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Maurice Lennon: On Playing and Purpose
Caoimhin Mac Aoidh
2020-07-28
Maurice Lennon is rightly regarded as one of the seminal traditional Irish fiddlers of his generation. Having spent some childhood years in Limerick City, Cork City, and Donegal Town due to his father’s work, the family settled back in his parents’ native area of north County Leitrim. His fiddle playing is deeply rooted in the style of that area and has been very much influenced by the playing of his father, Ben Lennon. Though most popularly known through his many years of band work, his much less well known solo playing has been remarkable since his early teens. Maurice is also an accomplished and prolific composer. He has recently relocated to the La Rochelle area of France, where he plays, composes, and records. He is currently working on two major projects.

While on a rare visit home, we were able to meet up again as near neighbours and share some tunes which we played together many years ago while sharing a flat in Galway City. In the course of playing, I was reminded of his extraordinary musical instinct. We took a break from fiddle duets when he asked me to take out my marvellous Martin McIntyre Bb set of uilleann pipes for a few tunes. I began playing a jig and to my astonishment, Maurice immediately chimed in playing the tune, which is normally set in D, by transposing it in the instant to Bb. When I went into a second jig set in G, he again chimed in through instant transposing before the first measure was finished!

When we took a break from playing, we had the following chat.

I understand that there are some things you want to talk about.

Yes indeed. It’s fortuitous and serendipitous that we meet again at this time in my life. There are a few things I’d like to speak about in relation to the fiddle, the music that I perform, and to the music that I compose. Music has been with me all my life. It’s funny: As I was sitting at home with my father, who has reel to reel tapes, he found one with a section of me that he had recorded in 1961, when I was 2 1/2 years old, and I’m lilting “The Grey Goose,” one of the all-time classic jigs. But really, when I was growing up I didn’t like traditional Irish music at all. It was my mam who was really responsible for me taking up what was then music for the violin.

I played classical music from the age of 7 to 12. I got lessons in Limerick City and Cork City. There was a woman, Mrs. Hudson. She was my first teacher and she was brilliant. She got me on the right road. She was particularly good with the bow hold and acquiring a tone. She was more concerned with the tone of the instrument than any note I might make with my left hand. So the majority of the work was concentrated on my right hand for the first two years I suppose. The quality of my tone goes all the way back to when I was 7 or 8.

We then moved to Cork, where I had a lovely teacher named Reenie Lane who I attended for about three years. I became a member of the Cork City Youth Orchestra. She left the School of Music to start a family and we got a new teacher who came over from Italy. He was a 78-year-old man. I didn’t get on with him; so much so that he gave me a piece of music once to bring home – I was to bring it back the next week. Myself and my brothers used to play rugby in the city. Somehow, this piece of music became part of the rugby ball and got destroyed. I couldn’t face going back to the teacher to tell him that this piece of music he had written out for me was gone. My mam used to [drop me off at] the school every week and I used to go in and sit in the toilet. I sat in the toilet for six weeks. On the seventh week my mam came in to pay the fees and decided to call up to the teacher to see how I was getting along, only to be told, “…I haven’t seen him for six weeks!” Needless to say, she wasn’t too pleased.

I was in the Cork City Youth Orchestra, and it’s a funny thing, this – this same teacher was conducting a piece of music in the Cork City Hall for Christmas. I was sitting with the first violins and the concert began. We were about a minute into the music and he stopped the whole thing and he pointed to me and said, “First violins, you know who you are. Your bow is going in the wrong direction. We will go back to the beginning now. Get it together, please.” That night I put the fiddle away and I didn’t take it out for three years. When I took it out again, we had moved to Donegal Town and there were no violin teachers there at that time. So my father decided maybe I’d like traditional music and he started to teach me some Turlough Carolan pieces like “Tabhair Dom Do Lamh” and “Planxty Irwin.” Then I just really kind of took off on my own from there.

At that time, I was highly influenced by a friend of my dad’s when he was growing up. That man was from nearby County Fermanagh – a fantastic fiddle player called John Gordon. Yes, my dad was a big influence on me but in terms of listening to music, John Gordon was single-handedly the king and I always wanted to emulate what he did on the fiddle. At that time, John had been influenced by the Sligo fiddlers like Coleman, Morrison, and Killoran. This was before John was influenced by Sean McGuire. At that time, he had been influenced by Scottish music as well. That’s interesting because I think that’s what drew me to John’s sound. I compose a lot of music and it has been said to me that my music has a certain Scottish feel to it. Not necessarily in reels and jigs, but the slower pieces. There’s a kind of Scottish plaintiveness to the music…. I was connected to Scottish music in some way, though I didn’t know it at the time. John Gordon was important, along with my father, obviously. I knew my father was a good player but I didn’t want to focus on my dad because I didn’t want to become another Ben Lennon. I wanted to have my own musical identity.

I went off to boarding school in Sligo Town at the age of 15, having started back on the violin at the age of 13. I managed to get the key of the music room from a kind priest and I used to play hours each day there. There was a musical stage production in the school on about the life of the songwriter Percy French called “The Golden Years” and I was chosen for the lead role to play Percy French as a singer. I used to love to sing. It ran for five nights and there were some difficult things about it. I had to learn 13 songs, never having learned lyrics before. There was a small orchestra and my role demanded coordinated movements. I also had to kiss one of the teachers, which was a really tough gig! I was in the middle of the song “Are You Right There Michael, Are You Right?” I was sitting in a train carriage and there were movements involved. I was in the middle of the song, and all of a sudden I realised I couldn’t remember the next verse. The conductor of the orchestra saw the panic in my face and said, “Keep going.” I had to finish it at a certain spot on the stage and on a certain word. So what did I do? I whistled the last verse as loud as I could to the back of the hall. I could hear the lads in the back cheering and roaring. They knew something was up. From that day forward I had great respect from my colleagues in boarding school, having been nobody up to that point.

I started playing music there all the time. We had a little band, Seoda [Jewels]. My brother Brian was playing tin whistle at the time and he used to play a lot with me in the band. When I left boarding school, I came back to County Leitrim for a year and played more music there. I got to really understand the music because I was in my home place. Not long afterwards, I won the All Ireland Senior Fiddle Competition in 1977.

From that point onward you were in deep water musically.

I was. One of my first loves, apart from playing traditional music, was backing singers. My paternal grandmother was a very good musician. She was a piano player and, like my uncle, Charlie Lennon, would be known to people as one of the finest backers of traditional music that can be found anywhere. She loved backing songs. I picked up the harmonies from her and I found I was pretty good with harmonies. When the band Stockton’s Wing was formed and the arrangements started, well sure, I was in heaven. That was perfect for me. On the strength of that experience was written the likes of “The Belltable Waltz,” which I wrote with Kieran Hanrahan. I joined Stockton’s Wing in early 1978 and I’ve been a professional musician ever since.

Having spent so long as a band musician, the wider public really don’t know you as a solo musician. There’s no safety net as a solo player, so as you perform now, the stakes are much higher.

If I was to be truthful about that, the reason I never pushed myself out there as a soloist was fear. I used to get very nervous before I’d perform with the band, to the point where I would ask myself, “Can I do this?” Pure stage fright. I used to hide and disguise it extremely well. It wasn’t fear of failure but fear of judgement which prevented me from expressing myself properly. In the last number of years, having survived cancer, Gorlin syndrome, I’m dealing with new cancer issues all the time. Having survived two major facial reconstructions, I’ve begun to realise I have nothing to be afraid of. I realise there is a purpose for me being here and that I just hadn’t previously found it. As regards musical purpose, it was not to be secondary to other artists, but to be who I am and let people hear and see who I am and not to fear judgement at all.

This is why talking about things now is important to me. There is an honesty in me and a truth in everything I say today that I know I can stand by. Now it’s not going to suit everybody, but I know I’m not afraid of being judged anymore. When you feel like that in your life, then that transfers to your music. Am I fearful about my illness? Of course I am, but I don’t let fear get in on me like I used to.

One thing that was important in the early part of your career was winning the All Ireland Senior Fiddle Competition.

Yes, in fact, I only competed at senior level for one year and even then, winning the All Ireland was against the odds. There were people who didn’t like the style of music that I was trying to put across at that time. I was a bit of a rebel I suppose in a way. I was full of youthful exuberance. My thoughts on competitions have changed, however, over the years. When I won, they were very different times. Looking at it in retrospect, competition possibly then, and even today, is pointless. I heard the comment by the famous composer and pianist, Béla Bartók, in relation to competition. He said, “Competitions are for horses, not artists.” That makes complete sense to me because in the world of the arts, everything is in the eye or ear of the beholder. Because if the beholder doesn’t like what they are experiencing, it doesn’t make it any better or any worse than the next artist, but he just happens to like the next person.  

A visual arts adjudicator might think, “I like the painting beside the one I don’t like, so that’s the one that’s going to win.” It’s the same thing with the ear. They might think, “I don’t like what I hear, but I like the next person because that’s what I’m used to, or perhaps I have a preference for that style of playing.” What I do say to young people who go in for competitions is that if you lose, it’s more than likely, nine times out of 10, because the  adjudicator doesn’t like your style, as opposed to your gift. It has nothing to do with your ability. Competitions are good in one sense, but it’s the win at all costs that bothers me. Funny enough, a lot of the times, it’s not the competitor – it’s the parents. The competitor often feels they let the parents down if they get nervous, or that they freeze in the moment, or they play a wrong note or they’re out of tune. 
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You have enough of a repertoire to get along without composing tunes. What is it that attracts you to it, or why do you feel a need to compose? Are you happy with the results?

In general, yes. The reason I’m happy is because the feedback is that I must be doing something right. My music has made its way into the tradition largely unknown to me. I walked into a session in New York about six years ago. There were about 20 musicians playing there. I was at the counter and all of a sudden I hear one of my tunes. The players hadn’t a clue who I was. It was “The Road to Garrison” that they were playing. One of them came up to me at the end and was talking about music. “The Road to Garrison” was the last tune of the night that they finished the session with. Just as the last few notes of that tune sounded, someone said, “Ah now lads, you can’t beat the old ones.” I knew when I heard that my tunes sound old – that’s why they’re living in the tradition. They’re not kind of there for a year and then they’re gone. It takes 10 years for a tune I write to find its way into the tradition. If I write a tune today, it may not surface within the tradition for a decade. I’m living in France presently. In the sessions there, people – without knowing who I am – play my tunes. I’ve heard four, maybe five, tunes of mine played in a session on a regular basis.

For me, the inspiration for composition comes from beyond me. I’m a very firm believer that when it comes to composing music, I’m just a messenger taking a message that is out there in the ether and coming to me and I’m just passing it on. That could be a joyfulness. It could be a sadness. But it will always have hopefulness. I’m very fortunate in that sense. When I write music, I don’t write it in sections. An idea for a certain series of notes will come to me. In the first minute and a half, I’ll formulate those notes in my head and see what ones will work out. By the time I get to the third minute, the tune is formed. Then I just play it twice onto a dictaphone. Then the last two minutes are the full tune. I don’t listen to say, “Well, that’s a bit like some tune or that’s too much like another tune.” If I’m listening back, and if I feel that it’s a bit similar to something else, then I’ll say, “Well, I’ll just put it aside.”

Since I’ve found a personal freedom in being a solo performer, and I have, I’ve written maybe 100 pieces of music in the past two to three years. They’re all there backed up on a computer. Everyone says, “Why don’t you do a book?” I’m not suggesting that anyone who does a collection that it’s about them. For me, the music is very deeply personal. It’s as though I don’t own the music anymore. I let it go. I don’t own it. It’s everybody’s. I don’t mind people sharing my music. The only thing I don’t like is if someone uses one of my tunes, which they know to be mine, and doesn’t give me the courtesy of saying, “This is one of Maurice Lennon’s tunes.” That’s rude. If people ask me can they use one of my tunes for a commercial reason, I would immediately say yes. It doesn’t matter who it is. It has happened that people have taken some of my tunes and called them something else. Even when that happens, I’ve found in my life today that forgiveness is everything. I can’t hold grudges against people no matter what they do, because if I do, I will suffer. The music I write comes from my life experiences. It comes from the joy, the suffering, the anger, the pain. My best music comes from all those places.

Your process seems very spiritual and not simply melodic. It’s not simple sonic storytelling.

It is spiritual. People say to me, “You’re very religious.” I was religious once. When I was 18, I wanted to be a priest. Now I have four children, so I’m glad I wasn’t. That wouldn’t have worked out very well! [laughing] When people say that to me, I realise I’m more spiritual than religious. I believe that there is a “creator.” Love is everything to me. Even to the point of loving those who don’t like me. That doesn’t mean I’m going to throw my arms around them. I suppose what I mean is I try to find the light that exists in all of us. I look for that in life and it comes out in the music. That light comes out in me even though I’m not aware of it. I don’t write with my mind. I write with my soul.   

You’ve grown up with the music and you have a great respect for the tradition and the melodic lines with all the history and stories they carry.

I have a tremendous respect for the tradition. I get troubled today when I hear a player say, “This is a version of such and such a tune.” Often times what I then hear is a version that is so far away from the original melody that was written or performed by the greats of the older generation. It troubles me. I would understand if that happened 50 years ago because all they had was a gramophone and their memory of what they heard. They’d bring the memory home and play what they thought they heard. It mightn’t be quite what it was, but it would be close enough and still respectful of the music and the performance they heard. Today, the notation is accessible to them from O’Neill’s collections or whatever. It troubles me when I hear versions that are so far removed from what the composer wrote or what has become deeply rooted in the tradition. If you have a piece of music by Mozart, you don’t come along with a version of Mozart, or announce, “Here’s a version of something that Beethoven wrote”! You don’t do that because you respect the composition.

You’ve also been involved in photography and writing poetry. I’ve seen your multimedia performance. Do you plan to incorporate poetry into your recordings, and are you thinking about more performances of the multimedia work?

On the trio album, I’m reading one of my own pieces of poetry over my own music. That’s the kind of project I’d love to do after I finish my solo album. I am looking ahead at bringing out all the aspects of what I do in one place. My grandfather used to have a great saying: “Everything will happen all in its own good time.” That time is not here yet, but I’m hoping that time will come for me. I’ve gotten good reactions to what I write. It’s not for everybody, but what is? It’s very personal to me. Like my tunes, there’s a message in the poetry also. In a sense, I’m just a messenger. How people interpret that message is not up to me. A lot of artists and creators, the successful ones, tend to be humble enough people, so the works are not really about me. I’m not saying that about myself, but others say it about me. There might be some truth in it, but I don’t allow myself to think about that. Never believe your own PR.

You’ve clearly had a lot to deal with in recent years and you still remain extremely busy. You must have had some people who have been of great support in challenging times.

I’ve received a great deal of support from various people and groups of friends. There were also those who supported me in the music world, and one person was certainly Finbar Furey. When my cancer was first discovered, I had eight surgeries on my face and I was four months in hospital. I literally looked like the Elephant Man, and that is not an exaggeration. I was at my lowest ebb when Finbar came in to see me in St. James’ hospital in Dublin. I thought I could never walk on a stage again because looks and appearance can matter on a stage. So Finbar comes in to see me and says, “Ah, how’s it going?” “Not great Finbar,” I said. “I’ve seen worse after a fight in Ballyfermot!” said Finbar, and we both were roaring our heads off laughing. This is the essence of the man and what a kind person he is. We’re best friends. I worked with him for nearly five years. We’re like brothers rather than work colleagues. When I was still recovering in the month of April, he told me he was doing a 30-day tour of the UK in November and he said, “I’d like you to come with me.” Musically, I had nothing under those circumstances and he knew that this would give me the will to fight my way back. I said, “No, Finbar, there’s no way I can walk on a stage with you and with a face like this.” He looked at me and he said, “Ah listen, I don’t want you for your effing face. I just want you for your heart and your music.” That gave me the will to walk back on a stage again and I did the tour. That statement from Finbar single-handedly changed everything for me. He’s one person I’ll be indebted to forever for those comments and fidelity with me at exactly the time when it was needed most.

[For the full text of this interview, as well as a transcription of Maurice's tune "The Stone of Destiny," purchase the Summer 2020 issue of Fiddler Magazine."]

[Caoimhín Mac Aoidh is the author of “Between the Jigs and Reels: The Donegal Fiddle Tradition,” “The Scribe, The Life and Works of James O’Neill,” “From Mazovia to Meenbanad – The Donegal Mazurkas,” and “From Dunkeld to Dunkineely – The Highlands and Strathspeys of Donegal” (avail. from ceoteo.net). He is a founding member of Cairdeas na bhFidleiri. He is the founder of World Fiddle Day (worldfiddleday.com).]

Photo: Robert Singer