Out of My Element
In 2010 the American composer and musician, Dan Trueman, entered a close relationship with the music scene in Ireland, starting with a sabbatical from his teaching post in Princeton University, New Jersey, to spend a year here working with Irish musicians, and going on more recently to a shorter visit this summer. The Journal of Music asked him to reflect on his experiences. Below, Dave Holden of the band I Draw Slow shares his thoughts on Trueman’s recent recording with Brittany Haas.
My year in Ireland was thrilling, invigorating, and personally transforming. I made many new friends; and several collaborative projects have resulted that I hope will bring me back to Ireland for years to come. Many of these friends have already been to America since, and others are due to come over in the next few years to continue those collaborations.
I’m a composer, a fiddler, a laptopist. I teach composition at Princeton University, and have spent most of my adult life in and around the New York music scene. My connection to Ireland began only after a chance meeting with Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh in 2000 when he was doing a physics internship at my father’s laboratory on Long Island. We met over fiddles, me on my Hardanger playing Norwegian tunes, Caoimhín playing Sliabh Luachra tunes. (I do like to brag about the fact that the first Hardanger fiddle Caoimhín ever played was mine.) We lost contact for several years, reconnecting through, of all things, MySpace.com. Around that time, Caoimhín suggested I check out a concert in NYC — his friend Iarla Ó Lionáird was premiering Grá agus Bás by Donnacha Dennehy with the Crash Ensemble at Merkin Hall. It was also around this time that Caoimhín brought out his EP Where the One-eyed Man is King, and in a sense it was these two pieces of music that brought me to Ireland.
To me Grá agus Bás is a staggering accomplishment. I’ve heard it many times now, and it grows more exhilarating for me with each listening. Where the One-eyed Man is King is gorgeous and beguiling, unlike anything I’ve heard before. Yet in some ways these very different projects are reaching out for one another. Yes, Caoimhín’s tunes are miniatures, and Grá agus Bás is epic; but Grá agus Bás is also a deep exploration of a non-concert hall tradition, and Caoimhín’s textures – transparent where Donnacha’s are dense — demonstrate an ear for the concert hall that the composer Morton Feldman would appreciate. Both works seemed to me also to be free from the imprisoning attitudes and dogma that often keep music traditions apart.
So in spite of my long ties with Norway, my family and I came to Ireland for the year, both because I loved this music, and because we wanted to see what this reaching was all about.
Here’s a brief and sorely incomplete list of the musical experiences I had: performing with This is How We Fly at the Dublin Fringe Festival; following my daughter’s remarkable choir (Piccolo Lasso) from mass to mass and country to country (including a visit to Rome, where they sang for the Pope); monthly visits to the eclectic and intimate Kaleidoscope series at the Odessa Club; a gratifying premiere of my new piece W…, composed for the Crash Ensemble during our year in Dublin; sessions, American old time and Irish, at the Cobblestone; multiple seminars with music students at Trinity (which ultimately led to the formation of the Dublin Laptop Orchestra); fiddle performances for my children’s schoolmates at the superb St Louis school in Rathmines; Willie Clancy week and Joe Mooney week with the family; trying to keep up with Yurodny. Through Caoimhín and Donnacha I was introduced to some of the younger Irish composers like Judith Ring, Linda Buckley, Benedict Schlepper-Connolly, and to individual musicians like Mick O’Brien, Kate Ellis, Séan Mac Erlaine, Nick Roth, Martin Hayes, Adrian Hart, Patrick Groenland, Enda Ó Catháin, Pat Daly (in no particular order and with inevitable omissions).
What I heard and experienced was remarkably varied, as diverse and vibrant as the scene in New York. And while I can well imagine that Ireland’s smaller size could make those who live in it year after year feel occasionally claustrophobic, it’s precisely this size (along with the tradition of ‘going for a pint’) that I think brings these various musical worlds together and encourages people to reach for one another. For all our talk of globalism, the local is still powerful, perhaps more so than ever; and I sensed that palpably during my year in Ireland.
And we must not forget ‘the craic’; while it sometimes seems to lead to more talk than action (something Americans tend to find particularly irritating), the talk is, I think, critical to the musical reaching out. Since returning to the US, I have noticed how much more I see the sides of people’s faces as they move on to the next thing, and how less often simple, face-to-face conversation happens. This bugs me, and makes me miss Ireland all the more. New York City is a wonderful, culturally rich place, but in general I find that there is less cross-pollination going on, fewer substantial encounters between people from different musical worlds than in Dublin. Through the craic, we learn more about each other, about what is out there, and are more inclined, I think, to reach beyond our comfort zones.
My impression wasn’t all positive, of course, and how could it be? I occasionally sensed a bit of the American/NYC tendency for careerist hype (especially in the social networking world), a tendency that I gather is a relatively recent phenomenon, and it feels un-Irish to me — admittedly, I have an aversion to it. And while funding for the arts in America is terrible, institutional funding is quite good (especially at a place like Princeton) and I wish the comparable institutions in Ireland were far better funded. It seems to me that programmes like the Trinity Music and Media Technologies (I was struck by how many of the creative and active musicians I encountered in Dublin came through the MMT program), the DIT GradCAM program, and Limerick’s World Academy of Music and Dance are strong, but could do so much more with better funding. Of course, this is a terrible time to suggest such a thing!
Since returning to the US, I took part in a residency at the Irish Arts Center in New York city with Iarla Ó Lionáird and Ivan Goff. We spent several days together working up material and presented two concerts. What a pleasure this was! Both of these musicians are extraordinary ‘traditional’ musicians who have completely open ears and have expended enormous energy reaching for all things musical. The music was at one moment heartfelt and tuneful, at another abstract and textured, until the abstract and textured became the heartfelt and tuneful, and vice versa. I simultaneously felt completely at home and completely out of my element, which well summarises how I felt during my year across the Atlantic.
Dave Holden (I Draw Slow) on CrissCross from Dan Trueman and Brittany Haas
Given the title of the album, and having been familiar with the work of Brittany Haas and Dan Trueman individually for a while, I thought I would know what to expect in such a collaboration. Brittany Haas is a five-string fiddle player in the old time tradition, playing most notably with Crooked Still, while Dan Trueman is a Hardanger fiddle player and composer.
But the album has proved to be far more than the sum of its parts. Yes, in the few re-workings of more traditional material (‘Shove the Pigs Foot a Little Further into the Fire’ and ‘Fosclachta’) it has the fascinating mix of driving American fiddle playing with otherworldly Hardanger textures (no mean feat considering the tuning differences). But in the majority of tracks, the music is totally freed from the constraints of form, and let roam melodically and rhythmically through an earthy-ethereal paradox of composition, improvisation, tradition and abstraction.
The other musicians, cellist Natalie Haas, guitarist Jordan Tice, and bassist Corey DiMario (Crooked Still), back the two with inventive energy that adds to the contemporary feel of the project, and the production (by Lawson White) is very sympathetic to the complex dynamics of the musicians.
Published on 25 July 2012