Music Fit for a Cathedral: The Gloaming

August 15, 2014

The combination of the unique 13th century ecclesiastical setting and excitment of a rare opportunity to see The Gloaming perform live, ensured an early sell-out.

Photo: Ross Costigan

The Gloaming playing St. Canice’s Cathedral has been one of the most anticipated facets of the Kilkenny Arts Festival programme for months. The combination of the unique 13th century ecclesiastical setting and excitment of a rare opportunity to see The Gloaming perform live, ensured an early sell-out.

This is my fifth time to see the Gloaming.The infrequency of their live performances makes them a band worth traveling for. Apart from a few repeated anecdotes, musically no two shows have felt the same – be it their performance at the Céiliúradh event at London’s Royal Albert Hall in April, the Derry edition of Other Voices  in February, or most memorable of all; Union Chapel in London for their album release last January, where the room heaved and the stage nearly took off in a collective frenzy of foot-tapping and head-shaking.

As the lights dim and the stone effigies of knights and bishops recede into the shadows of St. Canice’s, Martin Hayes, Iarla Ó Lionáird, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, Denis Cahill and Thomas Bartlett take to the stage and open with Samradh, Samradh, a song first documented in the 18th century about Bealtaine, the beginning of summer. As they move on to Song 44, an arrangement with elements as old as this venue, one by one and without any fanfare, they’re joined by a series of American guest performers; Sam Amidon, Doug Wieselman and Nic Gareiss.

Amidon, a childhood friend and regular collaborator with Bartlett, and Wieselman have appeared in separate Secret Garden Music slots over the course of the week. Both momentarily brought out the sun to large gatherings in the historic gardens of Rothe and Butler Houses, respectively. Their addition compliments the group in unexpected ways.

Although only born in 1986, Nic Gareiss has spent 20 years studying shoe-sounds and the disparate international roots of American traditional dance. The percussive results of this are a revelation, with subtle scratches building to more pronounced steps, a dance equivalent to Ó Raghallaigh’s distinct brand of fiddle-playing. The two perform together as half of This is How We Fly, who, incidentally, will also appear on Saturday night at the Set Theatre. This is the first time Gareiss has performed with The Gloaming, adding a thrilling percussive and visual display to their now established set.

Bartlett’s piano playing is more expressive than ever, and towards the end of Opening Set, rises to a thunderous exchange with Hayes’ fiddling. Every time I hear The Sailor’s Bonnet, Hayes seeks out a new crevice in the tune, a previously unexplored nook. He precedes it by telling of how he had initally thought little of the popular tune until he came to teach it to a class and, playing it much slower than usual, came to hear a new beauty in it. Judging things too hastily can be dangerous, he warns.

At Other Voices earlier this year, I asked Ó Raghallaigh how when dealing with source material that is often hundreds of years old, they can transform it into something that feels fresh and exciting:

“We just do what we do. I play music because it’s in my bones and it needs to get out and if I’m playing on my own or with Mick O’ Brien, in quite a traditional environment or an environment like this, the same music is in those bones. The same music is trying to get out and you can’t stop it, it’s going to get out and all we have to do is let it. I’m not trying to make it new and exciting, that music is new and exciting because every single time we play it, we’re not playing something old, what we’re doing is …we’ve kind of got the seed of the idea of that music and we send down roots deep into the genetic material of where we’ve come from, this old music that goes back hundreds of years and we pull this up through our veins and out through our instrument, or whatever it is we play, and it comes out fresh because it is, it’s alive. Every time we play, be it traditional or contemporary, it’s alive there and then. It’s new by dint of us being at the absolute finest point of creativity where it’s razor sharp, where you’re not rehashing something you’ve practiced, you’re there, and of course it’s fresh. That’s the whole thing of being creative.”

Another new project from Ó Raghallaigh, this time with fellow hardanger fiddle player Dan Trueman had its debut in Rothe House on Thursday. Unbeknownst to them I’d heard a preview through my hotel room wall earlier in the day. So unique is the sound of two hardanger fiddles in this part of the world, there was no question who was responsible. The duo toyed with calling the project Gollywhopper, but wisely settled on Laghdú instead. The word means lessening, and while this is a perfectly appropriate description of their approach to a tune, the range of sounds they extract from the instrument is much broader than convention. It was via Trueman that Ó Raghallaigh was introduced to the eight string hardanger fiddle after, of all things, attending a particle physics accelerator laboratory in September 2000. Both play the so-called hardanger d’more fiddle, a modified ten string version by Norwegian maker Salve Håkedal and of which there are about nine in existence. Three of them are in Kilkenny this week, the other played by Cleek Schrey as one third of Ghost Trio with Iarla Ó Lionáird and uileann piper Ivan Goff. Ó Raghallaigh’s droning ten string hardanger is a core part of what has become The Gloaming’s sound, making the emergence of Laghdú something of a full circle for him.

With an encore performance of Saoirse, adapted from Seán Ó Riordáin’s poem about individuality, freedom and fitting in with the small town tribe – The Gloaming bring the evening at St. Canice’s to a close. Mulling on the words of that poem, I think about how this group of musicians have all ploughed their own furrows and in doing so created something that now feels like it has a communal importance, and like all great art, an inevitability.

-Dylan Haskins