Rob Adams talks to Caoimhin O Raghallaigh, one of the star attractions at this weekend’s Fiddle 2009 Festival
Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms will be thronged from Friday to Sunday this weekend as fiddle players and listeners alike gather to celebrate the continuing popularity of the instrument and its music in the capital’s annual fiddle festival.
It was at a gathering similar to this that a young musician had his enthusiasm re-fired by a group of players his own age, a re-firing that has led to Caoimhin O Raghallaigh emerging as arguably the most fascinating Irish musician of his generation.
There’s a tendency for those who don’t care for traditional fiddle music – and some who do but with a more ironic inflection – to refer to it as “diddly dee” music.
Making music is like painting sound onto a canvas of time
Caoimhin O Raghallaigh
O Raghallaigh doesn’t do “diddly dee”. He can and loves to play all the traditional tune types with great skill, but his mission goes beyond the tradition.
His belief is that people without any interest or background in traditional music can be drawn into fiddle music and his approach is more that of a poet with sound. There’s a bit of the poet with words in the thirty-year-old Mr O Raghallaigh, too.
“Making music is like painting sound onto a canvas of time,” he says in a quote that, if he hasn’t already done so, he should copyright pronto.
O Raghallaigh was once almost lost to making music. Growing up in Dublin with parents who didn’t play instruments but had spent much of their courtship driving for miles around County Clare to see concertinist Noel Hill and fiddler Tony Linnane and bands like Planxty, the Chieftains and the Bothy Band, he was accustomed to hearing Irish traditional music through the many LPs there were at home. One particular musician, however, captured his imagination.
Hearing a young John Kelly playing The Marino Waltz, a tune composed by The Dubliners’ John Sheahan, on a TV commercial, O Raghallaigh decided that he, too, should play the fiddle.
After much pleading for fiddle lessons, his mother took him to the classes that traditional music advocates Comhaltas ran nearby but, at eight, he was considered too young at the time and was told to come back in two years. The pleading continued, so his mother tried a classical violin teacher.
“I arrived for my first lesson full of enthusiasm, with a manuscript copy of The Marino Waltz in my hand,” says O Raghallaigh. “The teacher was horrified by this piece of music.
“Instead of nurturing my enthusiasm, she turned it to stone in double quick time, I’m afraid. Inspiring she was not. Her final comment to my mother was: ‘You’re wasting your money and my time. He’ll never be a musician’.”
And that might have been that but for his parents, two years later, taking him to a festival in Gormanstown, where he heard a bunch of young fiddlers sounding – he thought – great and having a lot of fun.
Another teacher was found who, this time, opened the door to the world of Irish music, including sessions where the youngster would sit with a group of much older, wiser heads, playing as quietly as possible with his ear to his instrument, trying to fit into the rhythms of jigs, reels, hornpipes, polkas and slides.
In his mid teens O Raghallaigh began to feel, much as he loved playing the fiddle and by this time, the tin whistle and flute too (he later added the uilleann pipes), that the music he was playing was lifeless.
“I realised that nobody was going to teach me how to change that,” he says. “It was up to me to figure it out for myself. So I went in search of music that really excited me. I tried to immerse myself totally in it and try to grasp some fundamental difference between it and the music I was making.”
His quest took him, after leaving school, to a transition year work experience post in the Irish Traditional Music Archives in Dublin where, while working as an archivist, he was able to listen over and over to old recordings, especially of fiddle players from the Sliabh Luachra district on the Cork-Kerry border, County Clare musicians including fiddler Patrick Kelly and piper Willie Clancy, and sean-nos (old style) singers.
All through his student years at Trinity College, where he graduated in theoretical physics, O Raghallaigh continued working in the archives during the holidays and continued to immerse himself in the tradition.
“The thing that really interested me about truly great traditional music was not the notes I heard, but how it made me feel and the state of mind it created in you as a listener,” he says. Not for him, then, the pursuit of speed as a means of making traditional music more exciting.
“Well, if the thing that interests you about traditional music is the notes, then it makes perfect sense that you’d want to play as many of them as possible, as fast as possible,” he says. “But if the thing that interests you is the state of mind created, I think it makes sense to create the kind of music I’m creating now.
“There are many other aspects of the tradition that are integral to the music I make, aspects which many other people have not chosen to keep, such as a particular sense of time and space, an idiosyncratic and internally coherent sense of intonation, and an unsterilised idea of what constitutes acceptable tone.
“I think of music much more in terms of sound than in terms of notes.”
In this he shares an approach with Norwegian fiddler Nils Okland, whose tour earlier this year for the Scottish Arts Council’s Tune-up programme proved a revelation. O Raghallaigh and Okland also share a common instrument, the Norwegian hardanger fiddle, to which O Raghallaigh was introduced while working on a particle accelerator project in America in 2000.
With its wide tonal range and the effect of its sympathetic strings, which allow O Raghallaigh to incorporate the drones of the uilleann pipes into his fiddle playing, the hardanger might have been invented for his new music, albeit music that comes from deep in the tradition.
“Nils and me are not the only ones doing this,” he says. “All over the world, in other folk music traditions, there are people writing really interesting contemporary music which is very obviously directly related to folk music but isn’t necessarily folk music.
“My album Where the One-Eyed Man Is King opened up a whole new listenership. They don’t need a background in traditional music to get it. So I’m trying to communicate to people who might have switched off.”
Caoimhin O Raghallaigh plays at the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh on Saturday at 10pm and Sunday at 3pm. For information on Fiddle 2009, log onto www.scotsfiddlefestival.com