A detailed Q&A with Martin Tourish on his music and album 'Under a Red Sky Night'

In 2014 we commenced our series of Online Album Launches with an album by Martin Tourish called Under a Red Sky Night.  Martin is a musician, composer and producer from Donegal, and has become a major force on the traditional music scene in Ireland, and abroad.  His creativity as a musician has continued to flourish since his award as 'Young Musician of the Year' in 2008 by TG4.  His music touches the curve of the traditional idiom at several points.  From his recent work with Altan, to this recording, which he describes as more improvisational in nature, he continues to excel. In advance of our online launch last year we also spoke to Martin via email as part of a Q&A session which we include below.


Trying to classify your music and where your true heart lies musically is difficult, up to and including your present recording. How would you describe your journey to date and where is it taking you?

It's probably best not to try! For me, music is less about a specific set of notes or an absolute concept of any one style, and more about the magic that happens between musicians when the moment is right. Styles, as I see them, are in a way, just expressions of different headspaces and modes of understanding the world through music. Once that chemistry, mutual understanding and drive to create is there, the heart has beat me to it yet again!

My musical journey has taken me into a really wide array of genres (and maybe a few that have yet to be defined), but for me, it’s about empathizing with whomever you’re making music. You try to understand them as fully as is possible and a middle ground emerges where both can create something meaningful. If that moment comes about, you’ll want to capture and record it, hence this album. In that way, it’s like taking a picture or the words ‘record’ and ‘album’ in their basic sense.

The next couple of albums that I’m involved with are all very different from each other and I really want to record a solo accordion album with just one melodic line. They’re all different microcosms and as long as the magic of creativity is still in it, I’ll keep doing it!

Do you think there is a lot to be explored in the traditional idiom that lays undiscovered.?  Are we too conservative about how we explore traditional music?

I can never help but think about a very fine paragraph delivered by Nicholas Carolan at The Crossroads Conference in 1996 where he said:

'It [Irish traditional music] has been here, in round figures, for 9,000 years, for as long as there’s been human habitation here. In the context of 9,000 years the 300 years that I spoke about a moment ago is nothing: 3%. And yet that 3% of Irish time has been a period long enough to almost entirely create Irish traditional music as we know it […]'

Then if you read Daithí Kearney’s PhD thesis, ‘Towards a Regional Understanding of Irish Traditional Music’, you see that the greatest repositories of style – recordings – only exist from the twentieth century onwards and of those, what they represent is very minimalistic and fragmented in terms of the regions and performers covered. That leaves us with a pretty small 1%. More is probably known about deep space!

Then of what we do have, the nature of the oral tradition means that it is transmitted largely as tacit or implicit knowledge. I won’t go into the difference here but a good example of tacit knowledge is learning to cycle. No manual will teach you - it's about watching and replicating. So there aren’t terms for most of the stylistic practices, meaning that they have yet to be explicitly identified or codified. This would be discovery in the sense of formally knowing what is practically known and while I’ve just finished a PhD on the subject, we’ve hardly scratched the surface, even within the 1%.

When I studied the area, I found roughly 17,000 stylistic elements including 545 ornaments. When I begun, I thought I'd be lucky if I'd find 20 ornaments! Yet, this is only the tip of the iceberg. The digital humanities would most likely provide a real opportunity to develop the exploration of this area of style, in the same way as it is already doing in terms of repertoire (thesession.org) and general understanding and connections (tradconnect.com). So from a research perspective, more innovative approaches to exploring the music are required.

To take that question in a musical sense, I think the conservatism versus innovation argument as was explored by The Crossroads Conferences is really a false dichotomy because both ‘sides’ and every shade in between are clearly a part of the same circle. In any case, it’s an old argument, showing up in the literature as far back as people were writing about both music generally and Irish music, where notable arguments can be found between Monteverdi vs Artusi (early 17th century), Bunting vs Moore, than Pietrie vs Bunting (in the 19th century)! What would it be like now without the introduction of the new-fangled reel of the 18th Century? The earliest in the Fleischmann Collection is called ‘The Tail Toddle’ and described as a posterior waggle! The shock!

I can never understand advocacy or arguing for the supremacy of one ‘side’ over the other since people are going to do what they do anyhow and both points of view and everything in between are required. Add to that the fact that the musicians who are considered to be prime tradition bearers now were incredible innovators of their time (John Doherty, John J. Kimmel and Joe Burke are but a few personal heroes). It’s circular in that respect and evidently greater than any one critic or position. Once the music is honest, I don’t think the arguments really matter.

It also has to be said that some musicians like Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh can manage both old and new aesthetics in a most beautiful and artistic way. I think that might be where it’s at!

Under a Red Sky Night continues your experimental improvisation in a way? It’s different to most of the traditional output last year. How would you describe the album and what you are trying to achieve musically on it.?

I have to say that I'm a big fan of the quote attributed to Charlie Parker that reads:

'You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail."

I don't think that I improvised at all on the Clan Ranald album with Luke Ward. There was a bit of it on An Táin by Deep End of the Ford and I'm certainly using improvisation more now in some of the styles in which I play.

Most of the improvisation on this album happened when playing with the wonderful Tim Edey. We've a very particular feel that's going to be achieved no matter what we perform so in that sense the outcome of the experiment is known, it's the notes that aren't! But then improvisation is nothing new to traditional music. There's ample evidence that the old harpists improvised, we've loads of versions of the same tune (just check out some of the popular tunes on thesession.org and there are sometimes over 100 versions), and Tommy Potts was a noted improviser.

Where this stuff maybe differs is that it's often more like instant composition as with the second tune in Prelude (track one), and tunes two and four in the Polka set (track six). Even with the album sleeve notes, I did wonder whether I should say that I just wrote most of the tunes instantly as finished pieces or if they were improvisations that I went back and learned. Maybe that's one for the philosophers!

In terms of how I'd describe the album, it might as well be thought of as a series of windows into particular musical interactions that were and still are special. When you listen to the oeuvre of an artist that has recorded over a number of decades, you hear how they change and develop so I think it’s important to capture these fleeting moments when they’re fresh.

The album was a journey in itself. It began in December 2008 and was recorded in about 3 days. That was until it dawned on me that I'd just recorded another Clan Ranald with different tunes! It just didn’t seem to make sense to be saying the same thing twice so I tried to really think about how I create music and how to capture the moment so I challenged myself to present a different style for each track and if possible, different textures within the track. Compositionally, discovering The James Tourish Collection, a nineteenth-century archive of tunes from my own ancestors, I realised that there was an even greater compositional diversity in the past so I needn't be bound by the more typical formal structures etc. For instance, on the album, ‘Horseman, pass by’ only has one part; ‘The Seventh Degree’ has a 26-bar A-part and a 30-bar B-part; ‘Liobhan Song’ mixes compound and simple-metre feels; ‘Agnis Tompson's Final Dance’ and ‘Exegesis’ use mixed metres.

It would be difficult to categorise most of the material on the album within the tune-type framework used today. The main thing though is that it's musical. It would be meaningless if it weren't.

Was it difficult coordinating such a large team of support musicians, 19 in total, the largest of any recent album we have received?

It's good to know what the final figure came in at! I never thought on counting them! The album took quite a bit of time to complete and while it was difficult to coordinate such a team, each of the artists were very gracious with their time and I'd like to thank each of them again for their involvement. They're much more than supporting musicians to me though and in many cases, they were the catalyst that took me on a particular path. If I re recorded the same album with another four or nineteen musicians in the morning, it would sound quite different. It would have been a smaller crew if I didn't get so excited about ideas and keep inviting people back to the house or into the studio the next day! Musicians must just cross the street when they see me coming now!

Do you plan on touring the album and will this be with a stripped down ensemble if it does happen?

I am planning on putting together a number of gigs featuring the music on the album and I've performed it in the past but with a different line-up each time, including a string trio, layered guitar sound, and more recently, performed it just as a trio, although for the launch, I also invited in a choir and drum corps! A good deal of the material on the new album was recently performed live in the trio format but again, I couldn't help rearranging a lot of it. The different line-ups bring out something particular in the music all the time and for me, it never loses anything, but gains something new.

At the most recent launch, I was joined by Claire Sherry on fiddle and Cillian Doheny on guitar - both of whom hadn't played on the album at all - but to hear how they interpreted the music was just awe inspiring. Tríona Marshall also joined for a few numbers that night and while she was on the album playing ‘The Seventh Degree’, I've since rewritten that tune for her new album; adding in a few new parts to extend it into a full piece in its own right. The same way that there was no point in making a second Clan Ranald, there was no point in attempting to reconstruct Under A Red Sky Night. It would be too robotic and the live interaction is really what it's about anyhow. This way the music can still grow: the night is but a pup!

To Download the Album click on the download logo below

Also available at Claddagh Records

Engineered : Alexis Nealon with Cian Loughnan, Tim Edey, Sean Mac Erlaine

Mixed and Mastered : Alexis Nealon at LXS Studios, Dublin

Artwork : Édaín Ní Dhomhnaill

Photography : James Jordan

Produced : Martin Tourish

Musicians : Martin Tourish, Ciaran Tourish, Eoghan Neff, Adrian Hart, Niamh Varian Barry, Damian Evens, Tim Edey, Drazen Derek, Antoin Bracken, Ciaran Swift, Luke Ward, Triona Marshall, Floriane Blancke, Niall O' Sullivan, Colm O' Hara, Seán Mac Erlaine, Lorcan MacMathuna, Síomha Ní Chasaide Ní Aonghusa, Padraig Donohoe, Gordon Rose.

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