Interview #1 - Martin Hayes

April 2008: Martin Hayes (Vol.4 No.5)
Interview recorded by S.Kenan on 12/03/08

While on his sixth tour of Australia, Martin was invited to give a talk to music students at the Victorian College of the Arts located in St Kilda Road Melbourne. After the interview with Martin, I was invited to sit in on a talk he gave to aspiring musicians at the College. Martin was born in 1962 in Maghera County Clare Ireland. His parents were musicians, his mother was a concertina player and his father was a respected fiddler. Since his early teenage years Martin has been entering fiddle competitions and has won many awards for his playing. After a period of playing with a fusion folk rock band in the United States, Martin returned to Irish traditional music and since then has enjoyed a successful career touring and performing on concert stages around the world.

Q. What did you have for breakfast this morning?

A. I had scrambled eggs, mushrooms, grilled tomato on toast and a flat white. It's a tribute to Australia, the flat white, because you never have that anywhere else. I'm not familiar with that concept but it tastes good. So that was breakfast.

Q. Did your early learning on the fiddle involve any analysis or did it purely consist of just learning tunes?

A. It all started as learning tunes. I learned from my father and the form was quite simple, he would just sit down in front of me and play a section of a tune and I would just imitate visually and auditory. He didn't engage in any kind of analysis like hold the bow this way or hold the fiddle that way. There was no discussion at all on how we would do it although I did end up holding the bow and fiddle quite differently from him. So it was all observing and imitating, there was no technical discussion whatsoever. Later on in my time I did begin to examine that myself but it was pretty much kind of a melding of concepts, you know, trying to figure out how to make things happen. It wasn't so much how to learn techniques as to make certain things happen. So you begin to figure out what you need to do to make that happen so that way the technique gradually evolved but it was pretty much driven by the tune and driven by the desire to make the tune go a certain way or do certain things. The techniques were pulled forward by the melodies and the attempt to get the melody to do something.

Q. Do you remember the first tune you learned?

A. It was a very simple little jig and it didn't have a title apart from 'a,c,a'. That's what my father used to call it. The tune would just go 'a-c-a, a-c-a, a-c-a d-b, a-c-a, a-c-a, a-c, b-a.' So I got a basic learning of what the notes were and things like that. It was just a very simple kind of lullaby little jig.

Q. Was your father teaching you to play for dancing or more for listening?

A. It was really just music at that stage really although he was involved in a Ceili band and playing for dances quite a lot. We were both aware that music was something that you listened to and appreciated as well, it could be played in a number of different ways, it wasn't just about dance music, it wasn't just about a session. One of the things I remember my father used to love, if he was at a session, he wanted to hear everybody individually. He would love to get people to play a few tunes on their own, in fact he hated coming back from a session and never having gotten to hear such and such a player. There was always an appreciation for the subtlety of each musician's way of playing.

Q. Can you read music and do you think reading can help?

A. I can read poorly. One of the things about the music of course is you can learn it quite easily without learning to read music so whatever skills you have can become very lazy in that department, at least that would be in my case. The other thing was I learned first by ear and so any knowledge of reading music was something that I felt I should maybe look at a little bit afterwards. I have never used it a whole lot to be honest and I am not a fast sight reader but I can do it slowly. I actually prefer to hear things and at some point, whether you read it or whether you learn it by ear, it's just a tool, whether you are doing it by ear or reading it. At some point the music has to be internalised anyway. It is not a music that works well off the sheet.

A. I think it's (music reading) is a good learning tool but I wouldn't think that you would want to sit playing this music with a music stand, it's not how it works best. Having said that, loads and loads of the old musicians around County Clare, which people often may not have realised, were avid readers of music. Paddy Canny and Martin Rochford and all these people were scouring through all the books of Irish music at the time because recordings weren't as prevalent as they are now and it wasn't as easy to access other music. In County Clare the older musicians did read music.

Q. What do you see as the major difference between Classical violin playing and traditional Irish fiddle playing?

A. In Classical music, because it is score driven, it is conductor driven and in that respect one assumes often that you will be moving either into a quartet or an orchestra or something of that nature, that what one needs is standard technique. You need established standard techniques so that the instructions on sheet music are uniformally realised so that what the conductor sees on the sheet is something the musician will play. So it is not highly individualistic so that there is uniformity in the orchestra, there is some predictability in getting from the score to the end result. They require uniformity of techniques, standard ways of doing things and they require people to do that. Now in Irish music I think it's a more organic process of personally evolving styles. A lot of it centres around the notion that everyone takes their own trajectory and journey to this and you bring to bear your own concepts and ideas in terms of how to get tone and rhythm and expression into your music. It becomes a lot more individualistic even though on some level it is probably a more communal music than Classical music in a way because people just come together and play. It can be rough around the edges at times but it kind of hones in on something you know, at the session many times. You will find every fiddler has distinctive qualities. I am just looking at your magazine here, you have Gerry O'Connor, Kevin Burke; completely different sounds and if you were to include Frankie Gavin, a completely different sound, or Sean Keáne from the Chieftains, an utterly different sound. You have to wonder how in one genre of music you have the instrument sounding radically different, radically different bowing approaches. So that's the big difference between Classical music and Irish music, you have radically different ways to approaching the instrument inside
that genre.