Friday, December 14, 2012

Kieran Jordan: Rhythms in Irish Dance

[By way of explanation: although I do like to offer opinions on this blog, I've really shied away from anything that might be seen as commercial, even when it comes to discussing some basic facts. For example, I've never talked about my band, the Ivy Leaf, which consumes a lot of my interest and energy on a regular basis. This post was written as a "Friend Feature Friday" for that site - we like to do little write-ups about our friends in the music scene who have influenced us. If you're interested in hearing some of my playing, the website has links to sound files, and information about our album. So there.]

Our Friend Feature/Influence Friday posts have given you a bit of an understanding of the Ivy Leaf’s sound. Lindsay’s post on Marla Fibish and Jimmy Crowley will make you listen back to her playing of rhythm and melody on plectrum instruments, and you’ll have a better sense of how she conceptualizes the music, makes decisions, and puts them into practice on the fly – what she’s internalized, what she’s used as fuel for reflection. Caroline’s post on Dylan Foley could probably tell you something about her own upbeat, rhythmically-driven, crisply-ornamented, and sweetly-melodic style of flute and whistle playing; Caroline and Dylan share a kind of modern tradition, nurtured in Comhaltas competitions, which prizes a certain tasteful technical brilliance. As Armand mentions in his post on piper Joey Abarta, the two of them share a great deal in terms of expressive intonation outside of the classical Western equal-tempered scale, and I also find their choice of ornamentation to frequently coincide in tight triplets, startling glissando passages, and long smooth rolls. All of those musical influences can be heard – they make themselves evident – on the Ivy Leaf album, or at any of our live performances that you might happen to catch.
       However, that’s really just one part of the full picture. Our music, of course, is much more than just “our music.” Whatever it is in full, it can’t be reduced to a series of sound files on a digital disc. Obviously, better scholars than I have gone to great lengths to discuss Irish music as a social phenomenon, and as a tradition of dance-focused musical rhythms (tunes are universally classified not by rhythm, like 6/8 or 4/4, but by the corresponding dance forms, jig or reel or what-have-you), so I won’t belabor the point. What I would like to bring up is how that fact also suggests that our friends and influences should, to be honest, extend further than other musicians. Beth Sweeney, the Irish Music Librarian at Boston College, has vastly changed my understanding of the tradition, and has made available to me numerous recordings of long-dead traditional musicians. She has her own lovely fiddle style, but it’s quite unlike mine; her influence on my music has been paradoxically non-musical. Our lovely friend Samanatha Jones, herself a sean-nós dancer, finished her graduated studies at Boston University with an extensive thesis entitled “Getting into the Groove: Dancing in Boston Irish Music Sessions” (it’s exactly what it says on the tin); her scholarship has indubitably deepened my appreciation for the living tradition, and for our part in it, but I’m still not certain that such an influence can be heard. Part of this is a kind of epistemological question, but the other part is a personal insecurity. I often find myself particularly pliable to the musical styles of the people with whom I’m playing. When I play with Joe Abarta, it’s a totally different Dan than when I play with the Ivy Leaf; indeed, if I’ve been listening to a lot of Denis Murphy, I’ll play much differently than had I listened to John Doherty all day. It leads me to ask one question – “What is my style?” – and then another – “What influences underlay all my playing?”
       It’s an attempt to answer these questions which ultimately led me to choose Kieran Jordan for this week’s Friend Feature Friday. We play dance music, for sure, and we play it in a dancing style, so it’s something of a hilarious oversight that we’ve never mentioned any of the dancers who have passed through the Boston Irish music scene and contributed to our sound. The Ivy Leaf has frequently had guest dancers at performances – we’ve had Siobhán Butler and Jackie o’Riley at a few of our house concerts, we traveled to NEFFA with Rebecca McGowan, we were once graced by the spectacular step-dancing of Rhode Island’s own Kevin Doyle, and Erika Damiana (who went to high school with Armand and myself) will be joining us at our upcoming Blithewold Mansion performance. We love it! It’s a thick reminder of what the music is about, and where it comes from, and why it is the way it is. A collaboration with a good dancer is as rich and meaningful as bringing on another musician – it changes the sound, the rhythm, the whole groove of the thing. Of all those people, however, I chose Kieran for today because I think very particularly about her influences on me as a musician and dancer together, and how she’s helped me (as well as Armand and Caroline) shape a kind of rhythmic headspace which may not be evident on the album, but is much more obvious now.
       Kieran is an extraordinarily accomplished dancer, and her whole story is on her website so you needn’t bother reading it here. Instead, I’ll let you know about the very first sean-nós workshop I ever attended. One thing to consider is that I wouldn’t have initially considered going, still quite sheepish about my dancing as I am, but that Kieran had hired me to play for the workshop. Once a month she makes a point of having live music for a proper sean-nós workshop. That should already tell you enough about her – that she understands the music and dance to have not only a rhythmic connection, but a social and personal connection. In particular, the improvised, free-flowing, close-to-the-floor style of sean-nós rather demands the energy of a musician right in the room, reacting to the sounds and movements of the dancers as they themselves react to the tunes. The dynamic is easy-going, yet rolling and relentless. It was preparation for that workshop which made me think about my music as totally dance music.
     What really stuck, however, was Kieran’s introduction to the material. She explained to us – not a large group, but a few familiar friendly faces – that she teaches absolute beginners by asking them to think purely about rhythms. She thinks about rhythms in the body and the world: breathing, walking, your heartbeat, the sun rising and setting, the seasons. (She jokes that her classes, for some reason, always come up with other examples: eating and pooping! Getting your period!) To be honest, I’d thought about myself as a creature of habit, but never as a creature of rhythm. Jackie o’Riley has talked to me about coming to traditional music and dance – turning a corner from conceptualizing herself as an audience member, to conceptualizing herself as an active participant. In a similar way, I found Kieran’s simple suggestion to be an electric rail-switch. I once thought of my playing as something that had to be “fit into” a rhythm which existed outside of it (dancers need x/y tune at z beats per minute…). Kieran thought of the dance, and the music that accompanied it, more as clothes for the body of rhythm – fitted, but with some breathing room, clothes that make the body feel covered and sexy at the same time. Her philosophy is clear and clean in her dancing: rock-solid, light but sturdy, with a puckish sense of humor and a big smile on its face.
     I could go on to describe Kieran’s immense role in churning up all of Boston Irish dancing into a beautiful traditional froth, and the amount of work she’s done to generally nourish Irish culture in the United States, but to me, it’s nowhere near as powerful as the realization of how a few simple sentences from her changed my understanding of one of the most fundamental concepts in my life.
      Cheers, Kieran!