The Kane Sisters, Liz and Yvonne, of Letterfrack, Connemara, Ireland, are truly a dynamic duo. First learning fiddle from their grandfather Jimmy Mullen and Sligo player Mary Finn, the Kanes later spent three years touring with accordion player Sharon Shannon as part of her band “The Woodchoppers.” Their first solo album was called The Well Tempered Bow; this was followed by Under the Diamond, and just this past summer, Side by Side. Both full-time fiddle teachers as well as touring performers, Liz and Yvonne succeed in combining their love of playing music with their desire to pass it on to others.
I had the pleasure of chatting with them and seeing them perform in Philadelphia this past summer.
I read recently that you were educated at Kylemore Abbey, so your school is on a million postcards.
Yvonne: Yes, it’s beautiful.
Liz: There were a lot of students from all over the world there boarding. But it’s not a school anymore. It just closed down. It was a brilliant school, a lot of fun.
Yvonne: It was day girls and boarders. So we were day girls. It was run by Benedictine nuns. It was a beautiful setting. We only lived back the road from it –– we were about three miles away.
And did you play music at the school?
Liz: Yeah, the music teacher there, Sister Carol, was from Cork. She’s a great musician, a brilliant pianist, and she still teaches piano to a lot of the local kids, and she also plays flute and she sings…
Yvonne: She would have taught us the piano and violin, as in classical.
It’s really fun watching you guys –– there will be moments where you look over at each other and there’s some communication, just in the eyes, and a smile, and it makes you wonder, “Okay, what just happened there?” And I know when I play with my brother, we sometimes silently comment on the music –– or maybe there’s a part that I used to get wrong, but just got right… Is it something like that?
Liz: Exactly. Where we do that note the second time around, let’s go for a variation…
Yvonne: We have a few looks and we just seem to know.
Liz: It’s funny touring now with Edel Fox because on my right is Yvonne, and we kind of play off each other. I know what Yvonne’s thinking, and then I look over at Edel and sometimes I think she should know what I’m thinking because we’re so used to knowing what each other’s thinking.
Right. So when it comes to variations, I guess you have to plan them ahead of time, and say, “Let’s try this the second time through.”
Liz: Exactly. And sometimes you wouldn’t always remember them on the night, but you might on the second time around, or the last time around… The tunes are very intricate, a lot of the tunes we play, so to remember every detail and variation, you kind of have to have a little bit of leverage.
How do you go about choosing your tunes? Do you ever disagree about what you’ll play and record?
Liz: I went through a phase of being crazy about Sliabh Luachra tunes, and Yvonne was like, “Well, it is a lovely tune, but maybe not for us.” There is, I suppose, a certain type of tune that suits our style, certain keys.
Yeah, so what kind of thing would you draw the line at?
Yvonne: We’d obviously have to love the tune to be playing it, you know, and sometimes we change the tunes, just put them into different keys, so it’ll suit the fiddle a lot more…
Liz: And make them more interesting, and brighter for us…
Yvonne: …for us to play. When it comes to picking tunes, Liz might pick out a few tunes and play them on the tape, and say, “What do you think of this?” and I’m like “Yes,” “No,” “Maybe,” “Definitely not.”
Liz: The thing is, when I do play them on the tape for you, or vice versa, it’s not until we actually play them together and record them together that we can say, “You know what, that really doesn’t suit us.”
So even if it seems to suit one of you, your combined sound…
Yvonne: We both agree in the end. But we end up loving the tune usually.
Liz: Yeah. And agreeing in the end.
[For the rest of this interview, and transcriptions of Liz’s tunes “Three Deer and a Hare” and “Pangur Ban,” purchase the winter 2010/11 issue!]
For more information, please visit www.thekanesisters.com.
[Tim McCarrick works as a music editor for J.W. Pepper. He has written about fiddle playing for Fiddler Magazine and Mel Bay’s Fiddle Sessions website. He has nearly 20 arrangements published for school orchestras from Mozart and Beethoven to Gershwin and Led Zeppelin, and he is also working on a string method book, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is why he never updates the Irish Fiddle website! He lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with one wife, two daughters, two dogs, and lots of stringed instruments.]