The new album is out today (it’s sublime), they’re taking over the National Concert Hall for a week (it’s going to be incredible) and, with all that going on, two of them still found time to chat to little old me for State. Here’s how it went…
The Gloaming: Space, Time and the Science of Play
A SENSE of timing does not necessarily equate to a handle on time itself. Or so you’d first think talking to two fifths of The Gloaming. Vocalist Iarla Ó Lionáird and hardanger d’amore supremo Caoimhin Ó Raghallaigh snuggle on a couch like brothers reunited after years apart. It’s only been six weeks, I point out.
“Ah yeah,” shrugs Ó Lionáird. “But sure that’s a lifetime ago.”
He’s probably right. Time is a relative concept, after all. Six weeks ago was December. Christmas was approaching and the most discussed Irish music outfit in years had wrapped recording on their second LP at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Wiltshire. The Gloaming 2 lands in all good record stores this Friday and sees lightning strike twice for a group who with every song and sold-out show seem to rewrite the periodic table of traditional music science. If they seem delighted to see each other again it is because the atoms that make up Iarla and Caoimhin – and their chemical brothers Martin Hayes, Thomas Bartlett and Dennis Cahill – like to be around one another. This reunion on a hotel couch metres from their spiritual home of the National Concert Hall is a quantifiable response of that.
“Really cool” is the phrase Ó Lionáird today uses to describe the “shared headspace” the band very quickly click into when they converge. It is in this place that the unpredictable is given licence. Essentially, the former Afro Celt Soundsystem man says, all five are “solo voices swimming around each other, reacting on the fly”. “When I think of other acts I’ve been involved in, this has a lot more ‘active variability’ because we don’t make records using lots of overdubs or anything like that. It’s all ‘played’. And to be frank, it always surprises me what we’re able to do together.”
More spacious and hard to hold than its 2014 predecessor, The Gloaming 2 is an astonishing collection that will do the hyperbole surrounding the quintet no favours. ‘Fainleog’ trembles with the dark, passionate energy the Spanish call duende. A stunning guitar intro by Cahill on ‘Oisin’s Song’ gives way to breeze-blown string serenades by Hayes and Ó Raghallaigh and Bartlett’s rich ivory foundation. ‘The Booley House’ recalls the extinct house dances and “fun” spirits of Clare tin whistle legend Micho Russell and fiddle institution Junior Crehan that Iarla today speaks wistfully of. Like, say, the guitar playing of Andy Gill, things become conspicuous by their absence only to make dashing entrances once again (see the thrilling late surge of ‘Mrs Dwyer’).
The road-written songs were recorded in five days, the same time it took to pen that self-titled debut. Back then everything was “fuelled by a sense of the unknown”. If they now knew that anything was possible when they convened, what replaced that energy this time around? Without wishing to get all Rumsfeldian, did any new “unknowns” reveal themselves?
“Well there’s always unknowns,” Iarla counters. “There’s still a huge amount that just depends on the day and what decisions you make. I think especially with Caoimhin’s music, Martin’s violin interplay with him and Thomas’s piano, there’s a lot of improvisational language.”
“Absolutely,” beams Caoimhin. “I’m always looking for the unknown. There’s an energy that’s very important in terms of what the music carries rather than just ‘executing the plan’ accurately, whether you’re performing on stage or recording in the studio. It’s hard to quantify but it’s microscopic, a difference in feeling that you can’t explain. The word ‘unknown’ certainly hasn’t gone away from what we’re trying to achieve.”
For a collective of such lofty abilities – a “super group”, perhaps, but never a “supergroup” – to sit in a confluence where critics, audiences and even heads of state bow in reverence is a rare thing these days. Opera houses and Proms palaces would only do, and if an Uachtarán should shuffle in to Earlsfort Terrace one night (as he swore to me during a recent encounter that he would), he will be as likely to sit next to a world music buff as he would a Fumbally beardstroker or a lover of contemporary classical.
“There’s a fair proportion of people who come to see us who don’t have much knowledge of traditional Irish music,” Iarla nods. “I have a feeling it’s much larger than one might think. People respond to the energy rather than the surface form. It seems to bypass those stereotypes. And it’s nicer to operate just on the basis of ‘music’. Just the thing itself. It’s a blindness worth having sometimes.” He turns to Caoimhin.
“Old traditional music has things in it that are extremely powerful that we don’t understand,” Ó Raghallaigh adds as if pondering black holes. “But they’re there and you can speak that language or take the essence of it and tap into it without understanding how it works. If you ask what Irish music has to offer the world, it’s this incredible richness and depth of feeling that you’re not manipulating, you’re not using. It’s just there and it’s coming out.”
The more the two speak, the more aligned the dimensions of arts and sciences become. There is a reason for this. While seeming to dwell in the elusive musical world of feeling, sensation and harmony, both men are actually – whisper it – scientists.
Ó Lionáird has been a “passionate” lover of science throughout his life and keeps an eye on advances around the world. Ó Raghallaigh, meanwhile, worked at a particle accelerator in the US in 2000, if you don’t mind. Surely they therefore love plans, designs and equations, I protest. How do they square this with songwriting that is so instinctual, unplanned, unscripted?
Iarla nods and points approvingly at the air the question sits in. A knowing look is conspiratorially exchanged. “Caoimhin is a physicist by training,” he frowns, “I’m just a gobshite who likes science.”
“A Trekky,” hoots Ó Raghallaigh before straightening himself. “There’s a couple of things,” he begins cheerily. What follows is a perfectly reasoned, join-the-dots deductive argument from one of the world’s most experimental fiddle players. He speaks of science being analogous, and that where one aims to get to in music is the same as where one aims to get to in science. Convergent play. Divergent play. Locating breakthroughs by building logically on what went before or else via something that nobody else ever thought of. The only difference in what musicians do and what visual artists do, he claims, is in the relationship to time.
“Which is extraordinary!” he finally gasps. “You think of a writer or a painter or a scientist who can give 70 years of their life and not get that audience-artist interaction. I always thought of it as a point of infinite sharpness where things come into being. That’s where you want to be.”
“It’s the sense of wonderment,” Iarla sighs. “I love reading about how a scientist dealt with something or their lifetime pursuit of something. And I agree with Caoimhin that we’re fortunate when we’re on stage that we can create these long passages of focus on just wonderment or ‘bliss’. I’ve tried it before with different outfits but The Gloaming seem to be able to do that more effectively. Music is incredibly powerful at generating this unusual relationship with time, creating and sustaining that place where people can drift into wonderment. It sounds very pretentious but that’s really what music is for, in my book. It helps you then to achieve other levels of feeling and understanding because you’ve opened up that space.”
Space. Time. Active variability. Theories of evolution. Bricks and mortar to The Gloaming’s creation of the intangible. But the pair then slot a keystone into the algorithm that shifts in meaning with each utterance: “Play”.
Ó Lionáird speaks of not being “a player” and how the music his cohorts make is “played into existence”. Ó Raghallaigh, meanwhile, uses the word in its leisurely sense, echoing Damien Hirst’s argument that all art is childish.
“That’s what ‘play’ means,” he avers. “This childlike delight in finding new possibilities in the same backyard that you’ve known your whole life, and it’s all utterly transformed every time you step into it. It is a space that you know intimately but it’s full of surprises and infinite variety. And to play in that is to treat it like a playground, to romp all over the place and have great fun and kind of hang out, or sometimes just sit down in the middle of it or sometimes go on rollercoasters. It is that sense of joy that’s very important. That can be high-energy joy, or it can be very quiet, repetitive joy. Inherent freedom in every moment. There’s still a lot of space to explore. We’ve by no means exhausted what the five people in the band can produce, and I think that’s quite exciting.”
The two share yet another look. Atoms dance. Potential energies fire. Scientific theory has rarely seemed so supernatural.
The Gloaming 2 is out today on Real World Records. The Gloaming play five sold-out shows in Dublin’s National Concert Hall on February 27th and 28th, and March 1st, 2nd, and 3rd 2016.
First published on State.ie