Matt Cranitch is something of a renaissance man in the realm of Irish traditional music: player, scholar, exponent, teacher, writer. With a long history of tunes under his belt, having played with Na Filí, Any Old Time, and currently Sliabh Notes, Matt is also the author of The Irish Fiddle Book, one of the most useful and comprehensive instructional texts available to beginning students of the music. It was that book that got me on the right path with my bowing after some initial misadventures, and that I recommend to all of my serious students now. It's a rare combination -- someone who's able to both play the music with great skill and swing, and someone who's able to analyze as a scholar.
A Senior Research Scholar for the past year, with support from the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences, Matt is at work on a dissertation looking at the music of his beloved Sliabh Luachra in greater detail. We met at his home in County Cork on a lovely afternoon this past winter.
Matt Cranitch: I grew up in the little village of Rathduff in County Cork, midway between Cork City and Mallow. Both my parents were teachers and taught in the local primary school, or national school, so they taught me at some stage. My father Mícheál played the accordion and the fiddle and sang a bit as well. My mother Kathleen sang. And my grandfather on my father's side, whose name was also Matt, was a melodeon player and a stepdancer. Now I never remember him playing, as he died when I was too young, but certainly I was aware that this was the case. When I was maybe seven my parents got me a fiddle and the plan was that my father would teach me. But the lessons tended to take the form that he'd play the fiddle and have me sit down and listen to him; so they decided to send me to the Cork School of Music instead. I went there when I was eight to learn what's called classical violin, and I continued with that and playing traditional music at home, both those activities in parallel. By my mid-teens I opted for the traditional playing and gave up the classical lessons. So that would have been my early development.
In your mid-teens, were there other young people opting for traditional music?
I should tell you my parents decided when they would get married and raise a family that they were going to speak Gaelic, so I grew up speaking Gaelic as my first language. We were the only house for miles that spoke Gaelic and English was my second language -- though when I went to school I suppose it became the dominant language. At that stage it's fair to say that there weren't many people around us that played music. I can think of one family in the parish who did play music -- a slightly different style of music I suppose, but outside of that we would have to travel into Cork city to encounter anybody else. We were kind of isolated in that we lived in a farm community in the countryside, so I didn't have other youth of my own age around me, playing.
Usually when you're a young fellow you want to be off playing hurling with the other lads. What was it that made you opt for the traditional tunes?
Well, I played hurling, too, with my friends. Even now I find it difficult to explain what the attraction is, but certainly at that stage we were drawn very much to the music. There's also the fact, even though we tend to forget about it, that our parents made sure that we practiced and there was discipline in our lives from that point of view. The music has rubbed off on all the family -- I have a sister in Italy who's a violinist, I have a sister here in Cork who plays piano primarily, but fiddle as well, and I have a brother who plays the tin whistle, the flute and church organ. All of us had music lessons when we were young, and we've all continued to play.
Where did you take it then, when you decided to focus on traditional music?
Like many other people, we went to the Fleadhanna Cheoil and competed in the various competitions. We had a family band; my father and the four of us playing. We used to compete and play at local school concerts and events like that. When I did my leaving certificate I went to University College Cork to study electrical engineering, but while that was going on I was playing, both in UCC and in various groups. It was while I was in college that I met Tomás Ó Canainn, who was teaching in the department of electrical engineering, and it was there that Na Filí were formed in 1969, with initially Raymond O'Shea on tin whistle. He left after a year or so, and then Tom Barry took his place. While all that was going on, I finished my engineering studies, but I decided to go back to college and study music, so I took a music degree. At that stage I was starting to develop an interest in indigenous styles of music. Up to then, I suppose, we were all playing the music that we heard at the Fleadhanna Cheoil and listening to the radio; Sean Maguire and Paddy Canny and the Tulla Ceili Band and whatever else was on the radio -- Ciarán Mac Mathúna's Job of Journeywork in particular. When I had finished my BMus, I felt like maybe I'd try my hand at doing a Master's degree relating to indigenous playing. The nearest such style of music to here is the Sliabh Luachra style, so I choose Mick Duggan, a Sliabh Luachra musician, as my subject. I went and spoke to him and did lots of field work and all the rest of it; recordings and interviews and so on, but of course, never wrote it up. I'm not alone in that, but I think I got the benefit from it in everything except the official piece of paper, in that I learned a huge amount, and it stimulated my whole interest in the question of fiddle playing styles and fiddle playing technique.
I continued playing with Na Filí until 1979, when we disbanded. I did a solo album of slow airs, Aisling Gheal, on the Gael Linn label, about 1984. I also started playing with two other lads here in Cork -- Mick Daly and Dave Hennessy, a great melodeon player -- in a group called Any Old Time, and over the years we did three albums: Any Old Time, Phoenix and Crossing. In 1983, John Loesberg of Ossian Publications approached me to write the Fiddle Book, which eventually was launched on the 9th of March, 1988. If I were to do it again I would have done it in a much shorter space of time, but as you know yourself So that came out in 1988, and soon afterwards the accompanying CDs, and in a sense that pushed the MA out of the way, with little hope of resurrection.
Thinking about the book, one of the things that makes it such a good tool for people learning how to play, particularly people learning how to play who don't live in Ireland, is that you explain what to do with the bow.
The more I learn about fiddle playing, the more I realize that the secret, the whole art of it is in the bowing. While it's the left hand that makes the notes, it's the bow hand that makes the music, and I don't mean something just as straightforward as the bowing directions. Bowing is so much more than that. The bow makes the sound -- the bow is the only contact that the player has with making the sound. You can argue that the left hand makes the notes and that there are rolls -- and so there are -- but how you articulate the rolls, how you articulate the trebles, where you put the stress, where you put the accent, how you attack the note, whether you play it softly and all the rest -- it's the bowing that does that. A lot of people nowadays learning traditional music grow up in a household where traditional music is not known, for instance people in cities where pop music is on the radio all day the children listen to pop music but the parents would like them to be traditional musicians. They go to fiddle class a half hour a week and for the rest of the week they don't hear a note of the music, so they have no reference. The only thing they have is the bow directions, but for the most part they would often interpret the bow directions like a classical player would interpret them. Now contrast that with, let's say, the time when Pádraig O'Keeffe was teaching: there weren't radios, the only music that a lot of people heard was fiddle players playing in houses, so there was a lot of unwritten and unspoken musical education imparted in the sense that you knew how the music should sound, you knew what the swing was, you had all that unwritten information and nobody needed to tell you about it. When I was doing the book, I felt that I wanted to be able to give sufficient directions that people got some sense of the swing of the music. If I were writing the fiddle book now, in the light of the additional knowledge I have, I would probably be even more overt in that sense. When I give workshops I tend to start from that viewpoint; at a lot of workshops people get taught tune after tune after tune but, in my opinion, very few tutors talk about the "how." Over the years, people have asked me, "How do you do it, how do you play that?" All of which has led me today to be very interested in trying to answer the question of what it is that the fiddle players are doing to make the music sound the way it does. When I talk about Pádraig O'Keeffe or Paddy Canny or Johnny Doherty or Jay Ungar or whoever, I'm interested in what they're doing, and in the power of the bow. The power of the bowhand is absolutely immense and greatly underrated.
[For the full text of this interview, as well as Matt's tunes "Blackwater Polka," "Kathleen's Polka," and "Mícheál's Polka," purchase the Winter 03/04 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Brendan Taaffe lives in Massachusetts, where he plays fiddle and guitar for contra dances and concerts. He holds a master’s degree in Irish music from the University of Limerick, and has toured in Europe and North America. Visit his website at www.brendantaaffe.com]