Raelach's Landscape of New Voices
Raelach Records has been quietly establishing an excellent catalogue over the last few years, bringing to the fore some relatively new or emerging voices. The label reflects the diversity of interests of its lynchpin, Jack Talty, recently joined by Paul O’Connor, in accommodating solo playing which is definitive of the modern traditional musician: the players have an extensive knowledge of the tradition and the sources of tunes, are respectful of the past, and aware of their own acolyte status. The label also issues music which recognises that this base exists within a multi-layered musical landscape, and which explores traditional music’s relationship with this landscape. Three of the label’s recent offerings – all fine pieces of work – are discussed here.
Saileog Ní Cheannabháin’s second album, Roithleán (RR008, 2016), introduces a number of strands throughout the recording that define her as a multi-faceted traditional artist. First up is Saileog the piano player, tackling the sort of modal reels (on the first track: ‘The Old Dúidín’, ‘Tighe’s Rare Reel’) that often stymie the most clued-in of accompanists, and in keys rarely ventured into by even the most proficient players. On these and on the other piano sets (some Paddy Fahey tunes as well as some great tunes of her own making, especially ‘Na Portairí Siúlacha’) the left hand, to my ears, borrows in its punctuative style from uilleann pipe regulator playing, box bassing, and concertina chording and octave playing – this last a technique that is rarely heard on the piano. (Thankfully the sleeve notes later confirmed my interpretation!) The tune is given plenty of air, showing off how well she has translated fiddle and other ornaments to the piano, never the easiest instrument on which to bring out the shape and feel of traditional tunes on – and while cascading triplets, rolls, and scads of cuts undoubtedly help this, it’s the phrasing, the emphases, the stresses, and the rhythm that catch the ear more than anything.
One thing not to my taste is that, because of her adherence to this style of accompaniment, you never get a developed, contrapuntal-style bassline (or only occasionally as on Fahey’s reels). It’s also very obvious that the harmony has been very deliberately chosen to avoid chromaticism and more alternative harmonies. Sticking to this sort of aesthetic principle is understandable; it makes a committed statement concerning what this accompaniment should be, but whether it’s tenable over the course of an album is another matter.
It might seem I’ve dwelt a lot on this aspect of the album, but the other strands (not to forget these) don’t raise the same questions: as a composer, she possesses the same sense of naturalness and feel for the note juste (to modify the phrase) as someone like Peadar Ó Riada – the tunes sound like they’ve been around for decades, and I imagine will be enthusiastically adopted by other players. Her singing is exceptional, and provides some of the highlights on the album, particularly her reading of ‘Uileacán Dubh Ó’, which is sung with Muireann Ní Cheannabháin. She’s also a fine fiddle and viola player, and the darker tone colours of the latter instrument fit with her stylistic leanings towards East Clare/Galway (to my ear anyway).
Given that the first instruments heard on Ensemble Ériu’s second album are the clarinet and marimba, Imbas (a word describing inspiration, creativity and prophetic knowledge, according to the notes) announces itself as inhabiting a very different soundworld. The opening pulsating riffs of ‘The Tempest’, and indeed the instrumentation, make it hard not to draw comparisons to the ‘minimalist’ writing of Steve Reich (no matter how much the band might disavow this); the difference is that here these interweaving lines eventually form a backdrop for this familiar D-modal reel, rather than comprising the piece itself.
The arrangement of this reel is superbly constructed to produce a satisfying tension between the different rhythms and implied harmonies of the interlocking parts – Neil O’Loghlen’s bass riff accentuates each bar (as opposed to each beat) moving towards the tonic D rather than from it, whereas the clarinet plays pulses and melodic lines that change halfway through each bar, fleshed out by additional contrasting lines on marimba and guitar. The accompanying lines expand as the tune repeats, and Matthew Berrill’s clarinet playing really stands out here in how it reinterprets and builds on the opening riff. At the same time, what I found about the first album was still true on this and other tracks – the structure of the tune remains inviolable once it appears, so that arguably the creativity is located not so much in the tune (this is not saying it’s played badly, far from it) but in the textures which surround it.
While ‘The Yellow Wattle’ starts off in much the same fashion, this transitions into a freer section, with Jack Talty freely improvising over a delicate guitar and clarinet texture; improvising seems an appropriate description, as it’s not a simple variation of the tune, but does share some of its contours and figures. ‘Cnocán an Teampaill’ gets a more extended treatment; I liked Paddy Groenland’s guitar work here, which has enough traces of the tune to make the lines recognisable, yet at the same time different from the tune.
The ‘Humours of Drinagh’ set begins with some great unaccompanied trio and duet playing, before the introduction of accompanying lines which gradually encroach on the tune and eventually fragment. As in the previous track, the melodies and riffs that emerge from this echo, in a transformed way, the second jig. The scattered fragments of the tune are then gathered together to bring in the final tune in the set.
The final sets, Peadar Ó Riada’s ‘West Clare Reel’, and ‘Micho Russell’s’, are worked out in a similar way to the first reel, and also with better integration between the different sections. These tracks also underline the music’s strong association with Clare; this musical heritage doesn’t weigh down the music, however, and the album really succeeds in giving space for the different musical voices and traditions which the individual group members bring to the table. It will be interesting to see whether this template can be further developed; while Imbas builds on the first album, it also inhabits and explores much of the same space.
In the Tradition
Aidan Connolly’s debut recording, Be Off (RR009, 2016), is a model album in many ways, a sort of archetype of the contemporary tradition; Connolly knows his music, but more than that, knows how to carefully piece together a collection of sets to demonstrate this knowledge, and to appeal to the connoisseur (I’m aware that this might seem like a backhanded way to enshrine myself in this role), and to deliver fresh material ‘in the tradition’, so to speak. There’s hardly a false step here, from the invocation of Paddy Cronin as the patron saint of proceedings, to the gleaning of unfamiliar tunes from old recordings (‘McFadden’s Hop Jig’), manuscripts and collections, odd versions of old favourites like ‘The Bucks’, and other gems learnt on the circuit. All this would be incidental of course if the delivery wasn’t as authoritative, but thankfully this isn’t the case, and Connolly is a consummate stylist in his drawing out of a tune.
Two minor cavils: there are a lot of guests, which means that at times the distinctiveness of the playing gets lost among the ensuing dialogues. At other times, I felt slightly short-changed by expecting another round or two of some of the tunes – but maybe this is in line with the subtleties of his style; there’s no excess here, and few grand gestures; instead Connolly (in tunes like ‘Molly Bán’) exploits his ability to vary tone colour, intonation, and micro-pitching, using a very fine vibrato to accentuate the longer notes in the second half. All told, this is an enjoyable album which carves out an individual style, and announces a player to watch for in the future.
Roithleán, Imbas and Be Off are available from Raelach Records.
Published on 9 January 2017
Adrian Scahill is a lecturer in traditional music at Maynooth University.
Adrian Scahill is a lecturer in traditional music at Maynooth University.