The debut of this duo for the Real World label is a series of stories within the larger story. Born out of a recording session for the International Folk band five piece The Gloaming that they are both members of, Ó Raghallaigh and Bartlett were in a recording studio booked for the whole band in Mexico in 2015 and found themselves the only members who were available. Thankfully they made good use of this time to create two pieces “Zona Rosa” and “The Wanderer” which are found next to each other on the album. Both have somewhat personal meanings with “Zona Rosa” being the district in Mexico that they were staying in and “The Wanderer” a reference to a home that Ó Raghallaigh had recently moved into with his wife. Two further recording sessions in Peter Gabriel’s Real World studios in Bath, UK (after sessions which produced the track “The Hunter and The Hunted” for the “Return To Montauk” soundtrack) and in Reservoir in Midtown, New York some two years after it all began, resulting in the final session and completion of the album.

The next part of the story is the artwork which was from the estate of Saul Leiter and the use of his 1960 photograph “Snow”. They were drawn to the image because of the nature of its blurred lines and decay. To them it is in tune with their art as Ó Raghallaigh says “It’s such a powerful image. I love how the lines are blurred and definite things become indeterminate. It says to me what I would love our music to say to others, without really knowing what that is.”

The final story is the music itself. To quote the press release: “Largely improvised, these songs shimmer with aliveness and spontaneity, taking cues from the last Talk Talk albums: “On those records, there’s a feeling of things unfolding in a way that has more to do with the natural world and the way a plant grows than some musician making a decision,” says Bartlett; also, the spirit of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks: “I love that you can hear all the wheels falling off the carriage as they’re going,” says Ó Raghallaigh.”. The thing about the music is even though it is largely improvised, the nature of the relationship between these two artists in both their duo, group and other project works, makes you ask yourself how improv is it? The reason why this question pops up is purely because with the nature of musicians who have either musical knowledge or well defined musical theory, they can form a type of language together that is not restrained by not having pre-written the material. In a way I would imagine the two musicians being able to take non verbal communication from each other as a guide to where the music is being taken to and also a knowledge of each others strengths and styles and being able to intertwine together in a way that may not be possible if the music was highly composed.

Ó Raghallaigh plays the Hardanger d’Amore, a ten string fiddle which has four of the strings being used in similar style to a violin, while the remaining strings, the sympathetic strings resonate under these four strings. Bartlett plays the piano and utilizes his instrument to both lead or provide support in the pieces, with an emphasis for space that is noticeable.

With their many projects – Ó Raghallaigh has amongst other the Irish – Swedish – American fusioneers This Is How We Fly as well as solo, duo and trio works, while Bartlett records as Doveman as well as producing releases for the likes of St Vincent, Rhye, Sufjan Stevens, Yoko Ono and others, the duo have a pedigree behind them which is shown throughout the pieces of the album.

Naturally you will get a mixture of styles and sounds throughout the album inspired by their musical heritages. At times their is a folk element that makes itself known, at others more Modern Classical sounds abound and then there are the times where minimalism and silence come to the fore (which I guess is the influence of latter period Talk Talk mentioned above). The first sound you here is from Ó Raghallaigh on the opening track “Kestrel” where the folk feel is noticeable. Bartlett’s reply is minimal piano lines which to me indicate a sort of invitation for Ó Raghallaigh to explore his instrument while he delicately fills in the space with understated beauty. There is a mixture of fluid playing of the Hardanger d’Amore that is mixed with sections of tensile metallic sounding drone work. It certainly sets the sonic tone for the album, hinting at directions to be explored. The beauty that was hinted at in the opening is explored more with “Strange Vessels” where Bartlett becomes the focal point and Ó Raghallaigh feels initially distant before coming more into frame. The piano work is exquisite in a cinematic, slightly melancholic modern classical way while the string work compliments the mood with a raw and mournful touch that nicely never competes with the piano, but adds more to the piece that just as a supporting instrument. From the highly composed feel of the opening half of the track, the duo then venture into more free form and exploratory territories deconstructing the piece to its most minute elements.

After the traditional  sounding folk direction of “All Good Things” with its upbeat feel led by Ó Raghallaigh and the way his parts dance,  we move onto the first of the two pieces conjured on the initial recording sessiom “Zona Rosa”. The feeling is one of balance between the two instruments and a sense of in tune mirroring of the music. This goes back to the point I made earlier about improv and the relationship between the two musicians. Now, whether or not this is improvised I am not sure (I personally leaned to previously written), it shows how a minimalist sound from two instruments can create such engaging music. Between Ó Raghallaigh and Bartlett there is a sense of commonality where the artusts are on the same page and have a bond which is demonstrated by the way the instruments compliment each other and assist in telling a story.

The story behind “The Wanderer” is mentioned above and the interesting thing for me in regards to the music is the way that it transitions from a piece that feels pensive at the beginning, almost like the process of moving into something new for the first time, then the thrill and joy of making it your own special place. Bartlett holds down the piece with constant piano while Ó Raghallaigh breaks down with the playing bevoming more abstract, which intrigues me in the narrative sense. Does the playing begin to represent a familiarity with the space or is something else occurring?

“Open Shelter” moves more into the drone side of things with Ó Raghallaigh’s playing occupying a darker and emotional feel, while Bartlett moves in a very minimal and at times stark direction. This is the type of piece where space and silence is used effectively which heightens the emotions, but also offers a certain clarity. After the first third of the piece the mood and playing turns to one that is frantic before returming to the minimalism of before, but this time the strings are dripping mournfully and the piano has a certain sadness about it which is amplified by the sheer nakedness of it.

“We Thought We Knew” is probably the most concise and straight to the point pieces on the album. It demonstrates how well they would be in the film scoring area with a piece that has a vignette like feel and for sone reason gives me a feeling like it would be suited as a title theme piece. Definitely leaning towards the Irish Folk feel, the use of repeating motifs and complimentary playing are what makes it a success. It comes across as a piece that is suited to scenes depicting nature and has an upbeat feel to it with both musicians locking in a creating a track that is also inward looking as it is looking afar. The barely there opening of “My Darling Asleep” returns the duo to the element of space in their works. In getting my head around the sounds I can’t work out if it is Bartlett accompanying Ó Raghallaigh as there is a string like sound that could either be the plucking of the Hardanger d’Amore maybe it’s the plucking of the piano strings or prepaired piano as it’s not so obvious to the sound source. What ever it is, it creates somewhat of a rhythm for the strings to scratch and scrape and explore all the textural components of their sound. As a piece it is quite open in it’s form and contrasts the style of the previous track.

The album finishes with the epic “Further Than Memory” which is a astute decision as it nicely book ends the album that started back with “Kestral”. All that I have talked about before still stands with this piece, maybe even more so. The space one more is important as it offers up a clarity and definition to both instruments and draws out the emotion of both players. The track is largely focused on the piano with the strings seemingly distant and buzzing away, contorting and casting shapes. During the second half of the track the roles are reversed and the depth in the sounds are changed with the piano being used minimally and sparingly, almost as if the emotion has become too much and the strings and their wild scramble have taken a bit of the focus. The final moments see the return of that percussive rhythm that appeared in “My Darling Asleep” as the final words belong to Ó Raghallaigh with a last circular like scrape which brings the album full circle very nicely.

When you look at an album that is constructed with two instruments and a semi improvised core, there are endless possibilities where the music could take you. When you factor in their combined and separate musical histories the possibilities expand some more. What could let such a situation down is a sense of repetition or a single nature to the music. This is most definitely not the case when it comes to this album. The two musicians have a sense of time, place, musical identity and a desire to explore. There are times when a particular sound might dictate a feeling, but then they like to explore the entirety of the tracks. Both Bartlett and Ó Raghallaigh are at home at the more free form and open sounds as they are to the more composed pieces which shows a freedom to their works and offers many more sides to them. Hopefully this is just the beginning of a great partnership, one I would love to see come up with a full score. This album is suited to those that have an openness to music and admire music that is contemplative, rewarding and enjoyable.

Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and Thomas Bartlett is available on Lp and Digital with Cd to follow.

 

 

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