Tradition Now: Garth Knox, Caoimhín Ó’Raghallaigh & Nils Okland at University Church on 20 September 2015

Caoimhín Ó’Raghallaigh has enjoyed a considerable rise in profile since the Gloaming’s debut release in January 2014. He has been recording and performing traditional Irish music for over decade, but in the last 18 months he has been (legitimately) in demand as a player, and in that time has certified his highly original hardanger violin sounds with two exemplary albums (one of which is a duo with fellow hardanger enthusiast Dan Truman). Those who brave the late summer downpour to come and hear his latest collaboration with Garth Knox at University Church on Sunday afternoon, however, are witness to a subtly different musical proposition to his popular recent work.

The concert is part of the National Concert Hall’s “Tradition Now” series, which celebrates the legendary folk singer Pete Seeger. A little under half full, the University Church proves an apt venue for a small-scale concert such as this one. As mentioned, the hardanger violin, which is a first cousin of the classical violin, is the instrument of focus. The first half of the concert is a solo performance by Norwegian hardanger player Nils Okland. Taking the form of long, rhapsodic streams of tunes, Okland’s music moves between sensitive folk melodies and some more contemporary sounds. His control over the bow is mesmeric. While the timbre is a joy to behold, after thirty minutes of solo playing, the natural limitations of the instrument mean that the key changes little. This issue similarly effects the second half performance, and a sense of stasis underpins each piece.

Caoimhín Ó’Raghallaigh and Garth Knox begin their performance offstage, and take the audience by surprise as they individually make their way down the sides of the church, exploring the instrumental textures possible from the combination of Knox’s viola d’amore (another, older cousin of the violin) and O’Raghallaigh’s self-christened ‘hardanger d’amore.’ They eventually break into a slow round of the air Port na bPucai and make their way to the front of the church. From here, we are introduced to further ‘bowed-string’ instruments by Garth Knox, including a viol and a very peculiar looking medieval violin, which was modeled on the instrument often seen being played in pre-Renaissance sacred artwork, usually played by angels. The opportunity to hear one of these instruments played live is very rare, and it is one that the musical audience relish.

Musically, the focus for the most part is on the intersection of medieval music and traditional music. There is both toe-tapping tunes and lingering, Irish ‘keening’ songs. This variety is well needed too, for while the spotlight is on the beautiful instruments, there is a homogeneity of tone to one or two stringed instruments, no matter how well they are played, and the afore-mentioned harmonic stasis is also present at times.

This new collaboration for Caoimhín Ó’Raghallaigh (which for now only has a billing of ‘New Project’), sees much more influence from ancient medieval music, and a comparatively sparser palette than his most recent output, and hopefully there is a recording process being considered for it. Outside of the convenience of a recording, presenting a full-length concert of this music to a chilly audience is no easy feat, but all agree the talent and enthusiasm of Ó’Raghallaigh, Knox and Okland is breathing life into this fascinating branch of contemporary/traditional crossover.