Music Network commissioned me to write the programme notes for their autumn traditional music tour, Bellows, Bridge and Bow, featuring Noel Hill, Liam O’Connor and Caoimhín O Fearghaill.
My sense of how the individual, quite virtuosic styles of the musicians would come together in the live ensemble setting, and of how their musical individuality would come through their weighty respect for the tradition, made me think in terms of the metaphor of a collision, so it opens:
I see this tour as a sort of musical version of the hadron collider at CERN – the one that may or may not have proven the existence of the Higgs boson particle last year. Just a plain description of the Irish ‘experiment’ should be enough to make you hold your breath in anticipation.
But having attended the second night of the tour in the Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray, I think I might have overdone the idea. Yes, when they play solo, these musicians are so playful that musical sparks do truly fly around the place and, true to that, I felt the most energy on the night came from the solos. But whether it was an early tentativeness in the group dynamic in the tour, or the more fundamental necessity to curtail individuality when playing in duos and trios, or a combination of the two, there was a very different feel to the ensemble playing than what I anticipated. It was, in fact, quite gentle, sensitive and, at times deferential (to each other and to the tunes).
It was being recorded by RTÉ for, I suspect, Peter Browne’s Rolling Wave programme, and I think that probably brought an added restraint to some of the playing, but there were, of course, plenty of moments of fantastic flight and energy in the ensemble playing too, particularly in the last set before the break (‘Farrell O’Gara’, ‘Tom Ward’s Downfall’ and ‘Drowsy Maggie’ – tunes that all feature on Hill’s Irish Concertina Two album), and the slides of the finale (‘Teidhir Abhaile Riú’ as a slide, one associated with Patrick Kelly, and another by Peadar Ó Riada, ‘Slide for Caoimhín’, I think). Though it didn’t come together as well as I’d say it will on the later dates, I, personally, particularly loved their ‘Port an Bhráthar’ and ‘Port Shean tSeáin’ set (O’Connor referred to the pipers Brother Gildas and John Potts, but also mentioned the Peoples’ version and the fact that Steve Cooney and Tony MacMahon play them these days (referencing Sonny Brogan, I think)).
The solo playing was thrilling (‘awesome’ in today’s parlance), as was to be expected: Liam opted to give ‘Port na bPucaí’ “a go” for his air and delivered on it ‘big time’ (going, with a pause, into ‘The Repeal of the Union’ reel) as well as, in the second half, on his dance tune solo, a version of ‘The Bucks of Oranmore’ (which he explains ‘I got from my father … it’s similar to the Leitrim Bucks in parts’). Noel’s solo set of tunes that opened with ‘The Teetotaller’ (“Come in with me,” he said to Caoimhín as he prepared to set off, “on the second or third tune,” and with the way the latter closes his eyes and sinks into the music, Noel had to let out a shout to warn him he was coming up to the chicane into the next tune and wasn’t planning to slow down!) made me sit up straighter in my seat and bask in the aural heat coming out of the concertina; and at the request of one of Peter Browne’s listeners he played (and dug very deep into) Caoineadh Luimnigh for his air, finding seven minutes-plus in it. Caoimhín, as well as singing two songs, played a lovely set of tunes (‘The Boys of Thomastown’ was one of them) on the pipes very expressively.
Throughout, as one would expect, especially from such ‘keepers’, the links included detailed references to the sources of tunes – both recordings and collections (Hill commented at one stage that the O’Neill collections have ‘very true versions of tunes’) and through direct learning from others.
In the programme notes, in relation to this, I went on to suggest:
This tight circle of influence and connection is the Tradition, the ‘main current’, as T.S. Eliot called it, and by definition a prerequisite for a traditional musician. But tradition cannot be too tight or it chokes and the whole thing becomes a demonstration rather than an experiment. If there are to be any ‘discoveries’ arising from this experiment they will be to do with how such powerful forces of tradition and individual talent collide.
I now wish I’d used a different metaphor: one of digging.
The final set (apart from the encore) finished with one of Peadar Ó Riada’s tunes (about which Martin Hayes has said: “If I didn’t know otherwise I would have thought that they were old tunes from the 19th century, possibly of Sliabh Luachra and Clare origin.”). The fact that it was, I think, the only recently composed tune hints at the nature of this approach to the music: you have to put in the work to get the best crops. At the interval I heard a man saying to his neighbour, ‘That’s the real McCoy’ and I could hear a few other people praising the music on those terms: something revealed that has been revealed generation after generation … but never exactly the same. Something Heaney-like in its old newness, derived from a grounded attitude to the music as received in the Tradition, interpretive, alongside a faith in and fascination with the endless potential in the music, and in their instruments, to turn over something ‘new’ or at least fresh.