Birkin Tree

A Cheap Present

Dunya Records FY 8009

There are plenty of obvious reasons for people to want to play Irish music: the scope within such strict forms, the beauty and the vigour; and then the challenge to musical skills.  Virtually anytime, anywhere, therefore, you can bump into the Japanese piper and the German fiddler (come to think of it, black musicians don't seem to favour Irish music).  It ought to be heartening.  Sometimes, though, and apart from invocation of a traditional Irish sense of begrudgery, you are led to wonder what is going on: why people especially choose Irish.  Is it, for instance, just for the hell of it?  Is it because they feel that it will open a window on their own cultures?  Is it more to do with making a splash … The incredible upsurge of Irish music has a vast commercial potential which Irish musicians and singers themselves have not been slow to exploit on 'foreign' tours.  Cover pictureOne might suspect the commercial aspect in particular as contributing nothing to any culture save that of the moment: the gig and the image.

This CD, from a north Italian group, Birkin Tree (what kind of a name is this at all?), made me think about these grave matters because (apart from possible self-immolation, of course) a sense of identity is, surely, a constant factor - not, of course, the only one - in the vesting of interest in traditional music: mine, yours, Irish (say); that of Birkin Tree.  Here, there is something of an indeterminate collection of goods: eleven ostensibly traditional Irish tunes, some recently composed tunes from both Irish and from related backgrounds such as Northumberland, and half a dozen of Birkin Tree's own which claim to take known form; plus a couple of songs.

Let's get one thing straight.  There is a very acceptable level of competence amongst the musicians here (I'd be very happy to have a half of it).  If that sounds lukewarm, it's only because one gets so used to a fabulously high level of instrumental proficiency that it's necessary to step back and take stock of what it is that separates the great from the good and, again, from the mundane.  This might help distinguish the eminence and influence of, say, the Bothy Band or, in later years, Altan or whichever new setup is sweeping the boards (the sleeve notes here mention Nomus).  Are we, for instance, to believe that it's about the coming together of brilliance and circumstance that forge a new dimension; or is it a craving for a new fashion?  How far do we respect our responses in the face of a counter proposition that, generally, we're simply being dumb and have been (and continue to be) conned?  Where does Birkin Tree lie in the pantheon?  (They must be accorded any benefit of doubt and given serious attention).

With these things in mind: whilst instrumental proficiency can, to an extent, be taken for granted throughout this CD, the musical outcome is harder to credit. Taking the tracks one by one: we hit an insurmountable objection straightaway in the first - a lack of musical logic which re-surfaces elsewhere on the CD.  Here, there's a poor introduction: a gesture towards what is called here The Lark In The Clear Air (whose pedigree is short, leading to suspicion that the knowledge that the group may possess is pretty shallow), which takes no account of possible words to what is, after all, a song and so relies on the quality of the tune itself for impact but which doesn't allow that quality to emerge because the tune is cut short, serving as a mere precursor to a reel.  Why change the rhythm at all?  What is the point of the juxtapositioning?  If it's a question of indicating variety then insufficient attention is paid to the air to give it credibility.  There are, for instance, too many feeble surface effects.  The balance between it and the rest of the track is curtailed to a point which induces its anonymity.

Still, the entry of the fiddle on the reel, Con Cassidy's, is reasonably well-judged though there are signs of holding back which take the edge of precision off the rhythm.  This lack of bite and an occasional misunderstanding of phrasing at times including a very abrupt ending of one playing and another near copy suggest a lack of true ease and would have benefited from a re-take. (I don't know whether the fiddler is Daniele Caronna or Carlo Galantini: I suspect the latter since this is the only instrument he is credited with and Daniele would appear to serve function more as an accompanist …guitar and buzouki).

At any rate, there's a slack change to the next reel (and it's not the only change on the CD to suffer).  When, eventually, something bigger arrives - predictably - it turns out to be nothing more exciting than a rather obvious bringing in of a full power house of instruments (with percussion from Franco Temporini).  The particular reel, from Clive Cunningham, played, successively, in two different keys does begin with a balance of instruments and some pleasant cross-rhythmic effects, but is then muddled up by an inappropriate chordal progression in the backing where the identity of the tune is compromised: the accompaniment opposing too vehemently rather than complementing the melodic line.  The guitar, in particular, has a heavy presence, as it has throughout the CD (guitars, actually, played by Danielo Caronna - once, on track two - Luigi Fazzo and Giorgio Profetto: shared out amongst the tracks but doesn't three give you an idea of the balance of the group?) and it might have been nice to have one track where it didn't feature.  Not only would this have served up a contrast in the weight of sound but probably made the guitar more welcome elsewhere.  As it is the instrument, as far as I can make out, is always used for backing, never for solo effect…

Various combinations of pipes (Fabio Rinaudo) with harp (Elena Buttiero) and guitar and flute (Simone Sisani) with harp introduce an element of novelty rather than being essential to the progress of tunes.  The total assembly of detail doesn't, in the end, add up and we are left with a display of fair instrumental facility but not so as to present a gift of fine tunes played to enhance them.  The ending itself is a little limp.

This represents personality, but less integrity, in respect of the material.

Track two, begins with the echo of one jig before proceeding into The Gander in the Pratie Hole.  There seems to be no reason for this since it's in no way developed.  Is it a joke?  Is it a mark of style (since it does echo the first track)?  The tune, nevertheless, is carried forward by the pipes in a manner which is neat and complimentary to the tune yet, perhaps, studious to the degree that it might actually cramp excitement.  I see from the sleeve that Liam O'Flynn is credited with teaching.  This could not have been a bad thing and it's worth comparing the piping here to Liam's own on, say, The Given Note (1995) … I sense a determination here to articulate and pace the music which reminds me of Liam.  Another comparison might be with Mick O'Brien's playing on May Morning Dew (1997).  However, it is a little unfair on Fabio Rinaudo here since he is playing within a group context whereas Liam's and Mick's concentration (in these instances) is on solo playing.  My point, in the end, is to offer a compliment in the very comparisons.  Yet the inherent possibilities are pounded to mash by the group's insistence on big sound.

Once again in this track the guitar work is heavy and predictable.  Maybe the point needs expanding a little.  Because of the restrictions of form in Irish music it is too easy to vamp (for want of a better word) along the old three-chord line; and you'd need extra-special care and a lightning imagination to create a different sound.  There are plenty of examples of trying here, of course, but my feeling is that they consistently fail to enlighten.  Irish music is essentially melodic; and so, whilst I can understand the impulse to contribute harmonies, cross-hatching effects and the like, they may well be a peculiar indulgence of a particular musician more in love with the instrument than with what it is supplying to the music.  Initially there's a satisfaction but it quickly wanes and you may end up not really listening.  The backing becomes wallpaper and, by extension, so does the melodic line of the tune.  In group playing, then, you hear sound alright but not necessarily music, the point of which has been lost in the blur of what amounts to hype (the con I mentioned earlier).  Neat, isn't it?  Maybe it's too serious an approach for many, hammer to a nut; but, then, if you can't engage on a serious level - which ought not to imply dullness and a loss of fun and energy - why bother at all?  Test it out.  When you've finished listening to the CD how many highlights can you recall … which particular musical phrases?  I'll bet that what you do recall most easily is merely a big sound.

Whatever, the pipes here are followed by a harp which itself needs more consistency in the strength of fingering (see below).  The flute is heard to quite reasonable effect as far as technical accomplishment is concerned but both here and throughout the CD tends to emerge rather more as a quiet, feathery instrument which is, unfortunately, somewhat overshadowed by a stronger sound on other instruments.  This seems to be a problem of production and is a matter for regret.  Indeed, all the lead instruments make the start of a case for themselves but are all eventually subdued by the ultimate full whack of sound.  Here, various clattering percussive effects somewhere in the background are an intrusion.

Then we hit the illogicality of thought again.  Why is there a hiatus between first and second tune here (The Corsair, a Matt Seattle tune)?  What is the point of changing to a supposedly hornpipe rhythm which, in fact, has much more in common with the 'slow reels' dotted here and there?  After that, consider the wrong-headed chordal progressions; and then how, in the third tune, a version of Flowers of Spring, and despite a pleasant start with fiddles and flute, the playing succumbs to pop mode where effects become managed: a weird overblown sound somewhere up above the tune - is it by a sax? - whilst piano hops about underneath and there is a gross ending to the set.  This is hype and the group takes first position, not the music, which is simply 'used' to promote a sort of ego.  A prominent Irish musician once complained to me that such treatment 'makes an eejit of Irish music'.

The third track begins fairly lightly: two tunes in reel time from Carlo Galantini which he called A Cheap Present and The Session Chaser and which are started at a brave pace - but you know, by now, that, sooner or later, the kitchen sink (including bones and bodhran - Marcello Scotto) is going to be thrown at them.  It's anticipated in the repeated use of the 'doh' note of the tune even where the musical strain changes - from the A to the B part - and a 'soh' would be anticipated in ordinary progression.  This is a common enough trick but there's a sense in which this group's already blown its cover.  We know what's going to happen (predictability).  The link between the two tunes is embarrassing and the echo of its musical phrasing as the tune moves along is really irritating.  Whilst there's a valiant attempt to maintain the impulse of the tune, there's a fiddle mess posed against it and any potential musicianship and the music itself are, yet again, compromised.

The overwhelming sense here is that things are cluttered.  We get too used to the light first playing of a tune and the grinding build-up of force until - wham! - we arrive at the full blast; and, anyway, this is old hat.  Surely, once is enough to make the point.  Eventually we get to the stage when, as yet another apparent opportunity arrives, we anticipate the musicians agreeing amongst themselves …  What'll we do here?  I know.  Something novel.  Let's hit them for six again.

Well, isn't this to misunderstand the nature of the music?  Does it always need the full works?

The singing (Giorgio Profetto), as ever, finds people out; and here I take the two song tracks together.  In the first, Gloomy Winter, by Robert Tannahill, a clear linguistic difficulty is apparent: the emphases on syllables are simply unsound and, together with two different pronunciations of the word 'bud' (say), none of it inspires confidence in the underlying understanding of the sense of the song.  It becomes sentimental and cliched.  It's as if words, tune and instrumental effects from elsewhere have been heard and imitated but not digested - the same story that is found on the purely instrumental tracks.  I'd suggest that this was a poor choice of song in any case needing a full grasp of Scottish vernacular let alone standard received pronunciation for impact.  Further, the overall treatment is sheer Tourist Board: romantic whistle posed against a synthesiser and a ponderous pace where Giorgio's imperfect sense of the run of the language is exposed.

This track is completed by a tune from Fabio Rinaudi called The Early Depart where the piano (Devis Longo) is prominent.  Is the tune, a slow air, meant to be Scots in character?  It has an imitation of the snap which is very slow.  When the key changes we hit pure pop music again: a pity because the flute and pipes are heard well and the fiddle obligato, in another context, might invite admiration.  Even more unfortunately, though, the sentiment of the tune, in memory of a dead friend, declines to soap.

Lonely Waterloo (actually track seven) was also a bad choice.  There's no shape in the narrative line - partly another linguistic problem, perhaps, but more alarmingly because it's so subdued by the singer's mannerisms - waiting for a guitar chord, for example, before the voice comes to rest on the melody (a persistent fault amongst singers who rely on their backing and certainly not one confined to Birkin Tree); false emphases in the latter part of the song, where tragedy is diminished to gesture and emotion simply slops.  This is a bumbling performance and should not have been included.

It's followed by another failure in musical logic: Christmas Eve, for goodness' sake, played as a slow reel.  Now it may have a faint echo in its first few bars of the air to Lonely Waterloo but, surely, it's wholly inappropriate (even in its title and that despite the fact that titles often take on new guises or no guise at all), having been wrenched from its familiar context.  The fiddle croons with itself and dynamics, never a strong feature in Irish music anyway, take over.  And, of course, we get the kitchen sink again where effects are exposed for what they are and do not energise the melodic or narrative line.  Sentiment, on this track as elsewhere, has become sentimental.

Incidentally, since I've mentioned Liam O'Flynn as a positive influence it may be salutary to invoke Martin Hayes - who contributes an introduction to this CD - because, however good a musician he is, he is also ultra-distinctive in a chosen manner, totally unrepresentative of everyday tradition; and it would be dangerous for anyone to take up Martin's approach without understanding why he takes it and (perhaps) without the ability to carry it as a force.  Is he, one wonders, 'responsible' - that is, by example rather than by insistence - for the idea of slow reels here?  If so: Q - I think - ED.

Track five begins with a tune called Skies Through the Leaves (from Simone Sisani) …  What would this lead you to expect?  The use of harp to introduce it (introduction, that is, as in tracks one and two) gives you an idea and I'm afraid that it's apologetic almost.  At least the 'Highlands', when it does begin, comes as a surprise; as it would be then to a dancer.  There are plenty of tricks and posings of one instrument against others but the totality is an indulgence.  So the presentation becomes superficial; and when - slam, bang - there's the usual full Monty, you're beginning not to care.  Everything's already been included somewhere in snatches.  And yet …and yet … once more, the potential is there.  Paddy Taylor's is hit running and the drive is equably maintained in it and the following reel, Nuala's Bonnet, a composition from Joanie Madden: close double-fiddling and a lively flute entry.  It's efforvescent and positive but - alas - even though the pipes confirm this, they are overwhelmed again: a pity because the tune is an attractive one.

Track six offers one of the better tunes composed by the group in The Teacher (Fabio Rinaudo), dedicated to Liam O'Flynn.  It has the virtue of compactness and that apparent simplicity associated with many of the better traditional tunes which, of course, allows it to sit well in the idiom.  Yet, wearily by now, the bang-wallop stuff emerges second time round.  Following this, the flute on Ships in Full Sail has its most prominent exposure - to advantage - as opposed to its shyness elsewhere and the harp works quite well as a restrained accompanying instrument.

I have to say that the position of the harp throughout is ambiguous.  As a solo instrument, it might benefit from a more sustained strength and crispness in the playing.  As a linking instrument - say, during the song, Lonely Waterloo - it mostly fails to do the job - but that may well be due more to the concepts supposedly underpinning the music than it is to the competence of the musician.  If you want to hear a harpist who can make you both gasp with admiration for technique and posit a serious case (one that has not always had an impact in the recent past) that harping belongs as a valid part of contemporary Irish music-playing, listen to Laoise Kelly (of the group Bumblebees and in her own right).

To push on: when the guitar enters on this track (six, that is), the flute sinks back once more.  In the final tune of the set (Mario's) the harp loses impetus; gradually the clean fiddling which follows gives way to all the paraphernalia of effects which do not so much cross-pollinate as work towards a blanket of noise: indulgent for the sake of managing to get all the instruments in.  The ending of the set is, in a word, bathetic.

Throughout the CD, you see, the feeling is that the actual playing of the melodic line is handy enough and each musician in turn displays felicity and facility but they are so frequently swamped that the focus is elsewhere, as I'm suggesting, on an overall group presence which, whatever the intention, tends to elevate personality above music.  This is underlined when the group plays certain tunes too many times as if determined to get as many instruments together as is possible..

Track eight reveals Bliss in Connaught as…yup…a slow reel!  One tends to give up: it's all got so samey … but, to be fair, it might be worth an aside here.  The 'high, lonesome' sound which (as I've said before, probably ad nauseam) is held to be characteristic of the best playing (on the fiddle - Tommy Peoples', for instance; and almost endemic to pipe-players, owing much also to the special nature of the instrument) is effective precisely because of the restricted and unlikely nature of the forms of the music, those of compact construction and strict tempi and the fact that because dance is a strong element there is a sense of joy in it.  If you change the nature of this music - as in our slow reels here - then this beneficial tension fails to burst open.  Brightness and intensity of feeling begin to take on an aura of the maudlin.  Compare this track with track six and the jigs.  There I reckon that they do a better job.

I suppose that track eight would have been conceived as some sort of climax to the volume.  I suppose it is if you review the (by now) characteristic effects employed … treedling harp; slowish pace of the opening reels (Hughie's Cap - not one of Reavy's best, perhaps) … the sudden prominence of the bouzouki in The Galtee overdone … but don't overlook the fiddle variants of tune which, in the context, are unusual and refreshing … the collapse of musical logic when the two opening tunes are finished and there's a strange hiatus (our second clear one) before the group sets off, seemingly madly fast, in Seamus Egan's: surely, better off starting a separate track … usual build up of effects … usual full blast … but the change from Egan's to Tommy Peoples' flows naturally … the introduction of synthesiser in an almost random fashion … a sudden, ridiculous intermission before the final tune, Ashmolean House, from Tommy Gunn …

At least there are risks taken, the group on the very edge of its proficiency.

We end up, though, with what I've described as clutter in a vaguely 'Celtic' manner.  Musical idiom, I suggest, is half understood.  Any distinction that the melodic line has - and it has to re-emphasised that this is supposed to be dance music not music for passive observation - is constantly threatened by a cloud of unregulated backing sound (I've tried to pick out as illustration some examples of the potential in the group's playing).  This may all sound harsh; but the musicians have clearly set out to woo an English-speaking audience - for example, with the inclusion of translations of their notes - and have, therefore, set themselves up.

I did find this review extremely difficult to put together because it would be easy to damn from the comfort of an armchair; but no-one is, I think, served either by facile dismissal or by allowing interpretation to go unchallenged (least of all Birkin Tree).  I take the effort represented seriously.  This CD though, in the end, and despite some obvious abilities amongst the musicians, represents fashionable music, devoid of context other than the stage performance; and it does not make the case for wholesale adoption of Irish music (at least).  The musicians would do well to think hard about the underlying cultural basis of the music: how it came into being and why and how it survived and in what ways development has taken place and in what ways it has remained a conservative force.  They might also discriminate between Irish and other music.  I wouldn't have thought that Scottish singers will be happy with Gloomy Winter.  The approach here throughout - however sincere and flattering the intention - is a superficial one (I'm sorry to say but feel bound to say it) and does neither the abilities of the musicians, nor the music, much justice.

Roly Brown - 27.6.99

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