Altan | Martin Tourish Part 2: “The Musician Was Expected To Tell A Story”

 In Interviews

Ahead of their Germany tour in spring 2019, Altan’s Martin Tourish took the time for a detailed Q&A which we are publishing in two parts. In Part 2, he talks about his first encounter with Patti Smith, why the “Disneyfication” of culture is not only negative and how storytelling, music and the supernatural are intertwined.

Part 2

Q: You have performed with Patti Smith. Altan as a band have recorded tracks with notable American artists like Dolly Parton or Allison Krauss and performed with Mary Chapin Carpenter. Is there a special connection between Irish musical traditions and American music and performers, and does this have to do something with the long history of Irish emigrat­ion to the U.S.?

A: I met Patti Smith in 2007 at The Cobblestone Pub in Dublin. I was playing in a session, and she asked to join. I didn’t know much about anything other than Irish and classical music at the time so I didn’t recognise her but we improvised a song together and I couldn’t believe that I didn’t know who this amazing folk singer was. I obviously found out later when we joined her at Vicar Street the following night! Like many American artists, Patti has an in-depth knowledge of the folk and literary traditions of Ireland. The same is true of Dolly Parton, Allison Krauss and Mary Chapin Carpenter.

In Ireland, we’re used to Americans visiting because they’re trying to trace their family roots. In America, there is a strong sense of ancestral identity. Many musicians who are part of the popular music sphere, have grown up immersed in folk and are influenced by it in some way. The waves of immigrants from Ireland to America after the famine and indeed before, brought with them songs and tunes that are now staples of the American folk tradition. Bands who play Irish music in its purer form bear witness to the roots of the music from both traditions. When you listen to Altan with Dolly Parton on the song Barbara Allen, for instance, you are simultaneously looking back in time, experiencing something that is centuries old, but which in its style, is also contemporary and present in both the American and Irish styles. The boundaries of time and space break down in these contexts, so it is a very special thing for us to collaborate when we meet.

Q. There is a huge and most of all active interest in Irish music these days. People are not only going to concerts, they’re also getting involved by picking up traditional instruments and participating in sessions, dance classes and festivals. What do you think makes it so popular? Are people turning to music and tradition in a world which seems to become increasingly complex and frightening?

A: The wonderful thing about Irish traditional music is that it is of course now a worldwide community. We have shared tunes with really wonderful performers from Japan to Melbourne and San Francisco and, of course, in Germany during the past year. I think this sense of community and friendship is important. Irish traditional music is underpinned by a spirit of generosity and is such a kind and welcoming space. That is the first sense that people receive when they are beginning their journey and it stays with you. We receive that welcome all over the world, as a part of the community, meeting new friends and reacquainting with older friends. The experience of playing music with old and new friends long into the night is a truly special thing.

Much of what is Irish traditional music was composed during turbulent and difficult times in Irish history and for me, it is a safe space to be expressive and to enjoy the simple act of sharing tunes and songs with others. There is an aesthetic of honesty and being humble that you find in the performers we all love, and I think that people are naturally drawn to that quality. Frequently, of course, these qualities are antithetical to the events and attitudes represented on the political world stage, particularly at the moment.

Q. Given that popularity of the Irish cultural heritage, do you think there is any danger of it becoming too popularised and commercialised?

A: Irish traditional music, while it has spread around the world, is predominantly a small scale practice, existing as the local session or an album enjoyed by a niche and relatively small audience. The majority of festivals are also community-scale events. There are relatively few full-time professional musicians and it is a cottage-industry. The main economic successes of the music seem to me to be enjoyed by the tourism industry, administrative bodies, labels and the streaming giants. From the perspective of being a touring musician, it wouldn’t hurt for it to be a little more popular for the benefits to actually filter down to the level of the musicians. Live music needs to be supported.

What typically does happen with a wave of popularity is that the music has to change, to include other influences of various sorts. In some cases, these innovations can be revelatory and will stay in the tradition, and in other cases, they can bear no resemblance to Irish music, even to my quite liberal mind. Some of what is portrayed as Irish music abroad, for instance, certainly doesn’t exist at all in Ireland. To borrow a term from sociology literature, the “Disneyfication” of culture does indeed occur. While that might be seen as a negative in one sense, the wave of publicity can act as a gateway of discovery for people to learn about other artists. One thing that I’m very proud of, is how Mairéad uses Altan’s social media following to highlight the many other wonderful artists that fans of the band might enjoy.

Q. I’ve always imagined composing new original music in a style with a very long tradition very demanding. Is it hard to balance the features of what defines traditional with new inspirations that make it “contemporary traditional” music?

You could think of it like trying to construct a story in a different language. I’m trying to learn German at the moment and I’m finding it tricky to remember how to use the cases correctly! I guess everything looks tricky from the outside.

The stylistic language of Irish traditional music is something that we’re quite fluent in so it comes easily. Interestingly, this touches on my doctoral field of study. The style of Irish traditional music is transmitted largely using what is understood as tacit knowledge. An example of tacit knowledge is being able to ride a bicycle. You can only learn it by repeatedly observing and doing it, but it is impossible to read a set of instructions and to cycle perfectly. I worked on codifying areas of this tacit knowledge that are used in traditional music. Some of it can’t be codified but some of it, like ornamentation, can be described. There are hundreds of ornaments, each with a subtly different but unique sound. It takes years to absorb this knowledge and everyone is constantly learning.

The tradition part of Irish traditional music, as I understand it, is akin to the cannon of English literature, or the tradition of European sculpture. You have to learn the language and the rules, which have a long and detailed history, and know the masters and great works intimately before making a statement.

After this, composition happens very naturally because the language is internalised. A composer simply feels a particular emotion or is inspired by a particular aesthetic, and the notes flow as naturally as a sentence spoken by a native in their mother tongue.

Q. What are Altan’s current projects? What are the audience at the forthcoming shows in Germany in for?

A: Altan are in a very exciting phase at the moment. We are now a quartet, as the band was when it first started out. The change in dynamic from a quintet to quartet is quite distinct; there is a subtlety and space that allows each of the individual instruments to be heard in a completely new way. Our new album, The Gap of Dreams is the first record in a great many years in which you can hear each of the band members playing solo, so the listener gets a stronger sense of the individual playing styles along with the different combinations, textures and band sound. The album took as its title a line from the Francis Carlin poem, The Ballad of Douglas Bridge, which explores the connection with the otherworld.

“On Douglas Bridge we parted, but
The Gap o’ Dreams is never shut,
To one whose saddled soul to-night
Rides out with Count O’Hanlon.”

Irish music performance today is often characterised by playing sets of tunes at a session, back to back. Pub sessions reflect a more recent economic situation whereby many people can afford instruments, but in previous times, the fiddle was passed around each musician, who would play what was usually a single tune with their own twist on it. As part of this performance, the musician was expected to tell a story about the tune and this often involved some supernatural element. Prior to televisions and radio, storytelling was one of the main pastimes.

I remember my grandparents’ shop, out in the countryside, which in the winter had a roaring fire where the people would gather around drinking tea, smoking pipes and telling stories. It seemed like every turn in the road had a ghost or some legend and as children, we were enthralled listening to the soft spoken tones, counterpointed by a crackling turf fire. These tales made the landscape come alive and were a tradition in itself. The new album is an opportunity for us to communicate the nuances and magic of these experiences, as we remember them.

Q. And what are your own projects and plans for next year? Considering the huge variety of styles you’re working in, are there any collaborations and projects you’re still dreaming of? Where will the journey take you next?

A: Over the coming year, I’ll be working on commissions, writing a lot of music, and continuing to participate in a wide variety of projects and styles in education and performance. I’ll be at the Landes Musik Akademie in Berlin in June promoting my books of arrangements that are published by Universal Edition.

My biggest ambition for this year is to work with an accordion maker to design a piano accordion that is really suitable for modern Irish traditional music. Unlike fiddles or flutes where tone is created by the player, accordionists are working with a nineteenth century piece of complex machinery and the piano accordion has seen significantly less development than its button counterpart.

After this, I’d love to record several albums of material that I have ready. I’ve been working with Creative Connexions, an Irish/ Catalan festival and produced a concert length body of traditional Catalan dance music from 19th Century organ collections. Unlike Irish music, which is alive and well, this Catalan instrumental repertoire died out and is no longer a living tradition. I’d love to record an album of it and get it out to the public. I’ve written music for harp, which I hope to record with Triona Marshall. The previous album we made featured compositions for Martin Hayes, Sean Keane and Paddy Moloney amongst others and was a joy to work on. My ancestors were collectors of music in the late 19th century and I’d love to publish their manuscripts, as it paints a unique picture of Irish music at the time, containing a whole style of music that has since vanished.

Of course, a great deal of time is spent navigating the challenges of making projects like this work in the streaming age. That said, the music will continue as it has always done and artists will continue to dream, create and share.

Catch Altan in a city near you:

March 28th, Nürnberg, Gutmann am Dutzendteich
March 29th, Berlin, Quasimodo
March 31st, Oldenburg, Kulturzentrum Pfl
April 1st, Hamburg, Die Fabrik
April 2nd, Oberhausen, Zentrum Altenberg
April 3rd, Esslingen, Dieselstrasse
April 4th, Mainz, Frankfurter Hof

Read Part 1 of our Q&A with Martin Tourish here.

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