Sunday, June 10, 2018

Ireland's Music: Altan: The Gap of Dreams

The landscapes of Donegal suggest mystery and legend. There is connection and there is solitude. There is history and there is the moment as immediate as the blooming of a flower or the rise of a wave up on the shore.

The music of the band Altan holds all these as well. Their story as a band began in this far northwestern part of the island of Ireland. Though they have traveled the world with their music, it is to Donegal the band returned to record their album The Gap of Dreams. 

Their selection of song and tune draws in the many strands of life, landscape, and history. Édaín O’Donnell’s album sleeve art work helps set the stage for the music.

There are songs in both Irish and English, some recently written and some handed down in the tradition.

The tunes, too, come from varied sources, recent and traditional, learned from fellow musicians and written by members of the band. There’s as much story in the conversation among fiddle guitar, bouzouki, keyboard, and accordion in the tunes as there is in the word and melody of the songs. I

t is a story of landscape, life, love, and imagination. When she was growing up in Donegal, founding member of Altan Mairéad Ni Mhaonaigh recalled, she’d sometimes ask older players where they got a tune. I heard the fairies sing it, they would tell her. That became part of the idea behind the music choices and the title for The Gap of Dreams. 

Altan is Ni Mhaonaigh on fiddle and voice, Martin Tourish on piano accordion, Ciaran Curran on Bouzouki, Mark Kelly and Daithi Sproule on guitars and vocals, with Tommy McLaughlin sitting in on keyboards. For Gap of Dreams, Mairead’s daughter Nia Byrne and Mark’s son Sam Kelly each contribute an original tune to the recrding. They play on them on the album too, Nia on fiddle and Sam on concertina.  

With the title slip jig The Gap of Dreams composed by Mairéad, the tunes from Nia and Sam -- Nia’s Tune and The Beekeeper -- comprise the lively and engaging set which begins the album. 

Several of the tune sets pair music from the tradition with recently composed pieces. One such is Seán sa Cheo / Tuar / Oíche Fheidhmiúil (A Spirited Night), in which Seán sa Cheo (John in the Mist) comes from the tradition and Tuar and Oíche Fheidhmiúil are tunes accordion player Martin Tourish has written. 

Each of the tunes in The Tullaghan Lasses set -- the others are The Cameronian  and The Pigeon on the Gate-- come from the tradition, albeit in the different ways. The first is one often played by great Donegal fiddler John Doherty, which may be a very old tune he had learned from local sources. The Cameronian came over from Scotland -- trade, family, history, and geography  have made many connections between Donegal and Scotland. The Pigeon on the Gate is a tune which shows up in Celtic lands and has crossed the ocean to North America as well. It is a well known tune to Donegal traditional players. This set, in fact, is a fine example of Donegal style fiddle playing.

The gentle reel Port Alex, which Mark Kelly wrote for his nephew, draws in strands of quiet steadiness in journey, with no words spoken or sung.

Bacach Shíl Andaí is a gentle song, too, with words from a nursery rhyme well known in Donegal. The warmth of Mairéad’s voice in the song well suits that idea.

Several of the other songs Mairéad has chosen are a bit more dramatic. There is a lost and wandering lover pining for his lady through the landscape of Donegal’s northernmost place in Dark Inishowen. An Bealach Seo ‘Tá Romham (This Road Ahead of Me) moves with a sense of journey and hope, perhaps in the physical world and perhaps through that gap of dreams to the otherworld the journey of this album explores. Either way, Mairéad sings it and Altan plays it in service to the ideas of journey and connection. The song was written by Moya Brennan of Clannad along with her father Aodh Ó Dúgáin.

The song Altan have chosen to bring The Gap of Dreams to a close is a collaboration in a different way. Songwriter and scholar Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin who comes from the east coast of Ireland in the Oriel region, heard Shetland fiddler Tom Anderson’s tune Da Slockit Light. It inspired to write Fare Thee Well a Stór. The song is about love and leaving, and, in Altan’s playing with Mairéad’ singing, it suggests the landscapes of Donegal as well as those where the music originated.

That evocation of landscape through voice and instrument is woven through each of the tracks in The Gap of Dreams. Indeed that is one of the gifts Altan always brings to their listeners, a gift that, some thirty years from when they first began, the band members continue to give in creative and thoughtful ways.

You may also wish to see
Ireland’s music:Altan: The Widening Gyre
Scotland’s music: Julie Fowlis: Alterum
Ireland’s music: Aine MinogueIn the Name of Stillness  
Music of Ireland: Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin Songs of the Scribe

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