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Josie Nugent & Brian Stafford - the space between the notes…

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“It’s powerful altogether to see musicianers rooting and plundering in the old (and new) collections like weans with new toys. It is also powerful to hear dacent tunes one doesn’t know, instead of the nearly standardised menu that has gone the rounds too often.” So says Rev Gary Hastings, the renowned flute player from Belfast, in the sleevenotes for Josie Nugent and Brian Stafford’s debut album, The Caves Of Cong.

Indeed, this isn’t your usual Irish traditional album with the standard mix of tunes – it is something a wee bit different. It is an album which pays homage to the music of old manuscript collections, some of which date back to pre-famine times in the 1840s. Although many of the tunes are familiar and other versions of them are played today, these versions haven’t been heard in recent times, at least not like this. Josie and Brian have brought them back to life with their own interpretations of the music as collected. It is a project borne of a long love affair with the collections and one which adds something really valuable to the catalogue of traditional music CDs being released today.

Josie is a fiddle player from Co. Clare and is a multiple All-Ireland fiddle champion who learned from Tony Linnane amongst other people. Her style is very much rooted in the area where she grew up. As a youngster, she spent a lot of time with the older musicians, listening to them playing and talking about the tunes. They introduced her to the old collections and Josie was fascinated by the amazing store of tunes that were out there. And so the door to the world of the old tunes was opened for her.

Brian was born and bred in Derry. He had a liking for all things bagpipe from a young age and in his early teens he heard the uilleann pipes for the first time. He hooked up with Finbar McLaughlin, a Derry pipe maker and teacher and this started a lifelong passion for the uilleann pipes and traditional music in general, which led to him also winning an All-Ireland title. He was introduced to Tunes Of The Munster Pipers by a neighbour who was researching the origins of traditional music. This collection, which contains over 500 tunes from the manuscript collection of James Goodman, set Brian on a path of discovery and soon he was unearthing tunes from several other old collections.

Both Brian and Josie spent several years away from Ireland, but were involved in music in England. Josie lived in Cambridge where she found the scene quite different to that of Belfast (where she had studied for six years) or home in Clare. She met Martin Green (now of Lau fame) whose house was ‘the party house’ and through whom she met a lot of other musicians. She did a Masters in music therapy and decided to move back to Ireland to practice. Meanwhile Brian had been at university in Leeds and then living in York where there was lots of music of all different genres. He took the attitude that he wouldn’t see any door as being closed musically: – “Sometime you get ideas from other things. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t, but I would never say, ‘that’s not traditional so it can’t be done’.” Moving back to Ireland a couple of years ago, he met and began working with Josie and their similar love of the old collections came to the fore again. There was a project just waiting to happen.

But moving back brought problems of its own. After spending years away, both Brian and Josie found that the music scene they had reappeared in had moved on and was quite different to the one they had left years before (and the one they had left in England). Now living and working in Belfast, they found the scene a little harder to break into than they had expected.

“Coming back when you are older is harder,” says Josie. “It seems to be more about gig sessions – everyone is getting paid. And the music is far more frantic and fast. I tend to try to go to the sessions where the people I knew before will be – the scene has changed and re-integrating when you are older is not as easy.”

Brian goes further: “As well as that, a style has developed, especially amongst the younger musicians. I would say it is almost aggressive – they never give the tunes the chance to breathe. On the other hand, we’ve been looking at the collections and finding that the melodies are very different. They are written differently to the muscle memory that people have developed, so we have been trying to simplify our style to make it suit the music that we have been finding. The mainstream is going the other way and that could bring some conflict.”

While living in Cambridge Josie began teaching kids and she continues to be a sought after teacher. She finds that there have been changes in this arena too. “The competitions have become much more competitive, probably because the teachers themselves have become more competitive, and at some stage it ceases to be enjoyable. Trying to attain a competition standard can become a dispiriting experience. I want to be able to develop a child as a musician, not just teach them to play a few tunes really, really well. I think the competition ethos is evident in a lot of people’s playing now. But where is the lilt? Where is the space between the notes? It is often lacking.”

This brings us very neatly back to Josie and Brian’s CD, The Caves Of Cong, where “the space between the notes” is very evident and is partly what marks this CD out as different. Brian and Josie noticed that the tunes they found in the manuscripts didn’t fit the way tunes are played in the more contemporary style of traditional music. They required a more sedate speed for a start. Brian explains further: “There is always something in the melody that suggests the speed a tune should go at. We were very careful about the paces that we picked. I’ve always liked taking a tune steadily anyway – the melody comes through and is much more expressive for it. Josie and I are quite likeminded from that point of view.”

Josie tells us more about the differences with the tunes on their CD. “We made a very conscious decision to leave the tunes alone rather than playing them using the current techniques of ornamenting and delivering tunes. We wanted to play them as you can hear them when looking at the manuscripts. Goodman notated ways of embellishing a tune – when playing his way you don’t do rolls normally – it’s a different way. It’s actually quite fun, but quite difficult. You have to force yourself not to do it the normal way.”

Josie talks again about the “space between the notes” and how the temptation is to fill them in, but how she and Brian have deliberately left the spaces alone and kept the tunes simple – just as they were written. “Doing that is a skill in itself,” she says, “moving away from the very ornamented style back to something simpler. Though, even within the old stuff there is massive diversity and there are unusual tunes, ones that aren’t just ‘straight’ – so it is not just the modern composers who can write like that.”

Of course, learning and playing tunes this way requires being able to read music well and Josie talks about looking at the “shape of the tunes” and being drawn to them due to their unusual structures or melodies. Most traditional musicians play by ear (and Josie and Brian usually do) but being able to hear a tune in your head as you look at it has been a distinct advantage for them in this project.

Though the Goodman tunes feature prominently in this collection, Josie and Brian have also plundered some of the other old collections – namely those by O’Farrell, Petrie and Roche - but in a slight twist, they have also included tunes by a modern day collector, Nigel Boullier. Back in the 70s, Nigel was told that “there is no fiddle music from County Down” and so he set about proving that theory wrong. His resulting book, Handed Down: Country Fiddling And Dancing In East And Central Down, contains many tunes he collected from lots of old players in the area. Brian says: “It is a passionate piece of work from over 30 years of integrating with these guys. It’s not just tunes; it’s more of a complete social history. It also has a simple format and is really easy to use.”

When asked if all this work with music collections would make them want to go out collecting themselves, as Nigel has done, both Josie and Brian have a think about it, but agree that their interests probably lie elsewhere. Brian has a mathematical, analytical mind and confesses he would be more interested in musical technicalities such as how to make a set of pipes that works. Josie is more attracted to the composition side of things and is already using her musical abilities and music therapy training in community projects in the North West area. One such, called Music Bridge, trains people to be community music leaders, teaching them how to run workshops and other musical activities with the emphasis on creative, improvised music.

Having a wide range of musical interests such as these obviously helped when it came to the making of The Caves Of Cong and again, there are other features that make it stand out as different. Brian plays uilleann pipes both in D and in Bb – both sets, but particularly the Bb set, having a mellow and warm sound. In addition to her usual fiddle, Josie also plays the octave violin and the Stroh fiddle (a fiddle that is amplified through a metal horn, devised in the days before microphones) – both adding distinct textures to the sound and particularly effective during the slow airs on the album. They also employ the talents of Alan Burke on guitar, Edel McLaughlin on piano and Mary Nugent (Josie’s sister) on flute, helping to complete the sound though allowing Josie and Brian, and in particular the tunes, to shine.

Brian says in the CD sleevenotes: “We feel there is character, simplicity and beauty in the music we found; it has been our inspiration. Josie and I are presenting our own interpretation of the music as it was when collected which is, in turn, the collectors’ interpretations of what they themselves heard and transcribed.”

And so they play their part in the process, in the passing on of these traditional tunes as they were at that point in time. Having them written in manuscript form regularises the rhythm, and so Josie and Brian have been able to recreate what people might have done all those years ago, or at least their interpretation of it.

In the next while, Josie and Brian plan to take their music back to England, to the musicians and places they know there, and to promote it further in Ireland. They both have day jobs and realise the limitations these bring, but feel that not having gone down the straight traditional music path and having ‘mixed careers’ means that making a living entirely from music would be a bit more difficult.

“So it is then even more important to create a meaningful project when it comes to making a CD,” says Josie. “The Caves Of Cong has only a fraction of the tunes on it that we have found and would like to record, so there will be a Volume 2 and maybe a Volume 3 at some point. It’s an ongoing project.”

by Fiona Heywood

Published in Issue 105 of The Living Tradition - Buy the printed version of this issue from our online shop