Arts

Trad/roots: Brian Finnegan's Hunger of the Skin is a touch of class

This year's loss of the freedom to share physical human contact inspired flute player and composer Brian Finnegan to come up with a collaborative and quite stunning album, Hunger of the Skin

Brian Finnegan – 'You can choose not to get tied up in the anxiety or the fear or the baggage of change and that way you’re lighter...'
Robert McMillen

OUT of the darkness comes the light. It is a fitting phrase as the world awaits the re-emergence of what we all took for granted as 'normality'.

It is also true of flute player and composer Brian Finnegan who spent many wee small hours at home outside Armagh creating what is a quite stunning album, Hunger of the Skin.

Despite the enforced solitude of living in a global pandemic, Brian has called upon a camaraderie of isolation, musicians from all over the world who have, through the wonders of technology, connected with Brian’s spirit and creativity to make an album that is at times beautiful without being self-pitying, energetic in the face of apathy, and hopeful despite the hard times we are living in.

Complimenting the music are poems from writers such as Gearóid Mac Lochlainn (in Irish), American poet Mary Oliver who died in 2019, Colum Sands and Russian Boris Grebenshikov.

But how did Brian come to compose this musical potion?

“Well, it was partly inspired by the sense that we’ve been isolated and cut off from each other, swept off the streets and out of each other’s lives, out of each other’s arms for the past year,” he tells me, mentioning a 90-year-old neighbour who used to have carloads of relations visit him but now so few of them are allowed to. He has maybe 5 per cent of his sight left and he moves in shadows and has difficulty hearing so phone calls are problematic too.

Brian was also inspired by his sister, Morna, whose poem Dare appears on the album.

“Morna is an anthropologist and she did her thesis on a hunter-gatherer society in the Congo, the Bebanzele people, where she focused on 'touch', the idea of skin on skin and how the evolution of the human species evolves around touch, the idea of sharing warmth and contact and heat.

“Then she went on to talk about the human hand and how it has 17,000 nerve endings and receptors in just the palm.,” says Brian. “Nowadays, the only thing they will hold is a smartphone or an iPad. It’s as if the human race has been corralled on to a virtual pathway as opposed to real touch, real heat, real sharing.”

Given the year we’ve had, Brian’s work was fuelled by concern for those around him and those he loves. But how do those real-life emotions transform themselves into music? Surely it would be easy for a man who has been playing since he was a boy, who has played so much that he didn’t even need to practice. Or so he thought.

Last March fragments of tunes kept coming into his head but he recalled that people had told him that they could recognise “a Brian Finnegan tune” because they recognised certain patterns or twists in them but these were different, with more half-holing – forgive the jargon, but it’s like the flat or the sharp like a G sharp – and that’s what inspired Brian in making Hunger of the Skin.

“I wondered what was going on,” he recalls. “These weren’t easy to play – they sounded jagged and dissonant and they didn’t sound like me but it was intriguing.”

So intriguing that Brian was spending four or five hours a night moulding these tunes into something he could bring to musical friends to co-operate on.

“They were all brilliant because I’d say half of them had to go on Amazon to buy new mics and learn how to record at home,” says Brian.

However, truth be told, listening to Hunger of the Skin, you’d be forgiven for believing it was recorded at a full-house gig in the Black Box, thanks to the recording and mixing of Seán Óg Graham at his Bannview Studios in Portglenone.

“I recorded most of my stuff in the laundry cupboard at home and I sent those to Seán Óg up in Portglenone so that meant we had a kind of storyline, a beginning, a middle and an end and we then sent it to drummer Liam Bradley up in Donegal and those became the compass points on which everything else was built.

“Once the drums went down, it was just a matter of reaching out to folk to find out if they were interested and if they had the time – which, let’s face it, most of them did,” he laughs. “However, every day had it own set of surprises as well as huge challenges.”

It’s Brian on the Irish flute but it is also Anton Boiarskikh playing a wonderful trumpet solo on a track called Flow, in the time of Wu Wei, one of the stand-out tracks on the album which was released as a single earlier this year.

Wu Wei (not Wei Wei, the Chinese artist, as I originally believed) is an ancient philosophy of being in the flow and connected with elemental cycles of nature and realising that there is a momentum or a current around you, taking you in a particular direction and you can either go with it or fight.

“You can choose not to get tied up in the anxiety or the fear or the baggage of change and that way you’re lighter and you find your own path through life,” Brian explains.

Given the great musicians on board, how then did Brian weave the spoken word into some of the tunes?

“Well, I’d known the work of Gearóid Mac Lochlainn for a long time but it was when I was working on the first track on the album, Dust, that I recalled his Rakish Paddy Blues which I loved and so we met up in the Cultúrlann and recorded a few takes until both of us were happy with the final take,” says Brian who remarks that this year has been the first where he has been at home during the spring, summer, autumn and winter (in as much as these can be differentiated in Ireland).

“This was a revelation to me,” he smiles across the Zoom screen. “We have an acre of ground and so we started to plant vegetables and just got submerged in the seasons not in an abstract way but it was something I was living and being in that flow of the elemental cycles of family and nature."

If you want to get a glimpse of Brian’s work, you can watch Dare, as read by his anthropologist/poet sister, Morna on YouTube at youtube.com/watch?v=TKsrAR4xSFQ

And you can find out more about Hunger of the Skin from brianfinneganmusic.com

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