Under an Irish Sky
Florian Blancke is best-known as a harper and singer, but also plays piano, guitar and fiddle. Her finely worked 2012 album with accordionist Dermot Byrne drew heavily upon her classical background and early influences: Blancke trained at the Bordeaux Conservatoire, and studied jazz and world music before moving to Ireland to embrace its traditional music. The album featured one Québécoise and two French waltzes (as well as a Chris Newman composition) as it moved assuredly between Irish intensity and sophisticated parlour ambience.
Kaleidoscope is, however, essentially a Blancke solo project, although one supported by an impressive group of performers, including long-time musical partner Byrne. The album features a number of compositions from Blancke herself, including the opening track, ‘Trip to Achill’, in which blended percussion from Jimmy Higgins (including hand-drum and Pota-drum) lend groove to the jig, providing an immediate clue to the recording’s over-arching mood: here is a dialogue enacted with another world. The arrangement has a gently cosmopolitan feel, reminiscent of Vinnie Kilduff’s occasional nudging at stylistic boundaries; an impression reinforced by the second jig in the set, ‘Dooagh Bay’ (also self-penned), which introduces (all too briefly) the whistle of Joanie Madden, double-tracked to add to the tune’s swelling dynamic on the repeats. The mix is reinforced by bouzouki and keyboard from Brendan O’Regan, and indeed O’Regan’s distinctively metallic bouzouki (resembling at times a wire-strung harp) is a prominent element in the album’s overall aesthetic.
Next is the Irish-language song ‘Molly na gCuach Ní Chuilleanain’, delivered with vocal double- (and triple-) tracking, set above a string arrangement of shifting accents. The principal backdrop to the vocals is, however, Garry O’Briain’s nylon-strung guitar, and the combined effect of the arrangement is that of local tradition re-created with global nuances. Contrastingly, Blancke’s fiddle-playing comes to the fore in the fourth track, ‘Slippery Slope’, and here we can discern a huge stylistic leap. Out from under the warm, world-music canopy of the album’s first chapter, we find ourselves beneath a grey Irish sky of sparsely rendered reels played on fiddle and accordion. ‘Slippery Slope’ is another Blancke creation, deceptively simple, but with a surprising rhythmic twist in the last bar that sounds as though it could have been written by Peadar Ó Riada.
Once again, this Blancke recording draws widely on the various strata that form her musical background, and the choice of song reinforces that aura of diversity: ‘Crazy Man Michael’ references the British folk-rock of Sandy Denny, whilst ‘Don’t Stand on my Grave and Weep’ provides another unexpected departure, a slick, country rendition.
Overall, the album is infused with an exemplary musicality, and Blancke is certainly a wonderfully adept tunesmith on both harp and fiddle. I found myself wanting more of her traditionally inspired tunes, and perhaps less of the variegated sound worlds that weave through the project. There is clearly little that Blancke cannot achieve musically, but it was under the sky of ‘Slippery Slope’ that I found the greatest emotional connection with her craft.
Kaleidoscope by Floriane Blancke is available from www.dermotandflo.com
This review is published as part of a new scheme for music writers in County Clare. The Journal of Music/Clare County Council Music Writer Mentoring Scheme is supported by Clare Arts Office and was launched in March 2017. Over 12 months, the editorial team of The Journal of Music are working with four new writers – Deirdre Clare, Ian Bascombe, Ruth Smith and Alan Reid – to expand the magazine’s coverage of musical life in the county. The first four reviews focused on the Riches of Clare concert series (Ian Bascombe), Paul Brady at Glór (Deirdre Clare), Lisa Hannigan (Ruth Smith) and The Boruma Trio (Alan Reid).
This is one of three schemes currently underway. The second – supported by Galway City Council – supports five new writers to cover musical life in Galway City. The first six reviews covered Overhead, the Albatross and Talos (Vincent Hughes), RTÉ Concert Orchestra (Jake Morgan), Brian Wilson (Dylan Murphy), Lankum (Shannon McNamee) and Loah (Julie Seagrave).
The third scheme, for writers about music in Northern Ireland, is supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and is currently seeking submissions. For more, visit https://goo.gl/hVPVr5
For further details on the background to the schemes, please visit https://goo.gl/QY83ga.
Published on 31 January 2018
Ian Bascombe is a tin whistle and bouzouki player, teacher and writer based in County Clare. His recently completed PhD, funded by the Irish Research Council, investigated the nineteenth-century origins of the mass-produced tin whistle, and he is the author of ‘The Official Handbook for the Clarke Tin Whistle’.