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First Listen: Ensemble Ériu ‘Imbas’

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We often try to make very textured and rich music with minimal means.”

Jack Talty


Irish contemporary traditional seven-piece Ensemble Ériu release their second album “Imbas” via Ensemble Music and Raelach Records this month. The much-anticipated follow-up to the group’s much-celebrated 2013 debut self-titled album, “Imbas” (an Irish word connected with inspiration and creativity) draws from a diverse source of inspiration and source material, for example old Clare-based jigs and reels performed by musicians such as John Kelly, Bobby Casey and Willie Clancy, a song collected in Connemara by Seamus Ennis and a contemporary composition written by Peadar Ó Riada. Ensemble Ériu’s distinctive sound constantly express the band’s deep-rooted appreciation and love for both traditional music while the band simultaneously seek to furrow new and intriguing paths in contemporary music circles.

Ensemble Ériu consist of the following seven musicians: Matthew Berrill (clarinet and bass clarinet), Patrick Groenland (guitar), Matthew Jacobson (drums), Maeve O’Hara (marimba), Neil O’Loghlen (double bass and flute), Jeremy Spencer (fiddle) and Jack Talty (concertina).

‘Imbas’ is out now on Ensemble Music/Raelach Records (Order HERE).



Interview with Neil O’Loghlen & Jack Talty (Ensemble Ériu)

Congratulations on the stunning new album ‘Imbas’; a work of staggering beauty. On one hand the music is certainly steeped in tradition – and the plains of County Clare – but also a contemporary twist is forever inherent in these splendid compositions. Please recount for me the making of ‘Imbas’ and indeed the six compelling pieces that comprise this sophomore full-length?

Neil O’Loghlen: It started with the release of our last album in September 2013. I began writing new arrangements for the band to play live before our launch gigs for that album so some of the pieces on Imbas like ‘The Tempest’ we played for those launch gigs back in 2013. It was around then that we settled on the septet line up that we have now so the pieces on this album were written specifically for this ensemble of players. This gives it a different feel to the first album. Over the last 2 years or so either I alone or Jack and I together have written new arrangements for the live set, adding to it piece by piece, which brings us right up to before the recording session for Imbas with the arrangement for Micho Russell’s written a couple of weeks before hand.

After the release of the first album we were lucky enough to get many opportunities to play live so we had time to play and develop the arrangements and for everyone to get comfortable with them. By the time it came to record we found a room that had a nice sound and recorded live. We were just off a tour so everyone was very loose and easy with the music. The recording has a live feel to it which is what we wanted, a representation of what our gigs sound like. We were lucky enough to have Adrian Hart on board to engineer, he understands the music and knew exactly what we were looking for so it was pretty straight forward.

In much the same way as the band’s universally acclaimed debut full-length, it’s the rich instrumentation – and wide range of sounds dotted across the record – that evokes such a timeless sound. There is such a close dialogue with all the instrument parts, and aesthetically such a triumph too. Please discuss the space inside the music you create and the starting point(s) to arranging and performing these wonderfully varied traditional pieces?

Neil O’Loghlen: The starting point is always the melody we select to arrange, which can take time to find. It usually involves going through a lot of recordings of musicians that inspire us and have inspired the concepts of the band – John Kelly, Bobby Casey, Willie Clancy, Micho Russell to name a few.

As far as the arrangements go the starting point for each piece has taken a different course, for example with the West Clare Reel, Jack had a very clear idea of where he wanted the arrangement to go and the type of feel to be created so we just pieced it together and worked back from there. Some of the other arrangements like Micho Russell’s I used a simple phrase from the tune to build other material, variations on this phrase and tried to develop this over the whole piece. The Humours of Drinagh/Kilclogher and Goideadh do Ghe track was based on a rhythmic pattern which all the accompanying parts are built from. The basis of the Yellow Wattle arrangement is similar, a melodic motif drawn from the tune is the basis for variations which are then arranged for the instrumentation and developed throughout the piece.

Most of these arrangements take time to develop and the approach is quite involved, you’re really trying to get inside the tune and build from there. Obviously there is a lot of composition involved, writing melodic parts for the instruments and also coming up with an over arcing idea that is developed throughout. Creating a link between the tune, the combination of instruments and the written material is something I find exciting and challenging.

Jack Talty: Neil and I have been very much influenced by electroacoustic music, Minimalism, contemporary classical music and jazz but we certainly don’t see Ensemble Éiru as a fusion band. We simply came together to explore new ways of playing Irish Traditional music in a group context, equipped with training and ideas from other genres of music.

The opening section to the album opener, ‘The Tempest’ really is the perfect introductory note for such an eagerly awaited album. The marimba and concertina opening melody conjures up the sound of Steve Reich and Philip Glass and again re-enforces how adventurous your unique blend of traditional music is. What are your memories of this particular tune and indeed how you have developed playing this standard over the years?

Jack Talty: The tune was a favourite of Bobby Casey, a great Clare fiddler, and his music is a great source of inspiration for us. I think our blend of traditional music sounds unique because it is informed and inspired by very unique people. I think that people who may not be familiar with Irish traditional music may be surprised to learn that so much of what they may like about the Irish traditional music they hear today, is in fact also inherent to great straight-ahead interpretations of Irish traditional music. ‘The Tempest’ is one of our most straight-forward arrangements in that it is constructed with a number of relatively simple patterns that weave around the reel called ‘The Tempest’ that Jeremy and I play. For us, it’s the collective results that are important. Each person contributes to an overall soundworld and I guess that’s where we are drawing on the world of Minimalism. We often try to make very textured and rich music with minimal means.

Neil O’Loghlen: I came across this tune on a Bobby Casey recording. It’s quite well-known although when I heard this recording i was struck by the version of the melody he had. I thought immediately it would lend itself well to an arrangement. The tune pointed the way for the arrangement really, the way it has unexpected turns and a sort of undefined root or grounding. To me it floats along with no expected phrases or cadences so I explored that in the arrangement with certain harmonic ideas and repetitive phrases. Harmony, for me, or the harmony we are used to hearing in the western world, doesn’t sit comfortably in Irish traditional music, actually to me it has no place in it really. Instead of chord progressions placed underneath the melody of the tune i used a intervallic structure (stacked fifth’s) dispersed out between the double bass, marimba and clarinet which can’t really be used in a functional setting with the tune and in turn has a more coloristic effect on it. I often reference a quote of John Cage when thinking about this – ‘Freed from structural responsibility, harmony becomes a formal element (serves expression).

The original arrangement was written for more instruments, this was before we settled on the septet, so there was a bass clarinet part and some string parts too. Then when we started playing the arrangement as a septet without these additional parts it gave everyone a little more space, gradually as we played it more and more it became more embellished by the musicians and the result is quite an interactive setting of the tune between all the instruments. The open, free element to the arrangement ties in with the spirit of jazz music and that tradition. Steve Reich’s music certainly had an effect on me when I was first exposed to it, in particular ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ and ‘Music for mallet instruments, voices and organ’. Some of his other compositions haven’t spoken to me much really and Philip Glass is a composer I’m not very familiar with.

How significant is the act/art of improvisation in your playing? In terms of the recording sessions for ‘Imba’, would all the phrases have been mapped out completely prior to recording to tape? I can imagine playing live shows over the last three or so years also helped shape the album itself?

Neil O’Loghlen: Yes, all the parts for all of the arrangements are written except in two cases – the concertina solo during the bridge or middle section in the Yellow Wattle and the clarinet solo during the section which links the Humours of Kilclogher with Goideadh do Ghe. In both cases Jack and Matthew were free to improvise using the language of the melody and accompanying parts. i think in both cases the results are quite beautiful.

The accompanying parts and the arrangements as a whole are written and conceptualised beforehand. Then we workshop the arrangement, try it out on gigs and as the musicians become familiar with their parts and the piece as a whole their input becomes more personal. It’s the same way Jack and Jeremy approach the playing of the tune, its internalised first and then their own personality is applied. I feel very fortunate we have such sympathetic musicians in the band who are able to balance playing the written music with embellishing and interacting with the space that is created inside the tune.

Please discuss for me your musical upbringing and the traditional musicians that inspired you the most?

Neil O’Loghlen: Although my father was quite musical and could sing well, he didn’t play an instrument so we didn’t have much music going on in our house. It wasn’t until around 2nd class in primary school and my teacher Denis Liddy, who was a fiddle player, made everyone learn the tin whistle (I can still remember the first lesson and impression it made on me) He was my first inspiration musically, over the years after that I learnt a lot from him, he always recommended music and players to check out and I learnt about the tradition from him. He taught/managed a band which competed at competitions, toured and played together. This is where i met Jack and we began playing together, sharing music and ideas, i think we were about 15. It’s where the first seeds of Ensemble Ériu were sown, we were very interested in ensemble playing in the tradition and always listening to different bands and the approaches that were being used. At a certain stage later I became more and more interested in solo and duet playing. Bobby Casey’s solo fiddle album Taking Flight and Tony Mac Mahon’s first solo recording ‘Traditional Irish Accordion’ made a huge impression on me and still do. Also, Noel Hill and Tony MacMahon’s duet recordings are very important to me. To me their music has such feeling, a deep, poetic and spiritual feeling for the music but without the emotional content – this is truly inspiring to me.

It’s a truly wonderful time for Irish music and also traditional Irish music with the likes of The Gloaming and many others receiving deserved recognition from all corners of the globe. It must be a lovely feeling to be releasing music in this moment in time and knowing there is such a cross-over of audiences out there, particularly today?

Jack Talty: Absolutely. Irish Traditional is pretty popular globally, but I guess that we will remember this period in our Arts history as a time when Irish traditional music has resonated with people who thought they didn’t like it. The Gloaming have been instrumental in this. Irish Traditional music has been mediated in completely new ways as a result of The Gloaming. I’m also glad that straight-ahead traditional music is opening new ears all over the globe too. It’s bizarre to travel to give a workshop in Germany or wherever and speak about Elizabeth Crotty to an audience who know exactly what you are talking about.


‘Imbas’ is out now on Ensemble Music/Raelach Records (Order HERE).


Written by admin

June 21, 2016 at 2:08 pm

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