For many, East Clare traditional fiddler Martin Hayes started venturing outside the tradition with The Gloaming project from 2011 onwards, or more recently with the Martin Hayes Quartet since 2016. But the seeds of these new endeavours were probably sown much earlier. In 2009, Martin Hayes commenced a musical partnership with New-York-based string quartet Brooklyn Rider, exploring how a classical quartet could find a common ground with a soloist coming from traditional music.

Originally recorded in 2016 and featuring twelve Irish tunes – ten traditional and two newly composed – the decade-long friendship culminates this year with the release of The Butterfly on In a Circle Records / 251 Records on 9 August 2019 last.

Martin Hayes & Brooklyn Rider - The Butterfly (2019)
Martin Hayes & Brooklyn Rider – The Butterfly (2019)

Formed in 2005, Brooklyn Rider is a New-York-based string quartet dedicated to the performance of a 20th century or contemporary repertoire in a global context while also collaborating with a wide array of master musicians in their respective fields. The quartet is comprised today of Johnny Gandelsman (violin), Colin Jacobsen (violin), Nicholas Cords (viola) and Michael Nicolas (cello).

To date, the quartet has recorded Philip Glass’ string quartets nos 1 to 7, new arrangements of Claude Debussy’s “String Quartet in G Minor” or of John Cage’s “In a Landscape” for strings as well as a new repertoire written especially for the quartet. Recent forays into contemporary folk, jazz or roots music include collaborations with Mexican jazz singer Magos Herrera, with American banjo player Béla Fleck, with American composer and songwriter Gabriel Kahane, with Iranian kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor or with classical mezzo-soprano Anne-Sofie Von Otter.

Learning his music from his own father P. Joe, from local master musicians like Paddy Canny, Junior Crehan, Joe Ryan or Paddy Fahey and influenced by the playing of Dublin fiddler Tommy Potts, Martin Hayes has undoubtedly reinvigorated the fiddling tradition, and by extension the international traditional Irish scene. His groundbreaking and still ongoing partnership with guitarist Dennis Cahill since the mid-1990s has brought to the fore mesmerising live sets with both musicians toying endlessly with key and time signatures. In that regard, the contemporary musical experiment and four outstanding recordings to date with The Gloaming since 2011 sound like a natural progression for the fiddler.

Adopting a similar approach to the Martin Hayes Quartet recording, The Butterfly is concerned with single tunes only. Six tracks were arranged by Kyle Sanna or Dana Lyn, the renowned New-York-based contemporary guitar/fiddle duo associated with the quartet while four tracks were arranged by Colin Jacobsen.

Martin Hayes & Brooklyn Rider – O’Neill’s March / Bob & Bernie / Jenny’s Welcome to Charlie

Arranged by Russian-born and New-York-based violinist, composer and arranger Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin, “The Drunken Sailor” stands out – perhaps because of the slower pace of the hornpipe and its quasi-baroque feel. If many musicians like Mary McNamara, the Kane sisters or Mícheál Ó Raghallaigh have recorded “The Maghera Mountain” before, this is the first time Martin Hayes puts his own reel “on the record” – graced here with a magnificent interpretation.

Many people regard these as throwaway tunes that were overplayed and are no longer taken very seriously. In reality, these are simple, profound and very beautiful melodies. Martin Hayes

Many traditional recording artists nowadays tend to dig deep into the repertoire, looking for alternative settings of well-known jigs and reels, unheard and rare tunes or simply composing new ones all the time. The other objective of the recording was to focus only on “classic” pieces from the repertoire, standard tunes that regularly come up at Irish sessions all over the world and that have already been recorded many times. This has been a constant in Martin Hayes’ career, either with the Tulla Ceili Band, with his solo and duo career or with the Gloaming. The contemporary band gave for instance a new lease of life to a popular reel like “The Sailor’s Bonnet”.

With the exception of “Maghera Mountain” or “Bob and Bernie”, one recent composition by Peadar Ó Riada and recorded with Triúr, The Butterfly features many standards of the repertoire like “Ship in Full Sail”, “An Rogaire Dubh” or the title track. As the 4th most popular tune on The Session database, the slip-jig is the piece that perhaps gets the more contemporary treatment. Arranged by Colin Jacobsen, “The Butterfly” beautifully goes to “a place it might never have flown before” in the violinist’s own words. The slow air “Port na bPúcaí” also acquires new depth too when played with five string instruments.

In the 1960s, Irish composer Seán Ó Riada aspired to emulate classical music aesthetics when he formed his new Ceoltóirí Cualann folk ensemble. Playing in concert halls while dressed in white shirts, black suits and dickie bows, Ceoltóirí Cualann moved away from traditional Ceili Band unison playing. The band brought forward an inventive re-orchestration of traditional songs and tunes which included solo sections and variations within a formal ensemble. This approach culminated in 1969 with the landmark Ó Riada sa Gaiety concert which famously opened with O’Neill’s March and which Martin Hayes and Brooklyn Rider exquisitely review in The Butterfly.

Since that time, several projects have blended classical orchestration with the music of a traditional soloist – Shaun Davey’s “The Bendan Voyage” for instance with Liam O’Flynn as the solo piper, several orchestral suites composed by Charlie Lennon and Mícheal Ó Súilleabhain with various soloists or Dave Flynn’s Irish Memory Orchestra project. Brooklyn Rider’s collaboration with Martin Hayes sits perfectly within this strand of bold cross-boundary projects that bring “new ideas and fresh energy” to both traditions.