Thursday, 31 December 2009

The Lonesome Touch

[photo: a lonesome pool near Mt Rogoona, Central north-west Tasmania]


[I am fascinated by the interface between music, movement and mood. This is a companion piece to "Dancing on Dolerite" - see November 09 archive]

Fiddler Martin Hayes’ 1997 album, The Lonesome Touch, contains what I consider one of the masterpieces of modern Irish folk music. The third track, a long set of tunes played on fiddle by Martin Hayes with Dennis Cahill on guitar, is simply exquisite: the perfect accompaniment to a reluctant morning walk, and a primer in optimism for melancholics. A few chime-like notes on the guitar lead into a mournfully slow rendition of the fiddle tune Paul Ha'penny. This gentle and somehow irresistible invitation to raise your weary head from the pillow, is followed by a still slow, but lifting jig The Garden Of Butterflies, with Hayes’ fiddle beginning to lilt more, and Cahill’s guitar strokes gaining in complexity.

Then to the reel The Broken Pledge, on which the audibly tapping foot and more up-tempo guitar give fair warning that the pace of life can’t stay slow forever. Like it or not your heart is pumping once again, so if your feet aren’t walking or dancing already, they’ll surely be tapping. Hayes is not a fiddler who tries to play at warp speed, but the friendly lilt of the tune belies the fact that he’s working hard. So too with the next tune, The Mother And Child Reel, where the delightfully syncopated beat continues to banish the cobwebs. If head and heart aren’t yet in sync then the closing reel, the classic Toss The Feathers, will ensure they are. And your feet will surely follow. By the time this amazing eleven minute set concludes you’re ready to fall to the ground exhausted, or climb to the top of the nearest mountain, or cry for joy; perhaps all three. That old scoundrel melancholy has been banished for another day.

Some music can do that for you, and its moods and movements seem so appropriate as an accompaniment for walking. Hayes, something of a philosopher on fiddling, believes that neither great speed nor brilliant technique is enough to make a great fiddler. Rather he seeks for that “lonesome touch” that is the heart and soul of fiddling.

Hayes explains it this way.

The Lonesome Touch is a phrase I have heard in my native County Clare all my life. . . . It is the intangible aspect of music that is both elusive and essential. The word lonesome expresses a sadness, a blue note, a sour note. Even though the music bares the trace of struggle and of pain, it is also the means of uplift, transcendence to joy and celebration.

The lonesome touch is something that is difficult to achieve. One is forced to put the requirements of the music before all personal considerations, to play honestly from the heart with no motive other than the selfless expression of joy and beauty for their own sake.

In the opinion of many Hayes’ ability to find that soul in the music is his particular genius.

So much of that philosophy seems to apply also to walking. Speed, technique, equipment – these aren’t the soul of a good walk. Really seeing what’s around you; dealing with the limitations of your body, your exhaustion, the weather; working with rather than against those you walk with; putting the requirements of the walk ahead of your personal considerations; these are part of the soul of walking. Only then can you find that “lonesome touch” that lifts bushwalking out of being just another activity and into the soul-nourishing realms.
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