Monday, July 02, 2007

Ruminations on learning the Irish fiddle, plus pictures

For all those clamoring for more photos of my new apartment, here are two - an exterior shot of the house (my apartment is on the second floor and on the right side) and a rare shot of me standing in the doorway to my porch. Everything is going well; I am on the cusp of what I call stage three: stage 1 is moving everything in, stage 2 is emptying boxes and putting everything in some semblance of livable order, and stage three is the slow process of rearranging everything to the apartment's 'ideal' state of being.

Meanwhile, there are other things going on in my life as well - the main thing being my newfound and ongoing appreciation of traditional irish music. Last weekend I spent a couple days on the cape attending a few events at the Cape Cod Celtic Festival. If I haven't said it before (and I think I have), Liz Carroll is my hero right now. I went to a workshop she taught, ostensibly "Intermediate Irish Fiddle', and learned a great deal, though the two hours went very quickly. Surprisingly, she taught our little group a reel of her own called 'Ralph's 2-3-5' (the 2-3-5 referring to the number of parts in each section of the tune). It can be found in fine form on her most recent recording with John Doyle called "In Play". It's a sly tune, and as we went over it Liz touched on a number of very helpful points regarding ornamentation, different styles of trebling, little tricks with bow direction, ideas for variation during repeats (especially double-stopping, which I love). Liz is very funny and chatty, very encouraging, and a wonder on the fiddle, even during a five-second demonstration of this point or that.

The other high point of the festival, for me, was the closing session at O'Shea's Inn on Sunday afternoon. It was especially nice as we went around the circle and everybody got a chance to introduce a tune or two, which at least assured me of knowing the tunes that I started. If I remember correctly, I believe I started 'The Banshee' and 'Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine', a particular favorite of mine that I learned from Pete Cooper's 'Complete Guide to Learning the Irish Fiddle'. 'Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine' has one of those particular little things that I love in Irish tunes, a brief phrase in the B section that quickly alternates between a C natural and C sharp that kind of pokes at your ears in an odd yet appealing way, and gives almost a distant, ancient flavor to the melody. This crops up over and over in a lot of tunes, and will probably seem less and less novel the more I learn, but in the meantime I love it.

I also attended a session at the Skellig in Waltham last Tuesday, a weekly session that is very welcoming to newcomers (though they don't necessarily go 'round the horn introducing tunes). A little session etiquette I've learned: if you're new, sit towards the outside of the circle, don't introduce tunes, if you don't know the tune just finger along silently, and don't pester anybody too much for the names of the tunes. Not that anybody will bite your head off, but if you want to build a place for yourself it's good to be polite. Unless your social skills are completely turned off you'll get a feel for when you can start to assert yourself a bit more, and the session leaders will begin to recognize you and give you a chance to start a tune now and then. I think. I've only been to three or four so far, all in the last couple of weeks.

Learning tunes at a session is very challenging. At this stage, I really only know about ten to fifteen tunes pretty well, and can follow along another ten or fifteen pretty well, but there are thousands out there, and most local communities of players will probably have a bag of a couple hundred that they might pull from. So, I really only recognize one tune in ten (or fewer), so I do a lot of silently fingering along, trying to catch the structure of the melody as the group whizzes through it at full speed. My brain gets pretty stretched after doing this for three tunes or so, and then I have to sit back and rest a bit. If you can catch the name of the tune you can try and look it up later, otherwise it'll probably come up again in a future session and you'll hopefully get a handle on it eventually.

If anybody is curious about what I've been listening to and what I really like here's a brief list:

Planxty - one of the first traditional groups of the early 70's resurgence in traditional music, these guys are incredible, mixing stunning, creative arrangements of traditional instrumentals with great songs. Andy Irvine's voice is wonderful. The first album is my favorite so far. Listen to 'Junior Crehan's Favorite' and 'Planxty Irwin'. No fiddles, but the amazing uillean pipes more than make up for it. I think one reason I really like these guys is they speak to me as a former member of a band. They really come across as a real band, not just a collection of great musicians, working together to create something that is more than the sum of its parts. The creativity they bring to their arrangements is virtually unparalleled (in my vast experience with traditional irish music). Wonderful harmonies, complex polyphonic instrumental parts, atmospheric development, stunning transitions.

Brian Conway - 'First Through the Gate' - I just got this album this week and it's a great collection of fiddle tunes in the County Sligo style from a New York-born fiddler. Very warm playing, with fast, elegant ornamentation and great choice of tunes. 'Blackberry Blossom' into 'The Silver Spire' has a stately, infectious joy about it and 'Jennie's Welcome to Charlie' is just an amazing four-part tune that throws me for a loop.

Danu - 'When All is Said and Done' - One of their more recent albums with new vocalist Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, who has a wonderful, throaty alto voice (in contrast to the more typical bell-like soprano found in much Irish singing). Once again, a great band with stellar arrangements and great choice of tunes and songs. Plus, a surreal yet organic and beautiful cover of Dylan's 'Farewell, Angelina'. Oisín McAuley is a spirited and technically amazing player who lives near me in Brookline, MA. I've had the opportunity to hear him trying out fiddle bows in our showroom at work which was really neat, kind of a brief glance inside the mind of a great fiddler.

That's enough for now, it's a nice day and I've got further chores to do.

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