New tunes for the tribe


One of our most accomplished composers has joined with two of our finest fiddlers – and the results may echo for years to come

THE MELODY is the thing. It’s the glue that holds traditional music together. It supports rhythm and tone, colour and shape. Peadar Ó Riada has gathered 19 of his own original tunes, transposed them into 16 tune sets and brought them to life in the company of fiddlers Martin Hayes and Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh. And without sleight of hand, or mixing desk trickery either. Their new CD, Triúr Sa Draighean, is aptly titled: it’s so intimate it’s as if the three musicians got the gist of the tunes, gathered round the fire and pressed the record button.

And yet at times these three musicians achieve such an orchestral sound that it’s easy to forget this is simply two fiddles and a concertina at play, with the occasional incursion of Ó Riada’s accordion and whistle, and on one track – the sole, intensely haunting and evocative song, Tráthann an Taoide– his Indian tambura. If our traditional music needed a boost, then these 19 new tunes will surely buoy its spirits for years to come, most likely morphing into alternate shapes in the hands of nameless musicians who have yet to make their acquaintance.

Curiously, Peadar Ó Riada has an aversion to accepting the title of composer of these tunes. For him, the act of bringing a piece of music into being is a far more elusive one than the formalised notion of composition suggests. “Tunes happen by accident,” he believes, “without much thought. If you intellectualise about them, they turn out to be pretty stilted. Like, I’m sure that if a hen was trying to lay an egg, and thinking about the whole process, she’d be very sore because it’d be turning different angles and all sorts of things, in the wrong direction”.

“And you’d end up with a square egg,” Martin Hayes adds wryly.

Ó Riada isn’t averse to drawing on his own exacting musical education to inform his music. A graduate of UCC’s School of Music where he was tutored by the late Aloys Fleishmann, he is also the son of the renowned musician, composer, arranger and polymath, Seán Ó Riada, in whose “sunshine” rather than “shadow”, Peadar grew up, he insists. His rich experience has bequeathed him both skills and instincts to mould his musical ideas into existence. “Obviously, I learned the bricks and mortar of the affair in college – and there was fierce rigour in college with Aloys Fleishmann – so I know I was so privileged in that way. But what happens now is more emotional than anything else. They [the tunes] fill a gap that appears.”

Ó Riada’s expansive sleeve notes for Triúr Sa Draigheanare a rich tapestry of insights into the creative process, intimate anecdotes about the genesis of individual tunes and an Aladdin’s cave of revelations on the art and act of music making for scholar and casual listener alike. His revelation that in the past he used to brace himself for the day when his ability to create music out of nothingness would leave him is a startling one – and says much about the self-doubt that dogs even the most prolific of artists.

“That’s the way of the musician,” he admits, “trying to see how far they can go before they run out of fingers to do what they want to do on the keyboard. That’s a phase you go through in life when you don’t have any sense. Then, age is a wonderful thing: you relax and you get rid of that angst. Now, I feel very embarrassed about that period of my life, but I was testing myself – just like a runner would, to see how fast he could run.”

These days, Ó Riada is more in awe than anything else, of the mysterious ways in which art emerges from the imagination.

“When you create music or a painting, you do it out of absolutely nothing,” he says, with the kind of surprise that suggests he never quite believes it until it happens again. “You bring it into this three dimensional world out of nothing but energy. I’ve spent time looking into that: into what the hell it is that is the creative energy, which is completely different to the spiritual energy and the physical energy. To be an artist, you have to have all three energies, and to be a musician is a great privilege because you have the possibility to do that.”

Ó Riada’s collaborator, east Clare fiddler Martin Hayes, continually returns to what he sees as the essence of the music for him: the melody. “Thinking about the fundamentals of the music, the richness of the music is the richness of the melody really,” he offers. “Sometimes that’s in its simplicity and its humility, but also in its naturalness. I found that when you get confused in your journey with the music, as you regularly will, if you scale it back down to that elemental core and just let that melody be, then its natural beauty carries you along and from there the inspiration comes, the ideas and interpretations, but you have to let the piece of music take the lead initially.”

Just because a piece of music is newly-minted doesn’t mean that it can be automatically inducted into the traditional canon. Martin Hayes found himself attracted to Peadar Ó Riada’s tunes precisely because their melodies lured him in, and they sounded as though they had always belonged to the repertoire of east Clare and Sliabh Luachra, two distinctly recognisable musical regions where genteel reels and more robust polkas and slides flourish and thrive.

“They’re exactly the kind of tunes I would want to play,” Hayes smiles, “and it’s been a pleasure learning them and a pleasure playing them – and I’m still excited about them.”

Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh brought his Hardanger fiddle to the party, and his interplay with Martin’s fiddle folds with great agility in between the pleats of Peadar’s accordion.

“Where it gets interesting is where it’s all about feeling and energy,” he smiles, “rather than an intellectual response to something the other person has just done. It’s not that at all.”

MARTIN HAYESis quick to point to the blemishes too. The trio relished the adrenalin rush that came with recording the tunes live, and Hayes knows that, as Leonard Cohen says, it’s the crack in everything that lets the light in.

“It’s like that Japanese aesthetic where the crack in the porcelain is what makes it valuable,” he muses. “You don’t want perfection because perfection becomes unreality. It loses its sense of believability. If you can’t hear a squawk on the fiddle, there’s a little part of you that suspects the reality of what’s happening. You need to know that it’s real.”

Peadar Ó Riada was adamant that Triúr’s endeavour wouldn’t fall victim to what he sees as a malaise that’s infected the world of the traditional music business in the same way as all other forms of music selling.

“The industry is full of pretension, and people playing at doing something, rather than actually doing it,” he says, “but the day and age has come when musicians have got independence. They can record their own stuff, and flog their own stuff, from their own site. No one in between. The revolution is on.”

Ultimately it’s about the music: “We play with our ears, and not with our minds,” Ó Riada suggests. “When Martin and Caoimhín are playing, and you hear a slight inflection or colour coming from one side or the other, it tickles you often to start in that direction too. If you’re playing with your ears, it’s instantaneous; you’re not leading. You’re part of a communal experience, like a beehive. Irish music is about individuals playing together. It’s not about individuals competing against one another. It’s a voice of a tribe, of a communal consciousness. You’re not just playing for an individual, you’re playing for your people, your community and that’s why they get the buzz out of it – because it’s their voice too.”

Triúr Sa Draighean