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A week after St. Patrick's Day when the green plastic leprechaun hats had been thrown away, Irish music sensation The Gloaming visited Duke University to perform a show featuring their own take on traditional Irish music. The aptly-named chamber quintet wove together traditional tunes, ancient lyrics, and yearning piano chords, bringing to mind a twilit scene of thick clouds periodically rolling over the cheerful city of Dublin, from which the players hail.
Duke Performances hosted the ensemble in Baldwin Auditorium, which has a funky fusion of classic and modern styles of architecture that mirrored the music being performed. Baldwin seats 700, but as pianist Thomas Bartlett pointed out, "it feels like there are only twelve of you...very enthusiastic, but nice and intimate." The performance had the feel of a pub session, with the players announcing sets from the stage in a witty yet low-key fashion, and Bartlett's personal bottle of wine at his feet added to the aesthetic – though it wasn't just for show. The opening set, comprised of "The Pilgrim’s Song," "Touch Me If You Dare," and "Maude Miller's Reel," was a good introductory progression from atmospheric piano and guitar chords, to plaintive Gaelic vocals and fiddle, into a classical-inspired bridge, and then into a pastoral reel with reed organ drone.
Vocalist Iarla Ó Lionáird offered explanations of the Gaelic lyrics he performed, which were taken from texts as far back as the 1400s. He is a Sean-nós vocalist, an orally taught tradition of simple melodies with heavy ornamentation, which culminated in a voice with the tone of John Denver and the expertise of a classically trained singer. His voice was strong and clear, plaintive but simple, with clean diction and crisp, short ornaments. Lionáird would also step back to play drone chords on the reed organ, which was not heard very prominently but rather felt as an undertone. The second set featured Lionáird's voice on a song based on the ancient legend of a Celtic god reflecting on the plight of man, "Oisín’s Song." The third set was another featuring his voice, "Cucunendi," a haunting amalgam that morphs from a child's lullaby to a playful fiddle tune, and then a grandiose layering of both that gradually dissolves again. Most of the sets followed a similar format, and it was lovely to hear their virtuosity in their respective instruments and genres, but their show might have done well to have some more variety.
The rhythmic center of the group and its origins comes from the trio of string players, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh on hardanger, Martin Hayes on fiddle, and Dennis Cahill on guitar. Hayes spoke about the structure of the band's compositions, usually consisting of "different things mixed together," which he realized sounded oversimplified and further explained cheerfully that "that's the way it is...and that's the way it's going to be." The fourth set, beginning with "The Rolling Wave," was led by Hayes, who prefaced it with "we simply repeat it until something happens, and then we stop…if we have the good sense to stop!" His masterful fiddle layered and grew along with the other members of the group, exploring the depth to which one theme could be taken, then softly bridged and transitioned into what sounded like a sonorous party on stage.
The fifth and sixth sets featured Raghallaigh on the hardanger, a Norwegian fiddle with five bowed strings and five more strings that are meant to resonate along with the others, creating a mysterious and eerily harmonic "halo" around the sound, as he explained while he was re-tuning. He also made a light jab at Hayes with his "ordinary fiddle" that he himself couldn't imagine playing again. These two sets, culminating in the delicate "Fáinleog" (The Swallow) and "The Wanderer," were quiet, improvisatory works, with some of the gentlest moments as well as the most enthusiastic. It was unfortunate that the amplification got a little too strong during this group of songs, dulling the comparison between the soft, distant sunrise of harmonies on the hardanger and Bartlett's zealous stomping and pounding of jubilant piano chords. Bartlett was incredibly energetic, albeit distracting, in sharp contrast to the ever-stoic Cahill and Lionáird, causing a slightly awkward mix of players that was delightful and only slightly comical to watch.
Lionáird was enthusiastic about the second-to-last piece, "Song 44," named so because the lyric was taken from a 15th century collection of poetry. He explained that the preceding set had been "fabulously happy," and that his task now was "to bring you down," which was "a task to which I am well-equipped." So he was: "Song 44" almost verged on 1990's emo-rock prelude, with off-putting sonority and hand-dampened piano strings by Bartlett.
All of the suspense of the individual parts that started together in wandering, probing melodic lines built up into clashing improvisatory parts, making the final unifications in sets like the final, energetic set of more traditional tunes all the more powerful. The Gloaming brought together a wonderfully strange patchwork of Irish fiddle tunes, nostalgic indie-rock piano chords, and the ancient magic of Gaelic lyrics.