The music of Under a Red Sky Night, Martin Tourish’s first solo album, is worth reflecting on for a number of reasons. Given his TG4 Gradam for Young Traditional Music of the Year in 2008, and that his first album (Clan Ranald, with Luke Ward in 2005) was – and the music he is playing with Altan is – identifiably traditional, it is interesting that here he departs dramatically from that base. It’s not, though, entirely unexpected, in that he has also been working with the likes of Lorcán Mac Mathúna, Niwel Tsumbu and Dave Flynn, and so has plenty of form in journeying beyond the tunes.
The vast majority of the music on this album is composed by Tourish, and the rest is mostly in the form of extreme variations. That in itself is not so unusual even within straight traditional music, but here apparently most of the composition and variation started out as improvisations, and bear the hallmark – the effortlessness and expressiveness you’d expect from that process. This is no straight-up traditional music album.
It also stands out from most traditional albums in the number and the background of the musicians involved. There are nineteen credited and most feature on more than one track. So, there is a sense of a small orchestra about it and indeed the credits mention a string section (featuring, among others, Adrian Hart), and a choral section, and there’s what amounts to a brass-woodwind section manned by Niall O’Sullivan, Colm O’Hara and Seán Mac Erlaine.
What we have here, then, is another manifestation of what might be called the ‘professionalisation’ of Irish traditional music. Where once most players had to be content to learn the tunes they heard, fiddle around with them to various degrees and with the ornamentation they could figure out themselves; we’ve now reached the stage where musicians master their instruments (plural) at incredibly young ages, study music in great detail (Tourish to doctorate level) from many different cultures, and have more time and resources than ever before to dedicate to exploring music from every conceivable angle. Tourish, Fidil, West Ocean String Quartet, Moxie, Ensemble Ériu, Deep End of the Ford (to name a few) are inevitable consequences of that: each deeply engaged with the received music, but eventually also with the idea of mining it for new modes of expression.
In common with many of those contemporaries, Tourish here exhibits a will to communicate that is essential and gives the music a vitality that we’d expect. Likewise, there’s a technical strength here that means there’s never a dull moment in the unfolding of the music. As Dave Flynn has written in comments about a piece he wrote as a tribute to Tourish’s abilities, ‘Few people have such a command of the piano accordion as he has. He plays in every key and mode imaginable …’
His knowledge of musical theory and ornamentation is doctoral (!), and he displays it, for instance, in the way he re-phrases so thoroughly at times that it’s hard to tell whether it’s a variation or new material you’re hearing. There are reel and highland rhythms, and polka and jig too, but the way he plays them often makes them unrecognisable as such. He describes it as a ‘reimagining of material from the traditional idiom’ in the notes; this music is about celebrating ‘the tapestry of styles found within the genre’ rather than the ‘promotion of one single aesthetic’.
For example, the untitled, ‘Variation on a Theme from the James Tourish Collection’, for solo piano, is a shifting of ‘a fast polka’ from a major mode to a ‘slow polka’ in a minor mode. It ends up sounding not remotely traditional, and more like something from a film score, as does the closing track ‘Horseman, pass by’. In the opening tune of track four (‘The TG4 Set’), though it’s ‘a two-part variation of the four-part highland ‘Bog an Lochain’’, it could be the air of a Russian folk song the way Tourish handles it, and what that goes into (‘Tuar’) has the feel of Russian folk dance.
The end result is an album that doesn’t seem to be about ‘tunes’ at all, but ‘pieces’ striving to avoid being too easily understood or anticipated and to force the listener to sit up and engage or (alternatively) sit back and enjoy. In that regard, and again in common with many of those contemporaries mentioned, there is in some tracks as much emphasis placed on atmosphere, on intros, links and outros, as on the melodies themselves. Some might consider it all a bit melodramatic for that.
For instance, the second track, ‘Imagined Communities’, is a musical response – reminding me of Gerry Diver’s 2012 Speech Project – to a voice recording of John Doherty discussing the survival of traditional culture (“passed away into some kind of new world”) in Donegal. It is full of a kind of Yeatsian poignancy for something passing but living on in some other form.
Having said all that, what really stands out for me about this album is what one can write least about: the sheer strength of the melodies. With few exceptions, there’s an immediate, substantial and enduring appeal to them as new compositions that is quite rare. Given Tourish’s ability to produce so many of these, is it any wonder he is in such demand as a composer?