LISTEN: Musician Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh continues to push boundaries

Gloaming fiddler Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh continues to push boundaries (and new funding models) in his other group, This Is How We Fly, writes Ellie O’Byrne.

In HIS spare time, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh has been using a Raspberry Pi single-board computer for writing his own code to make sound effects for his fiddle.

“It’s a lot of fun and really satisfying,” he says.

You’d expect no more from a man so dedicated to pushing the boundaries of traditional music that he plays a newly-devised hybrid instrument that he had to name himself.

Ó Raghallaigh plays a ‘Hardanger D’Amore’, designed by Norwegian fiddle-maker Salve Håkedal: it’s a rare beast, a ten-string fiddle “somewhere between a hardanger fiddle and a viola d’amore”, with a mellow, resonant sound.

It’s not that the 37-year-old prolific instrumentalist has much spare time, mind you. As usual, he’s bouncing from one project to another; working on solo material, preparing to release a duo album with Gloaming band-member Thomas Bartlett, and gearing up to record in New York with fellow convention-busting fiddle player Dan Trueman.

Why such tireless thirst for collaboration? “I need variety to stay sane,” he says. “If I were in one band doing 300 shows a year I’d go mad. I love playing solo, but the beauty of collaboration is that you have this very deep communication with people. Musically, it’s the equivalent of having different but equally enjoyable conversations with different groups of friends.”

The conversation that is trad super-group The Gloaming, of which Raghallaigh is a member, has received international critical acclaim. But today, Ó Raghallaigh is talking about the work of This Is How We Fly, a contemporary folk collaboration, and their latest album.

This Is How We Fly is comprised of O Raghallaigh, Swedish percussionist Petter Berndalen, Dublin jazz clarinet player Seán Mac Erlaine, and Appalachian hard shoe dancer Nic Gareiss. Transcending genre, their music fuses folk with the improvisational spirit of jazz and some astonishing percussive elements informed by the complimentary but worlds-apart traditions of Gareiss and Berndalen.

Album number two, Foreign Fields, was recorded live at Fumbally Stables and was also partially crowd-funded.

“We have a very special relationship with our audience, so we thought it would be lovely to involve them, in terms of funding but also in terms of being there in the space with us. We were a little apprehensive about going with the hand out to people, but we didn’t have to annoy people too much. I think we were realistic about what we hoped to raise.”

Successfully using Fund:It as a platform to raise €7,000, the band devised “rewards” for funders at different levels, including signed copies of the album, tickets to the recording sessions and even a private gig in the funder’s home for a €1,500 backer. Did a funder back them to that amount? O Raghallaigh laughs.

“Yes, someone did. We haven’t done the gig yet though. We’ll do it when they’re ready.”

Recorded live over three nights in front of an audience, the band ended up with three takes of each song to choose from, in some cases, because of their improvisational element, varying quite a lot. But another element that made for variety was differences in audience dynamics.

“It’s true of all live performances, theatre and dance too, that people will talk about the different characters of audiences on different nights; Monday night audiences have a totally different character to Friday night.”

Does part of this powerful connection to performance and their audience come from the fact that one of their members is a dancer?

“Well, the thing with Nic is that his contribution is primarily musical,” he says. “It just so happens to be incredibly magnetic visually as well. We really want to reinforce the idea of a percussive dancer being a musician rather than solely a visual aspect. He’s a member of the band, but maybe he magnifies an audience’s reaction and we feed off that.”

ÓRaghallaigh used to work in the Irish Traditional Music Archives in Dublin. On the relative merits of preservation versus innovation in traditional music, he’s very clear: originality is the key. He sees attempts to replicate the work of another as the sonic equivalent of photocopying.

“Each time you photocopy something, you lose information,” he says. “That’s the inherent flaw with the idea of preservation: at every step, you’re getting closer to something that’s a pale imitation of the living, breathing original. My answer? To find ways to create new information. I’m not interested in preserving things; preserved things are dead.”

  • Foreign Fields is out on September 15. Launch events at Fumbally Stables, Dublin, Sept 14; and Sept 15 at
    Coughlan’s in Cork, as part of Sounds from a Safe Harbour Festival. See www.thisishowwefly.net


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