We were thrilled to be able to spend the month of March working with our close friend and collaborator, Dave Flynn, on Irish Airs & Graces. This electric concert perfectly blended together contemporary classical and traditional Irish music into a head-bobbing, toe-tapping celebration of Irish culture. We were lucky to present the concert twice, once in Wellington on St Patrick's Day, and again in Auckland at the very end of March. Dave sat down and reflected on the experience of being the bridge between us, as classical musicians, and our guest Irish Trad musicians.
The recent ‘Irish Airs and Graces’ concerts with the New Zealand String Quartet reflected beautifully upon the work I’ve been doing for over two decades to bring the art of native Irish music into classical music settings.
The NZSQ have some of the key ingredients necessary to make any cross-genre collaboration successful. They are inquisitive, open-minded and keen to learn about ways of playing music that differ from classical music. They have been wonderfully enthusiastic about my approach to music, since they first brought my work ‘Slip’ to New Zealand audiences on their 2022 ‘First Light’ tour.
The ‘Irish Airs and Graces’ programme uses ‘Slip’ as a pivot point between arrangements of Ireland’s ancient airs, and modern compositions which bring the ‘graces’ of Irish fiddling and piping into the world of the string quartet.
For the concerts we invited guest musicians who perform traditional Irish music. Duncan Davidson (button accordion), Aine Gallagher (flute/voice) and Em Griffiths (fiddle) joined us in Wellington, whilst Marian Burns (fiddle) and Tracey Collins (piano accordion) played with us in Auckland.
The key to a successful collaboration between traditional ‘folk’ and classical musicians is to play to the musician’s strengths and training. Very few musicians have devoted their professional lives equally to classical music and traditional Irish music, so not many people are capable of speaking fluently in both musical languages.
This is where I come into my element as a musical translator. Where a classical musician might refer to ‘Bar 29’, an Irish trad musician who can’t read music will say ‘That’s the B part of the tune’. Yet, this is but the tip of the ice-berg in such musical encounters. Rhythm, dynamic nuance, ornamentation, instrumental balance, improvisation and pitch are areas where a collaboration between classical and trad musicians may struggle without an experienced translator.
Besides the thought I had to put into creating the compositions and arrangements, my translator role in ‘Irish Airs and Graces’ is similar to a conductor. I listen carefully, respond to queries from each musician, encourage individual expression where appropriate and maintain tight rhythmic ensemble discipline when it is essential, as it often is in the dance-led elements of Irish music.
Dance music provides the biggest challenges in a cross-genre collaboration, because the rhythmic intricacies of traditional dances cannot be notated in sheet music. This is where classical musicians must move away from reverence to the score and instead respond spontaneously to the shifting, improvised dynamics and articulations that experienced traditional musicians apply to melodies.
Luckily, the NZSQ have an ability to pick up nuances of Irish music that, in my experience, is rare within the classical music world. The NZSQ were able to very quickly tune in to those essential ‘Irish’ music ingredients that cannot be expressed in sheet music. Their ability to do so was key to making our ‘Irish Airs and Graces’ such a success with the wonderful audiences we played to. I explained to them how the rhythms of Irish music really need to be physically expressed.
The NZSQ responded to this by literally dancing to the music, which is exactly what was needed!
The NZSQ weren’t the only ones trying out new things. The traditional musicians are more used to the informality of social pub sessions, folk clubs and dances than the classical concert stage. So, there were moments when I had to encourage them to maintain their usual spontaneous approach to traditional music, rather than stick closely to the basic notations of the melodies in the scores. By the time of the concerts barriers were removed through the combination of adrenaline, audience enthusiasm and a positive spirit of collaboration.
The ‘Irish Airs and Graces’ programme is a positive challenge not just for the musicians, but also the listener, because expectations of what ‘Irish music’ is supposed to be are challenged from the very first piece, ‘O’Carolan’s Farewell to Music’, an ancient Irish harp air scored for electric guitar and string quartet.
Bringing an electric guitar into the equation is a natural choice for me as a guitarist, yet I can imagine the idea of an electric guitar jousting with a string quartet may be as abhorrent to some classical buffs as the idea of an electric guitar jigging with Irish fiddle, accordion and flute is to some folkies!
Thankfully, New Zealand audiences are not shackled by such preconceptions. Even the most ‘contemporary’ piece on the programme was received very warmly. ‘E-Bow’ is a work for electric guitar and string quartet, a most unusual combination in the chamber music repertoire, made even more unusual by my use of the ‘E-bow’ device which allows a guitarist to create sustained notes, as a bow does for a string quartet.
It was such a joy to perform this work for the first time in the Southern Hemisphere with the NZSQ. They handled the complex string writing brilliantly and they were hugely supportive partners in admitting my explorative electric guitar style into their sophisticated chamber music space.
The audiences contained many New Zealanders who can trace their whakapapa to Ireland. Yet there were several audience members with no Irish heritage, who equally enjoyed the show. That is the beauty of Irish music. The spirit of Irish music touches millions of people around the world. Any well crafted classical music which draws upon elements of Irish music can be similarly received, so long as it is given the kind of respect that occurred in the ‘Irish Airs and Graces’ concerts.
Though our collaboration is over, I do hope it is but the first of many. The NZSQ are a fabulous ensemble to work with, simply one of the best I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with in my two-decades-plus career as a composer, guitarist and musical translator.
By the time you read this, I will have left New Zealand to return to Ireland for some concerts with members of my own ensemble, the Irish Memory Orchestra. I’ll be back in New Zealand again before too long though, so if the enthusiasm for ‘Irish Airs and Graces’ remains, I’ll only be too delighted to continue bringing this new adventure in Irish classical music to New Zealand audiences with the NZSQ.
To find out more about Dave, head over to his website, daveflynn.com
Or follow him on Facebook, Dave Flynn - Composer/Guitarist