May-June 2018

Fiddle and Harp Duo: Jenna Moynihan and Màiri Chaimbeul

By Roland Sturm

Jenna Moynihan and Màiri ChaimbeulThree years ago, I came across Jenna Moynihan’s first CD Woven. It was played a lot at our home a lot. My son Obin and my daughter Anya picked up a number of tunes from that CD and even taught some of them to their friends. Jenna performs in a duo with harpist Màiri Chaimbeul, giving a contemporary take on music rooted in the melodies of Scotland and Appalachia. Jenna grew up in New York State; Màiri on the Isle of Skye, off the West Coast of Scotland. Their debut album One Two was released last year and they are about to embark on their first tour of California.

RS: I’m glad to see you coming out West. Where are you going to be?

JM: Yes, our first time in California with this project and we’re so happy to be heading out west! This time, we’ll be playing some lovely house concerts, plus will be at the Topanga Fiddle • Banjo Contest and Folk Festival, too. All the details can be found on our website, but here’s the rundown.

May 16 - Berkeley House Concert

May 17 - Santa Cruz House Concert

May 19 - Santa Monica House Concert

May 20 - Topanga Fiddle • Banjo Contest and Folk Festival

RS: Tell us a bit more about your background and how you started playing.

MC: I am from the Isle of Skye in the northwest of Scotland - one of six siblings, who all play music. I first started on the piano and then added harp and violin around the age of eight. At that time, the string instrument teacher in the local schools was Christine Martin who is responsible for guiding many Highland musicians towards eventual careers in music. I started the Clarsach (Scottish harp) through a Clan Donald Lands Trust scheme, which sponsored a teacher and provides small harps for students. The scheme is still going - I recently got asked back to adjudicate their annual junior harp competition. And, in school, we had Gaelic singing every week with Kirsteen Graham. As a teenager I ended up as a full-time pupil at St Mary’s Music School, a specialist music school in Edinburgh, where I was fortunate to receive incredible mentorship from Scottish harpist Catriona McKay amongst many others. In school holidays, I would go to camps in traditional music, classical and jazz.

JM: I grew up in upstate New York State, on Chautauqua Lake. I had a much less exotic start: When I was six, I started learning violin through the Suzuki method, like millions of others. When I was eight my teacher began introducing Scottish tunes into the lessons, and that’s when I became really excited about playing music - a switch flipped. I really could not be trusted to practice whatever it was I was working on in my classical lessons, but I was playing constantly. I loved playing along & learning all the tunes from my then burgeoning CD collection - listening to Natalie MacMaster, Blazin’ Fiddles, Alasdair Fraser, Liz Carroll, Martin Hayes. On Sunday afternoons during the school year, my parents would drive me to a pub in Erie, PA to play in a session there, and then I started going to fiddle camps in the summer. Alasdair Fraser’s Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddle School in particular was extremely impactful.

RS: How do you perceive the state of traditional music today? Where is it heading?

JM: There’s so many beautiful things going on. I see it all under an umbrella you could call “acoustic music” or “roots music,” which I know aren’t incredibly descriptive, but there is a lot of cross-genre exploration happening through the US, UK, Scandinavia, and beyond, and I think it’s all moving together in a lot of ways. What’s more, I think these different pockets of acoustic music are also responding to one another. That said, I think it’s helpful to carve out some kind of homebase. Where you’re rooted becomes your springboard, which I do realize is a contradiction.

MC: I think it’s an exciting time for traditional music. The internet in particular has thrown things wide open for musicians and audiences. I’m excited about music that feels innovative because there’s a clear sense of the musician’s voice, rather than innovation for innovation’s sake. As a feminist, I’m also excited that there’s starting to be more public recognition and conversation, within the wider folk music community, about problems of gender and racial inequality within this scene as a microcosm of wider society. Let’s shine a light on the least privileged voices.

RS: The music you’re playing is clearly bears influence from Celtic traditions - how do you categorize it?

MC: The music we’re making is inherently personal. It’s an articulation of our own experiences and musical voices as individuals, and beyond that, an expression of what happens when our two voices come together. We’re shining a light on melodies that speak to us, that make us feel something. The clearest intersection in our respective musical experiences is Scottish music. We’re making new music but it’s rooted in these timeless melodies. My musical background has always been wide-ranging, but it’s within a cultural context that goes way back. Gaelic is my first language, the language that I speak every day with my family, and my lineage can be traced for hundreds of years in South Uist and Barra in the Outer Hebrides. The reason I mention this is that it’s part of the puzzle which contextualizes our music, but it remains relevant whether I’m playing traditional music or say, avant-garde music. Every one of our musical and life experiences is just as relevant when categorizing or contextualizing this music. This connection to the past is important to consider, particularly as an awareness of being part of an ever-changing living tradition - but perhaps everyone would be happier if we could just categorize ourselves in the cultural context of being two humans making music in 2018.

JM: I count myself among those happier categorizing as “two humans making music in 2018,” because I know there are wide-ranging stylistic nuances in the way I play the fiddle, not least in the musical community as a whole from which I am springboarding from, and of course, in our duo work. As an American playing this music, which I do believe is first rooted in the Scottish tradition, I have always teetered on this line of categorization, not wanting to speak for a culture that is not my own. I really love Scottish traditional music, and I have spent a lot of time learning through that lens. But it would be remiss to ignore the influences that the Appalachian, Scandinavian, and Classical styles have had on the way I sound. So in the duo, of course that all wraps itself around the choices that we make. There are a number of genre-banners our music could sit under, I think. I also think that there’s a lot going on in instrumental acoustic music at the moment and that it’d be a shame to box oneself in too tightly, or worse, box someone else out.

RS: There is a YouTube video of one of my favorite sets on your CD. Great melodies, but I love what you do with it: the droney fiddle start over the harp melody, the frenetic strumming near the end of the first tune. Great texture and dynamics, what is the process for constructing an arrangement together?

MC: We’re seeking to really get under the skin of the tune. Our starting point is usually a fiddle or pipe tune or Gaelic song melody, like Nighean Donn nan Gobhar that starts this set.

To me, it’s important to take time to be playful with the melody -- to throw lots of ideas at it before paring it back. We often end up playing a tune around and around for a long time - getting to know the nuances deeply and experimenting with where and how we shine lights on different parts of the melody. Some of our pieces are more improvisational than others in performance but all our arrangements start with a very improvisational approach to a chosen tune. As we approach performance, we have a clear idea of the vibe we want to come across, and usually have a clear idea of the contour and structure of a piece - say, who takes the melody where, or where the high and low points are, if not every single note or chord that we’ll play.

JM: I think the tune guides us for the most part - the melody often has very clear places it wants to go; or that it can go. And there’s so much in it, if you sit back and sort of watch it awhile. We’ve played together a lot over the past six years, and most of what happens just happens. That’s one of the lucky things that happens when you’ve built up a musical trust & connection over time. I’d like to think we are just building on what’s already there, highlighting all the ways the melody is inherently beautiful. Or the things we think are beautiful about it anyway. Whatever is functioning as “the core” - maybe that’s a pulse groove, or just the bare bones of the tune, we try to build around that very intentionally.

RS: You write tunes together, too - how do you approach that?

JM: All co-writing has stemmed from not already knowing the tune we “need”, so we have to make one. One of us might have a phrase or two to start, and a melodic structure forms itself pretty quickly. The second tune in the video (and on our CD) is an original, here is a transcription of it.

Brenda Bills sheet music

Tweaking a new tune takes longer. A tune we wrote called Kyle Tune took us going off in separate rooms for an hour and each playing around with certain phrases - then we came back together and a lot of those meshed together. There’s no science to it. We’re patient with each other and are always working toward the same goal. I think we always agree on what the energy needs to be, and that serves as a strong guide.

MC: So far our co-writing has been pretty instinctive. We don’t tend to disagree on what a tune needs to say or where a phrase should go. Again, a big part of it is about improvising and exploring and playing together, enough times to reach a consensus. We record ourselves and listen back and that process plays a big part in deciding what should stay and what we can cut away.

Roland Sturm is Professor of Policy Analysis at the RAND Graduate School and usually writes on health policy, not music. He is the talent coordinator of the Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest. These days he mainly plays upright bass and mandolin.


All Columns by Roland Sturm