The Gloaming's Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh on trading physics for fiddling
CAOIMHÍN Ó Raghallaigh blows away all the staid old stereotypes of the traditional musician. Way back in the dark ages – 40 years ago – trad was seen as rural, conservative, unintellectual, parochial and boring.
Ó Raghallaigh is from Dublin, is innovative, cerebral, cosmopolitan and the opposite of boring. He is also infuriatingly modest when he is not totally enthusiastic about the music he plays solo, or with others, including the phantasmagorical sextet, The Gloaming.
His instrument of choice is the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle which he first heard while working on a particle accelerator in America. Nowadays, Ó Raghallaigh has given up the world of physics for the more ethereal world of music – and he says he has no regrets.
“With physics, it was a degree and it didn't go any further but it was really good training in terms of thinking and while I don't keep in touch with the physics at all I think it definitely bears some relation to how I play music and everything else. It's a certain way of looking at the world and I can definitely admit that my music has been influenced by it. But no regrets.”
But what was it about music that made him want to go in that direction?
“I suppose if you're a physicist, you give up 40 or 50 years of your life to find this one thing that will make an impact somehow, or contribute to our understanding of the world. At that point you get to see the look on people's faces and your contribution to humanity is realised.
“It's a very noble calling and I have insane levels of admiration for those kind of people – it is a vocation, to give their lives for the furthering of knowledge.
“I guess to compare that with my experience of music where you play something and you feel something and all the people in the room are feeling something – you can see it on their faces and you see the good that you're doing, hopefully.
“It's very tangible the affect that music has. People come up to you after concerts in tears and tell you what they've felt and what the music does to them and it's a really great thing and a great relationship to have with other human beings,” he says.
One of my favourite gigs of last year was Ó Raghallaigh playing with fellow Hardanger fanatic Dan Trueman, the guy who introduced Ó Raghallaigh to the instrument, at the Duncairn Arts centre in north Belfast.
The most noticeable thing about the gig was the way the duo used silence. Yes, silence is a major part of Ó Raghallaigh’s relationship with music. It invites the listeners and the space that you're playing in to contribute to the experience.
“It makes it a live experience and focuses people's attention and presence to that place in that moment. It has a major impact on the quality of the experience," he says.
“When I play with somebody, for example Dan, sure, we know the notes and roughly when they occur but it keeps it totally fresh. There's a real elasticity to the experience, making that music with somebody while having those silences. People can feel it and that fundamental quality to me is really important in making the connection with each individual in the audience."
And that’s true if Ó Raghallaigh is playing dyed-in-the-wool traditional music as on his wonderful Kitty Lie Down album with piper Mick O’Brien (earning an Album of the Year plaudit in 2003) or with Icelandic band Amiina (look them up on Youtube) or with an up-and-coming band called, em, The Gloaming.
With five-star reviews from the hippest and happiningest mags, I was hoping Ó Raghallaigh would say, “I know, we’re bloody brilliant, aren’t we?” but instead, the Dub expresses incredulity at their success.
“It’s very hard to understand why people like our music so much,” he says – sincerely, I must add. “The main focus for us is the making of the music and for that we continue enjoying that and to let the response look after itself. But yes, it’s very unusual for traditional music to get that type of response.”
While Ó Raghallaigh loves playing with others, he also really enjoys playing solo and the good news is the fiddler is coming to Belfast to play a solo gig at the Crescent Arts Centre next Wednesday September 7. What can we expect?
“Well, I’ve always loved playing solo, because you can go anywhere at any point; you have total free rein and you can change your mind and head off somewhere and I use some electronic tools to help me along with that,” he explains.
The electronics help Ó Raghallaigh to “create landscapes in which we can exist” for a while but he also believes, like many, in the spiritual aspects of traditional music.
“I don’t think we understand what music is,” he says. “It’s a way of communicating between people that we don’t understand. I have no idea how it works.
“What attracted me to it when I was a very young kid, was the way it made me feel and the places it brings me in my own head. I suppose I would consider myself a listener as well as a musician. Both aspects move me profoundly – and I don’t understand either of them.”
:: Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh is playing at the Crescent Arts Centre on 7 September as part of the Beat Root festival. See www.movingonmusic.com