Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh & Thomas Bartlett review: Joyous music defying categorisation

The Gloaming duo’s collaboration is dreamlike, mysterious and utterly engaging

Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh & Thomas Bartlett
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Artist: Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh & Thomas Bartlett
Genre: World Music
Label: Real World Records

Dreams, by their very nature, are elusive, enigmatic and frequently inexplicable. The music that Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and Thomas Bartlett make has a reverie-like quality that is similarly elusive. It flows into the ether untethered by time or any notions of categorisation.

This pair of musicians has already gloried in one another's company as members of The Gloaming, where they've mined deep seams, strongly rooted in, but not enslaved by, the tradition, in the company of Martin Hayes, Dennis Cahill and Iarla Ó Lionáird. Ó Raghallaigh's hardanger d'amore fiddle is a 10-string instrument which resonates richly at frequencies unreachable by a traditional fiddle or a viola d'amore. Bartlett plays a piano as if his very breath originates from within it. Their eponymous debut as a duo signals a road never before taken, a picaresque amble down quiet bothareens and grassy lanes in pursuit of nothing more than the chance to let the sounds find their own space to breathe.

The impressionistic essence of the music they make is joyous, mysterious and tenuous. It tiptoes from the gorgeous grooves of this LP release (the CD to follow at some indeterminate time in the future) with the lightest of touches, spinning skeins of sound that insinuate their way deep beneath the skin. Unhurried in every way (clocking in at a robust time of about 66 minutes), this collection of nine pieces, ranging in length from the rascally We Thought We Knew (a stone skipping the water’s surface) to the languid Open Shelter, a 15-minute odyssey that, for all the world, might be a peek into the void – or perhaps it’s an intimate whisper to a lover? That’s the beauty of this music. It’s an ability to summon responses so subjective that the listener is invited to make the music his or her own from the opening chords.

For that reason too, to single out individual tracks is something akin to excising a sentence from an utterly engaging conversation. Ó Raghallaigh and Bartlett are immersed in a late night tête à tête here that has its own internal rhythms and logic, and whose whole is greater than the sum of its considerable parts.


Recurring patterns

Recurring patterns emerge in almost all of the individual tracks, distinguishing topographical features which the listener can make acquaintance with gradually, unhurriedly. And who wouldn’t want to make the acquaintance of pieces with dreamlike titles like these: Zona Rosa, Strange Vessels, Further than Memory and, the single traditional tune of the album, My Darling Asleep. It’s a rare thing to encounter musicians at play who are either brave enough or canny enough to afford their noodlings the space to find their mark. But that’s essentially what it feels like to return again and again to this collection: like an eavesdropper picking up the initial tentative soundings of friends who revel in each other’s company and who know how to get out of the way so that their ideas can collide and merge in patterns of their own making.

Both Ó Raghallaigh and Bartlett draw on the best that ambient, jazz and possibly even sacred music forms have embedded in their DNA. A comfort with improvisation, an ease with silence and space, and a quiet search for the sublime.

The album artwork is just as lovingly chosen: American photographer Saul Leiter’s 1960 photograph Snow – an image that is all suggestion and surmise, bereft of any solid lines or boundaries.

Both music and image are a welcome relief in this jagged-edged world we live in.

Siobhán Long

Siobhán Long

Siobhán Long, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about traditional music and the wider arts