This is a pre-Gloaming piece on Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh from 2009 that was on state.ie. State changed their formatting somehow a few years ago and all the fadas and umlauts and such got re-formatted so this piece became pretty difficult to read. I have occasionally looked at the piece contemplating a re-edit but I was never sure what the point of doing that was. I still don’t think there’s any point but I have done it. [2019 postscript: State is completely gone now & is no longer even archived.]
I have thought about Caoimhín a bit since Jóhann Jóhannsson’s death as Caoimhín is an equally important figure for me in the last ten years. I bracket them together like my early middle age Beatles and Stones.
I’ve always liked this piece, though I exhibited a gross degree of ignorance about Irish music and musicians in it—more on that here. Interviews can be painful, mostly to be appreciated when they are over, but I enjoyed this conversation while it was happening and I often remember isolated things that he said (the “lovely juicy peach”, his closing paragraph). Caoimhín was a generous and effervescent interviewee and he was then and remains one of the musicians I most admire. He’s an inspiring guy.
It’s Like Being Inside an Explosion Sometimes—April 15, 2009.
Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, a 29-year-old from Rathfarnham with a degree in physics who once helped construct a Namibian cheetah sanctuary, is best thought of as an independent and original musician, specialising in the fiddle and Hardanger violin, whose roots are in traditional Irish music. To call him a traditional musician doesn’t quite do justice to the breadth of his interests and experimentation with the form, as on 2007’s inventive and vastly moving Where The One-Eyed Man Is King.
Ó Raghallaigh (he pronounces it ‘O Rye-Allah’), is an engaging and energising character who uses the word ‘beautiful’ or ‘exciting’ in almost every sentence. He’s possibly best known for teaching Jeremy Irons the violin on a TG4 special last Christmas; something State completely neglected to ask him about. But then State wasn’t so much interested in free fiddle lessons to Oscar winners as in how you go about becoming the most singular traditional Irish musician of your generation.
Now, some State readers may be thinking: this affects me how? And if Ó Raghallaigh had stuck rigorously, as the term ‘traditional musician’ suggests, to the forms handed down like commandments over generations, we might easily have missed him. Had he kept putting out albums like 2003’s sharp, superbly played but relatively conventional Kitty Lie Over (with piper Mick O’Brien) then he might not have attracted our attention at all, or the attention of John Kelly, who considers any show Caoimhín-less a show wasted; which might, of course, have been State’s and JK’s loss.
He’s here, and playing the JK Ensemble Sessions, because he brings to his traditional training a formidable synthetic musical intelligence; as comfortable discussing Steve Reich or Björk and Arvo Pärt as he is eulogising Tommy Potts, and incorporating them all into the way he plays. And because his interest is not in genre but in the strange and visceral magic that a note or a tune or a silence can work on you: ‘the state of being’, he says, ‘that you get from being subjected to music’.
Here, Ó Raghallaigh talks about his enduring love for traditional music, tells how good sean-nós is like ‘a really juicy peach’, and explains that though the physicist in him knows that nothing he does means very much, ‘that urge to just get up and make things and feel the beauty is increasingly there’.
Caoimhín, can you talk a little about how your music has evolved in recent years?
My whole music life, since my teens, had been traditional music, but then I had been hanging out with a lot of friends who do things for theatre festivals, and fringe festivals and things like that. And it struck me that a lot of the traditional music I was making wasn’t really relevant to them, and it’s kind of funny to be making music that has no relevance for your friends. So if I could still bring the elements that I value from traditional music, but somehow present it in a way that would be relevant to people with no background in traditional music, that’d be really fun for me.
The elements of traditional music that you grew up with that you value: to us, those might not be immediately obvious. Can you say what those things are?
It’s really heart; heart in music. Music that has a physical effect on you. That’s really specific, I think, to traditional music. It’s one of the main hallmarks for me. It’s like an expansiveness of spirit. It’s like being inside an explosion sometimes. And it has a real powerful effect on your heart, and nearly affecting your brainwave patterns or something. It’s hard to quantify, but it gives a certain physical feeling and state of being. Maybe that’s it: it’s a state of being that you get from being subjected to music. But you do get it in other forms. I’m interested in Iceland and all the music that comes out of there; I think it is quite folky, a lot of it. Let’s say Sigur Rós: there’s lots of folk feeling, and the feeling that gives me is sometimes quite similar to what I get from traditional music.
You get from Sigur Rós the physical feeling that you associate with traditional Irish music.
Yeah, it just seems to be a system of values, a way of valuing certain things. Like, a lot of contemporary classical music doesn’t value emotion at all. In fact it seeks to be dispassionate and to completely eradicate any shred of emotion whatsoever. A lot of New York contemporary classical stuff, like Bang on a Can, it’s nearly more humans as robots rather than humans as animals, and traditional music for me is very much humans as animals. It’s very earthy. Whereas something that’s more machine-like, take Germanic music, of any description, that’s definitely more humans as robots.
So that physicality is one element that you value in Irish traditional music?
Yeah, and another is—one of my best friends is Iarla Ó Lionáird , and one of the things he describes very well is the idea of information within a certain note and the quality of information that somebody with a traditional music background has at their disposal. To traditional musicians, what’s important is the concentrated meaning within a certain note or a certain phrase. The impact of a certain note.
It’s like, instead of a note being an A, and it can be a loud A or soft A, but that’s about it—that’s not really what we do in traditional music. In traditional music, an A might have seven dimensions. Like the dimension of dynamics, or tonality. So that if you listen to a sean-nós singer, they start maybe with their mouth one shape, and this is within even a single note, and it might last one second or less, and they might go through seven shades of the one vowel within that, and it might be imperceptible, but it just gives this beautiful richness. It’s like a really juicy peach; when you bite into it there’s all these things going on, and tastes, and smells, rather than just being a plastic peach that you look at.
So I love looking at people because they’ve got all this detail within a single note, but there’s also the secret ingredient, which is the difference between the same person when they’re on fire, doing an amazing gig where they’re supercharged with energy, and when they’re singing exactly the same notes in exactly the same places without that magic element. I’m really interested in: what is that?
Is the magic element something that you just have to wait for, or can you prepare for it?
You definitely prepare. I mean, that occurs in every type of music. If it was a solo gig, I’d prepare for it in lots of different ways, trying to get my head into it. What’s required is your head to be in a certain state. It’s nothing to do with technique at that point.
So, in practical terms, what does that entail?
Oh well, I don’t know. It’s pretty simple. Like: I try and not talk to people. Even if I’m hanging out with friends, I just shut down the system. Reboot the computer, you know. Wind down, and quite happy to sit there saying as little as possible, let other people do the talking. Try and not engage with people, basically, just quiet as quiet as quiet can be. Just kind of—chill.
And how do you know when you’ve hit it? When you’re on fire? You just know?
You just know. I guess it’s a level of detail but it’s also a level of unconscious detail. So it’s where, when you haven’t hit it, all that’s coming out is what you intended to come out. And that’s fine, but it’s not particularly special. But when you’ve kind of got that special state of mind, everything surprises you, and things come out that you didn’t intend, and they seem quite beautiful.
One of the things that you do is you play your very personal, more exploratory music, like The One-Eyed Man, and then you still continue with more traditional music at the same time. A lot of artists, when they make a big conceptual break from their traditional early work, they never go back. (I’m thinking, possibly inaccurately, of Big Star and Joan Miró.)
Yes. I think I know how to explain why I do both, is because I think that the traditional music is still relevant. You know the way I was saying I didn’t think it was still relevant to all those friends of mine, let’s say from Dublin or from certain backgrounds. Traditional music—they don’t know what it means. It doesn’t push the buttons that it could. But yet there’s a whole huge number of people that it does mean huge things for and they’ll follow certain musicians to the end of the earth to hear them. They’ll be at every concert. It excites those people so much and it gives them so much. If I go back to that idea of the purpose of music, to create a certain state of mind in people, traditional music is still fulfilling its function there. And yet it also explains why I make the new music, because it’s creating a certain state of mind for people from different backgrounds.So it’s back to the fundamental purpose of me making this music. Rather than it being the music itself, and the notes, and the sounds, it’s actually the state of mind produced in the listener. Which is kind of—curious, I guess. I find it useful to think of it like that, and sometimes I really wonder at some of the new things I make: is this going to fulfil its function? And you really don’t know. You know the state of mind you were in when you produced it, which was a state of mind that you like, and you know that in the past has given rise to stuff that’s worthwhile.
So that’s what you’re going on at the time..
Yeah. It is. I do find it quite hard to be critical of something, as in: is this of value? And maybe the artists you were talking about, maybe they had conviction, huge conviction in the work they’re doing, whereas I feel like: I always try and zoom out of both time and space, you’re looking at eternity and infinity, and you kind of realise that nothing you do matters a damn, so that’s maybe why I feel that the state of mind is more important than the actual creation. Whatever it is is miniscule and less than a blip, but yet creating perceptions and states of mind, which are beautiful, I think, just of themselves.
You can have too much perspective though! It’s probably good that you don’t always have perspective or take the long view; or would we ever do anything?
Well—I do think about that a lot. Like, is there any point in getting up today—and increasingly, the answer is yes. Definitely. But in the full knowledge that there’s no real point ultimately. It’s kind of funny, but that urge to just get up and make things and feel the beauty is increasingly there. Which is good, I think. But it’s funny. I guess that’s what you get for studying theoretical physics.
Well – I was gonna say….
And I’ve huge respect for people that give their lives to science. And one of the reasons I didn’t stick with theoretical physics is: you could be a theoretical physicist in research, you could spend seventy years of your life researching something that you never actually quite find out. That amazing thing that is illuminating to yourself and to humanity and is so beautiful—you might never get it, or you might get it, but it’s so abstract. Whereas music, you can feel it there and then, the effect, and it’s just so much more exciting, and if you were to die tomorrow, it just feels like: I’d really like to be playing.