Playing Irish music is much more than just learning the mechanics of your instrument and practice what your teacher gives you. The mistake that many students make, even at advanced level, is to not spend enough time listening to music away from classes and sessions. While we learn a significant amount from playing music, a whole other realm of understanding is opened up through careful listening. Think of it like learning a language: we can memorise lists of vocab, grammar and syntax, but until we travel to a place where the language is spoken and hear the local dialect and accent, we can never become truly fluent. Throughout the 2016-17 academic year, I'll be attempting to introduce you to some of the key recordings that can help you develop not only your repertoire, but your wider understanding of the music we play.
Matt Molloy, Tommy Peoples, Paul Brady (Mulligan LUN 017, 1978; reissued as Green Linnet GLCD 3018, 1985).
The name of this seminal album speaks for itself: three of the greatest interpreters of the Irish tradition brought together in one breathtaking recording, among the most influential of the revival era. Molloy, Peoples, Brady (its' more commonly known by the shortened title) is important for three key reasons:
a) it's one of the first duet/trio albums which contains heavily-strummed guitar accompaniment
b) it's as close to a 'hit parade' as any Irish music recording has ever come
c) it captures all three performers in a glorious light, as the peak of their powers
On the first of these, if you're new to Irish music, it might be reasonable to assume that the guitar, and accompaniment in general, has been ever-present in the tradition. This is not really the case, and so it's important to view Brady's playing on the album as pioneering, particularly in the right hand. On the subject of Brady, one of the highlights of the album is his unaccompanied song 'The Shamrock Shore' (no, not that one) which adds an entirely different level of drama to the recording. Here is him singing the song on another occasion:
Secondly, this is a fabulous recording to pick apart if you're trying to build your repertoire. The first set, known as Matt Peoples nos. 1 & 2, were supposedly composed by Tommy and Matt for the recording, putting a combination of their names on each of them. This a now a standard set throughout the Irish music world and is not too tricky to pick up. Listen to them performing the tunes unaccompanied and the compare this to the first track of the recording. See which you prefer:
Of the following 13 sets of tunes, perhaps only three or four individual tunes remain outside of the modern canon, including Peoples' solo setting of 'The Rambling Pitchfork' is somewhat out of the blue, with his final phrase of the B part a virtuosic flourish that few try to emulate (fiddlers in particular listen out for the repetition of the 'Peoples triplet' in this phrase).
Finally, the sheer life and joy expressed in the recording allows us to glimpse three virtuosi blending together seamlessly, something that is not always easily achieved when musicians have such distinct individual styles. Molloy's flowing and highly ornamented playing is contrasted with the more staccato approach of Peoples, who clearly plays more 'on the edge' than in his solo recordings of the same era.
One thing to be aware of in listening is that, while the pace may sound completely beyond the skills of a learner, the recording has been sped-up by a fraction. This also results in the instruments sounding at a higher pitch than they sounded in reality. The album was recorded in the key of E flat, which means that the fiddle strings were all tuned up a half-tone (G= Aflat, D=E flat, A=B flat, E=F). The recording was then adjusted up a further quarter tone, so it sounds much higher in pitch than other recordings of traditional music (for those of you familiar with LPs, think of the difference between adjusting your speed dial between 33rpm and 45rpm modes).
So get your hands on a copy of this recording. It's essential listening and will help you not only pick up tunes that other learners will know, but improve your general understanding of how the music evolved and changed through the making of recordings and the arrival on the scene of a generation of musicians who took traditional music to a new level of performance practice.