Interview - David Game

June 2006: David Game (Vol.2 No.6)
Interview recorded by S.Kenan on 15/04/06

This special 1st Birthday Edition of the Fiddle News features an interview with Canberra based fiddler David Game. Traditional Irish music has captivated Dave since the 1970's and his playing and fiddle technique demonstrate a thorough knowledge of this style. Dave tells his story inside….

Canberra has always had a strong folk music community and the National Folk Festival found its home there in 1992. Each year musicians, dancers and folk music enthusiasts from all over Australia meet up at the 'National' and renew friendships, play tunes and catch up on news. This year I went along with my fiddle and tape recorder and interviewed a long time musical friend David Game. The 1983 National Folk Festival was held in Canberra at the Australian National University and I remember Dave and Chris Cole and playing Irish fiddle style. This was early days and these Australians were having a serious go at playing traditional Irish tunes. I immediately felt I wasn't alone trying to tackle this complex style. Here were players attempting grace notes and rolls and going for the 'right feel' plus they mainly played reels! This was more like it! Bush bands avoided reels and opted for the easier tunes and the sessions contained mainly music from the bush dance repertoire. Twenty three years later I was back in Canberra talking about to Dave one of the loves that has shaped his life, the fiddle.

Q. What is your earliest memory of the violin?

Its fairly late Sean really. I didn't get my hands on a violin until my late teens, I never even saw one up close and then it was a couple of years before I even tried to do anything on it. So it was quite late. We had a piano in the house, my great grandfather's piano as it turns out. He was an Irishman. There was music in the house, there were musical instruments but not a violin. Mum and Dad had a bit of a go at the piano. Dad liked a few hymns and a few psalms. One of my ancestors was George Sproule born in Dublin and emigrated to Australia in 1879. He was a classical musician, a concert pianist. He lived in Leipzig, he lived in Europe. He obviously had a huge life change, he got a religious calling at the age of forty, emigrated to Australia and started a family.

Q. Who taught you. How did you learn to play?

Well I think I came via the guitar, trying to play folk songs and things at around fifteen years of age, few Bob Dylan songs, that kind of thing. I got to hear Bluegrass as well as Bush music. High school was basically Rock music. I was eyeing off fiddle, mandolin and banjo whenever I heard it but it was more via American Folk Rock or Bluegrass, I never heard any Irish music at school. Alex Hood at school concerts, that kind of thing, circling around it, that kind of thing. He was touring around 1970/69, something like that. I got to Sydney and there was a big Bluegrass scene around Balmain. Chris Duffy was a big influence around that scene. I had a few lessons from him. It wasn't gelling, it was hard to get a group of people who knew what they were doing. I have continued to enjoy Bluegrass from a distance.

Q. Did you have formal lessons on the fiddle?

No. None at all. The process was I got to Sydney late 1976/77 with a mandolin. My cousin Phil Butterss got into some Irish music in Melbourne and when he got to Sydney we met up. I was at this dead end with Bluegrass. Phil was playing whistle and he had a few polkas and I tried accompanying him on the guitar. This got a bit interesting and I think there was a Chieftains record floating around by then. This was about 1977. I had moved up from Canberra to Sydney and Phil moved from Melbourne.

Phil met up with Mort and Pat and those guys and they actually founded the session at the Bristol Arms on a Sunday night in Ultimo. This is where it really kicks in. John J. Noonan, Jimmy McBride (fiddle), Jimmy Malarkey on box, Derek Chetwynd on banjo, they were the kind of nucleus. Kevin Doyle must have been there but I remember him more from the Gaelic Club. It was a little back room, very small, just the devotees along with us our walkmans. I walked in and I was hooked, I heard a set of reels going. Those tunes I associate with those players are the classics, the Mountain Road, the Merry Blacksmith and the Silver Spear and all those. We would tape all the way through. They were very welcoming actually, especially John J. Noonan, bodhran player, big man, big smile, he would always said g'day.

When a tune came past you would gradually try and play along with one you recognised. We would be playing at home trying to get something ready for next week. A friend from Canberra, Paul Mason I think happened to blow through and he had played the violin as a kid and he just turned up one day. It was the first time I actually saw one close up and actually got my hands on it. I was about 24 or something and then I made the connection with that and the mandolin. I remember thinking, 'I would love to play that but I don't dare, I just put it on the side, it's on the side for now.'

Meanwhile I persevered with the mandolin and there was a guitar shop in Oxford Street Darlinghurst and I got a banjo, a Ludwig four string. It's not a great instrument but it was enough to have a lot of fun with. Also what came on at this stage was a record by an Irish American ethnomusicologist who was out here recently, Mick Moloney and he had a banjo and mandolin on that record. Some great sets, a great chunky set of reels on there. The Graf Spey I think was one of them and some nice hornpipes so I learnt those on the mandolin and then got this banjo around the same time in 1978. It all starts to kick in going to this Irish session. So that went for a couple of years really.

Then we started realising there were records out there, people like the Bothy Band, Kevin Burke and De Danann of course because it had a banjo on it. They were part of a revival and the standard was incredible, they are still benchmarks to this day. To go from your little session and your little lounge room effort to that is an amazing leap. The speed is so inaccessible for many I suppose, and the musicianship. We are at a bit of a distance. We have got the session there and the inspiration but there is no one sitting down with you. We haven't really got anyone training us. I have to say it is very self taught and very much the blind leading the blind. There were some music festivals going at the time, St Albans, Gulgong but as far as people listening and commenting on your style, nothing. No feedback but always encouragement from your friends which is natural.

It wasn't until I managed a trip to Ireland much later,1988 where I saw such a range of people playing. When you see kids, you see older people playing, when you see a range of standards and styles you suddenly realise there is a place for one's own kind of effort. Its not all about the absolute rank beginner verses the virtuoso, there is a great space in the middle where people are playing music and making some good music but it took me a while to find that space. You are striving so hard for the almost impossible, I mean who doesn't try to play like Kevin Burke at some stage or Frankie Gavin. Just when you think you have nailed it you stick it on again and think 'Wow'.

Once Johnny Carty hit town that was fantastic. He had a completely different repertoire to what we had heard. The banjo was so out there and he also had the fiddle and flute. He gave some lessons when he was touring (1983) with Brendan Mulkere down here at the Downer Music Centre and a lot of the Canberra people came. John Carty had hugely interesting variations and when he taught a tune he always taught a range of options. Whole chunks of the tune would go off somewhere else and he would lock it back in a couple of bars later, it was his trademark. I never got to know him very well.

Q. How attached are you to your instrument?

It's a first love this particular one. I have also got a second one that I really wanted to like a lot and I am still getting to like it but it is taking about fifteen years. I bought it up on the North Coast in 1989. A dairy farmer had had it and I thought it was really interesting that this farmer had this fiddle. It's a nice instrument, it looks nice but it hasn't quite got the sound I like. I think it sounds quite well and occasionally it comes out.

Q. Do you remember your first attempts at fiddle playing?

Its funny, I think I must block them out like kind of a bad car crash. It was pretty faltering and pretty horrible. It was more the tone than the intonation. The intonation wasn't too bad because of the mandolin even though you get bit of a shock sometimes, even now when you listen to your pitch, sometimes its wonky. For me it's the tone and the bowing. The bowing still is the challenge of the instrument. The fingers were moving from the mandolin. I think its all about the bow. Its like a paintbrush. Its how the tune is really coloured.

"It's all about the bow. It's like a paint brush…"

David (right) with his daughter Helena at the national folk festival, fiddle workshops Easter 2007When you look at a player you are always looking at what they are doing, the jumps or patterns, the little figures of eight and of course every one is doing it differently. It's fascinating and the really interesting thing about the fiddle is how you bow a tune. We have all asked that question, "How do you bow a tune?" There is no answer. It is how do you want the tune to sound. You think up and down, you think that's the end of the story but of course its only the beginning. I think you start putting emphasis on the down don't you. You have to be much more open to where the tune is going. The bow has really got to serve you really. It can't impose its own will on things. It's the real magic of the instrument.