at 9:00 p.m. looking for a place to sleep for the night—but what I'm interested in is meeting people and playing music, usually in small towns and rolling hills. I don't need to go on fancy boat tours to be happy, or see lots of impressive buildings (thought the church in Uppsala is stunning, and the old part of Stockholm is a really neat city): it was the moments talking over food and swapping tunes that made for a good week.
And now I'm back in Ireland, on my way to Dublin to see my brother and cousins, and heading back to the states on the 23rd of June. It is amazing to me that the year has passed so quickly, that I've finished my master's degree, that it's time to move on to the next. Working with Village Harmony this summer is something I've been looking forward to for a long time, and I'm going to relish bear hugs with old friends.