Musicians, commissions and compositions – the life of Niall
One of the recurring themes of the recent TradTalk conference – organised by Trad Ireland/Trad Éireann recently – was the difficult balancing act for professional musicians of maintaining their creative integrity and artistic identity in the face of the need to earn a living wage from their art.
Versatility is the key. Many teach as well as perform. Some become erstwhile promoters/directors of music festivals and other events. Others have developed parallel careers as record or video producers and sound engineers. And while many musicians compose tunes, relatively few get the opportunity to work on major composing commissions. So the last fifteen months have been a remarkably prolific period for the concertina virtuoso, Doctor Niall Vallely (following the award of a PhD from University College Cork).
In just over a year Niall has produced four significant musical works – 78 Revolutions, Concerto for Concertina and Orchestra, Sounds Like Freedom and Macha. Each project has had a very distinctive character: Vallely is the principal auteur in three – while the fourth is a collaborative creation which also includes a number of covers of popular songs. Alongside this burst of compositional activity, Niall has also continued to gig on concertina with the Karan Casey Band and with Buille.
Below right: Niall playing the concertina, as painted by his father, Brian (aka the artist JB Vallely).
Niall grew up in a family steeped in traditional music. His parents, Brian and Eithne, have been the moving spirits behind the award-winning Armagh Pipers’ Club since its foundation in 1966 – four years before Niall was born. His brothers, Cillian and Caoimhín, are both professional musicians.
Their uncle, Dara, leads the acclaimed Armagh Rhymers – while his father’s cousin, Fintan, is also an accomplished performer as well as a widely respected authority on traditional music.
Appropriately, perhaps, considering that the concertina is affectionately known as the Clareman’s trumpet, Niall’s musical education on the concertina was complemented by learning the trumpet in school and playing in the local youth orchestra. Although he gave up playing the instrument shortly after leaving college, he maintained a keen appreciation of the leading exponents of the instrument – who, of course, included many jazz players.
With such an impeccable pedigree, many might have assumed that it was inevitable that Niall would make a career in traditional music. While his family background undoubtedly contributed to his musical formation, Niall credits his encounter with Mícheál Ó Suilleabháin (pictured below right) in University College Cork as a kind of personal epiphany. With all the certainty and even arrogance of youth, Niall had believed that, with the grounding he had already received in Armagh, he had a thorough understanding of Irish traditional music. But Ó Suilleabháin challenged his preconceptions.
“Since I first met Mícheál, when I went to study music in University College Cork in 1988, he had an immeasurable effect on my life as a musician and composer. It’s no exaggeration to say that I wouldn’t be doing this today if it wasn’t for his constant inspiration and enthusiastic support. He opened my eyes and ears to new ways of thinking about traditional music and its relationship to the rest of the world.”
Although Niall was intrigued by other musical genres – especially jazz – Ó Suilleabháin encouraged him to explore traditional music from other parts of the world such as Northern India while Mel Mercier, a fellow student in UCC (and later Ó Suilleabháin’s colleague and eventual successor in the Irish World Music Centre at the University of Limerick), championed the music of West Africa and Java.
“Mícheál fostered an atmosphere of creativity around traditional music. He didn’t portray the music in a purely academic way that might have focussed on preserving the past glories of the tradition, rather he saw what we were all doing as part of a vital and living music. I was involved in performances of new music by Mícheál from his albums Oileán/Island and Casadh/Turning.
“In 1989 I was part of a recording project with both Mel and Mícheál which produced a piece of music entitled Eklego. This was my first exposure to what might be called ‘new music’ utilising as it did chance procedures in the style of John Cage alongside traditional-style material to create what remains a quite unique piece of music.”
Seeing Irish traditional music in this broader context led Niall to reconsider his attitudes towards the music and to reflect on the potential within the traditional style for further creative exploration and innovation.
Vallely’s recent composition, 78 Revolutions, which was premièred in the dlr LexIcon Cultural Centre in Dun Laoghaire just days after Mícheál Ó Suilleabháin’s death in November 2018, was one such exploration. The hour-long work operates on a number of levels. As well as featuring an intriguing interplay between modern live performers and pre-recorded past masters, it also includes interaction between traditional and contemporary music genres – incorporating ambient sounds as well as more conventional musical expressions.
The piece also offers an interesting reflection on the impact of technology on the transmission of traditional music. It reminds us that recent developments in digital technology – which have begun to appear in both studio and live performances by traditional musicians like Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, Dónal O’Connor, Úna Monaghan and Iarla Ó Lionáird as well as Vallely, himself – are the latest manifestation of an ongoing interaction which began with the early commercial recordings made in America in the 1920s. The extensive influence of these recordings on later performers raises important questions about the nature of the music we now know as ‘traditional.’
78 Revolutions also incorporates extracts from radio programmes and from cassette recordings of traditional music sessions in the 1980s and 1990s. These other technological advances have not only contributed to the transmission of the music between generations but also to the cross-fertilisation – or perhaps even to the gradual homogenisation – of regional styles. At the same time they have facilitated the growing interest in Irish traditional music in this country and abroad.
For the première performance, Niall (on concertina and computer) was joined in person by his brother and Buille band-mate, Caoimhín (on piano), Zoe Conway (on fiddle), Mick O’Brien (on pipes), Mick McAuley (on accordion) and Kate Ellis (on cello). They were complemented by the recorded talents of Denis Delaney, Patsy Touhey, Leo Rowsome and Michael Coleman with Seán Ó Riada’s rather disparaging comments on the céilí band phenomenon of the 1940s and 1950s.
While the live musicians enjoyed a certain degree of discretion to improvise – parallelling the ‘structured informality’ of the earlier music sessions recorded on the cassettes, some of the other elements of the musical collage were the product of intensive sound engineering – extracting fragments of tunes to create melodic or rhythmic loops. Vallely had previously used this technique in his composition, Rakish – in which he mixed extracts of recordings of the reel, Rakish Paddy, played by uilleann piper, Johnny Doran, with the poem, Rakish Paddy Blues, by Gearóid Mac Lochlainn.
In 78 Revolutions, he applied the technique more extensively to create a broadly chronological exploration of Irish traditional music in the twentieth century. While the work was originally commissioned for a one-off performance, Vallely hopes it could be performed again sometime in the future.
Examining diverse genres through a traditional music lens
The influence of his musical mentors – Ó Suilleabháin and Mercier (below right) – is evident in Niall Vallely’s Concerto for Concertina and Orchestra – which was premièred in Dublin’s National Concert Hall on March 17 with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra (NSO).
The framing of traditional elements within a concerto structure is not unusual within the classical canon – Mozart, for example, included Austrian folk themes in some of his violin concertos. However, concertos for concertina are much rarer.
Other reed instruments like pipes, accordions, bandoleons and harmonicas – have all taken the lead in orchestral performances and in the early days of the concertina in the nineteenth century, a number of concertos were composed featuring the concertina. However, the last major concerto for concertina and orchestra appears to have been written over fifty years ago by the American composer, James Cohn.
Niall had been thinking about writing a concerto for concertina and orchestra for quite a while. Having composed several pieces for solo concertina and various chamber ensembles (including the Vanburgh String Quartet), the concerto seemed like the obvious next step. Of course, Vallely’s pedigree and standing as a traditional performer means that his bona fides is unlikely to be questioned by more purist members of the community.So availing of this sense of immunity, Vallely’s focus as a composer has gradually expanded from creating tunes in the traditional idiom to composing music that reaches beyond the boundaries of the tradition.
While this expanding focus is a recognition, in part, of the diversity of his musical interests, it also reflects a desire to challenge the conventional wisdom about what an Irish traditional musician might be “allowed” to create. So in his concerto – which follows the accepted structure of three movements with varying fast-slow-fast tempi – Niall not only includes both classical and Irish traditional motifs but also reflects other indigenous musics particularly from Western and Southern Africa – and Eastern Europe (a legacy of the influence of Andy Irvine and Planxty).
Rejecting any suggestion that this music is a fusion, Niall argues that: “I have tended to treat Irish traditional music as the accent that I speak in while addressing diverse musical ideas… Rather than viewing traditional music through a classical music prism I have been looking at other sorts of music from a traditional music perspective.”
With the extensive resources of a full symphony orchestra at his disposal, Vallely was able to create a rich but subtle soundscape – involving an intricate interplay between the concertina and different elements within the orchestra.
“In some places I’ve used the concertina as part of the ensemble while in others it is very much a solo instrument with the orchestra accompanying. I’ve tried to reduce the scale of things at times so as to highlight the sound relationship between the concertina and various instruments or groups of instruments.”
While Vallely, himself, was the featured soloist at the première, the final artistic decisions about how the work would be performed, rested with NSO conductor, David Brophy. So once on the Concert Hall stage, Vallely had to surrender the creation he had been nurturing for months into Brophy’s care – while he became once more a performer submitting to the discipline of the conductor’s baton. Though this abdication of creative control was a rare departure for someone used to directing how his compositions were performed, it reflected total confidence in Brophy’s artistic sensibilities.
Since symphony orchestras may not be readily available to perform the work, it begs the question of whether the concerto could be arranged for a smaller ensemble. While it remains a possibility, Niall has no plans to do so at the present time.
From contemporary hits to ancient myths
Two contrasting musical ventures complete Niall Vallely’s major projects of 2019: the civil rights collage, Sounds Like Freedom and the Celtic mythology suite, Macha.
In Sounds Like Freedom, which was conceived as a commemoration of the parallel campaigns for civil rights in the US and Northern Ireland in the late 1960s, Vallely led a unique creative collaboration between the New York jazz outfit, the Harriet Tubman Trio, as well as vocalist, Karan Casey, Scots fiddler, Aidan O’Rourke, and harper, Úna Monaghan.
This particular line-up of musicians were not only capable of delivering high level performances but were also skilled in composition. Aidan O’Rourke was recognised as the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards Musician of the Year in 2014 having previously won the Scots Trad Music Awards Composer of the Year accolade in 2011. Úna Monaghan is the first Liam O’Flynn artist-in-residence at Dublin’s National Concert Hall where she is committed to perform and create new music – while Karan Casey’s skills as a lyricist were formally recognised with a best original song nomination at this year’s RTE Folk Awards for Down in the Glen.
Niall originally worked with Brandon Ross, the guitarist with the Harriet Tubman Trio – when they were both touring the US with the jazz singer, Cassandra Wilson. Since then he had been looking for an opportunity to do something with Ross and his band-mates, Melvin Gibbs (on bass) and J.T. Lewis (on drums).
“The trio come from an avant garde jazz scene,” explained Vallely. “But they are also fairly politically conscious: they have been involved in the Black Lives Matter movement and other campaigns. So with the fiftieth anniversary of the civil rights movement in the north, the idea for the show came into my head.”
With such a musically adventurous group of artists at his disposal – skilled in improvisation and composition, Vallely could afford to adopt a far less prescriptive approach to the project – perhaps allowing his collaborators a sense of freedom suggested by the event’s title. Staged at the Kilkenny Arts Festival in August and again during the Tradition Now series in the National Concert Hall in October, the programme for the event included new arrangements of works like John Coltrane’s Alabama, established standards like Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair and Hold On, the US civil rights classic Strange Fruit (recorded by both Billie Halliday and Nina Simone) and Mickey McConnell’s Only Our Rivers Run Free, as well as new compositions by Vallely (Radio Free Armagh) and Monaghan (Lateral Valve).
In this new work, in an echo of his earlier approach in 78 Revolutions, Niall made use of audio extracts from radio and television news broadcasts as well as other atmospheric sounds from the period – to thread together West African rhythms and more conventional musical phrases and traditional motifs – to create a distinctive and original tone poem evoking the struggle for civil rights. This event celebrating the indomitable spirit of freedom and justice ended with a rousing rendition of the universal civil rights anthem, We Shall Overcome, binding performers and audience together in an emotional and uplifting finale.
In between the two performances of Sounds Like Freedom and in complete contrast, Niall Vallely led an exciting ensemble of traditional musicians in a specially commissioned suite of original pieces inspired by the folklore surrounding the Celtic goddess, Macha, after whom Niall’s native city of Armagh, Ard Mhacha, is named. In a mixed-media show at the ancient site of Navan Fort – Eamhain Mhacha – just outside the city, Vallely created a musical trail from the indoor performance area in the interpretive centre along a route marked with lights and speakers up an incline to a natural stage area at the foot of the mound proper.
In a series of musical essays, Vallely distilled the essence of the folk tales which had been enacted earlier by the Armagh Rhymers – as various characters from the cast began to appear at the top of the mound. In combination with the drama, the lighting and the natural ambience of the place, Vallely’s music created an experience rich in atmosphere and imagination in keeping with the major historical, cultural and spiritual significance of the location.
While the creative impulses behind the four works may come from different places, they share a common approach in terms of what might be called ‘research and development’. In some cases, like the Concerto or Macha, the spark may come from initial arrangements of notes in rhythms that give rise to further motifs or phrases which gradually take shape into a tune. In others, like 78 Revolutions and Sounds Like Freedom, the starting point might be more conceptual – involving an exploration of a theoretical principle like the transmission of traditional music or a reflection on civil rights campaigns. But regardless of how the first notes come to be written, they are accompanied by an intensive amount of research into social and cultural history, music theory, politics, folklore and mythology. All of this comes on top of a lifetime of education – both formal and informal, by instruction and by osmosis – which permeates the creative process. While Niall Vallely could never abandon his deep roots in the tradition, his innate curiosity about the world in general and his broad engagement with music of many kinds means that he could never confine his artistic expression exclusively to Irish traditional dance music.
The Niall File
Vallely on Paper
Niall Vallely was born in Armagh in 1970 and began learning the concertina at the age of seven, taught by his parents Brian and Eithne Vallely, founders of the Armagh Pipers’ Club. Niall also learned the uilleann pipes and the whistle – as well as classical trumpet – but the concertina remains his instrument of choice! Over the years he has developed a unique approach to playing the instrument and has become one of Ireland’s most significant musicians and composers.
A resident of Cork since 1988, Niall completed a degree in music at UCC in 1992. After college Niall embarked on a career, in performance – touring internationally and recording with artists like Nomos, Buille, Paddy Keenan, Tim O’Brien, Asturian band Tejedor and Karan Casey, whom he married in 2007.
In the early 1990s Niall began composing tunes in the traditional style. His tunes have appeared on over 75 albums and some have entered the common currency of the tradition as session standards.
In recent years Niall has been broadened the scope of his compositions to embrace larger ensembles, more diverse instrumentation and a variety of genres – reflecting his wide-ranging musical interests. With commissions from public bodies and cultural entities like Lyric FM, BBC, TG4, Cork Opera House, Crash Ensemble, University College Cork, the Vanburgh String Quartet, Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council and Tourism NI, Niall’s compositions have been broadcast on radio and television in Ireland, Europe and the US.
Niall has also been involved in arranging music for performance by artists such as Iarla Ó Lionáird, Donal Lunny, Lúnasa, the Boston Pops Orchestra and the RTE Concert Orchestra. Appointed Traditional Artist in Residence at UCC in 2014, Niall published a collection of his tune compositions, Malfunction Junction – 101 Tunes in 2015. More recently he has released albums of new compositions with Buille and with the Irish/Scottish/Scandinavian collective, The Secret North, as well as guesting on albums by other performers, including Karan Casey’s recent album, Hieroglyphs that Tell the Tale.
The Singing Stream (2002)
Flight of the Earls, TV documentary score (2006)
Flight – Imeacht (2007)
The Red Tree (2009)
Ó Riada Room (2011)
Nothing Else (2013)
Waves from Another Shore (2013)
Joseph Campbell, TV Score (2013)
Time Flying (2014)
Nothing Else (2015)
Connolly’s Chair (2016)
78 Revolutions (2018)
Concerto for Concertina and Orchestra (2019)
Radio Free Armagh (2019)
1992 – Áine Uí Cheallaigh: Idir Dhá Chomhairle In Two Minds
1995 – Nomos: I Won’t Be Afraid Any More
1995 – Various Artists: River of Sound
1996 – The Scrapes: With Love From the Living Land
1997 – Nomos: Set You Free
1997 – Various: Sult, Spirit of the Music
1998 – Various: Gael Force DVD
1999 – Niall Vallely: Beyond Words
1999 – Various: Mega Celtique
1999 – Paddy Keenan: Na Keen Affair
2000 – Karan Casey & Friends: The Seal Maiden
2001 – Various: Celtic Christmas, Silver Anniversary Edition
2001 – Various: Lewis Nash & David O’Rourke’s Celtic Jazz Collective
2001 – Tim O’Brien: Two Journeys
2001 – Karan Casey: The Winds Begin to Sing
2002 – Niall and Cillian Vallely: Callan Bridge
2002 – Various: Live from The Katharine Cornell Theater
2003 – Various: Celtic Compass
2003 – Karan Casey: Distant Shore
2003 – Donal Donnelly and Brian Hanlon: Driven
2004 – Various: Masters of the Accordion
2004 – Various: Very Best of Celtic Christmas
2004 – Various: Live Recordings from the William Kennedy Piping Festival
2004 – Various: Other Voices, Songs from a Room 2
2005 – Karan Casey: Chasing the Sun
2005 – Caoimhín Vallely: Strayaway
2005 – Barry Kerr: The World Looks Away
2006 – Tejedor: Música na Maleta
2007 – Niall Vallely, Paul Meehan, Caoimhín Vallely: Buille
2007 – Various: Excalibur II: The Celtic Ring
2007 – Various: Armagh Pipers Club 40th Anniversary
2007 – Various: A Christmas Celtic Sojourn Live
2007 – Various: Experience Ireland
2007 – Various: Sound Neighbours
2008 – Karan Casey: Ships in the Forest
2008 – Various: Anglo International
2008 – Various: Crowd Around the Mic Vol. 12
2009 – Buille: Buille 2
2009 – Various: The Rough Guide to Irish Folk
2010 – Various: Transatlantic Sessions 4
2010 – Daimh: Diversions
2010 – Various: Sweet Slumbers Soothing Lullabies (Music for Little People)2011 – Tejedor: Positivu
2011 – Various: The Highland Sessions
2012 – Cathy Ryan: Through Wind and Rain
2012 – Suzy Joubert: Half Light
2014 – Karan Casey: Two More Hours
2015 – Buille: Buille Beo
2015 – The Secret North: Live
2018 – Karan Casey: Hieroglyphs That Tell the Tale
2018 – Jose Manuel Tejedor: Miraes