Ireland's Music: Altan: The Widening Gyre
There’s mystery, legend, and magic in the landscapes of Donegal, in Ireland’s far northwest. There you’ll also find deep community, lively humor, and strong connections to the past. Each of these things makes its way into the music of the band Altan.
For their album The Widening Gyre they chose to explore and express another sort of connection, too, the one that reaches across the ocean to the music of Appalachia and the American south. With this in mind, they traveled to Nashville, to the studios of Compass Records, to record.
The result is a clear and sparkling set of song and tune that interweaves these connected yet distinct ways of sharing and thinking about of music. The members of Altan -- Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh on voice and fiddle, Ciaran Curran on bouzouki, Ciaran Tourish onfiddle, vocals, whistles and low whistle, Dáithí Sproule on guitar and voice, Mark Kelly on guitar and voice, and newest member Martin Tourish on accordion and keyboards -- explore these connections and travels of song in collaboration with longtime musical friends from the American folk scene, among them Bruce Molsky, Tim O’Brien, Garry West (who produced the recording), Natalie Haas, and Alison Brown. “We’ve made lifelong friends through music,” Mairéad says. “ The circle has expanded over the years, and our new album celebrates those relationships.”
The fourteen track disc opens with a set which sets the path for that, taking a journey through a lively tune from Scotland, a reel from the Irish tradition, and an original reel composed by Mairéad. Molsky and Ní Mhaonaigh turn Walt Aldrige’s old timey Americana song No Ash Will Burn into a vocal and instrumental collaboration that unlocks the Celtic nuances of the piece, and although it is a rather sad love song, also calls to mind the partings and stories of those who moved from one place to another in earlier times. Tune For Mairéad and Anna Ní Mhaonaigh is a slow air which was composed some years back by Dáithí Sproule for the birthdays of Mairéad and her sister Anna, and is done here in lovely spare fashion.
White Birds is a quiet piece too, one which evokes travels across land and sea in reality and imagination, with Mary Chapin Carpenter adding in her to voice to Mairéad’s for lyrics written by poet WB Yeats set to music by Fiona Black. Only right to have words by Yeats here; a different Yeats poem is the source the band turned to for the album’s title. “The title The Widening Gyre appeals to us and depicts the spiral of life, widening and embracing the new. It has an innate energy. We think that idea is reflected in the album’s music,” says Mairéad.
That energy is readily apparent in the Buffalo Gals/Leather Britches/Leslie’s Reel set, which evolved from the musicians siting around in the studio swapping tunes. It’s a fast paced event which holds the energy of Appalachian bluegrass along with fiery Donegal style music and creates its own place between. That also holds true of The Triple T, a tune which Ciaran Tourish wrote for his son Thomas and which invited in the talents of musical guests Jerry Douglas on Dobro, Sam Bush on mandolin, Darol Anger on fiddle, Bryan Sutton on guitar, Jim Higgins on bodhran, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Bryan Sutton on guitar, and Alison Brown on banjo -- an all star jam in deed, and all these fine talents in collaboration in service to the tune.
Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh’s distinctive soprano is as much a hallmark of Altan’s music as are her fiery fiddling and thoughtful compositions. All are in fine evidence here. She sourced the song Má Théann Tú ‘un Aonaigh, which offers advice (in irish) to a young man setting out in the world, from a field recording from the Arranmore Islands in northwest Donegal, while Cuirt Robin Finley/Moladh Shliabh Maoineach has as its substance a love song to a mountain in Donegal. She trades voices and stories with bluegrass/Americana master Tim O’Brien on The House Carpenter/ Gypsy Davy and her slow reel Samhradh and Aniar Aduaidh Jig pair naturally in a set with Martin Tourish’s The Donegal Jig. Far Beyond Carrickfinn is a song composed by Ian Smith and Enda Cullen to help give Mairéad perspective after the death of her father Francie, a himself a fine musician. It is a lasting piece that’s beautifully sung and presented here by Mairéad and Scotland’s Eddi Reader and could indeed apply to journeys of many sorts. “Stars lead the way, as your journey begins...”
There is much more to explore and enjoy. The mountains of Ireland’s northwest and the Americna south, seacoasts and hollows, journeys through them and stories told across time: all these come into play in Altan’s The Widening Gyre.
...and while you are at it, note the fine cover artwork by Édaín O’Donnell.
You may also wish to see
The Wild Atlantic Way: Music of Donegal and Derry part of a 4 part series I’ve done for Wandering Educators
Music of Donegal: Altan: The Poison Glen/Gleann Nimhe
Music for the first week in Advent: candle in the window
Alison Brown: The Company You Keep
Tim O'Brien: The Crossing