On Andy Conroy…

Okay, geekiness was promised and here it comes…

I’ve been thinking a good deal lately about certain aspects of rhythm and duration in Irish traditional music, and specifically the uilleann piping tradition. I’ve not gotten far but I’ll share what I’ve been thinking.

This is Andy Conroy. A bizarre and eccentric musical innovator. Not the recording of his I’ve been spending most of my time with but this one is freely available online. I’ve actually done a transcription of this setting of the Dublin Reel. Looks simple enough – quavers, triplets and semiquavers, some (well, mostly) staccato, the odd grace note. I can play my transcription to a reasonable degree of faithfulness (which is no small technical challenge) but it sounds abjectly ridiculous –  it’s completely lacking in the lift and swing that he imparts to that tune. It’s not that my transcription is wrong as such, but it just doesn’t give all the required information.

This is something that conventional Western notation, and every other musical notation system I’m aware of, has no recourse to deal with. I need to assimilate the tiny nuances of rhythm and duration that transform it from a technical exercise into dance music, but these nuances are so small that the quantity of information required to express them in staff notation becomes completely unhelpful. We’re into New Complexity territory if we go there, which is all very well, but it brings the music into a completely foreign conceptual space and one that I think will never actually produce the desired result. What I need is an understanding of style and Conroy was a stylistic law unto himself. I’m not interested in playing exactly like Conroy but I think the closer I can come to understanding how he makes music (not to mention Touhey, Doran, Clancy, Ennis, Reck and the rest of them), the richer my own playing will become.

I’m not pretending that this is fundamentally different from playing bass in a funk band, or stride piano, or Balinese gamelan. If you get the subtleties of rhythm even minutely wrong in any of these styles you end up with music that is stilted, lifeless, humourless and banal. Whereas if you get Ferneyhough wrong no-one will even notice…


Post-Willie Week

Back in Limerick now after a week in Miltown Malbay for Willie Week. What a ridiculous overdose of music, learning and fun. I think I made the most of the opportunity, taking classes with the wonderful Brian McNamara and Peter Browne, hearing some amazing music at both formal and informal gatherings, and making some less amazing music myself until the early hours. A week very, very well spent on the whole.

Back to the practice room for the next few days, trying to make sense of several gigabytes of music I recorded over the week. And then another mad event! I can feel a properly geeky post coming on in the next day or two as well.


Limerick I

I’m writing this from Limerick where I’ll be based for the next couple of months. I’ve just had a very intensive three days of piping with Mikie, which has been amazing (with a side of depressing). Amongst other things we tried to correct six years worth of bad habits, get my pipes playing to our satisfaction and assemble a set list for a solo show I’m doing before I leave. Some serious challenges in there which is always welcome.

I also had to pleasure of sitting in on a very fine session at Flannery’s and seeing an equally excellent gig featuring Matt Molloy, John Carty and friends at University of Limerick. Some effortless and beautiful music making there. This weekend marks the start of the Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy (aka Willie Week) in Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare, the biggest event of the summer school season. Thoroughly looking forward to many, many, many tunes and a certain quantity of wild hedonism. I’ll try to post something from there.