Matt Cranitch: Knee Deep in the Rushy Mountain
Matt Cranitch is something of a renaissance man in the realm of Irish traditional music: player, scholar, exponent, teacher, writer. With a long history of tunes under his belt, having played with Na Fili, Any Old Time, and currently Sliabh Notes, Matt is also the author of The Irish Fiddle Book, one of the most useful and comprehensive instructional texts available to beginning students of the music. It was that book that got me on the right path with my bowing after some initial misadventures, and that I recommend to all of my serious students now. It’s a rare combination—someone who’s able to both play the music with great skill and swing, and someone who’s able to analyze as a scholar.
Now a Senior Research Fellow with support from the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences, Matt is at work on a dissertation looking at the music of his beloved Sliabh Luachra in greater detail. We met at his home in County Cork on a lovely afternoon this past winter.
I grew up in the little village of Rathduff in County Cork, midway between Cork City and Mallow. Both my parents were teachers and taught in the local primary school or national school, so they taught me at some stage. My father Micheál played the accordion and the fiddle and sang a bit as well. My mother Kathleen sang. And my grandfather on my father’s side, whose name was also Matt, was a melodeon player and a stepdancer. Now I never remember him playing, as he died when I was too young, but certainly I was aware that that was the case. When I was maybe 7 my parents got me a fiddle and the plan was that my father would teach me. But the lessons tended to take the form of he’d play the fiddle and have me sit down and listen to him; so they decided to send me to the Cork School of Music instead. I went there when I was 8 to learn what’s called classical violin, and I continued with that and playing traditional music at home, both those activities in parallel. By my mid-teens I opted for the traditional playing and gave up the classical lessons. So that would have been my early development.
In your mid-teens, were there other young people opting for traditional music?
I should tell you my parents decided when they got married and they were going to raise a family that they were going to speak Gaelic, so I grew up speaking Gaelic as my first language. We were the only house for miles that spoke Gaelic and English was my second language – though when I went to school I suppose it became the dominant language. At that stage it’s fair to say that there weren’t many people around us that played music. I can think of one family in the parish who did play music—a slightly different style of music I suppose, but outside of that we would have to travel into Cork city to encounter anybody else. We were kind of isolated in that we lived in a farm community in the countryside, so I didn’t have other youth of my own age around me, playing.
So what was it—usually when you’re a young fellow you want to be off playing hurling with the other lads. What was it that made you opt for the traditional tunes?
Well, I played hurling, too, with my friends. Even now I would find it difficult to explain what the attraction is, but certainly at that stage we were drawn very much to the music. There’s also the fact, even though we tend to forget about it, that our parents made sure that we practiced and there was discipline in our lives from that point of view. It’s something that has rubbed off on all the family—I have a sister in Italy who’s a violinist, I have a sister here in Cork who plays piano primarily, but fiddle as well, and I have a brother who plays the tin whistle and the flute. All of us have had music lessons when we were young, and we’ve all continued.
Where did you take it then, when you decided to focus on traditional music?
Like many other people, we went to the Fleadhanna na Cheoil and competed in the various competitions. We had a family band; my father and the four of us playing. We used to compete and play at local school concerts and events like that. When I did my leaving certificate I went down to University College Cork to study electrical engineering, but while that was going on I was playing, both in UCC and in various groups. It was while I was in college that I met Tomás Ó Canainn, who was teaching in the department of electrical engineering, and it was there that Na Fili were formed in 1969, with initially Raymond O’Shea on tin whistle. He left after a year or so, and then Tom Barry took his place. My group musical involvement was playing with Na Fili; it was myself, Tomás Ó Canainn on pipes and then Raymond O’Shea initially but subsequently Tom Barry. While all that was going I finished my engineering studies, but I decided to go back to college and study music, so I took a music degree. At that stage I was starting to develop an interest in indigenous styles of music. Up to then, I suppose, we were all playing the music that we had at the Fleadhanna na Cheoil and listening to the radio; Sean Maguire and Paddy Canny and the Tulla Ceili Band and whatever else was on the radio, Ciaran MacMathuna’s Job of Journeywork in particular. When I had finished my BMus, I felt like maybe I’d try my hand at doing a Masters degree relating to indigenous playing. The nearest indigenous style of music to here is the Sliabh Luachra style, so I choose Mick Duggin, a Sliabh Luachra musician, as my subject. I went and spoke to him and did lots of field work and all the rest of it; recordings and interviews and so on, but of course, never wrote it up. I’m not alone in that, but I think I got the benefit from it in everything except the piece of paper in that I learned a huge amount and it stimulated my whole interest in the question of fiddle playing styles and fiddle playing technique.
I continued with Na Fili into the 80’s, when they disbanded. I did a solo album of slow airs, Aisling Gheal, on the Gael Linn label. I also started playing with two other lads here in Cork—Mick Daly and Dave Hennessy, a great melodeon player—in a group called Any Old Time, and over the years we did three albums; Any Old Time, Phoenix and Crossing. In 1983, John Loesberg of Ossian publications approached me to write the Fiddle Book, which launched on the 8th of March, 1988. If I were to do it again I would have done it in a much shorter space of time, but as you know yourself So that came out in 1988, and soon afterwards the accompanying cds, and in a way that pushed the MA out of the way, with little hope of resurrection.
So going back—that time you spent with Mick Duggin is what got you interested in Sliabh Luachra history and repertoire.
And particularly on one visit to Mick Duggin, on the 5th of February, 1978, he gave me all this pile of music, and inside were original Padraig O’Keefe manuscripts, in O’Keefe’s own writing. When I look back at it that’s the thing the fired me onto all of that; I became very interested in the whole Sliabh Luachra thing and spent nights and nights down in Knocknagree in particular. I suppose ‘twas also the time that the Sliabh Luachra music was getting a bit more popular. The Kerry Fiddles record came out in 1977, and The Star Above The Garter had come out a bit before that. Jackie Daly and Seamus Creagh were playing wonderful music in that kind of style, and in Cork the set dancing thing had started, led initially in Cork by Timmy McCarthy, or Timmy the Brit as he is generally known, and also by Joe Donovan. Timmy was very adamant that the local sets, the polka sets, would be featured, and then, of course, the musicians had to play for those sets, so there was a cross fertilization. Lots of musicians, not only myself, became increasingly interested in the repertoire of the region and the repertoire of people like Denis [Murphy] and Julia[Clifford]and Johnny O’Leary. So from then on my interest in it became more and more and more, and I decided that I should embark on a kind of academic approach to it once again. But in parallel with all of it, I was working as a lecturer in the department of electronic engineering at the Cork Institute of Technology. So my life was two-fold. On the one hand I was teaching electronics and related subjects and on the other hand I was playing a lot of music. In 1994, Sliabh Notes was formed; in 1995 the first CD came out. In parallel with all I decided to get back into academia. I spoke to Micheál Ó Súilleabháin about embarking on something like this again and taking the bigger picture. I felt like O’Keeffe warranted an inclusion in the bigger picture, so after a while I decided that I’d sign on to work towards a PhD. This year I got an award of Senior Research Scholarship from the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences. So that’s enabled me now to work full time at this, and I’ve just submitted some things for publication.
Tell me more about Sliabh Notes.
Well, Sliabh Notes is the present group I’m involved with—we’ve an accordion and myself on fiddle and Tommy on guitar and songs. Donal is in Abbyfeale, and his father is an accordion player with great allegiance to the music of Scartaglen and places like that. Donal’d grown up hearing lots of slides and polkas, so Donal and I had a huge rapport with regards to that kind of music, and find that we’re asked frequently to play at ceilis and house dances. But our repertoire is not exclusively Sliabh Luachra;, but well over 50% is Sliabh Luachra material, some of it from the O’Keefe manuscripts. On each of the CDs, we’ve included music by Cuz Teahan. There’s such wonderful music there that we feel we’re delighted and indeed honored to put this stuff on CD and make it more available to the public. We are also conscious of giving credit where possible to the sources and people like Mikey Duggin and Paddy Cronin, because for a long time they were never known about. In a way they’re the forgotten heroes of this music— the people who have passed this music on so generously.
Thinking about the book, one of the things that makes it such a good tool for people learning how to play, particularly people learning how to play who don’t live in Ireland, is that you explain what to do with the bow.
The more I learn about fiddle playing, the more I realize that the secret, the whole art of it is in the bowing. While it’s the left hand that makes the notes, it’s the bow hand that makes the music, and I don’t mean something just as straightforward as the bowing directions. Bowing is so much more than that. The bow makes the sound, the bow is the only contact that the player has with making the sound. You can argue that the left hand makes the notes and there are rolls and so there are, but how you articulate the rolls, how you articulate the trebles, where you put the stress, where you put the accent, how you attack the note, whether you play it softly and all the rest—it’s the bowing that does that. A lot of people nowdays learning traditional music grow up in a household where traditional music is not known, for instance people in cities where pop music is on the radio all day and the children listen to pop music and the parents would like them to be traditional musicians. They go to fiddle class a half hour a week and for the rest of the week they don’t hear a note of the music, so they have no reference. The only thing they have is the bow directions, but for the most part they would often interpret the bow directions like a classical player would interpret them. Now contrast that with, let’s say, the time when Padraig O’Keefe was teaching: there weren’t radios, the only music that a lot of people heard was fiddle players playing in houses, so there was a lot of unwritten and unspoken musical education imparted in the sense that you knew how the music should sound, you knew what the swing was, you had all that unwritten information and nobody needed to tell you about it. When I was doing the book, I felt that I wanted to be able to give sufficient directions that people got some sense of the swing of the music. If I were writing the fiddle book now, in the light of the additional knowledge I have, I would be more overt in that sense. When I give workshops I tend to start from that viewpoint; at a lot of workshops and people get taught tune after tune after tune but very few tutors talk about the ‘how’. Over the years, people asked me, “how do you do it, how do you play that?” All of which has led me today to be very interested in trying to answer the question of what it is that the fiddle players are doing to make the music sound the way it does. When I talk about Padraig O’Keeffe or Paddy Canny or Johnny Doherty or Jay Ungar or whoever, I’m interested in what they’re doing, and the power of the bow. The power of the bowhand is absolutely immense and greatly underrated.
How do you approach teaching?
In master classes, I tend to look more at passing on to people the ideas and the techniques that will help them to advance themselves. It would be very easy for me to go into a class and teach two tunes today and two tunes the next day, and but I think that will never improve a person’s overall playing. My approach is that I’m teaching this tune today, but we’re doing this because we’re going to concentrate on rolls or on a certain aspect of articulating phrases. We’ll concentrate on that tunes and get into the swing of it, but then at the end of the class I’ll say now if you take those ideas and bring those to play on your existing repertoire you can improve all of what you have. I find people learning or being taught tunes slowly, complete with all the rolls in. I would tend to think that at a beginning level, a bit more emphasis needs to be put on looking at the less obvious part of the music, the swing and the articulation and all that. It’s a bit like talking—none of us talk in a monotone, people don’t sing in a monotone. You phrase your talking and you can accentuate the meaning of what you want to say, rather than saying a lot of complicated words in a hurry. It mightn’t be great analogy, but my thinking would be along those lines.
You mentioned Doherty and Canny. When I think about regional styles, it seems that often people associate a regional style with the particular playing of a strong individual. Thinking of Doherty as being the Donegal style, and Paddy Canny as being East Clare. Do you think that’s the case with O’Keeffe and Sliabh Luachra music, or is there a broader style separate from O’Keeffe’s playing?
Well, I often use the analogy of language and dialect. Not everybody in Donegal speaks the same way, but they have far more similarities in their accents and the way they speak than a Donegal man would with a Kerry man, for instance. Now, not all Kerry people speak the same, but they have many kind of speaking characteristics in common; the words that they use, the way that they say certain words. Now in a way we’re looking at the past rather than the present, at least initially. There’s no doubt that if you look at the playing of a wide range of Sliabh Luachra people, that they’re all individuals—I’ll accept that—and if I hear Denis and if I hear Paddy Cronin, I’ve no difficulty in telling them apart. But an outsider will think they all play the same. On the other hand, they’ll say Johnny Doherty’s playing is significantly different. So it’s in that sense that I talk about regional styles. I find it difficult to separate, in some respects, the idea of the strong individual and a regional style. The strong individual has an influence on the region, so you can say that all the people around play like him because he’s a strong person, but on the other hand he’s grown up in that environment so he’s absorbed the regional style.
And in O’Keefe’s particular case, he was a more active teacher than some of the other strong players associated with a particular region.
Correct—but he wasn’t the only teacher. There was Tom Billy Murphy, for instance, maybe ten years his senior who taught as well and people would have learned material from Tom Billy, and people like Maurice O’Keefe in Kishkeam who wasn’t a pupil of Padraig’s, even though he did meet him—he learned his fiddle playing from another man, Master Lenihan. But if you look at a global picture, then you can say a lot of these people have similar characteristics. When you get down to the detail of it, clearly we can all hear differences. Now in more recent times, and I find it hard to quantify what I mean by more recent times—come down a generation, let’s say, to Tommy Peoples or Paddy Glackin or Frankie Gavin. Lots of people nowdays would have absorbed influences from loads of places, but in many of those cases significant regional characteristics are heard. If you listen to Paddy Glackin, playing very well and playing so well as he can do, you can hear the Donegal trait of the single bow and some of Doherty’s traits coming through. On the other hand, you have people who play in a much more homogenous style, what I call competition style. Some of that is due to the proliferation of mass media, and also to the Fleadhanna na Cheoil competitions, but I detect that in the past ten to 15 years a move towards going back to the local areas for repertoire, if nothing else.
To what extent do you think these regional styles, Sliabh Luachra in particular but any style, are tied in with the specific culture and the specific place that they come from?
I’ll answer that in a couple of ways. I find it difficult to go along completely with the argument that says Donegal music reflects the mountainous landscape in which the people grew up, or that the Sliabh Luachra style reflects the barren landscape on the plateau there beyond Ballydesmond heading up to Scartaglen. I find that too simplistic. Now I do think that the music which is played, the music that Denis and Julia and Johnny O’Leary have played, is a product of the life in which they grew up, the life in which the music evolved and the society in which it evolved. Certainly the very rhythmical quality of the music is due in no small part to the fact that most if not all of these musicians played for house dances, and that became very much a part of their playing. To complement that, the Sliabh Luachra area was well known for its Gaelic literary tradition and its Gaelic language poets. That tradition has died out and various commentators have reflected on the fact that while the poetry died out that the feeling associated with it has lived on through the music. It’ s no accident that Padraig O’Keefe and, indeed, most of his pupils learned to play slow airs and play them very expressively. For instance, on The Star Above The Garter, which came out in 1969, out of 20 tracks there are 4 slow airs. Now there are very few fiddle albums anywhere which would have 4 slow airs out of 20; you won’t find that in Clare and won’t find that in Sligo. I suppose that’s the poetic expression and the lyrical expression of the poetry coming through in the music.
For yourself, I assume you play primarily for concerts and not so much for house dances— how does that change the music for you?
Well, I do occasionally play for house dances. Very shortly I’ll be in Ballyvaughan, and certainly I go to Knocknagree from time to time and dancing is part of the situation there. But in addition to that, as you rightly say, I do play concerts and travel around. It is different in the sense that when you play for the house dance it’s much more interactive with the dancers. I’m not saying that you play at the speed or tempo exactly that the dancers demand, but experience will indicate to you roughly what speed you should play. On the other hand, when we play concerts we always try to put the music in context for the audience, and try and kindle in their soul and in their heart the spirit of the dancing. We say to an audience, “I know you can’t dance sitting down, but at least you can dance in your heart.”
I should tell you about a house dance—a friend of ours who lives in Boherboy, between Mallow and Castleisland, has a disused cow shed. He’s put down a timber floor and one Saturday night in the fall he has a huge house dance and invites all the neighbors He has 200 neighbors in there, and there’s tea and coffee and whiskey and sweetcake and so on, and a small little platform where the musicians come in and play. It’s as near to a recreation of the house dances of long ago, and in a way that roots us and grounds us to the music as well, and this swing that’s in the music. If the swing ain’t right, the dancers don’t want you playing.
© Brendan Taaffe, 2005. All Rights Reserved.