The great poet and flute-player Ciaran Carson once wrote that ‘a good musician must be a good listener’, a remark that has several layers of meaning. In a fundamental way, any successful collaboration and musical communication is built on listening in the moment. Carson though was also adverting to how the individual expression of the traditional musician constantly relates back to the tradition, and how the cultivation of an individual voice is refracted through the voices of others. This sense of listening to others, to the tradition, and the crafting of something new from these disparate musical strands, is central to the ethos of Music Network, and indeed is a core belief of the four musicians coming together for this series. All of these artists also share a common interest in new composition informed and inspired by the traditional idiom. By bringing together the individual voices of these four exciting and path-breaking musicians and singers, Music Network aims to allow their creative energies to synergise in a collaborative and collective effort.
For this tour, Music Network felt it was important to include a mix of instrumental and vocal music to showcase the versatility of these exciting artists. A key reason for bringing this quartet together was their shared adventurous and creative approach to writing and arranging music both old and new. By also bringing together musicians that have not played together before, the format creates a sense of discovery and an encounter with new music, ideas and repertoire. This was a point that the musicians themselves were keen to emphasise. For Niamh Dunne, one of the benefits of the tour is its ability to open up new dimensions of artistic practice: ‘The beauty of it is that people are put together that you might not normally have the chance to play with, that brings you out of your usual musical world’. This was echoed strongly by Bróna McVittie, who described the ‘spontaneity which arises when you have an interaction like this’, and enthused that ‘You are thrown into an unknown, which is an exciting and inspiring place to be in!’ Seán Óg Graham also finds it particularly to energising to collaborate with other musicians, which as he says, ‘is where he gets his creative buzz from’.
What connects all four musicians is an openness to listening to new ideas, and exploring new material, while at the same time being deeply informed by traditional and folk music. Because of this, they went into the project without any pre-conceived ideas or boundaries in terms of what the finished project would appear like. Collectively they draw on a vast breadth of experience in working at the cutting edge of folk, traditional and contemporary Irish music. Cormac Breatnach was in the vanguard of the new thinking about traditional music which emerged in the 1990s, and the music of his band Deiseal was a touchstone for many musicians both then now. Their classic recording, The Long Long Note, featured jazz-inspired arrangements of traditional material, some of which have been revisited and reworked for this tour.
Both Niamh and Seán Óg have been central to the music of Beoga, a band that reimagined what traditional ensemble music could sound like in the 2000s, both in the exciting new tunes that they composed and popularised, and also in finding new ways of presentation through the innovative combination of button accordion, piano, fiddle and bodhrán. Bróna has been celebrated for her beautiful songwriting, but also has a remarkable skill in being able to rework and individualise traditional songs; a standout example of this is her version of ‘The Jug of Punch’, where harp and electronics are deftly weaved around her airy vocals. She looks at something in a very interesting and creative way, and often takes traditional material in a different direction. She also reflected on how her particular musical background made her something of a ‘wild card’ in the group, as she prefers to work much more in an improvised sense, without any specific notion of what the outcome might be. Particularly satisfying for her was the ability to jam together and to allow the music and structures to develop from this. As Niamh added, this is where the joy and creativity of the collaboration lies.
The music featured on this tour highlights the consummate writing of all four musicians, while also drawing on more traditional material. Every musician brought their own music, ideas, and compositions to the initial meetings, allowing them to encounter fresh sounds and unfamiliar tunes. As Bróna described it, ‘We all pitched into the pot, and we worked with each other’s tune or song suggestions to create new arrangements of these’. Niamh and Seán Óg were particularly delighted to hear and learn the Basque music that Cormac brought to the rehearsals. For Bróna, it was the new tunes she has learnt which excited her most, adding how ‘Sean’s tunes stood out for me in particular; he is such a strong tune writer’.
The four musicians are also connected by their belief in the power of music to address issues of social justice. Niamh’s recent solo album Tides (2022) drew on Irish mythology in its exploration of feminist themes, directly encouraging women through the lines ‘Hold your ground, girl, what else can you do?’. Her compositions connect to her involvement in more direct activism, as she was a founder of FairPlé, the organisation set up to improve gender balance in the performance, production and promotion of Irish folk and traditional music.
Cormac Breatnach’s 2018 album The Whistle Blower is a cathartic response and reflection on the trauma caused to him and his family by the wrongful arrest, torture and imprisonment of his brother, Osgur, along with others for the Sallins train robbery of 1976. This intense suite of new compositions was described by Professor Dermot Walsh as evocatively capturing a dark period in Irish policing. It is also a testimony to the healing qualities of music; as Breatnach says about the final piece in the suite, ‘The melody symbolises wisdom and maturity, with, perhaps, an acceptance that there may never be a satisfactory resolution to this saga’.
Some of Brona’s music has drawn on the nature and folklore around us, which we often tend to ignore or neglect. She comments how ‘Sometimes when you’re out roaming the wilds, you have a sense of what we’ve lost in our overly complicated modern lives. How often do we stop and just listen to the sound of our heart beating?’ While she has previously shied away from more direct political music, she has recently worked with Tommy Sands and his charity for peace and reconciliation.
She was commissioned to write a new song for the tour, and was very honoured to be chosen. The song is a reflection on the terrible situation in Gaza, a tribute to the innocent civilians killed in the conflict: ‘Everything that was happening was in the forefront of our minds, and I felt that I couldn’t do anything else but to respond to it in the song.’ She took the song to rehearsals, which allowed the other musicians to add their own input into the piece.
One of the key benefits of the tour format is that it allows Irish artists to play here in Ireland, something which isn’t often possible due to the global nature of the audience for the music. Niamh and Seán both emphasised how the Music Network tour allows musicians to participate in an extended Irish tour, allowing them to bring their music to local audiences, particularly in February, often a quiet period of the year! The musicians also stressed how the collaborative nature of the tour means that audiences get to hear music, arrangements and material that is totally new. It is live music in its most authentic and exciting form, giving listeners an experience which can’t be found elsewhere. From Clifden on the wild west coast, the tour will wend its way around the country, finishing up in the beautiful surroundings of Coolattin House in Co. Wicklow.