Wrote this for the programme for Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh’s forthcoming In My Mind tour with Music Network >
‘Out of the marvelous as he had known it.’ (Seamus Heaney)
Between occasional concerts in choice venues around the globe with The Gloaming, European travels with This is How We Fly, genre-defying theatre and dance pieces and numerous recording projects with both Irish and foreign artists, is it any wonder Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh called his recent solo album Music for an Elliptical Orbit?
Trying to catch up with him for this piece has felt at times like some kind of orbit. The closest I have managed to get is here, “back west” on the Dingle Peninsula, Corca Dhuibhne – Caoimhín’s adopted home – photographing his (empty) house for inspiration. It’s a white-washed stone cottage behind a curtain of waxy shrub and a moat of fiery montbritia. It is – to put it one way – in a very original condition. In need of refurbishment, the brochures might say, but not its owner: let be, would be more like it, to him. Exactly as he wants it. Our ancestors managed it, so why can’t we.
No lawn. No security system. No Wi-Fi. No phone. No television. This is an escape. The habitat equivalent of a walk in the mountains. A getaway. Like music, in fact. In one diagrammatic version of things, it corresponds in my mind to the pure solo aspect of Caoimhín’s output. Although like most Irish traditional musicians he has played in and still plays in the odd session, he has long gravitated towards the solo tradition. “The material has to be yours. If the material isn’t yours, then why are you playing it?” (Irish Times, 25/10/10)
In what way is it Caoimhín’s? Although much Irish dance music is metred, in the slides and polkas of Kerry music Caoimhín heard a slightly different sense of time, and he began using his flowing bowing style to play freely with it. Gravity time, he calls it, as if the weight of the notes themselves determines their unfolding. “Instead of time being a metronome, think of time as a reaction to gravity,” he suggests. “… not a straight line. It’s rotating… linear time [is] fine if you want to make a business meeting, but for walking in the mountains or playing music it’s not very relevant.” (IT, 25/10/10)
That other Dingle adopter, Felicity Hayes-McCoy writes in her book of resurrection (which I happen to be reading while here), The House on an Irish Hillside, “It takes time to tune into the rhythm of life here and once you do you realise it’s about things happening in their own time, not when you want them to… Nothing need be snatched at, or deferred. Instead, each moment’s savoured as it comes. Nothing’s missed.” Because nothing’s expected? One of the absent musicians who features in this concert, American composer and fiddle player, Dan Trueman, coincidentally speaks of Caoimhín in those terms, saying he has a patient ear. “He hears in the cracks of sounds, between the notes, and loves to leap into those spaces and spend time inside.”
Making his first solo album in 2007 was a chance for him to explore that “inside”, away from the constraints of other musicians and particular metres. Where the One-Eyed Man is King ended up being a considerable departure from the traditional world he had been operating in – echoing his friend Iarla Ó Lionaird’s very personal exploration of sean-nós music in his first solo album (– “Genre is a trap,” Iarla said). “Basically, being a traditional fiddler, I wanted to see what happens when you stop playing tunes. What I tend to do is just find a little phrase and then repeat it, and that phrase gets shorter and shorter until it’s a rhythmic thing, a four-second segment and you repeat it over and over. And then you listen back to it, and while you are listening back something else comes into your head.” (Journal of Music, 01/09/2007)
When he then heard the Siren call of the Hardanger fiddle, he fell entirely under its spell: “You can take the bow off the strings and the sound continues. I love silence and I love space so that’s a huge attraction for me. It’s as if you send a note out, and then you sit, and wait for the next one. As a solo instrument, that’s a huge plus.” He decided to have one made for himself.
Music for an Elliptical Orbit – bear in mind, he studied theoretical physics in college – moves out further from traditional grounds. There are still echoes and even a traditional air, but there’s a sense of just a trapped anchor holding down his otherworldly ship, as in Seamus Heaney’s ‘Lightenings’ poem: ‘“This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,” / The abbot said, “unless we help him.”’ Pieces likes ‘Lithosphere’ and ‘Cloud’ have as much, if not more, in common with minimalist ambient music as with trad.
In fact, not just is this album a solo orbit – removing others and particular influences from the equation, but in the music itself he seems to be attempting to go beyond himself and even the medium towards pure effect. “It’s when you actually subtract yourself from the equation altogether and you’re just trying to let the music flow, without any filters.” (IT, 25/10/10) A kind of meditation in the resulting stillness and near-silence is part of it. “A silence that seemed deeper than just the absence of sound,” as Hayes-McCoy puts it in relation to Corca Dhuibhne. There’s a strain of art that seeks not just to reflect life or distract from it momentarily but to have a lasting impact on it. Similar to how reading Hayes-McCoy’s book here in situ makes it “work” by bringing it to life before my eyes, going the road with Caoimhín, might require more than most musicians ask: a particularly cut-off state of mind and body, perhaps? A turning away from the social world?
And yet, Caoimhin’s elliptical orbit is half of the time moving closer to earth, and we find him in a host of duos, trios and groups performing straight-up traditional music. “It’s the fizz of collaboration, the responding and amplifying to whatever has been played, that often sets the music alight,” he has said. (IT, 25/10/2010)
And collaborate is exactly what he does in a second strand of this concert tour. Albeit virtually. He has filmed various musicians performing and will “accompany” those projected performances live. For the filmed segment of his friend Mícheál Ó Catháin, the wire-strung harpist, Caoimhín spent a day in the folly-like library building of Mussenden Temple on the cliffs of Downhill, Co Derry, filming Michéal playing his replica Downhill harp. (Coincidentally, the inscription around the temple, from Lucretius De Rerum Natura, translates as “ ‘Tis pleasant, safely to behold from shore / The troubled sailor, and hear the tempests roar.”) “He played beautiful things,” Caoimhín tells me over Skype. “It was very inventive and in the moment. It was actually the first time I felt I disappeared into the process of filming in a way that I do with the fiddle.”
Far from being in selfish pursuit of some kind of musical resurrection, Caoimhín has long been bringing audiences along the road with him and travelling it with many other musicians. When you think about it, here he is on a solo tour, managing to bring a bunch of other performers with him, albeit on screen, to share their work with us! Dan Trueman (with whom he has a brand new album) points out that “he leaves plenty of room for whomever he is playing with, and is also quick to respond to what he hears. He’s like one of those great basketball players who makes everyone around him play better.” Another one of the absent presences, American fiddle player, Cleek Schrey, says: “Playing music with him is total communication. Like any great communicator, he listens.” And Caoimhín himself has said: “Sometimes, being from the world of traditional music, I wonder how to give people a window into that world, to share what I love about it. The same with other things in life I love, like being in the mountains. I want to start from scratch and make a really compelling, rich, wonderful thing of it…”
Through the window of his cottage I see Inis Tuaisceart, also known as the Dead Man or the Sleeping Giant, across the unbridgeable Blasket Sound.
Additional remarks from Cleek Schrey
Last spring, I spent a week in New York making music with Caoimhín as part of the Irish Art Center’s Masters in Collaboration series. We had only played music together once before, at the Baltimore Fiddle Fair in 2012. Before he arrived, I had no idea what we would play. I felt both excitement and trepidation. What if it didn’t work? On the first night of his visit, we ventured out to Pioneer Works, an art space where I was in-residence, located in the outer reaches of Brooklyn. The space is an enormous converted warehouse with high ceilings and concrete floors. An industrial cave. We had brought our fiddles, after almost deciding not to. No one else was there, so it was the perfect opportunity to play. Not knowing how to turn on the lights in the main exhibition space, we played in the dark. Without saying a word, we played freely for an hour. No plan, no ideas. Only sound. The music sailed along traces of imaginary melodies, veered off to patches of unpitched noise, quiet on the verge of inaudibility, and resided in something that resembled a fiddle tune before it eventually dissolved. In our improvisational language, Caoimhín and I share an extensive vocabulary of sounds and ways of interacting with our instruments. And yet, when differences emerge, something new is revealed. That space of difference is still the most exciting area of possibility for me, and makes me wonder what will happen every time we play. When I spend time with Caoimhín, we rarely speak about music. We end up talking about anything but. Playing music with him, however, is total communication. Like any great communicator, he listens.