A Step Between Worlds

A Step Between Worlds

Was the Gloaming — the new venture of Martin Hayes, Dennis Cahill, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, Iarla Ó Lionáird and Thomas Bartlett — to be a well-intentioned experiment, or did it amount to something more promising?

The Gloaming
National Concert Hall, Dublin
20 August 2011

Iarla Ó Lionáird’s opening song, ‘An cúil daigh-réidh’, lit up by the New York pianist Thomas Bartlett’s sound-scape, followed by a set of high-strung tunes, were so powerful that, après Yeats, ‘every casual thought of this and that vanished’.

When the prolonged applause eventually died down, Martin Hayes’ deadpan response, along the lines of ‘we didn’t know what to expect ourselves either’, downplayed the satisfaction he and the other band members clearly felt, while at the same time summed up the uncertainty this ensemble had generated beforehand. Combining established musical icons, emerging talents and non-traditional influences, the Gloaming had me wondering whether this would be a greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts phenomenon or just a well-intentioned experiment.

Of course, there has always been an experimental playfulness to the way Dennis Cahill and Martin Hayes approach tunes, and it was inevitable, even in the context of a new band, that they would showcase that as a duet. Late in the second half of the concert, they played a reel called ‘The Sailor’s Bonnet’ together, very gently, or ‘broken up a little’, as Hayes put it, as if to let in more light. The pace then switched to ‘dance’ and they let loose a virtuosic set of tunes, Cahill, as always, colouring Hayes’ melody.

Bartlett — being the classically-trained outsider — was certainly going to be significant in the Gloaming’s style, but even without him the others would have pushed the music onto new ground. The stretching of sean-nós into instrumental music that Ó Lionáird has explored lately — particularly with composers Donnacha Dennehy and Gavin Bryars — provided one direction. And the trance-like extremes of Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh’s looping improvisations offered another. (Ó Raghallaigh’s duet on ‘The Wild Goose Chase’ with Cahill was so quiet as to almost disappear into the atmosphere of the jammed National Concert Hall.) Even some of the wildness of rock music came through, for instance, in the frenzy of their version of ‘Óró, Sé do Bheatha ‘Bhaile’, reminiscent of Steve Wickham.

Watching Bartlett gave a very clear sense of the ground covered by this ‘band’. Some of the time he sat sideways on the stool and became an attentive member of the audience, wine glass in hand. More of the time, he threw himself bodily into the job of providing a more pronounced accompaniment to the jigs and reels, playing the inside of the piano as much as the keys. I wondered might he have experienced occasional twinges of frustration in trying to find fresh ways out of the tunes only to be pulled back in by their forcefulness. It was the songs, such as Ó Lionáird’s sculpted reworking of ‘Thugamar Féin an Samhradh Linn’, and his brand new setting of the poem ‘A Necklace of Wrens’ by Michael Harnett, that gave Bartlett a more flexible line to work with — which he did with head-down, Schroeder-like intensity. 

Yet, while there were certainly dominant pairings such as these, the Gloaming was most exciting when they moved as a larger unit. You could feel this when Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh’s exquisite, albeit brief, solo playing of Peadar Ó Riada’s ‘An Draigheann’ shifted into a piece of his own ‘where traditional music begins to disintegrate’ and texture and even silence reign, before being led back by Cahill and Hayes to set up Ó Lionáird’s ‘Tráthann an Taoide’ backed by Bartlett’s foraying. 

In always starting in or returning to the tradition for inspiration, the Gloaming managed to avoid that artistic fog called ‘fusion’. Just as the name they have chosen for themselves is a time between day and night, the music they have found together is more in between worlds than fixed as something new and synthetic or old and fossilised.

And, while solo careers and other projects aren’t likely to be flung into the ditch, the way they have each stepped outside personal comfort zones for the sake of ‘the band’ can only bode well for its future as a group: Ó Lionáird played bodhrán for the first time on stage, for instance; Bartlett ‘hammered out jigs and reels’ (Hayes’ words, again); Ó Raghallaigh played second fiddle (albeit on his new Hardanger-like fiddle); Cahill ceded space to the piano; and Hayes allowed himself, in the first place, to join a band.

Published on 26 August 2011

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