Ireland is a land of stories. Those stories are found in landscape, in history, in the change of seasons, in conversations around the kitchen table, by the fireside at the pub, in walks along the road…
These are continuing conversations, weaving together strands of Ireland’s past, present, and future. Music is a way to creat, share, celebrate, and come to understand such stories. Music is a way to understand Ireland.
That said, there is a wide range through which the stories of Ireland are told in music. Here are four of them, with the bonus that one of them is especially for you or someone you know plays the music of Ireland or is learning how to do that.
The band Usher’s Island brings together the experience and energy of five longstanding creative Irish musicians. They are Andy Irvine on guitar and vocals, Donal Lunny on guitar, bouzouki, and bodhran, Paddy Glackin on fiddle, Michael McGoldrick on whistles, flutes, and pipes, and John Doyle on guitar and vocals.
Past history and current projects include membership in Planxty, The Bothy Band, Capercaillie, Patrick Street, and Solas. Among them they have also worked with artists of the tradition as well as those from many other genres, among them Karen Matheson, Cathie Ryan, Alison Brown, Mark Knopfler, Eddi Reader, Christy Moore, Paul Brady, Joan Baez, and Michael Black. So how do they have time to work together?
That part is still a mystery, but they carve out time to play gigs, and meeting up in a cottage in Galway that McGoldrick had recently bought — one that in the past used to be a ‘singing house,’ a site for music sessions — they worked out time to record their debut album, which they called, logically enough, Usher’s Island.
It offers a mix of their talents, crackling with energy, humor, and top class ensemble work. There are tunes and songs from the tradition as well as originals by Irvine and Doyle. Stories told through note, word, and collaboration resonate with the sounds of Ireland’s history and Ireland’s landscapes. It is a bit like the situation you’d find at a very truly over the top with talent Irish music session in pub or a friend’s kitchen.
Aine Minogue draws on another aspect of the music of Ireland, equally strong, but different: the contemplative side. Through ten original pieces on her recording called In the Name of Stillness, she draws on Irish tradition to create new music. With contributions on occasion from players of cello, oboe, and other instruments, Minogie’s harp leads the way to ideas of reflection and imagination.
Even if her name is not familiar you may have heard Aine Minogue’s work on soundtracks and in Celtic music compilations. She has created a distinctive style of Celtic harp based music through more than a dozen recordings, making music that is at once familiar yet new.
That is true of the way Matt and Shannon Heaton approach their work, too. Their focus on their album Tell You in Earnest is on song. For this project they decided to think about songs that focus on conversation between two people. There a wide range of material, from war to the supernatural to murder ballads to love songs. There’s a creative and funny take on a story which often crops up in trad song, too, and in a nod to Shannon’s connections with Thailand from time spent living there, there’s a love song in Thai, which stands quite well alongside Irish trad. In some case the Heatons have condensed and reworked the songs to make them more readily accessible to twenty first century listeners. Always, though, they stay true to the spirit of the tradition of Ireland. In addition to being gifted singers and songwriters, they are both excellent instrumentalists as well, Matt on guitar and bouzouki, Shannon on whistles and flutes.
Speaking of that: If you are a player yourself or know someone who is, you will be interested to know about Shannon Heaton’s most recent book of musical instruction. She teaches Irish flute in workshops, at festivals, online, and by individual instruction from her base in the Boston area to many levels of students. This book, which is called Shannon Heaton’s First 50, is, she says, made up of tunes “that really sing without giving the ears or the fingers overly complicated tasks.” It’s directed at flute and fiddle players, although those who play other instruments could learn from it too — there is a CD included along with musical notation and notes on playing. It is not, Heaton points out, a collection of common jigs and reels — she ranges over lesser known of those and over genres including polkas, waltzes, marches, and other styles, and there are a few original tunes as well.
What can you do with this book? You could just listen to the CD — and if you really like Heaton’s solo flute, take a listen to her recording The Blue Dress, too. You could also use the book (which is available in both hard copy and e book)as a way to learn about Ireland and about Irish music, whether you play flute or fiddle or not. Heaton has advice: “Please do not take this book to an Irish music gathering and open it up and begin to play! Reading music at a session would be like going to a party and reading conversation off a script. Irish music is learned and played by heart,” she continues. “The best players are literally trying to tap into the minds and hearts of fellow players.”
The work on each of the three albums noted above will give you many chances to hear fine musicians doing just that, exploring the traditions of Ireland while moving them forward, and keeping those conversations about spirit, life, and landscape going.
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