Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill charm Boston

A review of Martin Hayes & Dennis Cahil at Berklee College of Music on October 9, 2010

, Contributing Writer

Eloquence may be as much a product of what one leaves out as what one puts in. By either measure, Martin Hayes is one of the most eloquent fiddlers in the Irish tradition performing today. Hayes, in conjunction with his long-time touring partner Dennis Cahill, has created a uniquely personal voice in his playing, one rooted firmly in the music of his native County Clare but not derivative of that tradition. Spare and evocative, his playing encompasses a dramatic touch and a musical sensitivity rare in this or any music. All of this was on display at the duo’s recent concert at Berklee College of Music’s David Friend Recital Hall, where they played two sets to appreciative audiences including some well-regarded local musicians.

A concert by Hayes and Cahill is never surprising in its overall form. The tunes follow a consistent pattern, one fixed not in traditional playing practice but rather one established by habit and solidified into a form. This form is simple: as in the ordinary practice of traditional music, the pair play sets of tunes, usually a string of reels or jigs, with occasional hornpipes or slow airs. The set starts off with a tune played in a stark, sparse setting, usually on the unaccompanied fiddle, with the phrases firmly detached from each other and a free accent that belies the firm underlying meter. The tone of the fiddle is keening, reminiscent of the pipes, and like a piper, Hayes makes use of artfully flat notes to heighten the tension. When the tune is established in this fashion, the guitar enters with a simple figure, often a single chord played on the downbeats as Hayes beats time with his feet. (He can’t help it, he says, and it makes an excellent rhythmic frame for the music). The tune begins to pick up its pace: Hayes adds more decoration, more intricate variations, and ties the phrases together, reinterpreting the tune all the while. This development proceeds through the tunes in the set, picking up energy as Hayes leans ever forward on the beat until the pair seem to be working in a frenzy, Hayes’ slightly disreputable hair flying about his face and his bow whipping across the strings, and finally the music reaches the fever pitch it’s been aiming at from the beginning, and resolves into a silence. A pause, a few words from Hayes (Cahill is generally silent on stage, the Penn to his partner’s Teller) and another set of tunes.

In all of this, Cahill is the stolid center. His rhythm is rock-steady, and his introduction of subtlety into the Irish accompanist’s lexicon is much to be commended, and hopefully, followed. Playing almost exclusively on a nylon-strung guitar, he provided not so much a harmonic structure as a wash of color on Hayes’ canvas. The only exception was his one excursion into the mandolin, an odd decision which failed to thrive, for predictable reasons. Playing the mandolin in Irish music is a losing proposition: when there is a good player of any other instrument in the room, even a brilliant mandolin player will sound mediocre at best, superfluous at worst. Mr. Cahill is a brilliant mandolin player, but he’d do well to stick with the guitar when performing with Mr. Hayes.

This format has been the duo’s performing practice for two decades of working together, and they have it down to a science. They have no dancing, no singing, and one trick. The drama of the performance, then, is purely in the artistry of Hayes’ fiddling and the solid accompaniment of Cahill’s guitar: figure and ground, perfectly matched. More precisely, the drama of the performance is in the musicality of Hayes and Cahill. The two men are masters of restraint, and this restraint is what they use to create a thrilling tension throughout a performance. Although Hayes has as much technique as any player and more than most, this is not an athletic performance of stunning feats on the fiddle. Instead, this is a concert of ideas. Everything Hayes does seems to go further into the tune than he’d gone before, and no piece of a tune stands unrelated to any other. More than any other, Hayes gives dimension to a tune, and he does it over and over again. The old Turloch Carolan composition “Carolan’s Farewell to Music” was played as a baroque showpiece, with all of the implications of its deceptively simple air exposed through the simple technique of repetition with variation: stacking implied harmonies on top of each other, breaking phrases to imply yet more implicit harmonic movement, until the tune seems to disappear into clouds of unheard chords – and then it reappears, always present, always simple.

All of this depends crucially on the restraint and focus both men bring to the tunes. Concert fiddlers typically play a lot – they’ve got chops, and they use them. This can turn into music as sport, and it’s great to watch – the grace of Kevin Burke, the muscular triplets of Tommy Peoples, the sheer breakneck speed of Frankie Gavin are all to be admired as much and for the same reasons as a beautiful slam dunk, a precise jab in the boxing ring, or a sprinter’s effortlessly impossible pace. But Hayes is a different sort of musician: instead of putting it all in, every time, he played his cards one at a time, and let the ideas shine out above the tricks. Nowhere was this more apparent than at the end of the night. Short of time, needing to quit the hall, but feeling that the audience were owed an encore, he played the reel “My Love Is In America”, a dead simple little tune, a session standard. He played the tune perhaps half a dozen times through, and each time he reconceived the tune around a different idea. Each time, this simple little tune was perfectly realized, in a whole new way, and that is the art of Martin Hayes.

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