“To play music well, you have to get out of the way. To get the better music out, you have to be not so self-concerned”. That comes from a recorded interview with County Clare fiddler Martin Hayes – just one piece in the patchwork of spoken word recordings of Irish musicians that form the central source material for Gerry Diver’s Speech Project. It captures perfectly the Project’s observational character. Diver, a Manchester-born Irish fiddle player, is now touring the results of a journey, four years in the making, that has seen him assuming multiple roles – anthropological, compositional and performative.
At the Project’s heart lies an interview with the legendary Irish accordion player Joe Cooley, his voice audibly affected by throat cancer, dating to November 1973, one month before Cooley died. Cooley’s memories of his time spent in America inspired Diver to aim at a musical translation of the pitch and rhythm of the spoken word, captured through recorded interviews with a multitude of Irish musicians. Taking the Project to Oxford’s North Wall Arts Centre, Diver and his collective of musicians produced an immersive performance that explored issues of authenticity, orality and relevance – mining the very fabric of the folk tradition.
Here the spoken word literally drives the music. The Project opens against a projected video-art backdrop, with spoken recordings layered over each other, and extended lines of impressionistic pianistic play and textural fiddle work building the tremulous overture. Diver thinks carefully about how oral transmission crafts the folk tradition. Almost in reaction to the folk tradition’s loosened conceptions of authenticity, geography and aesthetic, Diver exclusively cherry-picks from the recent Irish canon. Beginning with Fulham Broadway – making use of an interview with the singer Christy Moore, recorded in Dublin in 2008 – speech patterns are picked up and given extended musical lives. Infused with the spirit of travel, the Project flicks through interviews. Recorded memories and declamations of universal truths are used as musical seeds. Though deeply concerned with authenticity, the Speech Project manages to keep clear of hagiography in its embrace of electro-acoustic composition. A dulcimer nestles next to a MacBook – the celebration of oral culture is here borne out via electrification.
Clocking in at 90 minutes of words and music, the Project is physically exhausting, with the performers soon visibly drenched in sweat. While the musical material is essentially an expansive folk minimalism – looping violin tremolos providing delicate shading and slow harmonic shifts – the performative aspect of the Project never becomes floral wallpaper. On Famine, employing an interview with the Donegal fiddler Danny Meehan in which he shared a recitation of the W.B. Yeats poem, The Ballad of Father Gilligan, Diver unfurls a visceral minimalist soundscape. Extended wordless vocals from Lisa Knapp were also particularly liberating, playing with timbral shifts and carefully crafted vocal edges. These are clearly folk musicians with a taste for adventure; who refuse to bow to the mainstream. Knapp’s own debut from 2007, Wild and Undaunted, produced by Diver, is a potent brew of experimentalism and beautifully deconstructed traditional music.
Folk music runs through the 21st century in constant tension – its radicalism, grounded in the various revivals over its history, is now pulled away by perceptions of parochialism, and yet it is quite capable of sonic adventure. Does the Speech Project want to find certainty in the past? It was reminiscent of the Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson‘s and filmmaker Bill Morrison’s The Miners’ Hymns project from last year – an exploration of Durham’s coal-mining culture when once again the UK found itself in trade union unrest. But the forces behind the Speech Project run deeper – it is streaked through with the thread of orality. The Project is both a proclamation of heritage, and yet it is also another chapter in the shift of the common folk tradition away from purism. This is music that is always illusory, ever elusive.