For Martin Hayes, Master Fiddler, the Tune is What Counts – Always

By Sean Smith
Imagine if you had a one-time-only 30-minute lesson with one of the most eminent Irish fiddlers of the past two decades. Surely it would be like departing a banquet after eating a few hors d'oeuvres, or leaving an Oscar-winning movie once the opening titles concluded.
That's more or less what Berklee College of Music student Emilio Arredondo thought would happen when he got together recently with Martin Hayes, who came to the school for a series of individual instruction sessions. Fortunately for Arredondo, a little of Hayes wound up going a long way.
"I was expecting to get a tune or two taught to me, but instead I got much more," says Arredondo, a Houston native who plays in a local Celtic rock band. "Martin told me that basically the tune should just flow -- the tune alone, without all the fancy bow and finger tricks, should be the main part of the music. The ornamentation is only used to enhance the already perfect melody. This was an important thing for me to hear, because in my playing I like to emphasize the ornamentation. The tunes in Irish music are so beautiful and rich in themselves that I now realize that the music can really speak to me in so many different ways than I thought.”
Hayes, who has lived in Hartford for five years, is known to most people as the master fiddler from East Clare who has taken the lyrical, slower-paced playing style of his native region and turned it into not only an art form but a meditation on the primacy of melody in Irish music. But he's also cultivated a reputation as a teacher and mentor, especially to young musicians, whether at Berklee, the now-defunct Gaelic Roots festival at Boston College, or the various traditional fiddle music camps -- such as California's Valley of the Moon -- that have sprang up over the past decade.
"I would describe Martin as one of the deepest musicians in any idiom,” says Matt Glaser, artistic director of Berklee’s American Roots Music Program and a renowned fiddler himself. “He's in the mold of the great introverted poet, in that he talks about the avowedly spiritual intent of his art. This is what makes him a great teacher as well as a great musician. One student told me that Martin said to him, 'Don't use your melody to glorify your playing; use your playing to glorify the melody.'
"For Martin, the melody is a deeply wonderful thing you should revere," adds Glaser. "He talks about the 'old guys' who would sing tunes to him, and how they clearly loved the melody; that's the philosophy in his playing. It's ludicrous to approach traditional music as virtuosity. You play the tunes too fast, you lose the beauty."
The fact that a place like Berklee, hitherto more famous for turning out classical, jazz and pop musicians, has now become a wellspring for traditional and roots music is tremendously exciting for Hayes, who sees this development as part of the overall growth in popularity Irish music has enjoyed in the past couple of decades.
“It’s great to see the music moving forward, and being accepted in a wider part of the world,” says the soft-spoken Hayes. “To be sure, there’s something different going on here: Most of these young people at Berklee, or New England Conservatory, or the fiddle camps, don’t come to the music with one genre in mind. They might know a little of the Irish, but they’ve also explored, say, Scottish or Cape Breton styles, or Appalachian, or bluegrass, perhaps even some jazz. So you have to give them something to think about as they continue their exploration, a philosophy for playing the music that hopefully they can take to heart.”
Hayes’ philosophy encompasses not only the importance of melody, but the continual push-pull between tradition and innovation in Irish music. He, along with his long-time accompanist, guitarist/mandolinist Dennis Cahill, have become famous (and, in some quarters, controversial) for their “deconstruction” of tunes, in sets that can go on for 10, 15 or 20 minutes, venturing variations in tone and intensity as well as the notes themselves, and with occasional excursions into improvisation.
“If innovation wasn’t part of traditional music, we’d still be banging rocks together,” asserts Hayes. “The traditional music we heard in, say, the 1960s and 1970s was a departure from the traditional music of the 1920s and 1930s, which was a departure from the music that came before it. The question is, does the music express the fundamentals, the spirit, of the tradition?”
Hayes grew up immersed in tradition: His father P.J. was a founding member of the Tulla Ceili Band and his uncle Paddy Canny was a fiddle player of stature. Hayes started playing at the age of 7, going on to earn six All-Ireland championships before he was 19; he also regularly appeared with the Tulla Ceili Band.
But he went through a period of what might be called deconstruction himself. He moved to Chicago in his 20s and, feeling disaffected from traditional music, wound up joining a multi-influenced jazz-rock band called Midnight Court.
"It was a period of open-ended exploration," he says. "I just felt I needed to break out of where I was, go and see what else I could do, and rejuvenate myself.
"And what happened was, I came all the way back to the tradition."
So Hayes returned to his roots with a renewed love for the music he had known growing, and with two other important elements. One was the idea of experimenting with music, exploring the components and putting it all back together.
The other was fellow Midnight Court member Cahill, with whom Hayes had formed a personal as well as musical rapport. "Dennis has delved into so many different kinds of music, and it was plain to see he had a great way of accompanying Irish music," says Hayes. "The thing is, we're very different. Dennis is an analytical, logical kind of thinker, and I'm entirely governed by feeling and emotion. He fills the gaps."
That intellectual-emotional balancing act is a major feature of their live performances, as one might have glimpsed at their recent concert at Berklee, following Hayes’ mini-residency that week. It’s pretty well understood that when you go to a Hayes-Cahill concert, you go to listen; hand-clapping and foot-stomping along to the music by the audience is virtually non-existent, except perhaps during the finale or encore (in the case of the Berklee concert, a sprightly “Foxhunter’s Reel”). There’s an invitation -- not quite a demand -- for you to pay attention to the way Hayes unfolds the melody, sometimes with full bow strokes, sometimes letting his fingering do more of the work. Cahill, who uses a nylon-string instead of a steel-string guitar, will subtly underline Hayes’ playing with gentle arpeggios and with chords that tend more to shift than change.
At times, each man appears to be entirely within his own world, but then there’s a definitive transition, whether to another tune or to a more upbeat tempo (or both), and they lock into eye contact. It often seems to be a pretty intense staring contest, but now and then they exchange a slight smile as they navigate the remainder of the tune, and the set of which it is part.
Which raises the obvious question: How much of what they do is planned, and how much is left to chance? “Well, we do have the tunes laid out in an order,” says Hayes. “But in terms of how many times I’ll play a tune, or how far we’ll push it, that’s the music of the moment. That’s when the feeling comes in.”
And for Hayes, “the feeling” is a critical link to the tradition in which his musical character was formed, and to which he still feels very much connected.
“I’m very conscious of the past,” he says, “but I’m also aware of playing the music now in the real world. To me, first, it’s music; and second, it’s Irish music. If you get it around the other way, you get involved in other things, like the culture and the history. And that’s fine, but for me I value the connection to the spirit and intention of the music.”