Martin Hayes should be no stranger to readers of this magazine. The East Clare fiddler, now living in Seattle, graced the cover of our premier issue almost seven years ago. Since then, three more CDs and countless tours and workshops have introduced his unique and intimate interpretations of Irish traditional music to a worldwide audience. I caught up with him in Boston last spring, as he was touring with long-time partner, guitarist Dennis Cahill. I asked Martin if he would share some thoughts about his approach to the interpretation of Irish fiddle music.
Martin, let's talk a little about what you call that "lonesome touch."
Yeah, what is it? If I knew what it was exactly, I suppose I'd be able to do it all the time. But I'm not a hundred percent sure I can get my hands on it at all times! For me it was just a figure of speech, a way of expressing a kind of feeling. It was a way I heard musicians describe other musicians on occasion. So it just became a way of describing a plaintive kind of touch in the music. It had to do with hearing the music in a very vocal kind of way -- lyricism, expressiveness, interpretation of the melodies. Singing them, as it were, on the fiddle in a vocal, expressive way. So I try to play what I might sing in my mind. And I try to bow it as you might breathe it almost. It keeps it kind of simple in some ways. In other ways, it's kind of complicated. For example, when I would bow...[plays], that's how I would sing that phrase. Most often when I've been humming tunes or singing to myself, I'd say, "If I could play like that, I'd be good." And so, I just chase that idea in all its simplicity. Because there are many things you can play on a fiddle that can be very "fiddlistic," even non-musical in some respects. You almost can tell sometimes, when you try to sing it -- if you sang exactly what you played -- how unmusical it might sound at times. On the other hand, it can be kind of accepted as being part of the fiddle genre itself. But I have focused less on Irish fiddle playing and more on Irish music. It's more about the interpretation of the music and less about the instrument. Although it is a great instrument and I wouldn't trade it for anything! It's just using the instrument to express the melodies, really.
Is this approach something that is typically done in Clare or is this something you have picked up on your own?
Yes and no. Most of my ideas are picked up from musicians and Clare people like my father (P. J. Hayes), Paddy Canny, Junior Crehan, Bobby Casey. But it's not the complete picture. Anybody looking at a regional style will see it with their own set of blinkers on. I see one thing, where if somebody else went there, they might see another thing. And I've followed what I saw, what I believe it to be. There's a good degree of subjectivity when you're determining a regional style. And then there's also the problem, if I were to go to East Clare and pick out the definitive East Clare fiddle player, he or she couldn't be found. Because you'd have to have a collection of them before you begin to see that they all contain little parts of it. Maybe no one plays it completely. So I wouldn't be playing definitively in the "East Clare style." I'd be playing how I see it, and then I'd be further into seeing what that philosophically meant -- what were the reasons for them to play music, how did they see music, what did they aspire to in music -- and then taking those ideas and following on from those concepts. Leading you to things that might not necessarily have been heard within that tradition before -- but, in my subjective opinion, not inconsistent with it either. I find myself in that in-between world where in one sense I think it's absolutely traditional, and then with just a flick like that, suddenly it's something completely new and different. And it wavers. It just sits on that edge all the time.
Was the music you heard originally mostly for dancing or was it used also for listening? Were there two kinds of fiddle tunes?
There were, yeah. Even between my father and Paddy Canny, you had that difference in some ways. My father primarily liked to play for dancers a lot. Paddy Canny on the other hand didn't have much particular interest in that. There were different people who appreciated it from a listening point of view, people who appreciated it from a dancing point of view. I've been very influenced by the dance aspect of it also. Slow or lyrical things, even if I play slowly, I try to bring inherent dance syncopations into it.
I've found that, yes, you do play a little bit faster for dancers, but it's not really the speed they're looking for. They're looking for a syncopation, a kind of a swing in the music, to lift them, because then it doesn't have to move nearly as fast as people are often led to expect. It doesn't have to be a rapid speed. It just has to move in a certain way. I played in a ceili band for years and have been kind of focused on that, and I've tried to bring aspects of that and merge it with the kind of lyricism and have the two things moving at once, if possible.
[For the full text of this interview, purchase the Winter 00/01 issue of Fiddler Magazine! Martin was also interviewed in the Spring 1994 and Spring 2009 issues.]
[Peter Anick, co-author of Mel Bay’s “Old Time Fiddling Across America,” plays fiddle with the Massachusetts bluegrass band Wide Open Spaces (www.wideospaces.com).]
Photo by Peter Anick: Martin Hayes holding the Spring 1994 (premier) issue of Fiddler Magazine, for which he was interviewed.