Thursday, February 22, 2007

Article about Padraig O'Keeffe in the Irish Times

This from today's newspaper, and thanks to Paul Keating for sending it along to me. It's great to see both Padraig and Matt in the news. Now to get Julia Clifford in there as well....

Fiddling with the rulebook

Thu, Feb 22, 2007 – IRISH TIMES

Sliabh Luachra musician Pádraig O'Keeffe's unique notation system revolutionised fiddle playing, writes Siobhán Long.

If even a fraction of the tales told about iconic Sliabh Luachra fiddler Pádraig O'Keeffe (born 1887, died 1963) are true, his induction into Irish music's hall of fame is long overdue. O'Keeffe, who died on this day 44 years ago, eked out a living as a player and fiddle teacher across the length and breadth of Scartaglen, Gleanntán, Castleisland and quite possibly, as far afield as Ballydesmond. O'Keeffe's reputation as a master fiddler grew out of his plaintive Sliabh Luachra playing style.

Although he worked as a teacher, the constraints of full-time, paid employment held little appeal for him, so he spent most of his life as a travelling fiddle teacher and player, welcomed with varying degrees of enthusiasm across the Rushy Glen. Still, his highly expressive style of playing continues to spellbind listeners four decades after his death, and many musicians believe that without Pádraig O'Keeffe, the music of Sliabh Luachra may not have travelled past the Cork and Kerry county boundaries.

Matt Cranitch, fiddler, teacher, scholar and author of one of the touchstone texts on fiddle playing, The Irish Fiddle Book, has spent many years studying the playing style and idiosyncratic teaching methods of O'Keeffe. He recently received a doctorate from the Irish World Music Centre at the University of Limerick , for his thesis, Pádraig O'Keeffe and The Sliabh Luachra Fiddle Tradition.

His doctoral work grew out of a seminal moment, which occurred on February 5th, 1978, when Mick Duggan, one of Pádraig O'Keeffe's former pupils, gave Cranitch his O'Keeffe manuscripts.

"I was interested in exploring what I saw as two main pillars of Pádraig O'Keeffe's music," Matt offers by way of introduction.

"One was Pádraig's musical notation system, how he used it to teach music, and the second was to examine the question of what is it that fiddle players do to make the music sound the way it does."

In O'Keeffe's heyday, house dances were still in vogue and there was many a Sliabh Luachra dancer who could dance a slide on a sixpence. Pádraig played extensively, to dancers and listeners, and he maintained a stable of music students worthy of the busiest conservatories.

It was said that at one time, he had 200 students in tow, and that because he used his own particularly idiosyncratic style of music notation, he was a law unto himself: teaching his own musical dialect to his students who were thus bound to his methods, unless or until they ventured forth into the world of standard notation.

Cranitch undertook a forensic study of O'Keeffe's bowing patterns because he'd long been of the view that "the key to understanding and playing this music is to look at the rhythm and how that's articulated by the phrasing and the bowing".

Having studied O'Keeffe's style, Cranitch concluded that while his tunes adhered to the formats of reels and jigs, they often engaged in complex regroupings of, for example in the case of a reel, eight notes in a bar so that these notes could occur as '3, 3, 1, 1' or '3, 5' or '5, 3'. Like a mathematician at play with figures, Pádraig O'Keeffe relished the intricate patterns that could be conjured out of each tune type.

"There are patterns of bowing, just as there are patterns of speech," Matt argues. "People talk a lot about melodic patterns or motifs, but I believe that there are bowing motifs that the average listener doesn't necessarily hear, but take them out (of the music) and the thing doesn't happen. That aspect of the music is almost more crucial to creating the swing, the mood or the vibe than the notes themselves."

Pádraig O'Keeffe was a contemporary of famed Sligo fiddlers Michael Coleman and James Morrison, but Coleman and Morrison emigrated to the US , where their playing style was seen by some as flamboyant and as reflective of the diverse society in which they lived. O'Keeffe paid close attention to the recordings that Coleman made, which Cranitch explored in some detail.

"O'Keeffe transcribed Coleman's tunes, note for note, off the 78 RPMs," he says. "The way Coleman bowed them was the way he played them himself, so in effect, Pádraig was translating the tune into his own vernacular. I think that's a powerful thing that musicians do. They can take something from one dialect to another. They're not copying it, but instead taking some of the traits of the music and superimposing their own voice on it."

Cranitch doesn't subscribe to any romantic notions that the distinct regional differences to be found in traditional music are influenced by geography. The defining influence on the music will be the purpose for which it is played. It is this, Cranitch suggests, that bestows an intrinsic bounce to Sliabh Luachra's polkas, slides and reels.

"The vibrancy and the rhythmic vitality of the music is there because it's always been linked to dancing," he declares with a characteristic flourish.

And while many Sliabh Luachra aficionados would dispute the fact that Pádraig O'Keeffe did, in fact, play in a style reflective of the region in which he lived (arguing that his style was wholly individual), Cranitch is quick to finger O'Keeffe's lasting legacy to the music and to the region.

"He taught a hierarchy of players. At one end of the spectrum, he taught Denis Murphy, Julia Clifford and Paddy Cronin, who went on to inhabit the upper echelons of fiddle players. He also taught a lot of local people who played for their own communities and that was another very important aspect of what he did."

Pádraig O'Keeffe left behind an idiosyncratic system of musical notation which, Cranitch muses, had to be influenced by the teaching methods he learned while in teacher training college.

"In some of his manuscripts, he wrote out a system of rules regarding bowing," explains Cranitch, "and I haven't seen that anywhere else. What they show is his understanding beyond the elemental teaching of a tune. He wanted to cultivate the student's fiddle playing as well as teaching the tune. For example, he had a particular method of teaching a difficult ornamentation which he called a 'trill' - which we now call a roll. His system was governed, I believe, by the rhythmic aspects of the tune. So if the 'trill' came off the beat, they were notated fully, if they were on the beat, he used a capital 'T'."

It's easy to see where Cranitch's fascination with Pádraig O'Keeffe's music is rooted. As a teacher and fiddle tutor author, he's enjoyed a longstanding attraction to the art and act of fiddle teaching.

It was only when he embarked on his doctoral study of O'Keeffe's music and methods though, that he saw how similar their approaches to fiddle teaching were. Small wonder then that O'Keeffe's musical hieroglyphics held such fascination for him.

"Pádraig had two main systems: one for the fiddle and one for the accordion," Matt explains. "He used the five lines of the stave, with the four spaces in between representing the four strings of the fiddle. He used numerals to represent the strings, and a slur sign above the numeral indicated the playing of two or three notes at the one time, whereas a slur underneath indicated a halving of the notes."

In practical terms, the devil wasn't so much in the detail as in the listening.

"For people growing up in the area at that time, this was the pop music of the day," Cranitch continues, warming to the social aspects of his research.

"They heard this music so often that they didn't need everything notated anyway. They knew instinctively how to interpret the music and how it should sound. His notation simply acted as an aide memoire rather than anything else."

People with an appetite for Sliabh Luachra music speak in reverential tones of its polkas and slides. Ironically, reels surpass polkas in the recorded music of the region, but when it comes to the dance itself, polkas are the heartbeat of the music. Even the most rhythmically challenged can hardly resist the temptation to hit the boards when musicians kickstart a polka. It's as if the body's hardwired for the tune. Slow airs too, featured heavily in O'Keeffe's repertoire and that influence is still tangible, as anyone who's heard Jackie Daly's sublime reading of Turas Go Tír Na nÓg will attest.

But for those sturdy of spirit and fleet of foot, the Sliabh Luachra mecca is Dan Connell's pub in Knocknagree, where many moons ago, this writer struggled in an effort to keep pace with the proprietor, who could dance a polka on a pinhead, fuelled by the incandescent box playing of the late Johnny O'Leary.

O'Keeffe died in Tralee hospital in 1963, having been castigated by many for his drinking and his nomadic lifestyle. In many ways, Pádraig O'Keeffe was a prophet not recognised in his own land, but some, like Aogán Ó Raghallaigh or Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin saw him as a true artist following an inner calling.

"Had Pádraig stuck with the chalk and blackboard, chances are we wouldn't be talking about him today the way we are," Matt says. "He had guru status among musicians locally, and many talked lovingly of him. He was seen as a genius, who attained a level of knowledge and understanding of the music which his students could only ever aspire to."

Pádraig O'Keeffe, Denis Murphy and Julia Clifford: Music From Sliabh Luachra Vol 1: Kerry Fiddles (Topic Records, 1977); Pádraig O'Keeffe: The Sliabh Luachra Fiddle Master (RTÉ, 1993)


An Briosca Mor said...

Interesting article, but there are a couple of sentences that left me wondering what exactly Ms. Long was trying to say.

Like this one: ...he spent most of his life as a travelling fiddle teacher and player, welcomed with varying degrees of enthusiasm across the Rushy Glen. Is she just speculating here, or is there documentation about which reveals that in this house Padraig O'
Keeffe was welcomed like the second coming, while in some other house his visit was barely tolerated and at a third place he was shown the door immediately? I mean, the only visitors I can think of who would not be welcomed with some variance in enthusiasm wherever they go would be the Jehovah's Witnesses with their tracts. Right? So what does she imply with this statement, or is it just a throwaway line?

And this one, which I guess is actually Matt Cranitch: "O'Keeffe transcribed Coleman's tunes, note for note, off the 78 RPMs," he says. "The way Coleman bowed them was the way he played them himself, so in effect, Pádraig was translating the tune into his own vernacular. I think that's a powerful thing that musicians do. They can take something from one dialect to another. They're not copying it, but instead taking some of the traits of the music and superimposing their own voice on it." Sounds like he's saying that O'Keeffe played the tunes exactly as Coleman did. If so, how does this equate to O'Keeffe translating the tune into his own vernacular? I would think that to do that, O'Keeffe would have had to play Coleman's tunes in his own style, rather than exactly as Coleman did. Am I confused as to the meaning of "vernacular"?

T said...

Yes, I agree with you--the article itself isn't the greatest ever--better that it exist then not, though.

On the first count: this is badly worded in several ways. I think she means to say that he was greeted with some amount of enthusiasm everywhere--that certainly would be in keeping with the celebratory tone of the article. In truth, though, there were certainly plenty of pubs where O'Keeffe wasn't welcome (he was banned from almost all the pubs in Castleisland, for example), and I wouldn't be surprised if there weren't some private houses as well where he wasn't welcome at all. It's a good question, and I'll have to ask Matt.

Technical point here: "Rushy Glen" is a mistranslation, as you know. "Glen" would be a different word altogether. I have never heard Sliabh Luachra called "The Rushy Glen." Maybe I'm missing something,'s just not common usage.

As for the Coleman passage--I stalled at that, too. She clearly doesn't have a clear idea about what she's saying--and she's misusing the word "vernacular," which refers to language/music shared by a group of people, rather than individual style. Nitpicky, but that sort of error is characteristic of the article as a whole. I can only assume she means to say P O'K played Coleman's tunes with his own bowings--but I do have a niggling doubt about that, as I wouldn't have put it past him to have tried to figure out Coleman's bowings, even if he ultimately didn't choose to use them.

It's a shame, but again, I'd rather the article exist with its imperfections than not have been published. We'll just have to bother Matt for a copy of his diss!

Sophie said...

In more news for the polka-fans. Did I tell you/did you hear that Paddy Cronin in getting the lifetime achievement TG4 Award?

Sophie (who's lived in Ireland too long) said...

As for the "varying degree of enthusiasm". My take on that is that is it a deliberate fudge. As T says, Padraig wasn't very welcome in many Castleisland pubs and probably not in all houses either. However, nowadays the town hosts a festival dedicated to him. My hypothesis would be that the author knows O'Keeffe was often underrated and/or unwelcome but is not saying it in so many words because it is not socially desirable to bring this up now that people have actually come be proud of him. Better to sustain the celebratory tone by being a bit vague on this point.

T said...

Yes, Sophie, I think you're right about her fudging that--but I also think she's generally pretty clueless.