Music is a birthright for Iarla Ó Lionáird. Born in the Irish-speaking town of Cuil Aodha in West Cork, Ó Lionáird comes from a long line of sean-nós (“old-style”) singers. His mother and grandmother both established themselves as bright talents, and his great aunt drew the attention of legendary folk archivist Alan Lomax, who captured her singing in 1951. (Listen to a sample here.)
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Ó Lionáird himself would achieve formidable mastery over the sean-nós style. Not content to simply adhere to established conventions, however, he has brought his consummate artistry to a number of decidedly non-traditional contexts, most notably with celebrated worldbeat group Afro Celt Sound System. Over the course of his career, this penchant for mixing experimentation with tradition has helped define a body of work that is utterly sui generis.
Much of Ó Lionáird’s creative energy lately has been directed towards The Gloaming, an Irish music supergroup that will perform at the Walker Art Center’s McGuire Theater on October 9, 2015. Ahead of the performance, Ó Lionáird kindly took the time to share his thoughts on tradition and creativity.
The Gloaming is often dubbed a “supergroup” because it is comprised of such distinctive artists and personalities. How do you ensure the effort remains egalitarian? Is composing and arranging something you do as individuals, or collectively?
What we do is try to impose an egalitarian ethic. Creative work is messy, and the best thing is to realize this and to be at peace with the fact that it’s not a branch of mathematics: it’s open to diverse, unpredictable energies and outcomes. I always feel very excited when writing and performing. I am by necessity more focused on the songs, but one of the pure delights of being in this band for me is being able to participate across all of the tunes also, and being present ready to give or, as is the case, learn. It’s great fun, usually, and the payback is tremendous.
The instrumentation of The Gloaming is quite unique. In particular, the piano and Hardanger fiddle are central to your sound. How did you arrive at this unusual lineup?
To be frank, my colleague Martin Hayes (fiddler) was centrally responsible for configuring the lineup. Thomas Bartlett, our piano player, was a friend of Martin’s. I remember meeting him in New York and hearing the two of them play and knowing straightaway, or rather recognizing, that together they had special chemistry and a sound that I had not heard before in any other music. Piano has been deployed before in our tradition—and surprisingly far back—but something about the way Thomas plays and his engagement with Martin’s music is unique and is one of the cornerstones of what we do as a group.
Dennis Cahill (guitarist) has said, “It’s the mark of a great piece of music when it’s bendable, and it doesn’t lose its integrity, and I think the tunes are spectacular like that, they can be played in a lot of ways.” How important is improvisation to what you do?
Improvisation has multiple roles in the band. From my own perspective, it is how I write generally with Thomas and with others too: writing on the fly, trying things out quickly, malleably, instinctively. That’s one deployment of improvisation. The other is during live performance. We draw sketches of what might occur in terms of set list pieces, sequences, etc., but we leave room always for those things which can only happen when there’s an audience. This is one of the great joys of being in this band—the unexpected happenings that the music can give if one leaves oneself open to the moment, the improvisatory moment.
People seem at a loss when trying to compare your music to other influences. I’ve seen references to everyone from Sigur Rós to Aaron Copland. Are there influences or inspirations of yours that people might not expect?
We sometimes think that we’re not so much influenced by traditional music (which is kind of analogous to the language we just happen to speak), so much as by the other non-traditional music we’ve been listening to all these years—in my own case, everything from Bob Dylan to ambient electronic music. Others among us are very given to jazz. There are strong interests in new-classical music and in the music of singular talents such as Keith Jarrett, Arvo Pärt, and others. It’s worth noting too that some of us grew up listening—indeed, living within—the tradition of Irish traditional music and we are given still to listening to very old, beautiful examples of that form, whether it be Willie Clancy, Padraig O Keefe, or Darach Ó Catháin.
The Gloaming is a remarkably spacious album, at times very quiet. That kind of dynamic range demands a certain degree of attention from the audience that isn’t always present in the kinds of venues with which traditional Irish music is most often associated. How do you hope audiences will respond to your music? Do you alter your performances depending on the venue or context you’re performing in?
The dynamics of performance are so complex. We give of ourselves, but also we listen and feel for response from the audience. Our music moves and mutates in relation to these conditions. But on the whole we do like the idea of being able to play with incredible intensity at times, whether that be frenetic intensity or an intensity born from near silence in the acute attention that this bestows on the moment. These silences, for us, are the places where all the beautiful things happen that make the experience of making music worthwhile and deep.
The President of Ireland attended your first show as a band, and you’ve won a host of awards and accolades in Ireland, including the prestigious Meteor Choice Music Prize. Some critics have suggested you are helping to revitalize interest in the music of Ireland. Is that one of your goals? Do you get the sense that there is a broader movement growing around the kind of music you are creating?
It may be the case—and I haven’t thought a whole lot about this—that Irish traditional music is undergoing some sort of churning similar to what occurred with classical music in this country beginning about 10 years ago with the emergence of new composers influenced by contemporary classical American and European music movements. It would be nice to think that what we do emboldens others. That would be the best possible outcome.
One of my favorite pieces on The Gloaming, “Freedom/Saoirse,” takes its lyrics from a poem by Seán Ó Ríordáin. Ó Ríordáin is someone who managed to beautifully integrate cutting-edge modernism with an existing folk tradition. It struck me that, in that sense, his project and his place within the cultural firmament might be considered similar to The Gloaming’s. Why did you choose that poem? More generally, do you have a particular process for choosing the poems, reels, and other elements that make up some of your source material?
Seán Ó Ríordáin actually grew up in the parish where I myself was born and reared, and he lived there until he was a teenager. The language he speaks has the same timbral fingerprint as my own, and so sonically it just feels like a great fit. But, of course, you are correct when you say that he straddles two worlds—the old Gaelic world and that of the more introspective modernism—the first poet to do so in any language to such great effect in Ireland. His legacy is on the rise, and I am very happy to have undertaken setting some of his extraordinary words to music. “Saoirse,” the specific poem to which you refer, is a mysterious examination of the complex relationship we all have with home. And it is difficult to truly understand the poet’s position on this question. The poem is quite ambiguous as it speaks about the challenge and isolation that one feels when stepping outside the group, the tribe, the original birthed location. To some extent, this work speaks very much to my own experience as an artist attempting to create outside using a combination of tools: some inherited, and some from my awareness of the outside world. And so these words speak to me in a very personal way.
In general, it could be said that I am drawn to looking back and seeking out textual treasure from our deep history. In some ways, it’s a habit. In other ways, it’s something I think I should do. But in both cases it’s something I really enjoy—bringing these long silent works into the sonic realm, into the musical experience for everyone to share.