The universe is making music all the time

Central And Remote: Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh

leave a comment »

Interview with Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh.

“The Earth orbiting the Sun describes an ellipse, and traditional music is at the heart of my own elliptical orbit. Sometimes I’m very close to it, sometimes a little more distant, and this record feels like I’m a little further towards the outer edge of that trajectory. Winter, night-time, facing out.”

Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh

Words: Mark Carry


Ireland’s Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh plays traditional and contemporary folk music on Hardanger d’Amore and other fiddles. The masterful musician and gifted composer is undoubtedly a national treasure; heralding a distinctive and utterly compelling voice in Irish contemporary music. In addition to being an established solo artist, he performs with two groups The Gloaming and This is How we Fly, in duos with Dan Trueman, Mick O’Brien & Brendan Begley, a trio with Martin Hayes & Peadar Ó Riada, and as part of many other collaborative projects.

Last August saw the eagerly awaited release of Dublin-based independent label, Diatribe’s Solo Series Phase II which features some of the country’s most exciting and ground-breaking musicians making music today: Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh (Hardanger d’Amore); Kate Ellis (cello); Adrian Hart (violin) and Cora Venus Lunny (violin, viola). Each of these stunning solo works represents the utterly transcendent sonic creations currently being unearthed from Ireland’s vivid, imaginative and striking musical landscape. In the words of label Director, Nick Roth: “I feel privileged to have been party to sharing these journeys; four circuitous paths across wild terrain which converged, finally, on the top of the mountain, looking out. I am so happy to introduce this music to its audience at last, and I look forward to seeing it march on from here – sliding across the other side of the scree, and on into the world.”

Ó Raghallaigh’s newest solo work, ‘Music For An Elliptical Orbit’ contains some of the most beautiful and visceral musical compositions to have graced this earth. The album closer, ‘What What What’ is an intimate re-work of a timeless gem that forms a vital pulse to This Is How We Fly’s self-titled debut record. Elsewhere, the experimental sounds of ‘Rún’ inhabits the cosmic space of the late great, Arthur Russell. The traditional ‘Easter Snow’ is beautifully re-interpreted by Ó Raghallaigh on the album’s penultimate track. A beguiling atmosphere is immediately cast upon us with the album’s mesmerising opening pieces of music, ‘Litosphere’ and ‘Cloud’. As ever, with Ó Raghallaigh’s deft touch of hand, an ocean’s depth of raw emotion and rare beauty seeps through the aching pores of the listener’s heart and mind.

Laghdú, the title of this debut album by Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and Dan Trueman, translates as: a lessening, a decrease, a reduction. The music they have written evokes a purity and timeless quality as the majestic fiddle notes becomes a dialogue between two close friends. In essence, the universal language of music is instilled in each of Laghdú’s eleven evocative compositions. The dynamic range is nothing short of staggering — from the near-silent to the nigh-on orchestral, at times exploding joyously from their hybrid 10-string fiddles, at times barely there — holding time still. Laghdú is a revelatory, awe-inspiring and exhilarating experience.



Interview with Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh.

It’s such a pleasure to ask you some questions about your music, Caoimhín. Since the last time we spoke quite a lot has happened, music-wise, so it’s very exciting to talk to you once again! You have recently returned from California where you were teaching fiddle as part of the 31st annual Valley of the Moon fiddling school. The photographs from this place looks spectacularly beautiful; this must have been a very special experience for you. I would love for you to recount your memories of your stay there and indeed, the lessons in particular that you taught to your students? What sort of advice would you share to people who are starting to learn a musical instrument, Caoimhín? 

Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh: California was indeed beautiful. I was teaching the fiddle there among the redwoods at the invitation of Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser, and it was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before — an incredibly strong sense of community, a wonderful openness and welcome for everyone, a very special atmosphere. Nearly 250 people in a self-contained bubble for an entire week, an immensely enjoyable and nourishing bubble, hugely inspiring for tutors and students alike. The sense of fun and play are a very strong part of it, both such important aspects of real learning.

In terms of the lessons in particular, I had three classes a day of between 30 and 50 people each, and it was certainly a challenge at first to figure how to teach a group that large effectively. I guess my aim was to help people discover ways to expand time, and expand the notes of the music, to get to a point where every note feels huge and bursting, where they feel like they have all the time in the world to spend on that enjoying note before going on to the next, and through that feel what it’s like to play music that’s full of heart. Quite simple, but beautiful too, and so rewarding.

For people starting to learn an instrument, one bit of advice would be this: not to think of the aim as to play that instrument, but to both find a way to let the music that’s inside you to burst out, and to enrich the music that’s inside you. Pick some favourite tunes to sing to yourself over and over and over again, hum or whistle them all the time, become so familiar with them that you are bordering on boredom, and then turn the tunes into playgrounds for fun and adventure for yourself. Of course you need some technical ability on the instrument, but I really feel like you don’t need that much, far less than most people think, and if you have music inside you that is just bursting to get out, your body will find a way. It is SO easy to become bogged down in the technique of playing the instrument and never get above and beyond that, and to lose sight of the music and the reason why you wanted to play in the first place.

Play. It’s an important word we use to describe making music. If you can have immense fun in playing music without your instrument, the instrument then just becomes a tool to let that music out in another way. Pick one tune, an incredibly simple tune, immerse yourself in it, get to know it inside out upside down, and then start playing with it through your voice, be audacious, make yourself laugh with the ridiculous things you do when you are truly playing with it and having too much fun, embrace all the idiosyncratic things peculiar to you, your voice, your mind, yourself.


Congratulations on your new solo album, ‘Music For An Elliptical Orbit’. It’s such an incredible journey that really captivates your heart. This album was made as part of the wonderful Diatribe Solo Series II that has been an ongoing project from 2009 to its eventual release this year. Firstly, please discuss this particular project for me, Caoimhín and what you set out to create and capture from the outset? I would be very interested to know in what way do you see ‘Music For An Elliptical Orbit’ fitting alongside your previous marvel work of ‘Where The One-Eyed Man Was King’?

CÓR: Nick Roth approached me a few years ago now to ask if I’d be interested in making a solo record for Diatribe as part of a String Series, along with Kate Ellis, Cora Venus Lunny and Adrian Hart. I really like what Diatribe do, and what I thought it might allow me to do, too, and I viewed it as a wonderful chance to push things a little further than The One-Eyed Man, and put out some music that I might not otherwise have a chance to release. The actual recording of it was up in Wicklow, in the most beautiful little cottage in the mountains, with some lovely mics and Keith Lindsay engineering. We spent two or three days there, recording both things I had intended to record, plus some improvisations and other things on the suggestion of Nick Roth. It must have been fairly chilly — I remember that between pieces, when there’d be a break, we had all four of the gas cooker’s ring firing full blast, the oven the same, in an effort to thaw into the bones. I’m particularly delighted with ‘Cloud’, which is a decomposed version of the very common traditional reel, Miss McLeod, because I’d never played it like that before and only did so because Nick pushed me to, and I love the result. I love the two Mammoths [‘Big Mammoth’ & ‘Little Mammoth’], too — they totally delight me, how ridiculous they are on first listen, but so beautiful once you get over that.


In terms of solo music, your fiddle music belongs in the same illuminating stratosphere as say, Satie’s piano works, Bach’s cello concertos, Frahm’s piano and so on. What is immediately apparent on ‘Music For An Elliptical Orbit’ is your singular style of instrumental music; the timeless sound you create could be only made by you (and isn’t that the hallmark of a great artist?) I would love for you to shed some light your approach to composition and the trusted tool of the Hardanger d’Amore fiddle with which you create such beautiful music? Can you discuss the choice of the album-title and the central narrative that you feel runs through the collection of songs? I feel the title serves the perfect embodiment to the resultant music contained on ‘Music For An Elliptical Orbit’. 

CÓR: That’s kind and generous in the extreme of you. I feel quite embarrassed by such a statement, and absolutely can’t imagine how anyone could think that, but graciously accept the compliment, too. Thank you! In terms of composition, I like to improvise, and record the improvisation, then review it and extract what I think has promise, be that extracting the finished recording, or extracting material with which to craft a performable piece of music. I  like to think about space, sound, texture, feel and effect on state of mind as opposed than notes, chords and musical ideas.

The Earth orbiting the Sun describes an ellipse, and traditional music is at the heart of my own elliptical orbit. Sometimes I’m very close to it, sometimes a little more distant, and this record feels like I’m a little further towards the outer edge of that trajectory. Winter, night-time, facing out.


‘Má Tá’ is my current favourite; a piece of music that elicits a full spectrum of human emotion. What are your memories of writing this particular piece, Caoimhín? I would love to know how much are these pieces of music improvisation-based or spontaneously created or is it a case of taking time for the music to naturally take flight where a piece of music will eventually bloom?

CÓR: A few years ago I had a three-month residency at the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris, and improvised every day for an hour or two in the beautiful chapel there. Má Tá popped out one day there, one of the very few “traditional tunes” that wrote themselves there for me. I loved the discipline of that residency, and the wonder of taking a blank sheet of time every single day, whether you felt like it or not, and painting sound onto it until something new and beautiful would pop out, which it inevitably would.


Please discuss the act of improvisation and the creative process involved? Already this year, you have made utterly transcendent music — borne from live improvisation and for live performance — with the likes of cellist Julia Kent in Cork and Bill Frisell as part of the Kilkenny Arts Festival, and Iceland’s Amiina sometime ago in Dublin, among many others. I can only imagine how special the feeling is when music created by a collaboration of this kind (and in this live context) ascends into the atmosphere. Is there a certain approach or path you seek when exploring sounds through live improvisation?

CÓR: The creative process for me begins with the desire to be at that point where things come into existence, the desire to start with a blank canvas and to not know what the first brush stroke will be, plus the ensuing reaction to that. Improvisation for me is being in the moment, reacting in that moment, being open to anything and everything, being willing to go wherever it is that you will be taken, relinquishing control, embracing chance. What I seek when playing live is a change in the state of mind in both myself and the listeners, more-so than following any musical ideas through. I’m drawn to less, to paring back and inviting space and silence into play, playing so quiet and so little that the silence becomes a magnifying glass for extraneous sound; for a while, at least, until something changes, until the balloon of sound wants something to inflate it again, fill up the room with notes that now sound big and bold and beautiful, after the quiet, and make you breathe in a different way, larger, after the whispers.



I must congratulate you on the phenomenal Laghdú record, which is the ground-breaking collaboration between you and Dan Trueman. I can’t begin to describe the sheer beauty and joy this album ceaselessly transmits. You and Dan must feel deeply proud of this gorgeous record. Please give me the background to Laghdu’s inception? When did you first cross paths with Dan? I feel this deep connection between you both with the music of ‘Laghdú’ casts its magnificent spell. Can you describe the musical connection that exists between you both, Caoimhín? It’s such a joy to witness each artist’s devoted instruments coalesce together, almost like an intangible symbiosis that gravitates between the soaring notes and masterful musicians. 

CÓR: I first met Dan in September 2000. He was the first person I ever saw play the hardanger fiddle, and that obviously has had a fairly monumental impact on where my music has gone since then. He had just brought out a record with his wife, Monica, called “Trollstilt”, which remains one of my favourite albums, and one I have listened to a very very large number of times. We started making music together in 2010-11, when Dan lived in Dublin for a year with his family. In addition to being a phenomenal composer and a frightening fiddler, Dan is also a computer music genius, and initially we toyed with various programmes, electronics and tools before deciding not to go down that particular rabbit hole, and instead focus solely on the pure joy of playing two fiddles together. While he was living in Dublin, Dan went to Norway to collect an instrument that had been made specifically for him by Salve Håkedal, a strange and beautiful 10-string version of the hardanger fiddle. It was the most beautiful instrument I’d ever had the privilege to play, and immediately asked Salve to make me one too — it’s the only instrument I play now, and I find it near-impossible to go back to playing anything else, such is the beauty of it. Equally special are the bows we play with, baroque and transitional bows from French bowmaker Michel Jamonneau. And though we have identical instruments and identical bows, the sound and music we both look for and get is really quite different to the other. Writing music with Dan is such a thrill, crafting things phrase by phrase, interlocked parts. And playing that music together is the most absolutely satisfying and rewarding experience, utterly thrilling and delightful.


Can you talk about the choice of the two traditional songs on Laghdu: ‘The Jack of Diamonds Three’ and ‘Fead an Iolair’ (the latter was also recorded in s different version for ‘Where The One Eyed Man Is King’)? What are your memories of first hearing and indeed playing these particular tunes?

CÓR: The Jack of Diamonds Three is a set of three tunes from three different traditions: an old-time American tune (Jack of Diamonds), an Irish tune (Garrett Barry’s) and a Norwegian (a mazurka from Vidar Lande). When Dan suggested Vidar’s, I immediately thought of Garrett Barry’s. They seemed to fit nicely together, and we liked the idea of a set of traditional tunes that represented all three countries from whose traditions we had been extracting DNA. Garrett Barry’s is a tune I associate with Willie Clancy, of course, as Garrett Barry was a huge influence on him, although I think I first learned it on the whistle and flute from Michael Tubridy as a teenager, who I was lucky enough to have as my teacher on those instruments for many years. And speaking of Michael Tubridy, his solo record from 1979 is called “The Eagle’s Whistle”, which is what “Fead an Iolair” translates as, and it is from Michael I learned that tune many years ago. I also associate it with Séamus Ennis, and particularly his playing of it on the “Feidhlim Tonn Ri’s Castle” LP, an epic story punctuated with a few scattered tunes. I love playing it with Dan, and in addition to it in its innocent and beautiful state, there’s also a much much darker version of it on the record, “Tuireamh na n-Iolar”. Gnarled, twisted and powerful.


‘What What What’ is one of those awe-inspiring pieces of music that never ceases to amaze. I love how this piece (and others too, of course) has mutated, transformed and evolved across various incarnations; belonging nicely on This Is How We Fly’s debut record, your newest solo work and again on Laghdú. As a musician and composer, it must be wonderful to witness a piece of music you wrote evolve and change depending on the context — space and time — in which you find yourself in. I wonder is this one of the endearing thrills of a musician as his/her work continues to explore new terrain? I would love for you to recount your memories of ‘What What What’ and the moment in time which this beautiful song came into glittering life? 

CÓR: I’ve always loved having recordings of the same person playing the same tune at different points in their life, seeing how it had evolved — different versions of the same thing by the same person. And I love the idea of letting a piece go where it wants depending on the people you’re playing with, too. As far as I remember, I wrote “What What What” down at the Baltimore Fiddle Fair in 2007 or 2008. I think I’d just heard Brittany Haas play the fiddle for the first time, and was totally blown away by what she was doing — I couldn’t understand her bowing, went back to where I was staying, took out the fiddle and tried to figure it out, but somehow this tune popped out instead. Brittany is a phenomenal fiddler, frightening, from a kind of old-time music background. Herself and Dan have a beautiful record out, too, of music they wrote together, called “Crisscross”.


It is very exciting to see your forthcoming solo Irish tour this Autumn which is based on your love of traditional music and its importance on you as a musician and person. Please discuss this special project and what other projects do you have in the pipeline, Caoimhín? As with any project you have been involved in, it is with a special sense of anticipation we await your next work of art. Thank you for the truly beautiful music you have crafted thus far and the very best wishes with all your future endeavours. 

CÓR: The project for the Music Network tour is a solo show I’m making. I’ve wanted to find a really satisfying way to perform a show solo that offers a bit more than just me on stage with only my fiddle. With this show, while it includes some sections of me playing totally solo, I’ve also got sections with live looping and some sections where I play with projected “virtual guests” — friends of mine who play or dance that I’ve made videos of. I love photography, and this is a way to integrate that into what I do, too. I’d be hoping that it becomes the way I play solo shows in the future, and that I’d be constantly making new little films and pieces, continually evolving new sections and enriching what I’ve already made.





‘Music For An Elliptical Orbit’ by Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh is available now on Diatribe Records (Buy HERE).

‘Laghdú’ by Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh & Dan Trueman is available now on (Buy HERE).



Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh’s “In My Mind”, a solo fiddle and film show, tours Ireland from 11—19 October 2014 courtesy of Music Network Ireland. Tour dates are as follows:

11 Oct   Regional Cultural Centre, Letterkenny
12 Oct   The Model, Sligo
13 Oct   Linenhall Arts Centre, Castlebar
14 Oct   Sugar Club, Dublin
15 Oct   Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray
16 Oct   Riverbank Arts Centre, Newbridge
17 Oct   Pavilion Theatre, Dun Laoghaire
18 Oct   Triskel Christchurch, Cork
19 Oct   Tipperary Excel Centre, Tipperary

For bookings and further information CLICK HERE.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: