Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Austin Celtic Festival 2010

I feel like I've wasted my life.  Well, not really, but I kind of did when I got home from the second late night session, having been surrounded by a disproportionate number of extremely talented and skilled Irish Trad musicians.  It's amazing how little time you have to spend immersed in an environment like that for it to become your whole world.  With some mental effort I have reoriented myself, regaining the perspective that I have been successful in the pursuits I've been at for many years, and Irish music is still very new for me.

That whole "immersive" experience was similar to the O'Flaherty retreat I attended a year ago, but at that time I was starting from scratch, and hadn't built up any expectations.  Now that I'm in a position to appreciate what the Festival performers can do, I'm humbled and inspired.  I could go on with the florid impressionism, but I want to write all this down while it's fresh in my mind, so let's just start at the beginning...

I arrived at Fiesta Gardens around 9am, when my volunteer shift started.  The Festival didn't properly open until 11am, so there was some sound checking going on, and all the vendors were in unpacking and fixing up their tents.  I did a couple of odd jobs - primarily cleaning up the workshop trailer and rearranging the fences for the herding demonstration's sheep and geese.  Not much came up after that, so for the second half of my shift I mostly wandered the grounds and chatted with early arrivals. The starting time for the uilleann pipe workshop was coming up, so I headed to my car to grab my David Daye starter set, and then back to workshop trailer. 

Uilleann Pipe Workshop

I spotted a tall guy wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a long dark coat walking around near the trailer - basically what you get when you run a google image search on "gunslinger" - if you already know who Paddy Keenan is, you too would probably recognize him based on the hat alone - I never saw him without it.  A few minutes later, the volunteer running the workshops kicked out the bodhrán group that was meeting before us, as that workshop's leader (who I'd later learn was Paddy League) was pulled off to go perform on one of the stages.

Though some of the later workshops were oversold to the point they had to move outdoors (the trailer was just too small), our group had just three student pipers (myself included) and two prospective pipers who audited the class.  I suppose that's the advantage of learning to play an obscure, fantastically difficult instrument.

The fact that there were only three of us playing was a tremendous advantage, in that Paddy's attention wasn't being pulled in too many directions.  It was a tremendous liability in that you couldn't slack off lest you get a gentle ribbing from the master piper.  On that note, I'd like to dispel a couple of rumors I've read around the internet.  First, I've read assertions that Paddy doesn't make his own reeds, but he said during the workshop,"I make my own reeds", in so many words.  It's quite possible that in the past he didn't, but in the present tense, he's self-sufficient in the reed department.  If you're not familiar with the inner world of uilleann piping, this distinction may seem irrelevant to you, but given how sensitive reeds are (needing constant adjustment when the weather changes), and how time consuming they are to make, it's expected that any piper worth his or her salt will be able to make and tweak their own.  Those who don't learn the skill seem to be seen as sort of mooching on the community.  I'm not asserting that this is the way it should be, but it seems to be the prevailing attitude, at least here in the online community.

The other rumor I've seen around the web is that Paddy doesn't really have any interest in teaching workshops, and so the best you can expect is to hear him play a few tunes up close.  My experience was just the opposite.  As we filed into the workshop trailer, I told him I'd only been at it for a couple of months, and that I'd be more than happy to just sit and listen - he said inexperience was fine, and that he's still learning, too.  I was the weakest player in the workshop, and after we each played a bit of a tune for him to show where we were, he told me I was basically "doing it all wrong", but he did so in a very good-natured way, and gave me feedback then and throughout the workshop that has led to a major breakthrough in my piping (though it didn't happen until I got home and was able to take my time to synthesize all that he told us).  The majority of the workshop was spent learning a tune - Paddy would play a phrase or two over and over while we picked up the melody, and then go into the potential ornamentation and melodic variations.  There was far more happening than I could absorb, but he encouraged us to use our audio recorders, so I came away with something to continue working from.  He also tried out my chanter at one point, to see if some of my difficulty stemmed from defective equipment - it didn't.  In any case, he raised no objections to my Daye chanter, and indicated the reed was quite easy to play (and it was clear in context he meant "easy" in the piping jargon sense, which has a different nuance than in plain language), which seems to me to be a good thing.

I also learned something during this workshop that has little to do with the pipes in particular, and everything to do with the mindset and perspective of good Irish Trad musicians.  The tune Paddy taught us includes an F natural (which a standard, keyless chanter like mine is not really designed play - you have to cover half of a hole), and he went out of his way to point this and out and discuss it's importance and execution.  He didn't use terms like "key signature" or "accidental" - he talked about "coloring" the note.  Elsewhere in the tune, he mentioned how you could hold a single note in place of a short melodic sequence (standard tune variation stuff within the ITM idiom), but that you'd have to "color" it, too, and from the context of the conversation, I think that could have involved any number of articulations, slides/bends, etc.  I was already aware that there was a difference in the way the classical music and trad music worlds thought about the music, but this was great insight into exactly how they differed.  I'm used to thinking of ornamentation in addition to the notes, and any pitch not in the predetermined key signature as changing the harmonic context of the music - I think I'm a little closer to being able to see these things from the Trad perspective now, as nuanced variations on a musical thought.  For the past year, I've been working on freeing myself from dependence on written notes (i.e., learning by ear), and this sort of experience furthers my resolve - it's not just the rhythms of Irish music that you can't get off the page (as is often told to aspiring converts from the classical idiom), but the whole feel of the melodic line - you can break off elements like "ornamentation" and discuss them, but there is absolutely no substitute for listening.  And, really, why should there be?

(Sometime in the next week or so, I'll be posting a video in the YouTube series where I'm chronicling my learning process - if you're interested in the gritty, technical details I got out of the workshop, I plan to go into more detail there.

Concerts, Concerts, Concerts

The Festival technically has four stages - two of them are used primarily for workshops, lectures, and dancing, but two are exclusively for bands to perform on.  The larger of the two is,  ironically, terribly suited to this purpose in some respects.  When the sun is out, everyone on stage is backlit, often to the point of being nothing be silhouettes from the audience.  More critically, if you get decent seats (I'd guess there are 500 or so set up, and none really bad), the sound reinforcement is painfully loud.  I've stood in the back, near the sound desk, and of course it sounds great from there - the awful conditions in the middle of the audience certainly owe something to proximity to the speakers, but may be exacerbated by the cavernous bare metal roof over the stage.  The festival grounds stretch a fair distance East-West, but the bulk of the action really takes place here at the West end, where the grounds widen out, and the stage is ringed by vendors of all types.  You don't have to be a dedicated listener to catch the acts that play here - you can hear quite clearly while you're shopping or grabbing a bite. 

A few minutes' walk over a wooden footbridge to the East lie the remaining three stages, a couple of permanent buildings (housing a temporary bakery and the Gaelic League), and various demonstrations are strung out across a finger of Ladybird Lake (which is in reality a dammed up stretch of the Colorado river).  In the middle of these is the "Pooka" stage, which I'd guess seats a modest 150 or so.  I vastly prefer it's more intimate dimensions for fundamentally acoustic music like this.

The problem with the Festival is that there are too many good acts.  I spent the majority of both days bouncing back and forth between these two stages trying to catch the majority of the sets.  There's always someone playing on one of the two, most of the time there's someone playing on both.  As a result, I continuously left midway through one show to catch part of another.  I saw roughly ten partial sets over the weekend, missing at least part of the shows by 5 Second Rule, Fingal, John Doyle/Oisin McAuley/Paddy Leauge, John Williams/Jeff Moore, Beyond the Pale and Raising Jane. I only made it through the entirety of four sets.  Of course, Paddy Keenan/Tommy O'Sullivan were my top priority, so I made time to catch all of the first, and their Sunday set was the "Dimming of the Day," the closing set of the festival, and no one else was playing at the time.  Paddy was constantly tweaking his reeds, and mentioned the dry weather was wreaking havoc on them.  I also managed to catch an entire set by the Tea Merchants, a local group I've heard great things about for a long time, but didn't actually see until this festival.  Unbeknownst to me, I met the group's bodhrán player at last year's O'Flaherty retreat, and have run into her a couple of times since.  Now starstruck at having been pre-acquainted with a famous person, I had to make time for their whole second set (this is, of course, silly - I've been on stage in front of roughly this many people before, and a fair number of my friends do so regularly - nevertheless, I spent the whole weekend in a state of giddiness you'd expect from 14-year-old girl at being able actually talk, person to person, with all these big stars). 

Though I hardly had any downtime at all, I missed a ton of the festival.  There was a Celtic Rock group, the Prodigals, who played three sets, and I sort of overheard one song from a distance - but, I was in Trad mode the whole weekend, so I wasn't really interested (in a different context, I think I would be).  There are a number of sporting events and demonstrations - archery, hurling, and the always-pleasing Highland Games, but I didn't catch more than five minutes of any of these.  I saw perhaps ten minutes of the herding demonstration that I helped set up pens for.  I stopped in and greeted some acquaintances from the Gaelic League, but just for a minute, and I caught just a glimpse of the Viking Invasion.  I'd have liked to see the Irish step dancing, but there just wasn't time.  There were quite a few intro-level music workshops that were free to attend and would have been enlightening (most based on instruments I don't play, but it's good to know what everyone else is up to), but again, I couldn't work it into my schedule.  I can't say I regret the scheduling decisions I made, but there's just so much going on, I really could have used a clone or time machine.

Role Models

If you were keeping count (you were, right?), you may have noticed that I saw four complete sets, but only listed three of them.  The fourth was the second set by flute player Hanz Araki (with fiddler Kathryn Claire and guitarist Cary Novotny), who has provided me with something critical to a student of an instrument - a specific goal.  I'm coming to appreciate the importance of this more and more - you can pick up a lot of technique from the general, aggregate pool of traditional music and knowledge, but having a very specific sound in mind as a goal is invaluable.  It provides you with motivation, a way to prioritize your practice time, and if recordings are available, examples you can study in detail (luckily for me, Hanz has released three CDs, the most recent of which I'm listening to as I type - plus, there are a number of videos on YouTube to serve as visual references).

When I started out on whistle a year ago, I already had a target sound in mind - it was Joanie Madden's CD that introduced me to Irish Trad over a decade ago (albeit, couched in the New Age sound I was very much into then, but it still served it's purpose as a gateway), and by sheer coincidence, she was at last year's Festival.  Now, I have make a confession - a big part of my motivation in taking up the flute was not that I loved it's sound - I certainly didn't have a problem with it, but what I really wanted was a way to get away from the shrill, uncontrollable volume of the whistle's top notes.  Since taking up the flute, I've listened to a number of players, and if pressed to pick a role model, I would have named Matt Molloy, but that's really because of his historical significance.  I have some of his recordings, and I like them, but I haven't developed a preference for his playing above anyone else's.  When I came out of the pipes workshop and I heard Hanz Araki on the main stage, his flute playing spoke to me the way Joanie Madden's whistle did years ago.  His tone is focused, his articulation clean and precise, supporting rather than interrupting the flow of the melody.  It's awesome, it's emotive, and I want to be able to do it too.  I realize that I'll probably never get around to putting in the requisite time, and I may not have the natural talent to get to that level, but if I work toward that end, I think I'll be happy with wherever I end up. 

Festival Nights

Most of the out of town performers stay in the same hotel near the Festival site.  In the evenings, most of them (along with savvy locals) find their way down to the hotel bar and have a session.  If you're unfamiliar with the concept of the Irish session, it resembles what most people would call a jam session, but it has some additional, unwritten rules.  You play Irish music, in an Irish style, on an instrument that's part of the Irish tradition, and you only play if you can keep up.  Each session has it's own personality, based on the skill level and goals of it's participants, but there are common themes.  In some sessions (as was the case here), there's an occasional song.

*more triva: "tunes" are instrumental; "songs" have words - this is a pretty old, established terminology - the notion of an instrumental album track being a "song" is a recent development.

I, along with a few friends (including fiddle and whistle players who are at about the same place as I am in this Irish music journey), spent Saturday and Sunday evening on the outskirts of these sessions, playing along when we knew the tunes and could keep up.  All told, I probably totaled about five to minutes of playing time over the eight hours or so we were there - roughly nine o'clock to one in the morning each night - and I'm pushing my luck to claim I could keep up even then.  I flubbed a few notes, but I couldn't pass up the chance to play with the pros.  The communal nature of the session is largely what drew me into this music in the first place, and the experience was transcendent.  On Saturday, Paddy Keenan came down for a bit, and played a few tunes on the banjo, saying it was the first time he'd ever played it in public.  This was doubly reassuring, as evidence that the best of the best are as addicted to trying new instruments as I am, and that they do indeed have to go through the same learning process as the rest of us - I was even able to play along (quietly) on Willie Coleman's jig. On Sunday, he brought his pipes down, and I got to hear a full set in a session context for the first time.  As I'd expect in the climate controlled environment of the hotel, there was a much less reed tweaking involved than in the outdoor performances. 

Fortunately for me, Hanz Araki and his bandmates were at both sessions, pretty much the whole time that I was there.  On Saturday, we arrived before the music started, and I got the opportunity to talk to Hanz - later in the evening, he played a tune on my flute (which, serendipitously, is of the same make as his primary instrument), and verified that it is in good working order.  I had brief conversations with Hanz's bandmates, Kathryn and Cary, at other times during the weekend, and they were just as sociable.  By watching Hanz play during the sessions, I was able pick up some improvments for my own technique - specifically, to keep my fingers closer to the flute when resting, and to reduce flute waggling - Hanz keeps his instrument amazingly still, moving it only when his entire head moves.  Of course, these things are intutive and I've read about them before, but there's no substitute for seeing how it should be done. 

So, all told, it was a great time, and I'm still recovering.  I can't wait until next year.  Oh, and a certain drum maker told me they have one of these festivals up in Dallas every March...