The Vanbrugh Quartet are bringing it all back home

Iarla Ó Lionaird, centre, with Linda Buckley and Vanbrugh Quartet members Gregory Ellis, Keith Pascoe, Chris Marwoodand Simon Aspell. Picture: Larry Cummins

After massive success with The Gloaming, Iarla Ó Lionáird returns to Cork for a new project with the Vanbrugh Quartet, writes Ed Power

IT HAS been a whirlwind year for Iarla Ó Lionáird. In 2014, his band, The Gloaming, released an acclaimed debut album. They toured the world, were feted by critics from Sydney to San Francisco, and won the Choice Music Prize for best Irish LP. Even for a veteran performer such as the former Afro Celt Sound System man, it has been dizzying.

“It was a huge surprise how much people supported it,” he says. “I was in a band before and I wanted to see if I could do it again. That it would take off to the extent it did was astonishing.” The vocalist is renowned for his updating of the keening ‘sean-nós’ style he learned growing up in Cúil Aodha, in the West Cork Gaeltacht. Allied with violinist Martin Hayes’ melancholic runs and pianist Thomas Bartlett’s Radiohead-esque minimalism, it is one of the signatures of The Gloaming’s sound.

“There are times I’ve thought, ‘Why can’t I just sing in English and reach more people?’,” he says. “But when we play to audiences around the world, they just love it. They respond to the sound of the language — they feel something. I’m not sure what it is: for the most part, they can’t understand anything I’m saying, I am sure.

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“It is interesting to speculate. When people hear our music, they feel this strange pull — a nostalgic energy. I don’t know why they experience it. However, it is undeniable that they do. Sometimes, the things you think are a disadvantage [such as singing in Irish] become an asset. It is remarkable.”

Ó Lionáird likes to be busy. He recently finished 12 months of on-off touring with The Gloaming, including sold-out performances across North America and Australia, and a three-night residency at the National Concert Hall in Dublin. Now, he’s rehearsing with the Cork-based Vanbrugh string quartet. After that, it’s back to the studio to begin work on The Gloaming’s second album.

“It is hard to find time to do things. These projects are planned very far in advance. Of course, when rehearsals approach you are inevitably having panic attacks. You get in there and it takes you out of your head and you get on with it.”

His collaboration with the Vanbrugh Quartet is under the banner of the ‘Crossings’ project, a series of performed dialogues between the Cork-based four-piece and artists from the ‘traditional’ world. They have already played with Niall Vallely, in Dingle, while, this weekend, Ó Lionáird will join Vallely and the Vanbrugh players for interpretations of pieces by Cork composer, Linda Buckley.

The centre-piece of the evening will be the first performance of Buckley’s ‘Ó Íochtar Mara’ ( ‘From Ocean’s Floor’), a song cycle inspired by ancient Irish poetry.

CLASSICAL MUSIC INFLUENCE

“There is really fertile ground,” says Vanbrugh Quartet member, Gregory Ellis. “Iarla is one of the top sean-nós singers. He has an international career. We thought it would be marvelous to incorporate some of that atmosphere. It’s going to be wonderful.”

“Trad has inspired classical musicians from the word dot,” says Ellis. “Even in Bach’s music, you have jigs — and yet it’s classical music. Then, you go all the way to Ravel, who wrote gypsy music and poached some of the gypsy ideas. It is right throughout the classical tradition. In a way, those are the roots of who we are as a people. It is extraordinarily fertile ground. I see more of these collaborations happening. “

It is an interesting time for the quartet. Due to budget cuts, they have departed RTÉ’s ‘stable’ of orchestras and have a new role as artists in residence at UCC. They see the Crossings project as an opportunity to explore the parallels and the differences between classical and folk — which, in their original form, were one and the same — and to also to appeal to audiences beyond the classical ‘hardcore’.

The appeal for Ó Lionáird was a chance to work with Buckley. “We’ve been talking about her writing something for me for some time now — we have exchanged ideas. When I was approached by the quartet, I remember saying that if we could do it with Linda as composer, it would be of interest.”

“The opportunity to explore uncharted territory was another draw,” he says. “I have never worked with a quartet before. It is a specific texture — there is a lot of space. I have worked with bigger ensembles. A quartet is very specific.”

RECORDING OF NEW ALBUM

He is mindful that people are looking forward to new music from The Gloaming. They won’t have to wait too long. The band have composed the bones of their next LP and will return to the studio at Christmas. To his surprise, Ó Lionáird has been counting down the days.

“The dates are booked, the material is written. When we toured last winter, we wrote an hour and a half of new songs for the tour that has never been recorded. There are other bits to be added — we’ll see what measures up.

“To coin a phrase, we are super-excited about doing it. I love recording. It’s funny — I actually think a lot about it. Some of the new songs occupy my mind. I love the idea of going in next December.”

The Gloaming was born out of a conversation Ó Lionaird and Martin Hayes had in New York several years ago. Having toured the American theatre and performance-space circuit, it was clear to both that there was an appetite for Irish music with a progressive twist. Why not put an ensemble together, with that goal in mind?

“We’d been doing these tours, called ‘Masters of Tradition’. It was a collective, presenting Irish music all over America. The venues were good — very posh. It was an extremely ‘pure’ experience. We thought maybe we should put together a ‘special team’ and see what we could do. The word ‘band’ didn’t come into it very much. But as soon as we had announced it, that is what people assumed it would be. What came after that was a big surprise to all of us,” Ó Lionaird says.

Perhaps his latest project will take on a similar momentum.

Iarla Ó Lionáird and the Vanbrugh Quartet, with Niall Vallely, perform at Ionad Cultúrtha, Ballyvourney, Friday; Triskel Arts Centre, Cork, Saturday.

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