The first thing that I simply need to get out of the way is that Edel Fox, Neill Byrne and Dylan Foley are all consummately musical individuals. It’s not much of a revelation. Dylan’s fiddle playing has been loudly praised up and down the eastern seaboard with the release of both his solo album (the aptly-titled Hup!) and the first project by the collective Irish music-playing youth of New York, The Yanks; but just a few nights past I had the pleasure of hearing him ably accompany on guitar. Neill, a Waterford native, has done all of his hard work in the regular competition circuit in Ireland, and his fiddle-playing shows it. Heavily influenced by the collective musicianship of the Dywer family, his style is astoundingly fluid and impeccably controlled; I’ve never seen a fiddler with so effortless a bow-hand. And Edel, of course, has become something of a latter-day Elizabeth Crotty: when Clarewomen and the concertina are mentioned in the same breath, Edel Fox’s name is almost certain to follow. Her music, erupting merrily from a Wally Carroll instrument, remains powerful, crisp, and deeply sensitive to the playing of the people around her.
That’s not really saying much of anything, though. The perfunctory descriptions of careers, styles, accomplishments, all sort of melt away in the moment. You could have learned any of that first paragraph from the terrific show at the Burren Back Room, where the trio enjoyed a wonderful double-booking with the Murphy Beds. Brian o’Donovan hosted the event and recorded it for WGBH, and as part of his duties, he too sang the praises of these respected guests. But in point of fact, it was the Murphy Beds who moved me that night. Edel and Niall and Dylan all played fantastically, of course, but playing is only half the thing, if that. There are countless musicians, in Ireland and abroad, with the pyrotechnical skill and confidence of character to produce some astounding Irish music – more people are playing Irish music now than ever have previous, and unlike days past, it is no longer an afterthought, slipped into a few moments of leisure between the milking of cows and the twisting of hay-ropes. We’re spoiled for choice – particularly in Boston – when it comes to good music and good musicians. So for us to perceive something as great, then, we require something more.
I might go so far as to call Kathleen Conneelly a great musician. A member of the vibrant London scene in her youth, she maintains, for me, a deep connection to the music of previous generations, and she remains heavily invested in nurturing the music on the local level. Armand and I had the distinct pleasure of visiting her at her home in Rhode Island, where she occasionally hosts concerts in a tiny pub in her back yard. The scene is perfect: the property is quiet, rolling and green; the pub stands by to the fence, good hard wood with a little stove in one corner and a bar to the back of it; with the door open and the music in full lash you can sit out on the grass and hear it skipping over to you. That night, the pub was crammed full of Rhode Islanders, mostly set dancers – older folk with a keen appreciation for the thing itself – and some of our good friends: Pat Hutchinson the piper; Deirdre Corrigan, the flute player from New York; Jimmy Devine, our old fiddle teacher; and Jimmy Noonan, who brought his young son down from Boston for a taste of the music.
After the music was done, most of the crowd cleared out, leaving us few – the three of them, Armand and myself, and Kathleen reminiscing with Jimmy Noonan, at the bar. We discussed some of those typical post-concert concerns, sussing out those connections and interests you share as a musician (“oh you know so-and-so? Yeah I saw him in Ennis a little while ago when I was there visiting so-and-so” “oh yeah, so-and-so! She’s lovely, I just heard her album the other day”), but after a few minutes it turned to a reflection on older musicians, some of the modern greats whose music has done a lot to shape the current scene, the current styles, and Irish music generally. Here, then, is where I came to really respect Edel and Neill. They are fine musicians, and they are lovely people; but what I appreciated most was their vociferous flaying of a well-known player who had spoken out of turn to some younger people at a session. Their concern was not with his personal habits, his character, the comments themselves even, although all of those points came under discussion – but what Neill and Edel both insisted, what got their blood up, was the effect of an older musical generation on the younger. The pair of them drove home the degree of responsibility which those older musicians have to encourage, inspire, and nurture the younger. Indeed, the two of them are still quite young themselves, and they’re not far removed from their own memories of being adolescents, hearing CDs at home or players in the sessions that moved and astounded them. Their gratitude to those older players, the ones who have gone before, is palpable, and in turn, so is their insistence that accomplishment, that fame, carries with it a clear responsibility to give back to the community that supports you. Neill and Edel are not wonderful Irish musicians because of their ability to play instruments; they are wonderful Irish musicians because their sense of tradition is not musical but familial, communal, and personal. Everyone pays lip service to this idea, but not everyone is thoroughly invested in it. These two are.
So we played one tune together, I think, just us fiddle players. We spent the rest of the night chatting and laughing in Kathleen’s tiny backyard pub, talking school and Facebook and doing impressions of our favorite Youtube videos. As strange and stupid as it sounds, that’s what the music is about. It’s a vehicle – it’s a good car. It can take you to some wonderful places that you couldn’t get to otherwise, and there’s a visceral pleasure to the ride; but sometimes it’s best to get out and go strolling together.
If you can’t get around to that, of course, buying a CD’s just the next best thing.
Writing about music or dance is always a somewhat dodgy prospect. Any writer, in any genre or form, appreciates the somewhat essential communicative challenge of language in general: that words are symbols, that reading is an experience in and of itself separate from the experience which it describes, and that this clash of the representative and the immanent is daunting to navigate, even with years of practice. Dance, especially folk dance, especially improvisational folk dance, multiplies this difficulty with its cantankerous oddities and contradictions; it is so essentially present, in so many ways, that trying to concretize and display it is somewhat doomed to failure. Now consider that fact, and imagine trying to actually teach it to someone. Kieran Jordan’s introduction to sean-nós is blunt and brief, passed down from others, and like her steps, not without Kieran’s own sly sense of humor: “sean-nós can’t be taught, but it can be learned.”
Shannon Dunne has managed it with a clear grasp of her project, a forthright and conversational tone, and a unique sense of style about her presentation and point. There are some obvious routes to take when producing a book about dance: the deeply historical and social route, densely academic; the ethnographic and archival route, filled with diagrams and descriptions. Shannon’s Guide veers away from either and instead pursues the much-maligned literary form of the fourth-grade exercise workbook. There are lots of empty white spaces for you to write in and doodle around. There are lots of italicized questions and prompts. There’s a lot of you in it. But Shannon has certainly accomplished an appreciable task with this seemingly-simple approach; the slim book is eminently approachable, and gives sean-nós the same feeling. And what is perhaps most incredible about this fact is that this approachability doesn’t stem from actual simplicity, but instead from the sense of immediate challenge. The value of the fourth-grade exercise workbook is its interrogative character, and in this particular instance, form matches content quite neatly: the book is saved from immobility by actively and aggressively demanding motion from the reader, as subtly and boldly dialogic as sean-nós dancing itself. Shannon intersperses information with exercises that go beyond dancing. She tells you to move. She tells you to go to sessions and dance with live music. She tells you to check out YouTube. And as much as she has, she tells you to think about everything that you’re doing, before during and after the doing thereof.
The result is a fairly light book – you can skim through it without much in the way of roadblocks – but one surprisingly dense with conceptual arguments and hard truths. In describing the act of listening (an ongoing, formative, and enveloping act for musicians and dancers alike, and one neglected by too many), she offers a few sentences about each of the separate conceptual components of Irish dance music, as she hears them, and she lists these components in essential order: the beat; the groove; then, the melody; the rhythm; the phrases; finally, the lift. As a musician (and Shannon is a fine concertina player herself), it’s particularly alarming, and charmingly enlightening, to see melody described as something “that happens over the groove,” an epiphenomenon rather than a deep foundation. Indeed, part of the appreciable depth of the Guide is Shannon’s insistence on the shared roots of the music and dance, and thinking of the beat and groove prior to melody, for both musicians and dancers, offers some particularly keen guidance. If you’re a musician who’s never played for dancers, do it; and if you’ve never danced, do that too. And if you’re not ready for that, you could do worse than read Shannon’s book first.
The only problematic part of the reading process (for myself, as someone with only a rudimentary grasp of Irish music and sean-nós dance) was certainly literary, to return to our first point; although Shannon has done a lot with the printed word, it remains a hefty challenge to get a feeling for an ephemeral physical truth into the shapes of language. In point of fact, Shannon’s overtly and intrinsically musical awareness becomes a thorny turn when you’re reading; her writing is so lucidly propelled by music that it can have an alienating effect – watching someone dance to music that only they can hear. Thankfully, she seems to be in the process of expanding the book into a web-based multimedia project, with a more robust referentiality to video and sound, and I have no doubt this will give the book a clearer sense of direction and a smoother operation in terms of actual development and learning. Of course, as Shannon herself would likely insist, your best bet is to catch her at a gig. Go out; watch it happen; and then get the hell out of your chair.
- Dan Accardi