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Martin Hayes: Nowadays
Mar 03, 2009

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Martin Hayes: Nowadays
Mary Larsen
Martin Hayes graced the cover of Fiddler Magazine’s very first issue back in the spring of 1994. Since that first interview, Martin has recorded four more albums and has received numerous awards for his musicianship. The Irish Sunday Tribune called him one of the hundred most influential Irish men and women in the fields of entertainment, politics, and sports in the year 2000, as well as one of the most important musicians to come out of Ireland in the last fifty years. He was named Folk Instrumentalist of the Year by BBC Radio, received a National Entertainment Award (the Irish equivalent of a Grammy), and in 2008 was awarded the prestigious Gradam Ceoil, Musician of the Year 2008 from the Irish language television station TG 4.

I wanted to catch up with Martin for our 15th anniversary issue, to talk some more about his ideas on traditional music and about his musical life nowadays. But first, a brief look back…

Born into a musical family in East County Clare, Ireland, Martin was given his first fiddle at age seven; by the age of nineteen he had won six All-Ireland fiddle championships. He played for several years with the famous Tulla Ceilidh Band, led by his father P.J. Hayes. In the 1980s, Martin moved to Chicago, where he played with guitarist Dennis Cahill in a jazz/rock/fusion band called Midnight Court. After subsequent years of acclaimed solo work, the two reunited and continue to record and perform together today. Their latest CD is Welcome Here Again, on whichHayes and Cahill play tunes mostly one at a time, rather than in medleys, exploring the nuances and showcasing the beauty of the individual melodies.

How do you think your music has changed over the past fifteen years? Your albums have all had their own individual flavors, but do you think your style has changed at all? Or your technique?

I think that some basic elements such as tone, intonation, and rhythm –– I may have improved in those areas; but the quest largely remains the same as it always has –– which is basically an attempt to get to the heart of the melody and to unearth the feeling and emotion that is often latent in the melody. I’ve never spent a lot of time thinking about technique. I more or less expect it to develop to accomplish whatever ideas I have for the melody, and these ideas for the melody emerge as part of an effort to get into that world of feeling.

I think a common artistic mistake is the continual quest to perfect the craft itself. The ultimate possibility of art is the achievement of moments of transcendance. In the case of music you could argue that no real advance can be made; you can only hope to visit and revisit the wellspring of emotion and inspiration. Access to these things isn’t always dependent on progress in your craft. They can’t be achieved without your craft and craft alone cannot create them. You need trust and faith in the subjective feelings that the music generates. There is no accumulation of technique and ability that you can rely on. Each moment of music is its own and you have to be open to its possibilities. These moments can arise at various levels of technical ability. The muse is very democratic. On some level I’ve always known that it is not about becoming a better fiddler in a technical sense. I think it’s more about learning to be more receptive and open to that magical moment we long for. These moments are the music; everything else is the dance leading up to that point.

Your latest album with Dennis Cahill, Welcome Here Again, revives the tradition of showcasing one tune at a time, rather than in medleys of several tunes. Do you tend to work out variations before a concert or recording, or do they happen spontaneously?

All the variations occur spontaneously at one time or another and if they’re good, I keep them, and sometimes when we go on stage, new variations occur and sometimes they don’t. The melody can therefore grow and develop over a period of time with the gradual accumulation of variations, and then, it kind of reaches a set point where it may need to be retired for awhile. So the answer is that sometimes going on stage, we have a lot of variations that are already in the bag but the possibility always remains for new ones to arise. Much of our effort goes toward trying to get into that space where those improvisations and variations can occur. With regard to recording, it greatly depends on whether the tune is new to us or whether we’ve been playing it a long time. That would determine the level of variation and development the melody would undergo in the recording. In the most recent album, on average, I found that two to three takes of me playing the fiddle is about as useful as I can get, so whatever happens in those two or three renditions is what I end up with. I’m not really good at organizing all the details ahead of time. I don’t even like to know how many times I’m going to play a tune when I sit down and record.

How do you choose the tunes you record? Do you keep a list of favorites over the years –– things that caught your ear or ones that you’ve played that worked especially well? Have you occasionally been surprised by things working better or worse than you anticipated?

I wish I was that organized. It’s a more whimsical process where I just deal with the tunes that come to mind. They are tunes that have been pre-selected. I am only drawn to melodies that speak to me on some emotional level. I am also curious to discover melodies that have not been fully revealed. In other words, I am often looking for a latent beauty that has been overlooked as a result of over-familiarity. I do have a store of tunes from my early teenage years that I still go back to. I collect a lot of recordings every year, especially when I’m in Ireland, and sometimes I hear wonderful tunes. If I have the time and energy, I might sift through manuscripts, although I am a terrible sight reader.

In our first interview in 1994, you talked about the evolution of traditional music, and regional styles dying out and a homo-genized style developing. Have you seen any changes in this regard since then? Are you seeing more individual expression in other players’ music these days? Do you still feel there’s not much hope for regional styles to continue on (naturally vs. artificially)?

I still believe that the trend largely is moving away from regional styles. However, I think that those regional styles have become a source or wellspring from which a new generation of younger musicians has been able to draw inspiration and creative ideas. People like Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, Oisín Mac Diarmada, Liz Kane have all drawn various elements from regional styles and fused them in their own creative way to develop unique approaches. So I feel like my thoughts about that in our previous interview seem to be happening now.

What are your musical plans for the short term? And the long term?

My short term plans are very short term. When I put my fiddle to my chin each time, I want it to be the best I’ve ever played. In the long range, I imagine myself being able to mine the tunes in deeper ways and to be able to build richer and more complex variations, all of which would hopefully make the feelings and mood of the melodies even more vivid. Something that I’ve been doing in the past few years is taking on some projects that are not related entirely to traditional music –– something that will push me out of my comfort zone and challenge me. I’ve done music for modern dance; I’ve done collaborations with the jazz guitarist Bill Frisell; performed commissioned pieces by the Irish composer David Flynn. In the future, I have some plans to do another composition with David Flynn with the RTE Symphony Orchestra, and maybe some concerts with Darol Anger and Mike Marshall; maybe some with Väsen. Also a collaboration with the string quartet Brooklyn Rider. This is the quartet that forms the classical music core of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project. My plan is to do at least one project every year that challenges me and I do it without fear or concern for how it will be received.

Are you still playing the same fiddle you were playing fifteen years ago, the one that you had found in your father’s attic?

I still have my father’s fiddle but I’ve been playing a different fiddle for the past five years. It’s one that I picked up at Peter Seman’s violin store in Chicago. I walked in, picked it up, played it, and couldn’t put it down. I haven’t put it down since.


[For the full text of this interview, as well as a transcription of the tune “P. Joe’s Reel,” purchase the Spring 2009 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]

Photo by Derek Speirs