Irish Flute-ing

Kieran McCarthy Fell at the Cliffs of Moher, Ireland

Kieran McCarthy Fell at the Cliffs of Moher, Ireland

written by Kieran McCarthy Fell class of 2013

edited by Daijha J. Copeland

As a flute performance major, I am passionate about participating in and hearing music from around the world. One of the most gratifying aspects of musical performances is creating a bridge of communication between people of different cultures. Though most of my training and studies have been in the classical settings of symphonies, wind ensembles, and orchestra pits, I am always eager to absorb musical influences from new sources, like my recent experience with the indigenous music of Ireland.

This past summer, I received funding for a research proposal that allowed me to visit a few regions in Ireland to hear a variety of performances in Irish settings such as local public houses and community centers.  There were also festivals to attend throughout the year, like the Fleadh Cheoil na Mumhan at the University of Limerick, which encourages the preservation of heritage. By interacting with the musicians in these environments, I hoped to discover whether or not inflection, embellishment, and dramatic interpretation of traditional (trad) tunes vary from region to region, as dialects do, and what Irish flute technique and interpretation has in common with classical performance.

Through my training and practicing I learned that the most integral aspects of Irish trad music are: (1) understanding the specific time signature end feel of each tune type; the steady, fast 4-4 drive of the reel, the quick 6-8 lit of the jig, and the bouncy hornpipe, and (2) learning the unique ornamentations and including them in tunes spontaneously throughout a session. In traveling to several counties in Ireland, I learned that musical differences between regions have more to do with the types of tunes played than the embellishments used. Reels, Jigs, and hornpipes are frequently heard in most places, but in counties like Cork, Kerry, and Limerick, the most common types of tunes are slides and polkas.  Regarding ornamentations, the basic types are consistent between regions, yet vary from player to player as part of the musician’s individual style.  Because of the impromptu nature of trad music, the selected ornamentations that are added are different every time a tune is played.

Reel Tune

Jig Tune

Hornpipe Tune

One public session during the Fleadh Nua

One public session during the Fleadh Nua

Due to the variety of differences in playing techniques, my research did not result in a concrete way to link classical and traditional flute playing.  However, my time immersed in trad music and Irish culture made me fully aware of how powerful music is, despite its apparent simplicity.  The intuition and originality of each individual musician produced a vital, sparkling, almost tangible music characterized by a sense of joy and abandon in the quick tunes that contrasts with the achingly, compelling depth of the slow airs.

Irish music is not tied to the classical concert hall, but is deeply intertwined with daily life in close-knit communities.  Trad tunes and instrumental accompaniment for dancing, singing, and storytelling have been passed down through generations in homes, community centers, churches, public houses, and festivals.  It was through these public sessions that I truly allowed myself to become swept up in trad music.  The height of my learning of trad music came during the annual Fleadh Nua (“new festival”). The Fleadh Nua helped me understand that taking advantage of every chance to play for someone else, whether in a session or at a competition, is even more integral to learning trad than taking frequent lessons or practicing alone.  Soon I could say that I am a real trad player.

Another session during the Fleadh Nua

Another session during the Fleadh Nua

                    

Kieran McCarthy-Fell is currently a programming and productions intern at the Irish Arts Center, in New York City.

McCarthy-Fell received partial funding through a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) offered through UNC-Chapel Hill’s Office for Undergraduate Research, the 2013 Witten Travel Award, the Class of 1938 Fellowship Endowment committee, and the Chapel Hill Music Department Mayo Award.

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