The story of the Irish music supergroup The Gloaming begins at an early rehearsal, with an anthology of folk songs turned randomly to page 44. Were The Gloaming a traditional Irish folk act, the song would certainly unfold in a hurry, with flute, tin whistle, fiddle, and accordion racing through the melody's twists and turns.
Instead, "Song 44," as The Gloaming calls the tune that came from that serendipity, opens with a muted piano, plunking out a spare, enigmatic line. A tenor that sounds like Jeff Buckley singing in Gaelic joins. The sustained strings are translucent. Only after two minutes does something that resembles a reel arrive, played at the bottom of the fiddle's range at half-speed. The mood is twilit, submerged—a gloaming, if you will.
In 2011, fiddler extraordinaire Martin Hayes wanted to form a band. He booked a concert hall for the group—and promptly sold it out—before it had even rehearsed. The friends, at least, happened to be world-class musicians: Chicago-based guitarist and longtime collaborator Dennis Cahill; singer Iarla Ó Lionáird, a master of antiquated sean-nós singing and main instigator of the Afro Celt Sound System; fiddler Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, a master of the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle; and New York pianist Thomas Bartlett, or Doveman, known for his work with The National, Sam Amidon, and Antony and the Johnsons. Hayes wanted an act with a lot of musical empathy; appropriately, the group settled on an approach of shared spontaneity.
Bartlett and Ó Raghallaigh are The Gloaming's surprise weapons, in part because they gesture outside of this Irish world. Bartlett admits he doesn't know the first thing about the stylistic conventions of Celtic music, which gives him the freedom to color outside the lines. He's largely an accompanist in The Gloaming, but his choices with chord voicings and rhythms dramatically recontextualize the source. He's the musical free agent here.
Ó Raghallaigh's Hardanger fiddle, meanwhile, thickens the sound. In addition to the four strings of a typical violin, six strings run beneath the Hardanger's fingerboard. The sound is mellower and more resonant than a violin. When Hayes and Ó Raghallaigh play together, you can almost hear the tin whistle seeping through their instruments.
The Gloaming is known for slow-motion, cinematic takes on Irish music, but the group is not above its old-fashioned sources. "Opening Set," the centerpiece of the group's 2013 debut, is a seventeen-minute medley that evolves from stately ballad into flying reel. After Ó Lionáird sings, Hayes and Ó Raghallaigh's lines spin and intertwine. Bartlett adds bizarre chords that seem to respond to the mood. If "Song 44" is a statement of contrast with the past, "Opening Set" is a link to it. In between, The Gloaming points to one way tradition might be transformed.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Profound Lore"