by Michael Robinson
A few years ago I had the opportunity to spend a week in a fiddle class in Ireland taught by Mairéad, which was a very inspirational experience for me. In addition to being a very warm, friendly person, she is an excellent teacher. Of course, anyone who has heard her with Altan on recordings or in concert can have no doubt that she is in the topmost ranks of Irish fiddlers playing today. I got a chance to chat with Mairéad after a characteristically exciting Altan show in Santa Cruz, California.
Tell me about how you started playing.
My dad plays the fiddle. He stopped playing for years. He was playing when I was a baby, and then he stopped for about five years, or ten years, he says. Then all of a sudden he started playing again, and we all got interested. We started having people like Ciarán Tourish coming up to the house, and Dinny McLaughlin, who taught Ciarán, and who taught myself as well. And it just grew from that
After that you started listening to other people, such as James Byrne, for example?
I met James in Glencolmcille, and also Dermot McLaughlin. I met John Doherty a few times before he died. I was influenced by everyone, really, that I met. There was no one in particularwell, I loved Tommy Peoples. I listened to a lot of Tommy Peoples for years.
There is a big difference between the way John Doherty played and the way that you play, yet youíre both very much in the Donegal style.
Well, John Dohertyís playing was very unique. He bowed a lot and used staccato, while I slur a bit. I bow a lot as well, but I do a bit of playing a few notes with the one bow. As you go south thereís more slurring with the bow. As you go north thereís more bowing every note. But sometimes you get the combination of the two in Donegal. Very near where I livedalthough I didnít meet the manNeilly Boyle was a big influence. I didnít listen to him when he was young, but when I listen back to his tapes I hear that heís bowing and slurring as well, so it must be something from that particular area. The bowing really makes the style, I feel.
Do you have advice about bowing, how to get into the style?
The biggest thing is to listen, I think. That's what I do a lot. Listen and listen and listen to what you like. And if you listen it'll invariably get into your head. So if you have it in your head it'll definitely come out somewhere. I listened to the people I really liked playing, tried to get something from everybody, but I couldn't do everything. I play very simply.
There is a tradition in Donegal of two fiddles playing...
...in octaves, you get octaves going. I think it all stemmed from the drone of the pipes. Sometimes in Donegal, if you're playing something in A minor, for instance, the fiddler will play an A minor chord through the whole tune like the drones of a pipe, just to chord it. That happens a lot in Donegal, especially A, A minor tunes, they hold the A minor on the low strings while the other fiddler plays the E and the A [strings]. And that's an interesting thing. Then sometimes you get fiddles playing in octaves, or what Ciarán and I do, in unison.
Was there ever anybody who retuned to AEAE for that kind of tune, like they do in Cape Breton sometimes?
Yeah, there was. I heard of a few people who did "The Foxhunter's Reel", for instance, in AEAE and used the drones, used the other strings as sympathetic strings. I heard of a few people who did that. I'm sure that people experimented. And I heard of fiddlers that went up to tune their fiddles [e.g., according to Caoimhín Mac Aoidh, Neilly Boyle often tuned one or two semitones above concert pitch], and were able to play in any key at all. It was just they were so used to their fingerboard. People like that would be able to play with any other instrument just by going up the neck. I heard of old fiddlers who did that. They had no idea what key they were in but they were very musical.
Youíre known as a singer as well as a fiddler. Do you see any relationship between singing and fiddling? Is there something you take from one to the other?
They say the fiddle's the nearest thing to the voice, but I think I play the fiddle quite differently to the way I sing. I sing quietly and I play the fiddle strongly, so the opposites are coming out with the both things. So I don't really knowI don't feel that they have any connection. It's a completely different feeling for me to play the fiddle and then sing, completely different.
Youíve recorded some Cape Breton tunes. Do you see a relationship with Donegal music?
I just love Cape Breton fiddling! I think it's very close. They derive their music from Scottish music. Well, in Donegal we're very influenced by Scottish music as well. Independently the two areas became very alike, because they kind of changed the music a bit from Scotland and we did the same. I find it very hearty to listen to. I love their triplets and their doublestops and that stuff. It's very like some Donegal fiddlers when you hear Cape Breton fiddlers. And their tunes are great as well!
I feel that in both cases thereís a lot of influence from the pipes.
Definitely. You have these piping tunes from Scotland which were the basis of the repertoire. And the piano playing in Cape Breton is very sympathetic to that type of fiddle playingthat kind of syncopated stuffbecause the fiddle playing is very direct, so the syncopation makes it very exciting. I love playing with Cape Breton piano players, it's very exciting altogether!
The older Donegal players didnít have much accompanimentÖ
So when you were putting Altan together, what were your ideas about putting accompaniment to the music?
You're a product of your era, really, and that's what we are. We all were listening to rock music and pop music and whatever you call it, and listened a lot to guitar bands, I suppose, so it was a very natural progression, especially if you have people like Ciarán Curran playing and Daithi Sproule, or Matt Kelly, who was our other guitarist. They have a great affiliation with the music. They would listen to the music on its own. They respect the music a lot. They put an awful lot of work into the backing to make sure that the tune breathes rather than clamping it down. There was no problem at all, because the older players were solo players, while we are playing as a band. What we're trying to do is bring the spirit of solo playing across in the band. I used to get really excited by just listening to Con Cassidy and people like that. They didn't need accompaniment because their music was so complete and so full of personality, it didn't need any accompaniment at all. But in our days a band has to have accompaniment because people are used to chords and harmonies and all of that stuff.
Altan has a reputation for playing really fast...
Yeah, that's true. Well, certain tunes we do very fast because that's how we heard them. I think every tune has its own speed. Sometimes I would start a selection of tunes and then I would slow down because every tune has its own style. Some of the tunes lend themselves to being played fast while with others you lose the tune completely if you play it too fast. I don't think we play too fast. I've heard bands playing faster than us.
Actually, you play a lot of tunes that arenít fast at all along with the fast things.
Oh, we do. You have to have the variety there. And like in Donegal, if you would listen to Mickey and John Doherty playing together, they were playing very fast together, and the likes of Neilly Boyle, who lived near where I was, played very fast as well. But I don't think it should be a must. Some tunes lend themselves for that and other tunes, it depends on the mood as well, and what you're feeling. You can play it slow, then the following day it might be a different feeling. It depends on so many factors.
When you record, do you generally record live in the studio?
Yeah, we always insist on that, just to get the feeling. Sometimes it's too cold [otherwise]. It wouldn't be perfect, for example a note wouldn't be the same, but we always go for the spirit of the tunes. They're dance tunes, so you might have to have a bit of something going there rather than it being clinically perfect but no feeling. So that's the reason we always go for that. It always works out as well. It's the nearest thing to playing live onstage in front of people.
Do you have any other advice for people who are interested in this style, and would like to learn it?
If you're interested in Donegal style, I would say to get as many records
as possible in that style, and especially solo albums the likes of John
Doherty's Bundle and Go and his other solo album, or James
Byrne's The Road to Glenlough. Just listen to all the different
styles and choose what you want. And go there! It's not just the style.
The style comes out of the environment and the people and the feeling you
get. It's the atmosphere there. You have to go there and seek out the places
that all the tunes are from around all those areas. They're named after
certain areas like "The Cliffs of Glencolmcille" and "Biddy
from Muckross". Go to those places and you get the whole feeling,
you know you really do get the feeling of the tunes.
An introduction to Donegal fiddling.
An interview with James Byrne.
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