Into The Gloaming

(Photograph by Hugh McCabe of Traces of the Real, http://tracesofthereal.com/)

A few things I’ve been thinking about in relation to the Gloaming:

– The band provides Iarla Ó Lionaird, with arguably, his ideal setting (ahem!), even though only about half of the tracks the Gloaming play involve songs and even then many of the them are shorter than the instrumental sections they’re put with. (My guess is, though, that that proportion will increase as the group goes on.)

I read a comment on Facebook that bemoans the music of the Gloaming as a kind of irritating distraction from Ó Lionaird’s singing! The person wished that Ó Lionaird would release a solo album! I don’t think everyone is that ignorant of the facts in relation to Ó Lionaird’s back catalogue (http://www.iarla.com/foxlight/), but this does reflect the difficulties Ó Lionaird has had finding a sizeable audience for the songs he wanted to sing. The vibe that this group has created has opened up more and bigger audiences for Ó Lionaird. I, for one, am delighted about that. It could, in fact, for some, justify the entire thing. Ha!

One could also argue that this is one of the best musical settings he has ever had for his voice and the songs he sings. (Just look at how much less effort and time it took him to record the songs for the Gloaming album than it has taken him in his solo recordings.) The ambient electronica and sound effects he has painstakingly put together on his own albums, the pop-ish songs he had to sing with the Afro Celts, the unrelenting emotional challenges of his work with the likes of Donnacha Dennehy (think of the 2008 Gradam performance of Aisling Gheal with the Crash Ensemble https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kyp1ixrE-DA), have all presented different barriers for different fans of his singing. Whereas in the Gloaming the instrumentation and sensitivity of the musicians and the style and range of sounds they produce all seem to bring about a perfect balance between this artist and his audience.

(Aside: the third track on the album, called ‘Freedom’, has lyrics adapted from the poem ‘Saoirse’ by one of Ó Lionaird’s favourite poets, Seán O Riordáin, about coincidentally “the struggle between individuality and serving a tribal code, between creative freedom and containment”, and the music is developed from track 13, untitled, on Thomas Bartlett’s first album, With My Left Hand I Raise the Dead http://doveman.bandcamp.com/album/with-my-left-hand-i-raise-the-dead.)

Assuming the Gloaming go on to make more recordings, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if it’s a good few years before we see Iarla record a new solo album again.

– Considering Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill last released an album in 2008, six years ago, if you like what they do, then consider this to be the newest expression of it and hey presto: they’re back, at their best, with a new vigour in their arrangements, and getting as much recognition for it at home as abroad for once, and then some. And then some more.

A good few of the tunes have been recorded by them/Hayes on previous albums: Welcome Here Again features ‘The Girl That Broke My Heart’ and ‘P Joe’s’ (‘Opening Set’); ‘Rolling in the Barrel’ (from ‘Opening Set’) and ‘The Old Bush’ were on The Lonesome Touch, and so on, proving not just the strength of the tunes themselves, but also the sense of freshness that Martin and Dennis are obviously feeling about what this line up does for the music.

If you’ve never liked what they do, then still, at least the Gloaming put “solo” instrumental playing at the heart of things, concerto-like, as opposed to the safer and perhaps less-true-to-the-tradition approach of so many other ITM groups who play mostly together or else pass the melody around like a hot cake. If nothing else, this soloist approach allows for the individual expressiveness of, in this case, the fiddle to deliver the central charge of the tune, the variations, and the ornamentation, rather than the more general, a-la-Planxty, favouring of clever ensemble arrangement and missing some of the subtlety of traditional music. That’s to be welcomed into the mix of ITM, surely.

If you’ve never liked Hayes’s particular way of presenting solo music, my guess is you’re either blessed with a very deep relationship with ITM that has empowered you to hear more than enough “soul” in the faster and more scrunched playing that is the norm, or you just prefer your music upbeat and less emotional. Fair enough.

For me, though, Hayes is distinguished by two aspects of his playing: the lonesome touch (– a leaning towards melancholy, with joy always hard-won) and expression or communication (– as his website puts it: “to place the tradition within a wider contemporary context”). At a mechanical level, I think that, in a sense, when he plays slowly he wants to let the notes speak like words rather than like phrases (or even more mechanically, like hands clapping to just the vaguest sense of the beat). But at an artistic level, in my (amateur) opinion, he is the closest thing we’ve had in traditional music to the virtuosic violin soloists who can stand confidently in front of intimidating orchestras and play their interpretations of emotionally exhausting masterworks composed by those troubled “geniuses” we raise so high who seemingly challenge the very being of the soloist. Yes, there are and always have been plenty of other virtuosic fiddle players in ITM, but not many that remind me of classical soloists in their presentation of the music like Hayes does, and none in my opinion who would put so much of themselves out there, so exposed, for so long, so intensely, in this position at the heart and head of the music. Look at how so many other central figures (with exceptions) in other groups mostly share the melody or pass it on quite quickly to other instruments, as if they are somewhat shy of the spotlight being on them for too long, or of drawing too much attention to their playing, or unsure of the appeal of their interpretation of the music. It may be a cultural shyness which Hayes has thankfully managed to overcome down the years, or it may be that very few ITM players put in quite what he puts in to the music. I wholeheartedly celebrate his willingness to let HIS take on it stand out. Think, in contrast to, say, a session in a noisy pub, of the tribute and service to the music his approach to it has been and is: raising it to the level of the greatest music ever performed, giving it (and its origins) the respect and attention and interpretative rigour of the masterpieces. (Think also how much it will empower future traditional players who fancy themselves as full-on virtuosic soloists.)

– It gives Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh a new kind of challenge. Considering how this amazingly talented musician has covered so much ground (duet albums with Mick O’Brien (2), and Breanndán Ó Beaglaoich; trios with Míchéal Ó Raghallaigh and Catherine McEvoy, and Peadar Ó Riada and Martin Hayes (3); and quite a few solo projects), it is interesting and even surprising to see him work in a mostly supporting role here, providing harmony, contrast and drone-texture to Hayes’ “solos” or using his hardanger-like 5×5 as a kind of viola/cello. He does have some of his own solo playing in there, however my guess is that he doesn’t see the Gloaming as an outlet for himself as a soloist but rather as a chance to explore other aspects of the music. As he has said himself of the hardanger: “It’s primarily wonderful as a solo instrument [… drawing on that idea of the drone]. Certainly my identity as a musician has now grown up along with this instrument. It’s a new challenge for me playing with chordal instruments, it’s something I don’t know very much about and learning loads from these guys.” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01y4gml)

Having said that, as the Gloaming develops further, it is likely that the places where Ó Raghallaigh plays solos will be seen as producing something more substantial than the material on his solo album, Where the One-Eyed Man is King, being beefed up and shaped by input from the rest of the band.

– It challenges Dennis Cahill too. Not only is he having to “compete” with the piano for acoustic space around Hayes, there is music here, particularly in the duet with Ó Raghallaigh but also in Ó Lionaird’s songs, that while playing to his strengths of leaving plenty of room, also forces him to adjust to new dynamics and material.

(Aside: In the South Wind Blows film made by Nuala O’Connor and Philip King about the band, Cahill has this to say about airs, for instance: “You can’t figure out a slow air. You just have to listen to it and one day you wake up and you know how it goes.”)

– It helps in the rehabilitation and the development of the piano – grand, mind you – in traditional music in a very different way from what we’re used to, and in so doing makes us see (again), I think, how rich a source of contrast to the straight melodic line it can be, just as it was for, say, Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill, or is for, say, Jack Talty.

– Thanks to the differently charming personalities of the personnel, and their musical talents, and the timing, and, yes, the success of the marketing, it appeals to people well beyond the  traditional music, bringing refreshing new perspectives on the music and its scope. This is not just media-derived, as some people have argued. With social media and word of mouth and the involvement of Bartlett, there is a direct line of communication to new audiences and they are responding very favourably and genuinely, not because they are being whipped into a frenzy by media hysteria and marketing, but simply because they like and love what they hear. (12/13 five-star reviews on Amazon.co.uk and 8/9 five-star reviews of Amazon.com, and the two others give four stars.)

– In terms of innovation, I think it reaches a new level of sustained artistic expression for traditional music, and points towards even greater innovation ahead. (On the subject of the name, Ó Raghallaigh has said: “It suits us and our music because I guess we’re somehow on a border as well, between traditional and looking forward … very much like that transition from day to night.”) It’s as if Ó Lionaird has been searching for a way of working with actual traditional musicians to rival what the contemporary classical lads he’s been working with have been doing with the music, and found it.

Quite a few traditional musicians have argued that it is not as innovative as some (apparently “ignorant”) reviewers are saying, and it is true that most of the music is based on traditional Irish forms, and much of the singing is typical of Iarla, and much of the playing is typical of Martin and Dennis, and even much of the chordal music is typical of Thomas Bartlett (what little I know of his music, at least) and others. However, he and Ó Raghallaigh take all those elements into a new soundscape, and so ultimately the way the music is presented and the songs are set is, as Bartlett said in an interview with NPR, “quite distinctive”. Not radically, so far, but quite. For instance, though parts of the ‘Opening Set’ remind us of what Martin and Dennis have been doing for years, the dramatic song setting for ‘Cois an Ghaorthaidh’, the linking passages and key changes, the overall development and feel of the set, and ultimately its sustained creative intensity, I think are sufficiently “new” to make it overpower all the ties it has with what went before. When I first heard it, as their first set at their first public appearance in the National Concert Hall in August 2011 (http://journalofmusic.com/focus/step-between-worlds), it was not the familiar constituent elements that my ear was drawn to but the before-your-ears unfolding of something wonderful and powerful and convincing. I felt like a child with every part of me totally caught up in the magic of a great story being read to me, or made up on the spot for me, by an adult I inherently and completely trusted, a story I thought I’d never heard the like of before. Even though I had.

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