A Blast of New Light
I’m standing on ceremony outside the door of McCann Hall in the DIT building on Chatham Row in Dublin, and through the door and above the sounds of other instruments being played more tentatively elsewhere in the building I am listening to a very assured rehearsal. Dónal Lunny – needing no introduction, but if you must: the pulse of, for starters, three of the most loved groups in Irish folk music (Planxty, The Bothy Band and Moving Hearts); Zoë Conway – the closest thing trad ever had to a child prodigy; and Máirtín O’Connor, from his De Dannan and Skylark days to his time with Riverdance and his current trio with Cathal Hayden and Seamie O’Dowd, one of music’s great global ambassadors, are working through their set list for this Music Network tour. Lunny’s ringing bouzouki sound, with its smooth changes in strumming patterns, dashes through the melodic spirals from O’Connor’s box and Conway’s fiddle.
What’s interesting about the accordion-fiddle combination, exaggerated here behind the door, is how in different modes the two sounds, though produced so differently, meld so well that they become effectively one. And of course that’s often what traditional musicians aim for, a blended sound.
The melody side of the accordion doesn’t have the articulative diversity of the fiddle. Hidden beneath its buttons and inside its bellows, air is being forced through valves and across reeds to release, from its sound holes, a somewhat ‘squashed’ timbre. That sound can certainly be ‘teased’ at for different articulation using the dynamics of the bellows, but its range of ‘acoustic special effects’ is limited compared to what a hank of horse hair drawn over taut metal can produce. It’s remarkable that, when bowed smoothly, that rasping can actually be made to ‘slip’ under the more mechanical sound of the box.
The true strength of accordion ornamentation lies elsewhere. While other traditional melody instruments are restricted to quick rolls, cuts, stops and such like, the box can with ease produce bass-line runs, counterpoint melodies and whopping great chords. No wonder it has that one-man-band reputation. It is the chord king of the melody instruments, some sudden and short-lived, others surfacing slowly into shape and drawn out, some syncopated and off-beat, others neatly in line with the dance meter.
The bouzouki chords are very different creatures, ringing out from the doubled-up strings of plain steel and wound bronze struck by an edge of plastic. It’s a smoky, low-lying sound, coming under the melody more subtly than a guitar’s. And of course, particularly in Lunny’s hands, it is far from restricted to chords: at times leading or matching the melody line, at others providing a run of counter-melody or a bedding of drone, and sometimes doing all three at once.
The rehearsal is in full flow, now, and I’m inside the hall with the musicians. Fragments of tunes are being bounced back and forth while arrangement options are explored and settled on or dismissed. Notes are being written, yellow and white pieces of paper are being moved about, comments are being made and suggestions offered. In relation to a particular set, Conway wonders ‘Too much E-minor?’ No, the others like it. Lunny adjusts the strumming for the end of a tune, O’Connor tries out a different take on the turn between tunes.
They’re ploughing through material. When you think about their collective performing and recording experience (Lunny since the late sixties, O’Connor since the late seventies, and Conway since – bit of a jump – the early noughties) you cannot be surprised at how quickly they can work out the optimum dynamics. What’s reassuring is how meticulous they are, how much effort these super-skilled musicians, who could possibly just show up and still entertain most of us for hours just messing about, put into every detail of the music.
Conway (“honoured to be invited to tour with these two Irish traditional legends,” as she says) is now singing the Jethro Tull song, Crazy Man Michael, in her remarkably childlike voice, accompanied by Lunny on guitar and some singing harmony. Earlier in the year, Conway tells me “the two-hour photo shoot turned into six hours and lunch and dinner and many tunes also. It was impossible for us to hold the instruments and not play them.” (“A joyful moment,” says Lunny. O’Connor called it the “frozen finger session” referring to the temperatures in Athlone that day.) “I suspect,” Conway adds, “from the tunes in between the photos, that the music for the tour will be a selection of strong traditional and more progressive tunes.”
Indeed, the label “traditional” doesn’t do any of the three of them full justice. All three are composers, innovators and experimenters, working comfortably in genres and styles well outside traditional, though often returning to the old tunes. We are all familiar with the breathtaking array of places Lunny has journeyed in his music both in his own playing (most recently with Breton flautist, Sylvain Barou and Clare concertina player, Padraig Rynne) and in his international reputation as a cross-genre record producer and collaborator.
In O’Connor’s case, only on his first solo album do you find all trad, and even there he was already doing unusual things with it. His other albums have as many non-Irish tunes and forms as they do jigs, reels etc. and of course reflect his prolific output as a composer. (Last year he released a book of transcriptions of his compositions, Inside the Box, Outside the Box, which features a mix of trad non-trad forms.)
Conway, finally, is classically trained, has been writing music since she was a teenager, and has performed her own and others’ work with numerous Irish and international orchestras in venues including Áras an Uachtaráin, the New York Stock Exchange and Carnegie Hall. “I've known both Dónal and Máirtín for years,” she says. “Dónal recorded on my very first album and took my breath away with his brilliance and spontaneity in recording and playing. I also played with Máirtín on a beautiful tour in Italy with Mícheál Ó Domhnaill, God rest him.” And indeed Conway included O’Connor and Lunny among the twelve composers from whom she commissioned new music for her most recent album, Go Mairir I Bhfad_Long Life To You (with John McIntyre).
From having interviewed him before I sense O’Connor would prefer to play music than talk about it. I picture myself sitting with a clipboard resting on my lap and to each deeply probing question O’Connor responding with a tune. One called ‘In answer to your question’, maybe, or another entitled ‘How about this one?’ Wouldn’t that be fun?
It’s just as well, though, that he doesn’t in reality play during the actual interview for this essay, because he’s driving. We arranged to meet at the end of the rehearsal, and putting the music first, rightly, the only chance I had to chat with him and not take from rehearsal time was on the car journey to Dublin airport to pick up his wife afterwards.
A bit like one or two of his tunes, the journey itself is not without incident, marked by quite a few navigational loop the loops and sudden changes in direction. It seems about right, too, that we’re on the road, when you think that his first solo album (1979, with Lunny’s Mulligan label) was called The Connachtman’s Rambles, and all his subsequent album titles or covers feature movement and roads prominently. (His piece for Conway’s album, which will feature on the tour, is called ‘Trip to Gort’.)
O’Connor’s is a dynamic, no-nonsense music. There’s nothing pretentious or self-indulgent about it. It is often lively and sometimes full of humour. But it is not jaunty, and that’s important, because there’s nothing easy about it. It is profoundly musical, in that it comes from a deep fluency in the language of music. Like the poetry of a particular place, it defies translation. It is about itself. At the same time, it refreshingly natural. Many of his melodic lines, at least as he plays them, remind me of song, like a voice instinctively launching into the telling of a classic tale.
Lunny, who has described O’Connor as a ‘wizard accordionista’ and who O’Connor describes as the king of rhythm (“I love the child at play in him,” O’Connor says. “It’s serious on the one hand, but not too serious to destroy the fun in it.”), is more comfortable with discussions about music.
He has written about how for many years his interest in alternatives to the ubiquitous 4-beats-in-a-bar had him ‘silently superimposing’ other rhythms on top of 4’s just ‘for the mental craic’. Back when he first met Andy Irvine, when Planxty was still a twinkle in their eyes, he has described how they shared “a love of strange time signatures and syncopation and punctuation in our approach to music. He [Irvine] had recordings of Bulgarian music … [that] didn’t really surface over here until the late 1980s. Hearing it back then was magical for me. It blew me away.”
“Mairtín,” he says, “has long been one of Ireland's master musicians. As long as I've known him he's been playing fiendishly complicated pieces learnt from the accordion virtuosi of Spain, Argentina, Bulgaria, and so on. And the structure of many of his own compositions range far beyond the conventional modes of Irish music… You'd need to be a virtuoso to tackle them.”
Some of Lunny’s own compositions that will feature on the tour include excerpts from 'Tribute To Peadar O'Donnell', 'The Tolka Polka' (which Lunny maintains he can't play himself!), the piece he composed for Conway, 'New End', 'The Ballymun Regatta', and the the final section of Planxty's 'Timedance'.
As major figures in the relatively small world of professional Irish folk music, Lunny and O’Connor have of course played together at various times down the years. But as two musical adventurers holding each other in such high regard and with so much in common, it is surprising, perhaps, that this is the first time they will work so closely and intensively together, playing each other’s music.
I might be wrong about this but I sense that the journey they would have taken as a duo might have breached a good few health and safety regulations and various speed limits, and that just as her composition project may have indirectly been a starting point for this tour, Conway’s calming influence musically may have been vital in enabling us to enjoy this ride.
O’Connor says of the journey: “I like it because we get to embrace music with various other rhythms, and then when we play a blast of reels, it gives a new perspective on them. It’s akin to leaving the country and seeing it in a new light when you come back.”