Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh: A mean fiddler quietly working up to master level
As a self-employed musician, Ó Raghallaigh’s workload was becoming a strain. So the fiddler, equally at home to the traditional and experimental, made a key change
It begins with interviewer and interviewee checking a list. This is to ensure that none of the albums or collaborations from the last year that fiddle player Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh has featured on is omitted.
The list includes records from This Is How We Fly, Triúr and The Gloaming. There’s also his gorgeous Laghdú album with Dan Trueman and the shimmering solo album Music for an Elliptical Orbit, the last pair released in the past fortnight.
Ó Raghallaigh pauses for a moment to consider the span of releases and grins. “Yep, that’s it; that’s all of them.”
It’s quite a haul, a testament to the Dublin native’s handsome reputation as a player and collaborator. Whether flying solo or playing as part of a duo, trio or larger group, his distinctive, striking, subtle fingerwork and ability to mine the space between the notes produces some startling work.
Such productivity has to be managed, and Ó Raghallaigh says he has had to find the right approach to the demands on his time. “When the music started taking off first for me, it was common to have a week where you might do six or seven different projects and you’d be like a grasshopper going from one to another. It’s really unsatisfying for your mind; you don’t really get into it, you don’t feel like you land at all.”
One pressing problem was the lack of time to think. “Common to many self-employed people, there is no time off, and I felt that to be a strain on my mental health. When you had a day off, you really felt like crashing and you’re in total recovery mode.
“When you fill the diary end to end, everything suffers, and you’re doing nobody any favours because you’re cranky to be around and your music suffers. Time off is absolutely necessary, and you’re happier and a nicer person to be around.”
A glued diary
To do this, he took a leaf out of This Is How We Fly drummer Petter Berndalen’s book. “He went back to a paper diary and in a moment of inspiration glued two pages together, so a week was gone; it didn’t exist. If anyone asked if he was free that week, he would look at the diary and the pages weren’t there so he had to say no.
“I took inspiration from that, opened the calendar on my computer and wrote in a free week for every month for 12 months. I need to be flexible because of the amount of projects I’m doing, but by and large I stuck to it. The difference to my head was huge.”
Over the years, Ó Raghallaigh’s work has progressed from the traditional sounds he initially mined to covering more experimental, minimal ground. He credits two people for initially encouraging him to take these steps.
“When I first felt a desire to step a little outside the traditional world, I had a chat with Iarla Ó Lionáird,” he recalls. “He told me to go buy a Macbook, Logic Pro and those microphones, and Where the One Eyed Man Is King came out of that. He was giving me encouragement and also telling me what I needed.
“The other was my friend Fiona Hallinan. She’s an amazing artist, and, when I was in college, she and her friends loved music, but not traditional music. I wanted to communicate with them through music, and that was a motivation to do something other than traditional.”
Communication through music with different communities is something Ó Raghallaigh comes back to a few times. The routes taken by both Music for an Elliptical Orbit and Laghdú may be informed by traditional music, but they’re aimed at a different audience.
“I can communicate with the community of traditional music listeners very well and very effectively in their language,” he says about the desire to play to different audiences, “and I love speaking that language because it’s so immensely enjoyable.
“But in terms of these albums and them, it would be like suddenly speaking a different language that maybe they don’t understand completely. It would be a strange move in the middle of that conversation. Maybe it’s nonsensical to have that outlook, but to me they’re two different languages for two different sets of people. It’s not a case of underestimating any audiences, but acknowledging that there are different things.”
The solo album is released on the label Diatribe, and Ó Raghallaigh was encouraged by its remit to cover new, eclectic music, from jazz to classical and contemporary. “Being on Diatribe gave me permission in my own head to put something out which was less traditional than it might have been if I was putting it out myself. When Nick [Roth, label boss] talked to me about this string series, it felt like a permission to push things further.”
This still involved trad tunes, albeit in a different shape. “I had some pieces I wanted to record; there were some improvisations and there were some pieces suggested by Nick. I was trying to write things where what interested me was not the notes but texture and space. The notes were just tools to explore tonality. With Cloud, Nick asked me to play a traditional tune, but pull it apart in the way that I do, which I didn’t understand at first,” he says, laughing.
The title is also a reference to his relationship with the trad mothership. “I feel I’m in orbit around traditional music and that’s the centre of my universe, which informs every note I play. With the elliptical orbit, the Earth is close to the sun in summer and farthest away in winter, and I’m more towards the winter side of things here. There’s a space and a sparseness to it so it’s more towards the colder rather than the warmer side.”
He’s as pleased as punch with Laghdú, the album of magically spun compositions he recorded with Dan Trueman, the fiddler, electronic musician and Princeton University professor. The pair first met when Ó Raghallaigh was studying physics and working at a particle accelerator in the US in 2000. Trueman introduced him to the hardanger fiddle and the pair hit it off.
“Dan was guest-lecturing in Trinity for a year, and we decided to make music together. We tried various ideas, but it became quite clear that the best thing was just playing the two fiddles. The sound of those fiddles together is immensely rewarding and nothing else was going to beat it.”
But as he talks about the various projects he’s put his name to, you’re certain something else will emerge soon enough from Ó Raghallaigh that will equal or better the standards already set. Here’s a musician slowly, steadily and quietly working his way up to master level.
“With solo, it’s about space and silence and exploring those textures. With Dan, it’s playing that music together and that is its own reward. With The Gloaming, it’s about the energy of it. With This Is How We Fly, it’s about a sense of shared exploration, and it feels like we’re only beginning that journey.”