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People unfamiliar with traditional Irish music may not recognize the music of The Gloaming as such. It is careful, atmospheric, slow — quite the opposite of the wild, upbeat fare invoked whenever it’s time to break out the foamy green beer on St. Paddy’s Day. Words like "ambient" and "experimental" just as easily apply. And while The Gloaming is not the first band to nudge traditional music gently past the confines of its dogma, it does so in its own particular way, at its own strange, trancelike pace.
From the start, The Gloaming’s lineup threatened to overshadow its music. The all-star cast was put together by the renowned Irish fiddler Martin Hayes in 2011 for a concert at at the National Concert Hall in Dublin. In his own telling, The Gloaming was a smash before it even really existed. “[The concert] was sold out before we’d even rehearsed a note together,” Hayes told The Guardian in 2014. The group is in the midst of a tour promoting its sophomore album “2,” the follow-up to its critically-acclaimed 2014 debut, and will perform at the Berklee Performance Center on Saturday, April 22.
The term "supergroup" attached itself to the band early on, and stuck. "That was something that was foisted on us, because of the list of people and what they had done before," The Gloaming’s singer, Iarla Ó Lionáird, said recently, speaking over the phone from New Jersey, where he resides while on a teaching fellowship at Princeton.
Ó Lionáird is widely regarded as one of the great practitioners of traditional Irish sean-nós, or “old style,” singing. The Gloaming also features the Chicago-born guitarist Dennis Cahill (a longtime musical partner of Hayes), the rising Dublin fiddler Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and the pianist and producer Thomas Bartlett (aka Doveman), an in-demand New York City sideman who has collaborated with the likes of Sufjan Stevens and David Byrne.
According to Ó Lionáird, most of the material on “2” was arranged onstage during soundchecks. The members of The Gloaming work quickly, following their instincts, listening intently. And the result may be surprising to Irish music aficionados, who might expect something more straightforward from a lineup comprised of musicians so well-regarded in the traditional idiom. But, Ó Lionáird says, “It wouldn’t be that interesting, for me anyway, if we weren’t actually able to do something that coheres, something that makes sense musically, something where we have created our own language.”
“We have our obsessions with very old music,” he adds. “Those are real obsessions, we've never faltered from that. ... But, also, we have our obsessions with creating, with writing, which is a very joyful enterprise. I think the fact that we’ve found a way of doing it which answers both the past and the present is very interesting. I don't know why that is — I think, really, it has to do with the people in the room, the chemistry."
A Musical Kinship
It is from the individual work of The Gloaming’s members that the source of that chemistry begins to emerge. Ó Lionáird's experimental bent has long been apparent in his work with the fusion band Afro Celt Sound System and in his ambient solo recordings; on “2,” he imbues ancient mythical texts and popular Irish-language folksongs with fragile yearning. Cahill has never adhered to orthodoxy either, preferring a minimalist, textural approach to the acoustic guitar. Ó Raghallaigh has spent his young career investigating the timbral possibilities of what he calls a “hardanger d’amore,” a 10-stringed adaptation of a Norwegian Hardanger fiddle whose five "sympathetic" strings shimmer eerily with each bow stroke. Hayes, too, has long nursed a preoccupation with tone, wringing impossible sweetness out of each languid note.
And then there’s Bartlett. With his indie rock bona fides and classical training — he studied with the famed Italian piano instructor Maria Curcio — he is something of an outlier. In fact, The Gloaming does not represent Bartlett's first brush with traditional music: Growing up in Vermont, he played in a contra dance band with the fiddler and folk singer Sam Amidon, himself now a well-regarded avant-folkie. That background perhaps contributes to Bartlett’s instinctive feel for the harmonic and rhythmic possibilities of fiddle music. "Thomas' role is very interesting,” Ó Lionáird says. “I think there's a very cinematic quality to his playing. Without him, I don't think the music would have this widescreen panavision. It's very American, it's very sort of — I always hear Copland, you know. I hear that big American canvas."
But the most defining element of The Gloaming, Ó Lionáird says, is its material. He points to Hayes’ penchant for tunes with “strange, wistful qualities. They’re very sad, but at the same time there’s sort of a beautiful zenlike resignation.”
“I think Martin has played a massive role as a musician in foregrounding those qualities in Irish music,” Ó Lionáird says. “I mean, we all know about the foot-stomping, hand-clapping qualities of Irish music. I think he has devoted a large chunk of his aesthetic ... to kind of excavating these other kinds of hidden energies within our music. Beautiful energies, important energies, energies that have more profundity in them.”
A Genre Unto Itself
More than most folk bands, The Gloaming has succeeded in capturing mainstream attention — it’s not every day that a traditional Irish music group is featured on NPR’s First Listen. People talk about the band’s live shows with a sense of awe.
“I mean, the audience have been almost literally ecstatic,” says Brian O’Donovan, host of WGBH’s A Celtic Sojourn, of The Gloaming’s concerts. “[There’s] a huge amount of emotion put into it, particularly in live performance. So it is kind of a new departure.”
What’s less clear is if this new departure is evidence of a larger trend in Irish folk music, or if The Gloaming is merely an outlier, a genre unto itself. Musicians have long experimented with traditional music, but they have typically looked to rock and pop for inspiration. The Gloaming, by contrast, draws on the restraint of ambient music and minimalism, and the give-and-take of jazz.
“A lot of the recordings of traditional music in the noughties and in the '90s were just so tidied up, it really, it sucked the life out of it,” Ó Lionáird says. “Whereas I think our rhythmicity is a moving picture. It can accelerate and decelerate, you know. It can flex. I would be very happy to think that there are other musicians thinking along those lines."
It wouldn't be too surprising if there are. In Ó Lionáird's telling, The Gloaming's music makes a certain instinctive sense — after all, the tradition has always been subject to interpretation. "Like a lot of traditional musics, it's improvisatory to a large extent," Ó Lionáird says. “Yes, you do have old tunes and you do have old songs, but there's a fair bit of wiggle room in terms of you can make them your own, you can renovate them, you can reanimate them in performance and in recording.”
If there is a lesson to be learned in The Gloaming’s unexpected success, it’s that the restless search for something new may turn out to be the revelation of what was there all along.
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