Tuesday, October 25, 2011

O'Flarity Irish Music Retreat

This past weekend I was able to go to the most amazing music retreat.  Held just south of  Midlothian, TX, in a small but charming camp called Hoblizelle (which looks like “Hobbitsville” when you first read it!), this annual Irish music immersion features teachers from Ireland and the United States who travel teaching workshops and performing; mini concerts at every meal; fantastic nightly concert performances by the instructors, and student music sessions.

Students can take workshops on any of several instruments, not all of them traditional.  I took the fiddle workshops with Rose Conway Flanagan; also teaching fiddle were Liz Carroll and Martin Hayes.  Other instructors included Robbie O’Connell (singing), Michelle Mulcahy (harp), Louise Mulcahy (uillean pipes), Jim Crowley (bouzouki), Dave Cory (banjo), Damien Connolly (B/C  and C#/D button accordion), John Doyle (dropped-D guitar), and Kevin Crawford (Irish flute).  Also in attendance were harpist Teresa Honey, fiddler Randal Bays, and several regional instructors of various instruments.

One might wonder why in the world some of these teachers, especially those who are from Ireland, would come all the way to the middle of no-where in Texas to teach music.  The answer is apparent in their performances:  They really, really love Irish music!  And they love people who love Irish music.

Rose taught us several jigs and slip jigs by ear.  I had to write down the notes in shorthand to remember them (I have a very short memory with music), but I eventually got them.  Rose was so patient with me and the others who took a little extra time.  She is obviously very used to teaching groups.  She and Liz Carroll both have wonderful personalities, very approachable and kind.

The first day I attended Robbie’s class on performing songs.  It turned out to be more of a history on Irish music in general, with some performance notes here and there.  Though it was not quite what I had expected, it was nonetheless quite informative.  Robbie performed in concert the second night and sang some wonderful songs, including the comic “Princess and the Frog”, and the lovely “Shores of Newfoundland”.  His pleasant voice and Co. Wexford dialect compliment the songs beautifully.

On Saturday I was in Liz Carroll’s composition class.  Wow, what an amazing and funny woman!  Not only did she explain her own methods and play some of her own tunes (my favorite was “Paddy and the Wolf”), but she also made the lesson interactive by playing a couple of games with us.  First a word game to explain the idea of question and answer in Irish music, then a note game.  I was awed that she remembers all her tunes, even the one that she rejected because she thought it was so aweful!  In fact, all performers I’ve seen seem to have hundreds of tunes in their heads, and it staggers me.  I wonder how they can memorize so many?  I asked Liz about this at breakfast the next day, and she said, “I think people just use different sides of their brains, [one for music, one for words].”  This actually makes sense to me, as I told her, “I can often memorize most of a song after hearing it just once.”  Tunes however, which are not associated with words, take much longer for me to learn.  For Liz, it is the opposite:  she learns tunes much faster than words.  Perhaps it is that way for many other tune musicians.

Liz ended her class with a wish that everyone would be inspired to compose something, and actually asked if we would play it for her!  So I went to lunch, and they served butternut squash soup.  Well, I love butternut squash soup, but this was... a little disappointing.  The way I make it, and the way my local grocery store makes it, is very thick, flavorful, and has a happy golden color, like and egg yolk sunny-side-up.  The soup served at lunch was indeed thick, but not creamy, and the color was like mustard, with flecks of some unknown (tasteless) spices.  I use fresh butternut, and maybe this was canned.  I thought “I should write a tune about this!  Their soup, and mine.”  A little silly, sure, but... inspiration can come from anywhere!  Now I am inspired to write a tune about my time in Italy seven years ago, perhaps an air.

I left lunch early, hurried to my room, grabbed my fiddle and started playing, jotting down shorthand so I could remember.  It felt like it should be a slip jig, but some of the later parts came out sounding more like a hornpipe.  Once I get home to my music writing program, I can get the timing right and finish it up with any missing notes.  The next day I played what I had for both Rose and Liz.  They actually liked it and were very encouraging; they did not criticize or make suggestions on how to finish it, which I appreciated.  “It could go either way [a slip jig or a hornpipe],” said Liz excitedly.  Once I finish it, I will send them a midi file.

Evening concerts were the biggest treat of all.  These performers are so incredibly talented and amazing.  On Friday night Dave Cory began the concert on banjo.  He also played Carolan’s Concerto.  On banjo!  When he announced it, he said, “Apologies to any harp players out there.”  Then Jim Crowley from Co. Cork sang a song he wrote about the Titanic called “The Queen of the White Starline”, a beautiful tear-jerker of a song with vivid imagery.  He also did a song about a beautiful sailing ship he took several voyages on, but now lies at the bottom of the ocean, “My Love Is A Tall Ship”.  Also up were the Mulcahy sisters from Dublin; Michelle plays not only harp, but also fiddle, concertina, accordion, piano... what else???  Liz Carroll and Randal Bays played sets too, both incredible fiddlers.

Saturday night were Rose Conway Flanagan on fiddle and Kevin Crawford on Irish flute.  John Doyle sang songs about the Irish emigration to the Americas, the battle of Fredericksburg, and many others.  Martin Hayes played an amazing rendition of “Carolan’s Farewell to Music” on fiddle, then several tunes, accompanied by others.  He and John Doyle did a set that practically set the house (figuratively) on fire.  Bow was blazing, guitar fingers flashed, and one could feel the sparks of energy ricocheting between them as the music built, stronger and stronger, until their instruments were shouting!  It was fascinating to watch the unspoken, dynamic dialog between fiddler and guitarist.  I was standing in the very back of the room, and I could feel the energy coming from them up on stage.  I actually began shaking with a very intense, almost desperate desire to dance Irish hardshoe or sean-nos....  But, I couldn’t, it would be rude, and besides, there was no dancing space, the floor was all carpeted.  So I could only tap my feet softly.

All the evening concerts were sound engineered by Russ Alvey and Travis Ener, who have been doing sound together for over forty years.  They shared their experience and knowledge in a two-part class on basic sound system operation, which I attended.  I wanted a basic understanding to be able to operate my own digital recorder/mixer/burner, and to know what happens when I see concerts around town.  I was a bit surprised to discover there is a real art behind sound engineering; it’s not just plugging things in and turning knobs until the music sounds good.  One has to know the acoustics of the room, adjust out resonating frequencies, place the equipment in optimum locations (which could differ even by an inch in any particular direction!), constantly watch the performers and maintain visual communication, and of course, be flexible.  For example, at the end of Friday’s concert, Liz Carroll, on a whim, asked for all the other performers of the night to come up and do a finale together!  The sound crew soared to the occasion, producing enough microphones and cords for all and they sounded amazing.

Another note on the resonating frequencies:  one student who teaches music at a school, mentioned that one of the most fun classes she had at her college was the physics of music.  I stared at her and asked what school she went to, because my college definitely didn’t have interesting classes like that!

Saturday night I went to a song session with Heather Gilmore, a fiddler who used to perform around Texas.  I had first seen her playing with Jeff Moore in Austin, and attended a session with her another time.  I was thrilled that she remembered me now.  People shared some wonderful songs, some funny, some creepy for Halloween coming up.  There was even a harpist!  He was playing a beautiful deep blue Camac pedal harp; he played “Carolan’s Farewell to Music”, and I noticed he held his hands in the same method I was taught.  Reluctantly, after singing my third song and hearing Heather’s, I had to excuse myself and retire.  I had no idea what time it was, but I knew it was so late it was early, and I had a three-hour drive the next day.

I had to leave after the first class on Sunday, though the camp wasn’t officially over until Monday morning.  Rose spent several minutes of class playing tunes for us so we could record and learn them later when we had time.  I learned so much from her over the two days of classes.  She demonstrated the differences in playing music as written, and playing it the way it really should sound as Irish music, with variations in bowing and pressure, ornamentation, and timing.  She even let me play her own fiddle when I played my tune for her!

The O’Flarity Irish Music Retreat should be given due credit for preserving and promoting this wonderful genre of world culture.  Many of the performers said in different words the same adage:  “The victors write the history books, but the victims write the songs.”  “History is written by those who conquer, but songs are written by those who suffer.”  Songs about war, songs about everyday Irish life, social songs about drinking and dancing, songs that tell a story, songs about courting, songs that entertain, songs commemorating a hero.  All wonderful songs that should be preserved and shared.  And the tradition of singing and telling stories around the fire at the end of the day.  I wonder, what other culture has such a rich tradition?  Probably many that we don’t often hear about.  We Americans used to have it too.  What has happened to that tradition?  We should bring it back.

Thanks for reading.

Oh, by the way, because of all the Irish fellers I’d been listening to all weekend, I was actually speaking with a mixed Irish accent meself for a couple days after leavin’ because it rubbed off on me ^_^

I’m inspired now to write lots of songs, what to do first?  I want to write a war song about Helm’s Deep from Lord of the Rings, or one about the Rohirrim.  Add those to the others I wrote about Lord of the Rings.  And I need to write my “Aire di Toscana” (Air to Tuscany).

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