This week, The Gloaming begin what has become an annual week-long residency in the National Concert Hall. This is an impressive feat for any group, even more so for one rooted in Irish traditional music, a genre which has not always enjoyed the cultural cachet it commands at this present moment in time.
This year’s residency coincides with the release of the group's "Live at The NCH" album, which points very obviously to a key indicator of the widespread appeal of the group. There is something about the unassailable energy of experiencing world-class musicians creatively connect with each other in a performance that captures the audience’s attention, particularly when the performance itself is an unknown quantum waiting to unfold in the moment.
Much has been made of The Gloaming’s ability to transcend the perceived boundaries of Irish traditional music according to the predominant media narrative. This dissolution of boundaries has rendered The Gloaming’s music accessible to a wider demographic. The diverse cross-section of age-groups present at their NCH shows is frequently highlighted as proof of this point, although one might question whether the concert hall as a venue facilitates as much social diversification as is often claimed.
Nevertheless, it is true that the group does incorporate a wide panorama of influences and styles into its core musical material, namely that of the contemporary classical, folk and avant-garde/experimental sound worlds. The inclusion of two musicians in the line-up very much outside of the traditional world in terms of their previous musical experience (Denis Cahill, originally a folk/rock guitarist from Chicago, and Thomas Bartlett, a well-respected American producer, pianist and singer who has worked with The National, Martha Wainwright and Sufjan Stevens), has also imbued the group with a sense of creative freedom and spontaneity that modern audiences find so attractive.
But what is often missing from the narrative is the fact that the innovation and expressivity so often associated with the music of The Gloaming has always existed within traditional music. As musician and scholar Martin Dowling has highlighted in Traditional Music and Irish Society: Historical Perspectives, his analysis of traditional music in the 18th and 19th centuries, "traditional music is not the survival of some ancient and timeless manifestation of the essence of Irishness or the Celtic spirit, but rather a modern pursuit that kept time with the dramatic and sometimes violent modernisation of Irish society." Perceptions of Irish music as a somewhat stagnant and timeless entity are a construct of homogenising cultural narratives, which often do not reflect the dialogic nature of the tradition.
Take for example, the fresh wave of experimentalism amongst a younger generation of traditional musicians and singers has come to the fore in recent years. Ensemble Ériu’s consistent output of high quality contemporary recordings is testament to this, as is Gloaming member Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh’s recent collaboration with viola d’amore player Garth Knox on "All Soundings Are True", a mesmerising exploration of the peripheries of the traditional and contemporary music worlds.
Whilst the creative work that members of The Gloaming engage with outside of the group is arguably more experimental, the sheer star-power of five world-class musicians performing together is a prospect which audiences (and promoters) find difficult to resist. Having said that, there is a unique aspect to The Gloaming’s music which is consistently overlooked. The acceptance of Iarla Ó Lionáird’s singing in the Irish language is intriguing, especially as sean nós singing has been consistently marginalised as a genre both within and outside of the traditional music world.
Ó Lionáird’s sean nós singing within The Gloaming takes on a different meaning than it would ordinarily do within a more traditional context, as most listeners do not understand what he is singing (and he rarely, if ever, sings a full song in English when performing with The Gloaming). This is interesting as it appears to tally with a wider trend in which the Irish language is becoming increasingly visible in mainstream culture- from the much-acclaimed release of the Irish language Joe Heaney biopic Song of Granite to initiatives such as the Pop Up Gaeltacht and RuPaul’s recent tweet as Gaeilge.
The Gloaming’s seven-night run in the concert hall would have followed directly on from the New Music Dublin festival, were it not for the bad weather which forced the cancellation of that festival. Nevertheless, the juxtaposition between the two is indicative of a wider cultural shift in boundary distinctions that has been taking place in recent years.
The Gloaming as a group have become emblematic of this shift and the musical embodiment of a cultural zeitgeist. To suggest this is not to deny the significance of their musical output. Their popularity has opened up conceptions of what traditional music can do and can be to a wider audience, and their work highlights the role of the traditional musician as an artist and as a bearer of culture. Where they go from here in the next few years artistically-speaking will be interesting to follow, given that the weight of cultural expectations have a habit of stifling creativity. Something of their collective experience tells me that that they may well bend these expectations to yield to them.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ