Dave Flynn on his new album, 'Stories from the Old World'

Dave Flynn recently released ‘Stories from the Old World’, an album of some of the composer’s works from the 2000s performed by the ConTempo Quartet, Mick O’Brien, Breanndán Begley, and the Irish Memory Orchestra’s String Quartet. He spoke to CMC about the album and background to the featured recordings.

Your album release is the culmination of years of work. How important was it for you to document this work in recorded format?

The album is 15 years in the making. I composed The Cranning in 2004, The Keening in 2007 and Stories from the Old World in 2008. I realised I had a triptych of works with a strong connecting theme - looking to the ‘old world’ of Ireland to create new chamber music. The works represent a time when I found my voice as a composer, so I felt it very important to get them recorded.

By the time I got around to initiating the recording in 2012 I’d worked with the ConTempo Quartet a lot. They’d performed all three pieces live and I’d composed The Keening for them. They play both works wonderfully, so I’m delighted they recorded them.

For Stories from the Old World I turned to members of my ensemble The Clare Memory Orchestra (now the Irish Memory Orchestra). Uilleann piper Mick O’Brien and his three children Aoife (violin), Ciara (viola) and Cormac (cello), along with Niamh Varian-Barry (violin) completed the Memory Orchestra’s String Quartet. I also enlisted Breanndán Begley for the Irish language singing and narration. These musicians have a natural empathy between themselves and for the piece, which is rooted Kerry music.

The final piece of the recording puzzle was finding a producer. After looking through a few contemporary classical records I like I found the same name appearing all the time as producer - Judith Sherman. She produced the Kronos Quartet and many Nonesuch Records releases for which she’s won 10 Grammys. I decided I’d nothing to lose by sending her my music and, as luck would have it, she liked it and agreed to produce the album.

The music was recorded in Windmill Lane and Charlie Lennon’s Cuan Studio in Spiddal. Judith edited and mastered it in New York.

These works span a particular period in your creative work, 2004–2008. What would say were your main preoccupations musically during this time, and has this musical focus changed or remained the same since then?

When I started composing The Cranning in 2003 I was studying for a Masters in classical composition in the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. At the same time, I was really connecting with the London-Irish trad scene as a performer. Living in this huge international hub made me really aware of what it meant to be Irish in the wider world. My experiences in London gave me the confidence to delve into areas of traditional Irish music that hadn’t really been brought into ‘contemporary classical’ music in any serious way before.

These three works represent a style I developed then which you could call ‘Irish Cosmopolitanism’ - music heavily influenced by Irish culture yet looking to the wider world for equal inspiration. I wanted to get into the heart of Irish traditional music, really understand how it works and then bring some of what I found into contemporary classical music.

I have written a few works that are an extension of this period. These can be defined in two categories – works with classical musicians, and works composed just for traditional musicians.

All this work led me to create my own ensemble in 2012, the Irish Memory Orchestra (IMO), and most of the music I’ve composed since 2012 has been for them. Though the IMO is an orchestra it isn’t a ‘classical’ orchestra. It’s a mix of musicians trained in trad, classical, jazz and other styles. The instrumentation and techniques required to play the music are very specialist. It’s a new genre that hasn’t been defined!

My cosmopolitan spirit has also seen me compose some pieces that have little or no influence from Irish trad though. For example, Winter Variations (2014) is an album of minimalist improvisations for electric guitar and represents another change in direction towards improvisation. I find strictly notated music to be too straight-jacketed for what I want to express.

The string sound in each of the recordings is quite an individual one. Can you explain the reasons behind the approach and how you achieved it?

In each of the works, I brought techniques from Irish fiddle and pipe playing into the string quartet. I achieved this through a lot of research and developmental work with The Smith Quartet, who commissioned The Cranning, and subsequently ConTempo Quartet, who I refined this piece with. One of the key things was to instruct the players not to use vibrato and to generally keep the bow on the string as this is what Irish fiddle players tend to do. Then I had to find out ways to notate Irish techniques like crans, rolls and cuts. The usual notations found in Irish tune books and instruction manuals are technically incorrect from a classical musician’s point of view because they give the impression that the techniques are similar to classical ornaments. So when I notate these techniques I take advantage of contemporary notation methods. Irish fiddle technique is very different to classical string technique and it is a real challenge for classical players to adjust to things that they are basically taught not to do! When ConTempo were recording the piece it took a lot of work to get it as close as possible to the sound I wanted.

With Stories from the Old World I developed the imitation of piping sounds even more. The string quartet play in just-intonation. This is a natural result of playing ‘in tune’ with the uilleann pipes which are in just-intonation. I haven’t notated just intonation in the score, I’ve just indicated that the players should tune to the pipes. This makes certain notes like F# and C# a bit flatter than usual. It’s a sound I really have grown to love, it seems natural, which of course it is! Modern ears have been adjusted to accept equal temperament as being ‘correct’, however ‘just-intonation’ was ‘correct’ to human ears for centuries before the well-tempered clavier was invented!

You continue to work with many of the musicians on the recording, and several have become important collaborators. Is it preferable for you to work with musicians you know or does this matter to you?

I’ve always sought out opportunities to work with musicians I admire and luckily most of them agree to work with me. Musicians like ConTempo and the members of the Irish Memory Orchestra don’t need me to explain my preferences to them anymore. We’ve already been through it all, so it saves a lot of time!

At the same time I always like working with new musicians. They can open up new doors of discovery, so I’m always open to new challenges. However the lasting relationships in music I have are ones where the musicians are ones I get on well with socially also. I think that’s true of a lot of people.

You have decided to release this as a digital-only release with no accompanying CD. Is this by choice or necessity?

CDs are only viable for two types of artists these days. Those who have really wide audiences and record company backing, and independent artists who have significant funding through grants, crowd-funding or personal wealth. For the rest of us it’s not viable to make physical CDs in the digital age. Most people now tend to stream or buy mp3 albums.

I tried for years to get funding and record company backing for this album but was turned down by the Arts Council and Music Network. Record companies don’t give non-pop artists money to make albums anymore, in fact they usually expect artists to pay them to release the album.

So I just went ahead and released the album myself. The costs were very high, so out of necessity I’m only making this album available as an mp3 album through my own website www.daveflynn.com.

This is an approach I’ll soon take with my older albums. I’ve taken them all off streaming services as it doesn’t make economic sense to use services like Spotify and Amazon. I’d need thousands of streams to come close to equaling the amount I’d earn from one digital sale!

The recent EU copyright vote will hopefully change things for the better. I’ll see how that goes and if it makes a fair change then I may put the music on streaming services.

For now, it’s a 100% independent release which I’m hoping people will support by doing something that so many people seem to have forgotten to do these days – valuing the work of creators.

Stories from the Old World is available to purchase here. A number of performances featuring Dave Flynn’s music also take place during September and October. For details see our Events listings or daveflynn.com