- 18 Mar 20
Martin Hayes, the fiddle-playing godhead behind The Gloaming, takes Pat Carty through the various stages of his awe-inspiring musical odyssey.
“I've never seen myself as a virtuoso.”
Martin Hayes, get up the yard. If there’s anyone at work in any genre of music today - not just the world of traditional Irish music - who warrants that appellation then it’s the man seated in front of me. Raised in East Clare, Hayes followed his father P.J. into the Tulla Céillí Band as a teenager after winning the first of a pile of All-Ireland Fiddle Competitions at the tender age of thirteen. He would of course go on to a famous career, which we’ll get to presently, but first of all I need to know how to address this Maestro, as NUI Galway recently awarded him an honorary doctorate, do I call him Dr Hayes?
“You don’t, no,” says Martin, deflecting and slightly embarrassed. “It came completely out of the blue, I was absolutely flabbergasted, but very honoured and flattered”
The reason Hayes is talking to the press is his upcoming brace of shows in the National Concert Hall with his new Common Ground Ensemble as part of their engaging Perspectives series.
“This idea emerged from a conversation I was having with Gary Sheehan (Head of Programme Planning at the NCH) and one I was having with my wife. Originally I was planning to have a little mini-festival of collaboration but it moved towards creating a group of musicians that could collaborate with others. Almost like a house band of Irish music, expanding out into other areas, open to collaborators from any background.”
The plan is to bring in musicians of varied stripes and let them have at it.
“Yes,” says Hayes. “People with diverse musical knowledge and diverse ideas and feed them the central narrative of the traditional music. I'm providing a theme, something to chew on, as in ‘this is the tune, this is the way I'm imagining the instrumentation working, and this is the kind of harmonic space’. There's a kind of alchemy that happens when you bring really good musicians together in a room: they get to know each other and they start listening, then these ideas evolve very quickly into things that I might not have imagined before.”
Incorporating musicians such as Kate Ellis from modern-classical adventurists, The Crash Ensemble, jazz pianist Cormac McCarthy, New York guitarist Kyle Sanna and even “a young fella plucked straight out of the Tulla Céillí Band playing concertina, bouzouki, harmonium, and keyboards”, and then telling them to wing it could, in lesser hands be a recipe for disaster. Hayes though, after three full days of rehearsals, isn’t worried.
“From what I’ve seen and experienced with them, and given the amount of progress we've made in a very short space of time, I feel very confident,” he reckons. “They’re mostly traditional pieces, but my take on them. I give everyone some guide posts.”
This improvisational approach will carry over to the shows.
“That's an essential part of it,” he emphasises. “We have to allow for sections to possibly expand and grow on the night’ We don’t say how many times we've going to repeat a pattern because it can become different things. There are spaces during which unknown things can happen on the night.”
To perform in such a seat-of-your-pants manner requires musicians who are listening as much as they’re playing.
“Everyone will have to be really on,” Hayes agrees. “They'll have to be listening, in order to really flow with it.”
Hayes hopes to take the Ensemble into a studio and is determined to carry this air of experimentation in with him, and he’s not worried about clocking up the bills either.
“I feel ready to go in a studio,” he confidently states, “and allow plenty of space for improvisation, although I find that after I've played a piece two or three times, there's no point in beating it to death. The feel of things is more important to me than the perfection.”
You Can Pawn Your Watch And Chain But Not That Feel
Here, we have stumbled across the essence of Martin Hayes’ genius. He has spoken of the elusiveness of perfection, but his music is not about that, it’s about expression and feeling, and this attitude has run through his musical career like a very rich seam. Even as far back as when he was learning the fiddle in Clare as a young lad, this philosophy of what’s right in music was there, being espoused by his family and the other musicians around him.
“They were always speaking about whether music had 'the thing' and, you know yourself from being around music, there are performances that have the thing. My father had a way of describing it: he would say 'oh, that music has no tradition.'”
It would seem to me that Mr Hayes was talking about that elusive quality: feel.
“He was talking about feel, nothing else,” says Hayes, obviously on home ground now. “Having music express a deeper feeling is essentially the whole meaning of it, especially for the old musicians I knew growing up.”
What does Hayes make of the idea that in any field of expression - be it music, writing or whatever - you need a level of technical proficiency, an understanding of the rules, in order to be able to break them?
“There is a truth in that,” he allows. “There’s a qualitative difference to somebody breaking a rule and them not knowing the rule they're breaking, you have to break it for a purpose.”
On the other hand, one might go and see a band tonight in a basement, who don’t know three chords between them, and yet the feeling might be there.
“Exactly, that's the beautiful thing about music, that somebody who can barely play can often deliver as profound an experience as the greatest virtuoso. There's a great equalising element to that and I’ve relied on it. I’ve never seen myself as very accomplished musician but I've always tried to keep the feeling in the music. I know the rest of it can be a lie, but that can't. That part has to be real and that's all I'm interested in.”
When Hayes released his self-titled cassette back in 1993, he issued a gentle challenge to the prevailing wind of traditional music by slowing the melodies down, allowing their beauty to stand on their own, devoid of whirl and flash, but this approach was not met with universal acclaim.
“At the time I didn’t realise it but I hear in retrospect that it was quite controversial. There were people that loved it and people that hated it, but sure look, the plan is never to please everyone because that's impossible, the plan is to do something that means something to yourself.”
I push him further on the origin of this approach.
“The kind of traditional music I was listening to was that of very old musicians who were around me when I was young,” he remembers. “People like Martin Rochford were playing the tunes very slowly and there was even a view point in Clare that the music of Michael Coleman and James Morrison and all the standard music was actually too fast. The fundamental beauty of the melody doesn’t come out clearly when you're playing very hard and fast all the time, so the old players were always advising to slow it down.”
“When you slow some of these melodies down,” he continues, “it's like 'Jesus Christ, these are beautiful things.' There can't be anything wrong with exposing the absolute beauty of these melodic lines. Speed, energy, and vitality are wonderful qualities, but in any piece of art balance is a factor. Fast is no longer fast if there isn’t some slow, slow isn’t even slow if there isn't some medium, and medium doesn't exist if you don’t have both fast and slow. We like the excitement and the wildness that can come with energetic, high-powered Irish music but, like anything else, if it's going on solid for half an hour it loses its potency and you don’t feel it anymore. It’s a quality of the music that you deploy when you think it's necessary to do so.”
A Kind Of Blue
Hayes also uses the repetition that is part and parcel of traditional music as a means of opening up the melodies.
“I used to have a bit of a resistance to that - you did it once, the next time it needs to be a whole new thing - but if you listen to Philip Glass or Steve Reich…”
I suggest Miles Davis.
“Yes, they've embraced the mantra, the impact of the repetitive pattern and what it can do, So rather than running away from what didn't look like an obvious asset in the music, I embraced the repetitive pattern, a simple, repeating melodic line gets people involved. The more you repeat it and the deeper it gets, the more impact a small change has.”
Hayes also employed the technique of transposing pieces from major to minor keys.
“I did and again I learned that from some of the old players. Martin Rochford used to say ‘Oh, there's a lovely plaintive note in that melody, you should try dropping it down one’. I would go from D to F or C, keep moving around and transposing because every key is a different world of feeling and it begins to colour the melody in a different way.”
This idea of the one sad note that Rochford pointed to is the common ground with other music like Blues and Soul.
“Absolutely, that plaintive note, holding and teasing and flattening and pinching that note. If that note is placed in the right place, it has enormous power. Many melodies in Irish music hinge on one good note, the pattern repeats and it lands on this note, and if you know the value of it, you can structure the melody as it was all written just to lead to that note.”
When Hayes started working with guitarist Dennis Cahill, they stepped away from the tradition again by playing longer sets of tunes, some lasting up to half an hour. Hayes explains this.
“When you get into a space and you get into a run, you want to hold that energy and bring it to the next piece. What happens fifteen minutes down the line with a tune is very different from picking up the fiddle and playing that tune fresh. All the proceeding things that have happened put that tune in a new place.”
Gloaming ivory-tickler Thomas Bartlett explained to me in a previous interview that because Cahill plays in standard tuning rather than the more common DADGAD configuration, his chord shapes are different and alternate notes are emphasised. Martin expands this further.
“We actually sit and talk about the chords and Dennis is against doing anything conventional, he approaches each tune as a completely new thing. We try to build these chordal ideas out from a melody. I'll take the first five of six notes of a phrase and stack them on top of each other and there's the chord of that bar, that's all the notes of that bar played at once. Can we take a few notes out of that? Can we add a few notes from somewhere else? You end up with unusual results that are connected to the phrase that you're making the chord to go with.”
Building The Perfect Beast
Bartlett also told of how he became obsessed with that first Martin Hayes album as a young teenager studying Chopin, and how this was the first time he heard a similar approach being taken with Irish traditional music. He arrived in Ireland on holidays with his parents from their native Vermont and followed Hayes and guitarist Steve Cooney from gig to gig across the country. Hayes took notice and was soon to run into this determined young musician again.
“I got to know him when he booked us to play a concert in Vermont but we didn’t know who it was. My agent asked if there would be someone to pick us up at the train station, and he said 'Oh, I'll have to ask my mom about that!' and we're going 'What the Jesus Christ have we gotten ourselves into?'” Hayes says, laughing. “That's how I really got to know him, I spent a weekend with Thomas and his parents up in Vermont. Years later I'm living in a suburban kind of place in West Hartford and I'm thinking ‘Christ, I'm going to die out here, I better go down to the city and meet some musicians.’ I called Thomas - we'd stayed in contact and he was already in the middle of everything - and we went into the studio for a day with a bunch of musicians. We just jammed but some of the ideas from that day actually did make it into The Gloaming, eventually.”
The Gloaming of course should need little introduction. Hayes explains how it all came about.
“I was touring with Dennis in America, I had also toured with the Masters Of Tradition - a concert performance group – and I was working with Iarla (Ó Lionáird, The Gloaming’s vocalist) in that. Iarla wanted to do something small, to maybe come along with Dennis and myself. I didn’t think that would work, but I thought that if I could get Thomas involved with Dennis and myself then I could hear that working with Iarla. I did think there would be a lot of piano and guitar against just a fiddle and, as I was working with Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh in another group, I thought he would be great because he has all this colour.”
Ó Raghallaigh’s style is almost the complete opposite of Hayes’, incorporating noises on his hardanger d’amore – a ten-string fiddle where five strings are bowed and five strings resonate with what is played – that other players strive to eliminate.
“That's what I wanted,” says Hayes. “It was the perfect contrast and that was the formation of the band.”
When asked to explain the success of The Gloaming, Hayes response is simple – “At its core, it is pure traditional music” - but it is and it isn’t.
“You’re correct, it's everything else as well,” he adds. “But it wouldn't be anything without the traditional music.”
It is that success that makes endeavours like the Common Ground Ensemble viable.
“It does yeah, and taking a year off gives us opportunities to try other things, and I like doing that.”
The music that first got into him as a boy in East Clare has granted him this freedom.
“I was very lucky,” is how the master sees it.
This interview took place before Covid-19 hit, and the Common Ground Ensemble shows were, inevitably, postponed. The good people at the National Concert Hall are working hard to make alternative arrangements. Check NCH.ie for updates.