By David Templeton
If you are fortunate enough to have the right people sitting down together to play the right kind of music, you don’t really need to record it in a modern high-tech recording studio in order to capture something special,” remarks acclaimed Irish fiddler Martin Hayes, reached in Greece, where he’s been performing. “You just need a good space where you’re comfortable playing. That’s more or less how the Martin Hayes Quartet ended up recording at Bantry House in County Cork.”
Hayes, who grew up in County Clare, Ireland, is celebrated worldwide for the heart-pounding thrill of his live performances and recordings, all fueled by the exquisite beauty of his rich, intimate, expressively honest playing. Whether taking the stage alone or in the company of his longtime musical partner, guitarist Dennis Cahill, Hayes’ passionate musicianship has firmly established him as one of finest interpreters of Irish music working today.
But over the last decade or so, Hayes has begun displaying a certain restless streak, a conspicuous inclination toward artistic curiosity and exploration that has led him down some unexpected alleyways while steadily expanding his own musical horizons. Not only has Hayes stirred the musical soup pot as part of the Gloaming—an Irish-American experimental ensemble made up of world-class players—he’s also recorded and toured with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, and with Brooklyn Rider, the innovative, New York–based quartet.
And now he’s got a quartet of his own—Hayes, Cahill, acclaimed violist Liz Knowles, and bass clarinetist Doug Wieselman—and together the fantastic foursome are taking the art of collaboration in some fascinating new directions.
One of those directions led them to the 328-year-old Irish estate in which the Martin Hayes Quartet recorded its very first album, The Blue Room (251 Records).
Hayes explains that he has been performing at Bantry House for 15 years, as part of the annual Masters of Tradition music festival he curates there every year.
“The ambience and the feeling of the place were, I felt, very conducive to what we were setting out to do with the new quartet,” he says. “In the past, of course,” he adds, with a laugh, “I’ve always been there in the summer, when it was warm enough inside and out. But in choosing Bantry House for our recording sessions in the winter, I have to admit the weather was a bit of a miscalculation.”
More on that in a moment.
“Putting the quartet together, I was more interested in the people I was bringing together, and how they think musically, than I was interested in pursuing some specific idea of some new sound I wanted to create.”
Recorded in December of 2016, The Blue Room was released late last year, inciting immediate critical praise. Siobhan Long of the Irish Times called the album “a head-turner,” and “a masterclass in interpretation.” Tim Cummings of British website the Arts Desk proclaimed The Blue Room to be “absolutely essential listening.” This fall, the Martin Hayes Quartet will be touring the US in support of the album.
Of the inspiration for the quartet—and its improvisational approach to interpreting classic Irish tunes—Hayes says, “I didn’t want this to be one of those groups where there was a lot of accompaniment flying around while one person sits there playing the tunes. Putting the quartet together, I was more interested in the people I was bringing together, and how they think musically, than I was interested in pursuing some specific idea of some new sound I wanted to create.
“Having a musical connection with the other players is the most important thing, and I knew enough to recognize that if we all sat down together we would have an honest-to-goodness musical dialogue, a conversation that would be worth having.”
With another laugh, he adds, “Beyond that, none of us was sure exactly what any of it would sound like.”
Knowles, of Portland, Maine, echoes Hayes’ description. “The first time that we got together, we just sat down and started playing to see what would happen,” she says. “Before we all gathered, I’d come up with some formal frameworks for some of the tunes that Martin and Dennis had been working on for years. But when we started working together, we went in a different direction with a lot of that. We expanded on some of those frameworks, and then did other things with other tunes. It was very improvisational from the beginning.”
According to Knowles, the full quartet had only played together a few times before gathering at Bantry House to record The Blue Room.
“At first,” she says, “we spent a lot of time just trying to get to know each other, get to know each other’s personalities, and the kinds of music everyone knows and breathes and exists in, and how to play all of that together, which is something we’re still figuring out. That whole process makes a project like this very interesting, and very exciting—and incredibly fun.”
For Knowles, the most challenging aspect of playing in the Martin Hayes Quartet is finding a way to play what she calls “a middle world” between the styles and traditions and musical impulses of the other players.
“In my traditional world, I’m not improvising in the same way that I am in this quartet,” she allows. “It’s a wonderful tug-of-war. Though that’s not the right word. It’s more like a tug-of-not-war, to play around in the space between the very traditional Martin and Dennis and the kind of jazzy, free improv, open-ended world that Doug has available to him.”
That “musical space” was not just the mental and experimental one that existed between the players, Knowles says. It was also the actual space of Bantry House’s large main room, where the recording sessions took place for several hours a day, for one full week.
“It was so incredible to be in that wonderful environment,” says Knowles. “I normally wouldn’t wax rhapsodic about recording studios and beautiful venues. But being in that house during that week of recording, at Christmas in Ireland, I think for all of us it was a transformative experience. It transformed everything that we did. We still talk about it, gathering in that room every morning, taking walks outside when the weather allowed it. It’s all right there in the music.”
And with that, we return to the issue of the weather.
“It was insanely cold in that living room!” Knowles laughs. “At first, it was, anyway. But there were two massive fireplaces at either end of the room, and we kept those stoked all the time. Fortunately, I grew up on a farm, so I know something about stoking fires.”
It can’t be easy, of course, to take such an intimate and profound experience—captured in the recording of The Blue Room—and then attempt to recreate some of that feeling when performing in front of a concert hall audience.
“It’s not that hard,” Knowles says. “For one thing, this is a very different performance experience than I’ve ever known with anything else I’ve done. When I’m onstage with the guys, yes, there is a performing aspect. But there’s also a very insular aspect to the music that I can really get into, where I am allowed to go inward. It just feels like we are playing for each other. So when we are onstage, I feel like we are still in that room in Bantry House. It might sound like we’re leaving the audience out, but it’s not like that. It somehow invites the audience to go inward, into the music in a deep way, right along with us.”
That, says Hayes, is more or less exactly what he hoped for in founding the Martin Hayes Quartet.
“I wanted to create an environment, a state of mind, where everybody can be the fullest and best of themselves,” he says. “And to have that in the context of playing Irish music, I thought that would be very interesting. It was important for Liz to be able to access the full range of her skills, including classical and chamber music, and for Doug to be able to feel free to improvise and be who he is. We all got to find something new and express it.”
And is The Blue Room the album he expected to end up with?
“Well, yes and no,” Hayes says. “Doing what we are doing, you have to stay open to what the final outcome might be. There’s always an element of surprise. And this recording, I think, has quite a bit of that.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Strings magazine.