This is a slightly edited-after-the-fact version of an interview I published in State on May 4th, the day before Slow Moving Clouds played a gorgeous set in Bello Bar in Dublin.
Danny Diamond, Kevin Murphy and Aki comprise Slow Moving Clouds, and they were the authors, in Os, of one of the most accomplished and moving albums of 2015.
Danny Diamond, who plays the fiddle and strohviol, is Irish, as is Kevin Murphy, cellist and singer. Diamond also plays with traditional band Mórga and many will know Murphy from Seti The First. Aki, who sings lead vocals and plays the nyckelharpa, is Finnish. (Until now, I had wanted a Rickenbacker for my 50th in a few years. Right now, I’m torn between strohviol and nyckelharpa. Extraordinary instruments.)
The band draws on each country’s native folk traditions and many of the songs on Os are re-workings of traditional tunes or ballads, predominantly from Finland (‘Hiljainen Suru, Devil’s Polska, Rinda-Nikola); you can also hear traces of artists that Murphy and Diamond cited in emails to me, like Steve Reich, Arvo Part, and Philip Glass; Aki cited as his current listening the solo fiddlers Benedicte Maurseth, Arto Järvelä, Erlend Apneseth, none of whom I’ve heard, but all of whom I plan to.
Describing Os in terms of its cultural sources can make sound like an academic project, a dry synthesis of musical forms, but it’s not; probably, it’s better listened to than read about. However Slow Moving Clouds managed to pull their influences together, internalise them, and rebreathe them, the results are transcendent. Danny Diamond’s fiddle, high and flying then soft and graceful, along with Murphy’s taut, rumbling, heart-quaking cello, surrounds the rich ache of Aki’s voice, and it’s not necessary to know where these tunes come from or what the words might mean; it’s just necessary to stop for a while, and take it in, and let the tunes move you, and let them still you.
Slow Moving Clouds are currently touring and in advance of their Dublin show on May 5th, Danny, Aki and Kevin took some questions. I asked all questions of each person by email – Danny Diamond did much of the talking.
You have three distinct backgrounds, each involved in a variety of projects over the years, together and apart. Could you say a little bit about how you came together?
Danny: Aki was the link between Kevin and I. Both of us knew and worked with him: before SMC he played nyckelharpa in the live line-up of Seti the First, while also working with me in a duo ‘Danny and Aki’, playing instrumental music from the Irish, Nordic and American folk traditions.
Slow Moving Clouds draws on Finnish and Irish traditional music. On the Fractured Air site last year I read you saying there are more differences between Finnish and Irish traditional music than there are similarities.
Danny: The differences are pretty fundamental: different musical structures (keys & time signatures) make it difficult to mesh Irish and Finnish traditional material together in their raw form. On top of that, the cultural differences between the two countries come through in the way the music is taught and played. Finnish music, for example, is taught in a very classically-influenced education system, compared to the more informal approach over here. And Finnish music almost totally died out before being revived by music scholars, whereas we’re lucky to still have an unbroken ‘living tradition’ here.
But at the same time the similarities are pretty fundamental too. They’re both Western European folk traditions, based on music built for dancing, played on acoustic instruments; 150 years ago the two traditions would have been providing the same social and entertainment functions in both countries.
What attracted each of you to the other musical tradition?
Danny: What attracted me to Finnish music was that I find the melodies to be particularly beautiful, typically gentle and melancholy in character; also the musical patterns are similar-but-different to Irish music and it is intriguing to try to figure them out. All that said, in our music we only really draw on the traditions for melodies to use as raw material, and they’re re-written, re-arranged to fit SMC’s sound.
Aki: I discovered Irish traditional music as a teenager. The main attraction for me at the time was probably the energy and soulfulness of the music.
Aki’s singing, given its unshowy virtuosity and its subtle shading and complexity of tone, has often had me thinking of sean-nós. Are the Irish and Finnish singing traditions comparable?
Danny: Aki’s vocals draw more on popular music than on either tradition. As we had to create our own sound to bridge the Nordic and Irish traditions, Aki’s taken a similar approach to the vocals to make them sit well with the overall SMC sound, rather than going for a traditional Finnish style.
Aki: There really isn’t any Finnish equivalent to sean-nós singing, although there are solo singing traditions both in the West and East Finland.
It was not obvious to me initially that the album was in any way a blend of different types of music. The songs seemed on first hearing and still seem to have a unity of tone and texture with a unique distinct voice at play throughout. So it didn’t occur to me that there was “fusion” of any kind going on. How do you manage to bring together these elements to produce a coherent sound throughout the record?
Danny: We’ve been working at it since the Danny & Aki duo days, for five or six years, learning by trial and error basically. The key thought for us is to create new music, which draws on these older influences but can stand on its own. Rather than fusing existing traditions, we’re trying to draw on them to create something unique and contemporary. The traditions inform the overall sound, but so do other influences like minimalist & electronic music. That seems to be the trick, for us at least; the way to satisfactorily bring the two together is to find a third sound and reshape them to fit it.
Kevin: I would say that the sense of coherence you mention is I guess our contribution or the third element, which draws the two traditions together. I suppose it is a filter or a lens through which Irish and Finnish elements are drawn. For my part, this lens is constructed from many aspects, though probably the strongest influences are My Bloody Valentine and the Velvet Underground. I always felt that these two bands had something in common with the types of backing that was introduced to Irish trad in the 1970s, specifically the use of open tunings. I always felt that ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ could easily be an Irish traditional tune. I also draw on contemporary classical composers such as Steve Reich, Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, Tim Hecker, and so on.
I’ve seen you mentioned alongside The Gloaming, who many would see as signifying a revival in popularity for Irish traditional music. Is traditional music in a good place?
Danny: Traditional music in Ireland is in a strange place in my opinion. There’s a shortage of informed listeners who are tuned in to the nuances of the tradition, while at the same time there’s the oft-touted statistic that there are more kids playing than ever before. Also for years it’s been suffering from a lack of public critical discourse, and mainstream media attention, and it’s seen by so many Irish people as background music for a few pints. All this brings us to a point where perspectives around the tradition can be very inward-looking and insular, those who know and play it can be possessive, and the scene has become ghettoised to the point where the audience and market for traditional music in Ireland relays heavily on other musicians and music students. I find this disquieting but it seems to be changing at the moment, especially in Dublin where the traditional/folk scene is really healthy, drawing new audiences, lots of daring creative music being made.
I think The Gloaming are important because they appeal to a wide audience and give the traditional/folk genre a boost in profile. But the music that excites me the most is the stuff being played & sung around Dublin at the moment. I was at a session on Sunday night listening to members of Skipper’s Alley and Moxie along with a bunch of their mates: some of them ten years younger than me, playing in bands, writing and playing interesting music, but really grounded in the tradition as well. I’m excited for what’s coming down the line in the next few years.
Slow Moving Clouds play the Bello Bar, Dublin, on May 5th and the Crane Bar, Galway, on 20th May. Os is available here.