Names of tunes are repeatedly forgotten by traditional musicians. There are just so many. Yet a small number of titles manage to affix themselves permanently, are always easily recalled, and for no obvious reason. ‘The Long Note’, a three-part single-jig of unknown authorship, which gives this unique Music Network tour its name, is one such tune. Musicians don’t forget this tune, and they don’t forget its title.
Yet there is no real ‘long note’ to speak of in the tune; it never rests long enough on any note to warrant the description. The tune type itself – the single jig – is associated with a specific soft-shoe solo dance which perhaps leaves little room for a pause. The tune starts with a stuttering of four notes – low Ds all, four notes which come back again and again throughout the first part, returning in the second part an octave higher, and then appearing again at a higher range in the third part. You can’t ignore them – they are at the heart of the tune – and perhaps in the life of a short single-jig of only twenty-four bars, those four repeated notes can be said to last a long time.
This tune has stayed with Tony MacMahon throughout his distinguished career, as a musician, a radio and television producer and presenter, a thinker, speaker and writer, and as an inspiration to successive generations of traditional musicians. He associates ‘The Long Note’ with Peadar Ó Riada and the music of the Cúil Aodha area of Cork, and MacMahon recorded the tune as the second track of his self-titled debut on the Gael-Linn label in 1971. Thirty-eight years later, the album’s yellow cover and pensive portrait still unmistakeable, it is a recording that reveals new layers with every listen, its characteristic long draw of the bellows and rumbling bass notes somehow now hinting at the North African culture which MacMahon had explored in the 1960s. The album, of course, also brought to the fore MacMahon’s exceptional artistry as a slow-air player, for which he has become renowned.
‘The Long Note’ resurfaced three years later in June 1974 when MacMahon was fishing around for a title for a new traditional music radio show in his second month as a producer in RTÉ. He wrote words down on pieces of paper, scratched things out, and threw ideas around. The tune, and the title, just kept coming back. Presenting a thoughtful critique of contemporary traditional music, The Long Note was a groundbreaking radio show that is still recalled today by those who listened to it. Drawing together all the strands that interested followers of traditional music at the time, it reflected, as its sub-title said, ‘the wide world of traditional music’, with live music, reviews and previews, debates, and selections from the latest records. Its presenters were practising traditional musicians and singers, beginning with singer and guitarist Mícheál Ó Domhnaill, followed by uilleann piper Peter Browne, fiddle-player Paddy Glackin and, in later years, singer and fiddle-player Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh. Glackin, too, was the fiddle player on the theme music to the show, accompanied by Dónal Lunny.
The Long Note commanded the immediate attention of the traditional music community. Christy Moore, who had a regular night’s music in the Meeting Place pub in Dorset Street in Dublin at the time, was known to begin his evening with a portable radio sitting on a stool at the centre of the room, allowing people to listen to the show before the music began.
The choice of ‘The Long Note’ for the title of this tour reflects that continuing ambition to expand the terms of reference for contemporary traditional music practice, the combination of the passionate music of MacMahon, the rich, masterly Scottish piping and singing of Allan MacDonald, and the vital, punctuated banjo playing of Angelina Carberry providing a broad triptych of traditional music in Ireland and Scotland today.
It is appropriate that Angelina Carberry and Tony MacMahon appear on the same tour. While MacMahon is known as a soloist, some of his most absorbing duet performances have been playing with banjo, in particular with Dubliner Barney McKenna on the classic 1978 television series The Green Linnet, but also on his 2000 recording MacMahon from Clare, playing marches that play straight into the percussion of both instruments. Similarly, in 2003 Angelina Carberry, with her husband – accordionist Martin Quinn – made one of the most attractive accordion-banjo duet albums of recent years. The combination of the energy, precision and bite of Carberry’s playing with the relaxed expression of Quinn, plus the diverse repertoire that they always seem able to draw upon, has drawn the attention of many musicians and listeners. Carberry is an equally strong soloist, her perpetual rhythm and deft fingerwork, peppered with double-stops, giving every tune a distinct intensity. Born in Manchester into a Co. Longford family, she began learning traditional music on tin whistle and soon moved on to the banjo, following in her father Peter and grandfather Kevin’s footsteps – her style apparently, and uncannily, echoing the latter’s playing when he played for ceili and house dances many years earlier around Longford. Angelina moved to Galway in 1998, recording an album with her father the same year – Memories from the Holla – and has now returned to her roots and is living in Co. Longford.
In the very small Gaelic-speaking village of Glenuig in the west Scottish highlands where Allan McDonald grew up, you had to walk five miles one way to get to the nearest road, and eight miles the other way. An isolated community, where the MacDonalds were one of two families in the village, he nonetheless was exposed to a good deal of music from the area, mainly fiddle players, but also a lot of singing, and melodeon playing through his father. He began playing at the age of eight, learning at school and starting on a practice set, and gradually moving after a year onto a full set of pipes. The instrument he plays today, however, is not that most commonly associated with Scotland – the mouth-blown bagpipes – but rather the Scottish small-pipes. In past centuries, there were a range of pipes being played in Scotland – including the small pipes and the triple-pipe, which has no bellows, requires circular breathing, and is still played in Sardinia – but because of the appeal to British powers of the mouth-blown pipes (i.e. for drawing people into war), that particular form was the one brought to prominence. The small pipes that MacDonald plays are bellow-blown, similar to the Irish uilleann pipes, but unlike the Irish tradition, Allan MacDonald often sings while playing, creating a wonderful texture of melody and words. An authority on many aspects of Scottish traditional piping and singing, MacDonald is one of three very well known brothers (the others being Angus and Ian) in the Scottish piping world.
Traditional music played on the Scottish small pipes, the banjo and the accordion, by three distinguished artists – whatever about the long note, given the abundance of music on offer, the real question is: will the evening be long enough?
The Long Note
Tony MacMahon accordion
Angelina Carberry banjo
Allan MacDonald Scottish small pipes/ vocals
13–25 May 2009