Kevin Burke Interview 2012

Irish fiddle legend Kevin Burke performed in Melbourne in 2012 and I was able to ask him some questions about his life as a professional player. Kevin is constantly touring and performing in Europe, Ireland and the USA either as a solo fiddler or with bands like Celtic Fiddle Festival. Kevin was born in London of Irish parents and began violin lessons as a boy. He was taken along to Irish music sessions from a young age and musicians were often invited back to the Burke household. Kevin went on to become fiddler in the famed Irish group, the Bothy Band and since then he has gained worldwide recognition as a skilled concert performer and teacher of Irish fiddle.

Q. You now do solo fiddle shows as well as band performances. Performing on stage alone for almost two hours must be a daunting task. When did you know this would work? Well I knew it was going to work for me because this is how I heard the music as a kid. I would go and hear Bobby Casey play. I would go and hear Brendan McGlinchey play. I didn't go and hear a band although on some occasions I did. Music at our house or music at other people's houses would definitely be a guy playing on his own. I got used to hearing musicians playing on their own. About fifteen years ago I had been living and playing in America for a while and things were going pretty well but I started to think that nearly all the people I play to have no idea that this is typically a solo music. Were they aware that it was a solo music tradition before the Folk group became popular? If there were two or three musicians playing together they would usually be playing in unison. They would all be playing the melody, there was no accompaniment.

Q. How important are sessions for musical development? I would say they were very important to me. How important are they to me now, less so. The sessions I went to had a very strong social scene. The players wouldn't be going specifically to play music. They would be going to have a few drinks, to meet their friends and hang out and what you did in that environment was play music. Sunday morning I used to go to lots of different sessions and I would always bring the fiddle. If the music wasn't there I probably wouldn't have gone. I was going to sessions where there were great players. Not all of them were great but the good ones would bolster up the session. There were few bad players and no beginners. You practiced at home. You didn't go to the session as a novice. You had to kind of qualify before you were welcomed at the session and to this day I would rarely play without being asked. In America I have seen lots of sessions with people who don't play very well and a lot of people, ten, fifteen, twenty people and I think something like that can get a bit out of hand. It is not very enjoyable and you can't hear each other. There was one session I would go to fairly regularly and there were two guys, Raymond Roland on the accordion and Liam Farrell on banjo. Now Roger Sherlock would often join in and I would often join in but Liam and Raymond were the core. What would usually happen was Paddy Taylor would play a few tunes on flute with them or he would be invited up to play a few tunes on his own and then he would play a few tunes with the lads. Then I would be invited up to play a few tunes on my own then a few tunes with the others. But it wasn't usually everyone who came into the pub just joined in then you ended up with ten or fifteen people playing. Now that did happen once in awhile but it wasn't the norm. So the groups were fairly small, four or five and very high quality playing and you wouldn't play unless you were asked in case you would interfere. If you weren't going to improve the session, you probably wouldn't join in. Often you would have to be convinced, the others would convince you, "No its better if you play, we think it would be better if you played with us."

Q. You have a beautiful tone. How do you get this? I really don't know or I don't know how to explain it. Well I remember my music teacher was invited back to the house specifically to play her some records of Irish music and when she heard Michael Coleman she used this phrase and it really stuck with me, she said. "He finds the soul of his instrument." I didn't know exactly what that meant but I took it to heart and it is something I try to do. I watched Sean McGuire for a long time and he used to live in London and I heard other musicians talk about Sean. They used to say he had a great fiddle and then someone else would chime in and say "But I heard him on other fiddles and he still sounds like that. He manages to get a great tone out of the fiddle; whatever instrument he is playing." So that made me realise it is not simply, you get yourself a good fiddle and then you will get a good tone. You still have to work it, you know, you have to draw it out. The basic manoeuvring on the fiddle is you stroke the string on one end and you finger the string down the other end and other than that there is not much going on so obviously that is where the tone comes from. Then there is the instrument that affects the tone, but how do you draw it out? Trial and error is a big teacher and I was lucky enough to have a good teacher. Your own ear also. If I gave my instrument to someone else it wouldn't sound the same as when I play it.

Q. How can recording help musical development? You mentioned it can help with improving intonation and timing. Yes, it is a harsh lesson usually. I found out it doesn't sound the way I imagined it to sound. I am better at it now because I have had a bit of experience. You know the first time you hear your own voice it is quite a shock because you don't really think you sound like that, and it usually is an unpleasant shock. So it is a similar thing playing the fiddle but after recording a lot I kind of have a fair idea how that is going to sound when I record.
Q. How did you tune up in the early days? Now days we have electronic tuners and I think people in the traditional world are now playing better instruments than those available to players twenty, thirty, fifty years ago. Strings have improved. It is easier to stay in tune these days. When I would go to those early sessions there would be accordions and you can't tune an accordion on the fly, you just have to make do with the way it was tuned. Most accordions then were tuned with a fairly wide variation. They would have multiple reeds not all tuned the same so there was a wide pitch called "wet" tuning (opposed to "dry" tuning where the reeds are all tuned to the same pitch) There was a broad spectrum and the note was quite wide. Then you had things like fiddles, flutes, whistles and pipes which are all variable. A lot of these instruments are not in tune with themselves. Back then it was hard trying to find an instrument that was in tune with itself so you would have to compensate. People would over blow if they noticed even. A lot of them wouldn't even have noticed. A lot of people didn't pay as much attention to the tuning then as they do now. I remember the first time I used a tuner and it was amazing how quickly the tuning problems went away. I was often unsure if I was in tune or not. When you play with another instrument and you hear a sour note you think, "Is it coming from him or is it coming from me?" So you would be fishing around. I would tune up and he would tune down and we would be chasing each other kind of thing. It was like pushing peas around a plate, all this tuning and nothing is getting any better.  Once we got the electronic tuners it was very easy then to say, "I'm fine, he's out of tune. He needs to adjustor the other way around. He's fine, it's me that's out of tune and I need to change that third string."

Q. When performing should you avoid doing what?
 I think you should avoid putting yourself before the audience.  I think you should avoid thinking you are more important than the music. In a concert setting the audience have taken time out of their day, time out of their lives to come and sit and listen to you and they paid money so there is a kind of responsibility for the performer to justify the audience having taken this time and spent that money. That in itself is a tribute to your music. So from the musician's point of view they need to meet that tribute with an equal or greater tribute. In my case I feel the main thing they have come to hear and see is the music being played. If I was there without the music I would have nothing much to offer. If I was asked to stand up in front of an audience and give a speech at a wedding let's say, a best man's speech, I would find that really harrowing. I don't have much faith in my speech making ability but I have a lot of faith in the music I am trying to play. I think the audience needs to see some kind of a clue to see that I am dedicated to what I am doing and have been for a long time and that I really like it. I think that if they can see that, they are usually on your side and they will come with you and enjoy it with you. I honestly think that if this music is well presented then most people will enjoy it. That is what I try to do. You don't have to be a dedicated follower of this kind of music to enjoy it but if you are not a dedicated follower of this kind of music you need a bit of help and I try to supply that help. Now if I am playing to a certain kind of audience I don't tell them this is a reel and this is a jig because they know that but to an audience that is unfamiliar with Irish culture, what is a reel is a useful piece of information. They have heard the Irish jig term so I will make it plain that this is what a jig sounds like and that there are different kinds of jigs, there are slip jigs, there are slides and hop jigs. But if I was playing in East Clare I wouldn't announce to the audience that there are many kinds of jigs. They know that. That would be considered talking down to them. They don't want to hear that nonsense. But in another context that can be a very useful bit of information that makes it easier for the people to appreciate the music. So that is something to avoid, leaving the audience out in the cold.