Much traditional Irish singing was and is unaccompanied and only minimally self-ornamented with the techniques we’ve come to call sean-nós. The first “appropriation” was when instrumentalists began playing the melodies of the songs as “airs” and of course ultimately altering the nature of the works, the ornamentation etc. Our ever more professionalised artists in our ever more elaborate cultural world are producing very different things with the Irish song repertoire, and it is in turn attracting the attention of artists outside of the traditional music world
Iarla Ó Lionaird and Crash Ensemble ‘Aisling Gheal’ (setting by Donnacha Dennehy)
This is a different recording of the setting that Iarla performed on TG4 when he received the singer Gradam Ceoil in 2008. Considering the avant-garde leanings of Donnacha Dennehy and Crash Ensemble, I sense that it was a brave move on the part of Iarla and TG4 to present the song in this way. There are some comments on the internet about it that show how it didn’t please everyone, but at the same time there are clearly many who appreciated what Iarla was doing. “Genre is a trap,” he said once.
Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh ‘Braes Of Balquidder’
Caoimhín has said how helpful Iarla was in relation to his first commercial solo album, Where the One-Eyed Man is King, and there are traces on it of the ambient and sound-art aesthetic that Iarla first introduced to Irish music in his Real World albums. In the track notes for the album Caoimhín says about this track: “this tune comes from a little song sung by elizabeth cronin [Iarla’s grandmother’s sister]. I´ve been appropriating little song tunes for my own devices for some time now – lovely things to play with…”
Benedict Schlepper-Connolly ‘I am weary of lying alone’
Benedict Schlepper-Connolly was one of the composers Iarla asked to arrange Irish ‘standards’ for him to sing with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra last year. He did a fantastic job on a few ‘small songs’ (Iarla’s words), namely, ‘Cucúin’, ‘Samhradh Samhradh’ and ‘Cucanandy’, on that occasion. Here, as per the Ergodos notes, “Schlepper-Connolly’s shimmering take on the traditional song ‘I am weary of lying alone’ becomes a vehicle for an incisive, biting sax solo from Seán Mac Erlaine.”
Dan Trueman ‘Siúil a Rún’
Dan Trueman, who has a new album out with Caoimhín on which the air of ‘Fead an Iolar’ that Caoimhín had on his first album is given a good stretching, was also one of the composers that Iarla chose to arrange standards for him to sing with the Concert Orchestra. Unfortunately no recording of that music has been released yet and it is a real shame considering what a dramatic and satisfying job Dan did – as reflected very clearly in how the conductor, David Brophy, the orchestra and the audience responded to his arrangements on the night.
Peter Browne did feature Dan’s ‘Siúil a Rún’ arrangement on this episode of The Rolling Wave, and prefaced it (at about 20 minutes in) with a recording of Elizabeth Cronin herself singing the song http://www.rte.ie/radio/utils/radioplayer/rteradioweb.html#!rii=9%3A10206077%3A1852%3A13%2D10%2D2013%3A
Seán Mac Erlaine ‘Amhrán na Leabhar’
From a jazz music background, Seán has become more and more interested in Irish music to the point that he now collaborates with many traditional musicians including Caoimhín and Lorcán Mac Mathuna; and in this observation he captures, I think, the feeling of many music lovers who come late to this music: “It sounds like a stupidly obvious thing to say, but the thing about Irish music is: I’m Irish. There was a parallel world of music happening around me already that I didn’t really know anything about.”
Paddy Groenland ‘Shíl Mé Féin’
Like Seán, guitarist Paddy Groenland is from a jazz background, but has of late become more and more interested in and involved with traditional music. He is a member of Ensemble Ériu where he is exposed to the vast wealth of knowledge of traditional music at the heart of that group, and also of the Clare Memory Orchestra where he gets a view of another open-minded, insider approach to the characteristics of the music.
Kate Ellis ‘Aisling Gheal’ (setting by Donnacha Dennehy)
Looking in on the contemporary music scene in Dublin, I sometimes get the impression that Kate Ellis is the only cellist out there. She is remarkable in the material she covers and the artists she works with, as well as in her musicianship of course. Having been a key member of Crash Ensemble from the start, she was there from the start of Dennehy’s exploration of Irish music in Grá agus Bás, and this setting which features on her recent solo release, Jump (Diatribe), was written at that time. (She also features a 10 minute-plus piece by Niall Vallely on the album that has some Irish air feel about it at times.)
Francesco Turrisi and Róisín Elsafty ‘Eleanór a Rún’
Italian jazz multi-instrumentalist, Francesco Turrisi has been active in Ireland a good few years now and has collaborated with Irish traditional musicians in a number of projects, but on his last album he went one step further in his immersion and set two sean-nós songs sung by Róisín Elsafty.
Toner Quinn ‘Cóilín Phádraig Shéamais’
By way of contrast, in this case a non-traditional song by Pádraig Ó hAoláin in the ‘Country Chonamara’ vein has been teased out and adorned by Toner Quinn into a jig and a reel played by him and Malachy Bourke as bookends with the melody of the song itself played in between.
Steve Cooney and Éiníní ‘Táimse im’ chodladh’
Here Steve Cooney and his band (Robbie Harris & Robbie Perry on percussion, Martin Brunsden on double bass, Rod McVey on Hammond organ) do an electrified bluesy version of the traditional song.
Téada Orchestra with Tim Doyle on solo fiddle (setting of ‘Port na bPucaí’ by Elliot Murphy) ‘Ar na Coillte san Fhomhair in Éirinn’
From an even younger generation, Elliot Murphy is I think still studying in Trinity’s music department. Matt Rafter of the Téada Orchestra describes the piece as follows: “He [Tim Doyle] plays this tune throughout; while this is going on, the rest of the fiddle players in various groupings are doing different effects with their instruments and making cool sounds. It’s not just your typical melody and accompaniment.” Co-founder Anna Clifford says: “It’s using the orchestra as well in a way that’s looser and different to what people are used to. There’s also an element of improvisation in terms of the timing. So for the players who’d be more straight-line classical, it’s a different way of playing. Elliot’s is a really great piece, it’s really fun to play.”
Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh ‘Easter Snow’
Here, on his recent second solo release, Caoimhín goes ever so slightly further out in his orbit around traditional music than he did on the first solo album with say, ‘Fead an Iolar’, and yet by the very fact of including this one traditional piece on the new album of otherwise original material he shows just how drawn he is to the traditional airs for inspiration and perhaps “refuelling”.
The Gloaming ‘Óró, Sé do Bheatha ‘Bhaile’
Given Iarla’s founding role, it was only to be expected that songs would be important in The Gloaming’s repertoire, and it’s really important to remember that many of them are in fact not traditional songs, but I think there’s still more to come in terms of how they explore the relationship between the song tradition and the tune-playing mode. In some ways, the very first thing we heard from them, in this social media release from their first get-together and recording session in Grouse Lodge in 2011, is more radical than what ended up on the album. You can sense the air of formation in it, how they seem almost surprised themselves at what they are producing.