Interview - David Game
June 2006: David Game (Vol.2 No.6)
Interview recorded by S.Kenan on 15/04/06
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
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
Q. What is your earliest memory of the violin?
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
Q. Who taught you. How did you learn to play?
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?
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
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.'
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.
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
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?
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?
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…"
(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.