A ‘guer­rilla per­former from the side of a moun­tain’

Ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and evo­lu­tion are es­sen­tial to mu­sic, says fid­dler Martin Hayes, who doesn’t miss the days of ca­reer-long con­tracts with la­bels

The Irish Times - - Arts & Ideas - Siob­hánLong

The bare-boned sound of fid­dle and gui­tar is what has de­fined Martin Hayes and Den­nis Cahill since they first en­coun­tered one another al­most three decades ago.

To­gether, Martin sug­gests, they’ve tried to “to sculpt a sound that is some­what min­i­mal­ist but based on re­veal­ing the la­tent ex­pres­sive po­ten­tial of the melody”. Over that pe­riod, and par­tic­u­larly in re­cent years, the pair have in­vested heav­ily in other col­lab­o­ra­tions too: Hayes with Triúir (a trio fea­tur­ing Peadar Ó Ri­ada and Caoimhín Ó Raghal­laigh), with gui­tarist John Doyle and Lú­nasa’s flute player Kevin Craw­ford and with The Tulla Céilí Band, with the pair to­gether form­ing the foun­da­tion of the hugely suc­cess­ful five-piece über­group, The Gloam­ing.

As the musical land­scape has evolved in more re­cent years, the Univer­sity of Lim­er­ick and the Na­tional Con­cert Hall have of­fered safe har­bours of another kind, spon­sor­ing and cu­rat­ing a num­ber of other col­lab­o­ra­tive ini­tia­tives to fuel the pair’s cre­ative juices even fur­ther. And so The Martin Hayes Quar­tet has come to be: a highly res­o­nant com­ing to­gether of Hayes and Cahill with Doug Wiesel­man on bass clar­inet and Liz Knowles on fid­dle.

The mind­ful mu­si­cian

Hayes, ever the mind­ful mu­si­cian, let his in­stincts guide him to this lat­est ad­ven­ture, just as he has with pre­vi­ous col­lab­o­ra­tors.

“I al­ways try to play as though I am freely danc­ing and singing at the same time,” he ex­plains. “The body holds the rhythm and the heart gen­er­ates the feel­ing in re­sponse to the beauty of the melodic line. Den­nis Cahill’s play­ing and part­ner­ship over the years has been an in­valu­able sup­port to me in re­al­is­ing all of th­ese musical goals. And this is the start­ing point from which this quar­tet emerges.”

“Be­ing in the mo­ment” is a con­cept to which Hayes con­tin­u­ally re­turns, along with the no­tion of “get­ting out of the way” of the mu­sic, so that it can find full flight in the spon­tane­ity of the mo­ment. In Wiesel­man and Knowles, he knew he had found kin­dred spir­its.

Dur­ing their first en­counter at an Other Voices con­cert in 2011, Wiesel­man “coloured out the har­monic world around the tune as if he’d known th­ese tunes his whole life”. Knowles and Hayes first met over two decades ago in Nova Sco­tia at a fid­dle camp. She’s a fid­dler who is clas­si­cally trained, with a deep cu­rios­ity for and love of Scot­tish and Ir­ish tra­di­tional mu­sic.

“Play­ing mu­sic with Liz is a de­light,” Hayes says, “be­cause one minute she’s play­ing a counter melody, the next she’s mir­ror­ing my ver­sion of the melody, or play­ing a rhyth­mic pat­tern. She man­ages to de­ploy all of her di­verse musical skill in a way that helps give this en­sem­ble its unique sound. Her play­ing in the quar­tet is in­te­gral to keep­ing the tra­di­tional melodic line knit­ted into the ar­range­ments.”

Lis­ten­ing to the four-piece wend their way around The Boy In The Gap and the well-known pip­ing tune as­so­ci­ated with Sea­mus En­nis, Easter Snow, there’s clearly an in­ti­macy and in­tu­itive qual­ity to the way they ap­proach each tune in­di­vid­u­ally and col­lec­tively.

A jazz-like qual­ity

“There’s a way of look­ing at things that has a jazz-like qual­ity,” Hayes sug­gests.

“Be­ing in that mo­ment, be­ing re­ac­tive and al­low­ing things to hap­pen. One doesn’t have to play jazz to em­brace that con­cept. There is a free­dom, an op­por­tu­nity to re­spond and re­act and for any per­son to change the con­ver­sa­tion ever so slightly, which changes ev­ery­body else’s re­sponse. That said, Ir­ish melodies are very cen­tral and im­por­tant to what I do mu­si­cally, and I’m not go­ing to turn into a free jazz mu­si­cian to­mor­row, like!”

Where Hayes dif­fers from some mu­si­cians is in his will­ing­ness to take cre­ative leaps into the un­known.

“One dan­ger­ous thing is that if you have some­thing that’s suc­ceed­ing, there is a real ten­dency to grab onto it and hold onto it,” he notes. “What I’ve learned over the years is to not do that. To be will­ing to do another thing, even when some­thing is suc­cess­ful. And not ev­ery­thing is suc­cess­ful. That doesn’t mat­ter ei­ther. It’s just that you’re will­ing to go some­where and in some sub­tle way you will most def­i­nitely learn some­thing from every new ex­pe­ri­ence. You should in the­ory come out the other end a lit­tle bit fur­ther along.”

“Trust is more im­por­tant than plan­ning at this stage,” he con­tin­ues. “Hav­ing a clever plan of­ten blocks you from things hap­pen­ing. Trust­ing the mo­ment, and that you’ll be able to re­spond is some­thing that I have faith in, so in a sense, that is the parachute.”

Th­ese cre­ative ad­ven­tures yield other fruits too, at a time when the musical land­scape is con­stantly in a state of flux. The Univer­sity of Lim­er­ick’s three-year af­fil­i­ate re­la­tion­ship with Martin had made pos­si­ble the quar­tet from its in­cep­tion.

“It’s a very prac­ti­cal way of sup­port­ing the arts,” Hayes main­tains. “Ev­ery­thing is chang­ing: the record busi­ness is chang­ing, how we advertise, how we com­mu­ni­cate. This is another com­ing to­gether of in­sti­tu­tions who can share some com­mon goals. The Na­tional Con­cert Hall is also a spon­sor of this quar­tet and this al­bum so we all have ways that we can help each other. It’s a kind of an ex­tended col­lab­o­ra­tion I sup­pose.”

Hayes has no truck with the sen­ti­men­tal­ists who would re­turn to the old days of big record com­pa­nies and ca­reer-long con­tracts.

“In some ways, hav­ing a big record com­pany that ‘did’ some­thing was a dis­em­pow­er­ing world,” he says. “In this world, it’s a com­ing to­gether of shared in­ter­ests, and who knows? The next time we do some­thing it could be another way of do­ing it, like the cre­ative process it­self.”

The world of tra­di­tional mu­sic has been evolv­ing at a pace. What does Hayes make of the land­scape that ac­com­mo­dates not only The Gloam­ing but En­sem­ble Eriú, Saileog Ní Cheannab­háin, Cor­mac Be­g­ley and The Tulla Céilí Band with such ex­pan­sive ease?

“Seán Ó Ri­ada and later The Bothy Band, The Chief­tains and Planxty set a course in a way,” Hayes says.

“There’s been an evo­lu­tion­ary process that stalls at times and then evolves and moves for­ward again. We’re also in a post-genre world, where Ir­ish mu­sic is like a stream feed­ing into another river of mu­sic. So we’re get­ting all th­ese other sounds that are not strictly tra­di­tional mu­sic. And at the same time, there are more peo­ple play­ing ‘east Clare mu­sic’ now than there ever were. So that side of the mu­sic is very strong.”


Ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and evo­lu­tion are es­sen­tial to the lifeblood of the mu­sic, Martin in­sists.

“I love all the ex­per­i­men­ta­tion go­ing on. I don’t want tra­di­tional Ir­ish mu­sic to for­get its roots, but I think that all the ex­per­i­men­ta­tion at the edges is also very good, and I try to em­body that in my own ca­reer as well. I’ll play a few céilís with the Tulla Céilí Band, and I’ll play a few ses­sions, and then with The Gloam­ing and with Den­nis. You have to wel­come it all re­ally.”

Cast­ing one’s gaze out­wards as well as in­ward is im­por­tant too, Martin be­lieves.

“One of the chal­lenges that Ir­ish mu­sic has is mak­ing sure that it can con­nect with the wider musical world, and in some ways th­ese projects are an at­tempt to com­mu­ni­cate with peo­ple from dif­fer­ent musical back­grounds, while cre­at­ing an open­ing into this world of Ir­ish tra­di­tional mu­sic as well.

“I be­lieve in that no­tion that there are not that many ac­ci­dents in life ei­ther,” he con­tin­ues. “Peo­ple come into your life, and you have to be aware of it when they cross your path.”

And even still, Hayes sees the crack that’s in ev­ery­thing.

“I think it’s im­por­tant to have a will­ing­ness to go on even in the knowl­edge of your own lack of skill some­times,” he says.

“I’m not a prop­erly trained mu­si­cian; I’m a com­plete guer­rilla per­former from the side of a moun­tain. I have a lot of lim­i­ta­tions which sug­gest that I should have tried to study mu­sic, but I just go ahead any­way, with all my lack of skill in one area.

“I’m not par­tic­u­larly equipped for a huge amount of col­lab­o­ra­tions, but I just do them any­way.”

The Martin Hayes res­i­dency con­tin­ues at the Na­tional Con­cert Hall, Dublin, on Jan­uary 24th with Brook­lyn Rider and May12th, 2018 with Martin Hayes Duos. The Blue Room is out now. nch.ie

‘‘ I al­ways try to play as though I am freely danc­ing and singing at the same time. The body holds the rhythm and the heart gen­er­ates the feel­ing in re­sponse to the beauty of the melodic line There’s been an evo­lu­tion­ary process that stalls at times and then evolves and moves for­ward again. We’re also in a post-genre world, where Ir­ish mu­sic is like a stream feed­ing into another river of mu­sic


The Martin Hayes Quar­tet: Liz Knowles, Hayes, Den­nis Cahill and Doug Wiesel­man.

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