The Gathering Festival 2016 : An interview with Matt Cranitch who appears on 21st February

This year Matt Cranitch will once again appear with Jackie Daly at The Gathering Festival on 17th- 21st February 2016. He appeared last year and we interviewed him in connection with the festival, which we re-feature again.  

"The Gathering Traditional Music Festival takes place in Killarney, County Kerry.  This is their 17th year and once again they bring to life the very best in traditional music and dance over the 5 days of the festival. It’s the first major festival of the new year for the west of the country, and this year they set the bar very high with a series of concerts, ceili’s and sessions that should please anyone with an interest in traditional Irish music and dance.

On February 21st Matt Cranitch and Jackie Daly will be back on stage for what will no doubt be one of the highlights of the festival.  As part of a series of articles in connection with The Gathering we spoke to Matt Cranitch to see what is in store for those attending. On his background, Matt grew up in County Cork and over the years has become one of the most recognised names within the traditional scene, both for his music and his input into creative arts in this country.  He has been involved with the Geantraí series of traditional music programmes on TG4 as well as TG4’s Gradam Ceoil music awards.  He has also been an advisor to The Arts Council and was a board member of the Irish Traditional Music Archive (ITMA).  However he will be known to most budding fiddle players as the author of The Irish Fiddle Book, which has provided the first introduction to the art of fiddle for so many young musicians.

Over the years he has also recorded and played with a number of groups including Na Filí and Any Old Time.  His work with Sliabh Notes yielded three recordings including Sliabh Notes (1995), Gleanntán (1999) and Along Blackwater’s Banks (2002).  His recording with Jackie Daly called The Living Stream (2010) was critically acclaimed and in 2014 Matt and Jackie worked together on their latest album called Rolling On. As you may expect, it features the distinctive sounds of Sliabh Luachra and when we spoke to Matt we started by asking him about the enduring qualities of this culturally rich area that straddles the Cork and Kerry border.

“Like other styles of music” he says, “the Sliabh Luachra tradition has its own very distinguishing characteristics in terms of how the music is played, and also with regard to the repertoire. While it shares many tunes with other stylistic regions, particularly jigs, reels and hornpipes, the presence of the idiomatic slides and polkas provides a very unique dimension. The way in which the music is expressed is very much a hallmark of the area”.

The fact that the music has been linked to a great extent with the dancing of sets (of quadrilles) has had an influence”, he says. “The rhythmic dimension is very much present, although this facet of the music may often be expressed in a manner that is more subtle rather than overt. Each of the tune-types has its own particular features of expression. For example, the way in which a slide is enunciated differs distinctly from the way in which other tunes are played. With specific regard to fiddle-playing, the bow-hand plays a central part in creating the characteristic rhythm and swing. A particular feature is the use of open strings to provide a drone-effect.”

It is not uncommon he says, when two or more are playing, to have the tune played an octave lower by one of the musicians. The playing of slow airs is also an integral part of the tradition for many musicians. “For those of us who play this music, it is very special, as it is for its many listeners.”

This music is captured in its raw essence on their new recording Rolling On. “In many respects, Rolling On is a continuation of what we had started in 2010 with the release of The Living Stream” Matt says. “However, the new recording features some additional elements. We include material from the manuscripts of Pádraig O’Keeffe (1887–1963), The Sliabh Luachra Fiddle Master. Through his special music notation systems (one for the fiddle and one for the melodeon), he left a legacy of tunes for subsequent generations to explore”.

"For those of us who play this music, it is very special, as it is for its many listeners"

From this source Matt and Jackie feature a number of tunes, such as, for example, the title track ‘Rolling in the Ryegrass’. Matt explains that although this reel is generally well-known, not only in Sliabh Luachra itself but also throughout the wider world of Irish traditional music, they feel that the unusual variations in Pádraig’s version are really beautiful. Other tunes on the CD he says are obtained from a range of different sources, in addition to which they feature five new compositions from Jackie, one of them being a tribute to their deceased friend, Séamus Creagh.

With most albums these days the approach taken by accompanists that appear on recordings can have a major impact on the final sound and on Rolling On they decided to mix it up a bit. “Of the fifteen tracks on the album, nine are unaccompanied, thereby perhaps underscoring an older aesthetic wherein the various constituent facets of the music, such as melody, rhythm, phrasing, articulation, accentuation, dynamics etc. are created by the ‘melody’ instruments themselves.” he says.

They do include Conal Ó Gráda (flute) on two of these tracks, and Geraldine O’Callaghan (fiddle) on a further two. On the six remaining tracks, they feature guitar accompaniment by Paul De Grae. “We feature tunes both with and without accompaniment, something that we feel adds greatly to the value of the CD, in that it provides contrasting perspectives on the music”.

On the festival itself Matt spoke glowingly about the work that goes into The Gathering and gave some insight into the line-up for their concert.

“Both Jackie and myself have played previously at The Gathering, and indeed are looking forward greatly to doing so again. It is a wonderful event, for which great credit is due to John O’Shea, as well as the people at the Gleneagle Hotel and INEC. We are particularly pleased this time to be able to work with Paul De Grae who appeared on the album with us. We will showcase material from the album, as well as other favourite tunes.

Finally we touch on The Irish Fiddle Book.  For me personally it was a source of great inspiration when it came to learning fiddle.  It still sits proudly on my shelf and is showing signs of its age and repeated use.  It is hard to imagine that it was first published over 25 years ago.  Since then it has undergone a number of minor revisions and modifications. The good news for all is that it is about to get an upgrade.

“At this stage, the publisher (Music Sales, under the Ossian imprint) and myself are considering a more substantial re-edit” Matt confirms. “While the primary thrust of the book, along with the core content, will probably remain largely unchanged, as we deem it to be very much ‘fit for purpose’, we are looking at including new features. These could include additional explanatory information, as well as some more tunes and accompanying audio. A particular issue which now arises in the case of many young people who are learning to play Irish traditional music is that they don’t have a context within which to do so. Many live in an environment where little or no traditional music is heard or played, and where the dominant aural input to their lives is ‘pop’ music. In such circumstances, it is difficult for them to gain an appreciation and understanding of the aesthetics of that which they are trying to learn. I hope to include some guidelines in the new edition of the book aimed at helping in this regard.”

The Gathering Festival runs from from 17th - 21st February and Matt and Jackie will perform on 21st February. 

To book tickets visit www.thegathering.ie and also visit Matt's website www.mattcranitch.com

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