Words an be clumsy. Sometimes the music is best left speak for itself. That’s what Armagh man Brian Finnegan, flute player, composer and member of Flook and of Kan, is thinking. He’s been “riding a mustang” through the early months of this pandemic, the music initially shyly peeping through the darkness but soon surging forth in an unstoppable torrent that engulfed his entire being for six intense weeks.
March 2020 will be etched in all our memories as the time of Covid. As a
deadly virus swept across the planet, wheels stopped turning for so many, and livelihoods were thrown into sudden and terrifying disarray. Finnegan's last gig was in Seville, in late February.
“The storm clouds were already rolling in from the east,” he recalls, “but it was a real leveller when the full scale of what was approaching landed; the curtain just went down. I’m the primary earner in my house, with two boys, and there was a serious wobble at that time as I thought, ‘what am I going to do?’ But this was followed quite quickly by a sense of calm.”
Finnegan had been beating himself up over the past few years because he'd been spending so much time on the road. He knew he wanted to pare back. He'd been touring extensively in Russia over the past decade with rock musician BorisBoris Grebenshchikov.
I convinced myself over the past few years that I functioned better when I was on the move, writing tunes. It was a myth, a nice comfort for me to think that way
"I think a lot of musicians get caught in the whole cyclical nature of making records and then having to get out on the road and tour them," he says. "I had been thinking about how I might take two years off. But my hand was forced and after a few weeks at home, I thought: 'this glass is more than half full for me'. It helped me reframe the whole picture with many more positives than negatives. I saw the effect it was having on the family and the feeling of being connected to the garden and the seasons. Maybe I've just been getting ready for this all my life."
Then, as Finnegan settled back into a domestic routine, he realised he needed to make space to play.
“I think it’s at times of peril, whether it’s in work or around me, that’s the catalyst for the creative,” he muses. “And I know a lot of artists and poets will echo that sentiment. That’s when the work starts to come. It was instinctive. I live in quite an old house and it was my bathroom that was the quietest place in the house at night. It was a blacksmith’s forge and it was built for my grandfather, who was a highland piper, and that was where he practised. It has a lot of energy. There must be a ley line flowing underneath it. But a lot of stuff comes to me when I’m tucked away in that corner of the house. So at night, I would just take a candle there and play.”
As he reveals in his new album's liner notes, it was there he found "some
semblance of stillness in which to turn complex old and new emotions and feelings into a form that has pointed me in the direction of 'home' all my life . . . music."
Finnegan's love of the poetry of Mary Oliver was another anchor that helped make sense of this new world in all its disarray. In particular, the words of her poem, Invitation, resonated deeply: "It is a serious thing/ Just to be alive/ On this fresh morning/ In the broken world."
"I convinced myself over the past few years that I functioned better when I was
on the move, writing tunes," Finnegan continues. "It was a myth, a nice comfort
for me to think that way. But I read a lovely piece of prose written by Mary Oliver about the creative process and the need to make space for it every night, because it is quite cautious. She likened it to Romeo and Juliet. Imagine if Romeo had been too busy, or had been watching the football? And Juliet had spent all those nights waiting up?
“There wouldn’t have been any great love affair. You’ve got to keep your word because it’ll stay silent forever unless it knows you’re serious. And it was like that for me in March and April. I didn’t distract myself with anything else, and it was a different tuning-in. And a lot of the tunes came in a real rush over the space of four weeks.”
I was aware that many people I know were isolated and confused. It was a feeling of injustice at seeing the artistic community at the bottom of the pile
“And some of it really surprised me,” he continues, losing himself again in the memory of that rush of creativity. “It was an intense experience. Some nights I felt like I was just holding on – pieces of music would come and then other pieces would come, and I would be there until three in the morning.”
It’s been 11 years since Finnegan last released a solo album, The Ravishing Genius of Bones. He’s convinced that his new album, Hunger of the Skin, is the fruit of all those years of travelling extensively.
“I began to feel that maybe this was just the year I had been getting ready for, but just didn’t know it,” he says. “Because music doesn’t just arrive; you have to live the life that makes it possible.”
Hunger of the Skin has a gloriously unfettered quality, tunes set against wide open vistas where anything is possible. In its making, Finnegan has found ways to collaborate online with some 23 musicians and poets from Mexico to Russia, the US, India and Spain. Interweaving his freewheeling flute playing are trombones, sitars, cellos, ukuleles, accordions and tango dancers, gathered in wild abandon, their sole tether the spinal columns of Finnegan’s melody lines, shared across the ether, without preconditions. He compares this wild adventure to “making a 1,000-piece jigsaw without a picture”.
"A lot of people say to me that when they hear my tunes, they recognise them as mine," he smiles. "It must be something to do with the way my molecules are jiggled as I'm writing. But this time some of it was surprising to me. It was dissonant and defiant, and I suppose I was aware that many people I know were isolated and confused. It was a feeling of injustice at seeing the artistic community at the bottom of the pile, when in fact it's always been the sense: this Victorian way of teaching our kids the sciences where the arts and the dreams and the Steiner approach to life and childhood has always been left at the bottom of the pile."
Finnegan's choice of album title couldn't be more apposite, as so many of us grapple with the isolation that this pandemic has wrought on our lives.
“My sister Morna is an anthropologist and she spent a year living with the Bayaka people in the Congo. Her whole thesis was about touch, and skin on skin in hunter-gatherer societies. She’s written about this idea that we’ve somehow convinced ourselves by our dissociation from the rest of the human race that the mind is the thing. That as long as we’ve got this virtual dummy that we are all okay, but it’s not a salve.
“A virtual hug is not a hug. And when you’re a parent, you can see quite a lot in kids that they’re growing up without any of that touch, and without knowing what it’s like to cradle, or hold, or press. Morna has written about the 17,000 nerve receptors in our palms. And what happens if the only thing they touch is a smartphone or an iPad?”
Finnegan’s got a way with album and tune titles. Another tune in his effervescent collection is called Flow, in the Year of Wu Wei.
“Wu wei is a Taoist philosophy for actionless action: knowing that there is a flow around you, a momentum,” he explains. “You can’t resist it, but you don’t get caught up in all of the anxiety of change. My granny had a great philosophy. She says ‘the bird of paradise will not land on a hand that grasps’. If you let go of something, the chances are that it’ll be easier to traverse. And so it was by being at home, being with family and watching the seasons coming and going and how enriching that was for me.
“This year, for the first time in 25 years, I’ve just been rooted.”