Composing a musical language

Gerry Diver has created an aural landscape based on the spoken word on his Speech Project album, Gerry Quinn reports.

LONDON-BASED composer, producer and multi-instrumentalist, Gerry Diver’s Speech Project is the title of a unique album just released.

The Manchester native of Irish parentage has masterminded a groundbreaking record of music derived from the melodies and rhythms of the spoken word.

Using snippets from a number of interviews, as well as archive recordings, Diver mixes the short passages of speech with instrumental music that follow the rhythms of spoken phrases. He builds the music out of the cadence of his subjects to create an ambitious and innovative record. It features exclusive contributions from Irish folk and traditional music stalwarts such as singers Damien Dempsey, Christy Moore and Shane McGowan, fiddlers Martin Hayes and Danny Meehan, as well as archive pieces by accordionist Joe Cooley and singer/banjo player Margaret Barry.

Paying attention to the way people talk as opposed to listening to what they actually say, Diver has conjured up an aural soundscape almost unlike anything ever heard. Sure, there are echoes of Timothy O’Grady’s I Could Read The Sky or even Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, but this multi-faceted CD cleverly crafts a musical landscape of bold, original and epic proportions. Christy Moore was described Speech Project as “a pure gem of an album” and if recent reviews by the music press are anything to go by, it could be a contender for album of the year.

“It came about by listening to Joe Cooley — the Cooley album. But it was really just a happy accident, a whimsical, what would happen kind of thing,” says Diver. While carrying some boxes up to the attic one day he heard the interview with the now deceased accordion player from another room. “He was speaking in a kind of slip-jig rhythm and also he tended to be in and out of quite a few musical keys,” says Diver.

“I like having different starting points or different places to begin making music. I often think that language or spoken word is very much a left brain kind of thing and music is very much a right brain thing. It’s when they meet in the middle sometimes a little spark can fly up, or a little sleight of ear can happen. It’s quite unusual at times. So that’s how it all started and then different people gave interviews and I began making the music for it.”

Recorded in his South London studio, Diver employs a variety of styles and musical influences to create this opus. Folk, traditional, classical and electronica are all employed in the heady brew that has as its core the seamless amalgamation of the music with idiosyncratic speech patterns.

Much like his music, Martin Hayes’ voice has a lyrical quality to it and on Sincerely Felt Diver’s sharp ear and intuitive musicianship interprets the ace fiddler’s vocal tone to perfection.

“I love Martin’s playing,” says Diver. “He’s just so inspiring. When I got back to the studio and I was transcribing, I noticed that when people get emotionally charged, or when there’s emotion in the conversation, it would gravitate to a strong tonal centre, almost a musical key. Christy Moore was talking about stuff that was quite emotional and it appeared to be in B minor. Damien Dempsey is very staccato, with very abrupt, short little phrases, like a lot of North Dublin voices are. He was very much in B flat. I don’t know if it’s pure coincidence or not but I think possibly, pitch and tonality are parts of our own musical DNA.”

Gerry was once a member of Shane McGowan’s band The Popes, so it’s no surprise to hear the London-Irishman’s voice feature on the track Music for Tape Loop.

“That Shane piece is very much a narrative on the Irish diaspora in London and specifically how The Pogues emerged in the early ’80s,” says Diver.

A live presentation of Speech Project was premiered at the Liverpool Irish Festival in October and Gerry is now putting the finishing touches to rehearsals for an upcoming English tour.

“We’ll be playing it all live — the voices are the only thing that are triggered. We’ve got piano, uillean pipes, cello, dulcimer, fiddle etc. and we’ll have 20ft video screens with talking heads and archive footage.”

He plans to bring the show to Ireland this autumn.

* Project by Gerry Diver is out now on One Fine Day Records.


Timothy Grady is in Bantry this week to host a concert, and read from his classic book about the Irish in London, writes Don O'Mahony.Giving voice to the emigrant experience

A care home builds links with kids, writes Helen O’Callaghan.Inside out: Children learn what it's like to live with dementia.

When you think of someone who is “into skincare”, you probably imagine someone in a face mask.The Skin Nerd: Why face masks aren’t as important as you’d think

With the evenings closing in and a welcome chill in the air, it’s time to embrace the new season now.Make the Transition: Turn over a new leaf this fall

More From The Irish Examiner