In approaching our vocal music, that style of singing traditional songs which is called in Irish the “sean-nós” – the “old style” – it is best to listen as if we were listening to music for the first time, with a child’s new mind; or to think of Indian Music rather than European. – Seán Ó Riada – Our musical heritage (1962)

Cuar is a new innovative trio whose music is grounded in Irish traditional music and sean-nós singing while also referencing improvisational jazz, Indian classical music and the structures of western classical chamber music. Led by Clare-born musician and composer Neil Ó Loclainn on double-bass and flute, the trio also features classical/traditional fiddler Aoife Ní Bhriain and jazz clarinet player Matthew Berrill. Both Neil Ó Loclainn and Matthew Berrill are also member of the superb Irish genre-bending Ensemble Ériu. Introduced as “a specular suite in five movements”, Roscanna was released on Raelach Records on 7 April 2017 last.

Cuar - Roscanna (2017)
Cuar – Roscanna (2017)

Bartok is a huge influence on Cuar and his string quartets n◦4 and 5 were the initial inspiration for the specular structure of our new album ‘Roscanna’ –

Like Béla Bartók’s string quartets n◦4 and 5, Roscanna also features 5 movements. The first and the fifth (two slow airs) and second and the fourth (two dances) are thematically related while the third movement is standing alone. “Bádaí na Scadán”, the only traditional slow air on the album is a reprise of a song which was originally recorded by Eithne Ní Uallacháin on Cosa gan Bhróga in 1987.

An air on solo flute introduces the album, but very soon, a tanpura-like drone on the violin followed by bass clarinet plunges the listener into an eastern soundscape. Yet “Rosc” is a new composition echoing traditional Irish slow airs. This is the basic premise of the album: within a western classical symmetric progression, the album also introduces a personal exploration of Irish music through the prism of Indian classical music.

Many musicians and scholars have already suggested oriental connections to Irish music – the late Irish composer Seán Ó Riada of course as well as Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin or Irish filmmaker and writer Bob Quinn for instance in his fascinating research on the origins of sean-nós singing – all pointing to subtle eastern inflections in phasing or ornamentation going back centuries but which have survived in the oral tradition.

Following several visits to Southern India, having studied the Carnatic tradition and practised the music, Neil Ó Loclainn notes that the experience “made me think about how the music doesn’t really start and finish – it’s always flowing. We’re just picking up on it and transmitting it through instruments.”

Roscanna is replete with short motifs or phrases that are repeated and elaborated upon. Mirroring the stylistic patterns of traditional Irish music, the phrases will sound familiar to traditional musicians. Yet, grounded by the double bass, the harmonic variations on the clarinet and within the structure of the album, they shine under an entirely new light.

At different stages of the suite, the clarinet or the violin take on the role of the drone, while at other times they drive the melody. Comprised of 5 tunes, the central third movement broadens the scope and opens the door to free-flowing jazz improvisation. At this point in time, the clarinet of Matthew Berrill and the violin of Aoife Ní Bhriain navigate the same waters as Irish reed player and master improviser Seán Mac Erlaine whose two solo albums to date also focus on a reinterpretation of the slow air tradition.

The literary references in the song titles – Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics (“QfwfQ”) or James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake (“Zezere”) – hint perhaps at the experimental if not cosmic nature of the movement. “QfwfQ” witnesses a total deconstruction of the melody immediately followed by a newborn reel “Zezere”.

As a trio of contemporary musicians, Cuar are suggesting a very interesting curved path around an already thriving and living tradition. Seamlessly blending written with improvised sections while recording all tracks in one take brings a palpable edge to an album which should be listened to as if the music was heard for the first time, “with a child’s new mind”.