North, the new album from fiddle duo Conor Caldwell and Danny Diamond, is a sensitive balance of tradition and innovation. Making the complex appear simple, this homage to the authentic fiddle music of Ulster, points the way for the future of traditional fiddle playing.
Rich in the tunes of John Doherty, the album is located deep in the Donegal tradition, yet ‘North’ has a wider scope- Drunken Wag’ner (Old Time American style) gives this album an intriguing start, Taighean Geala Shieldaig (West Scotland reel), is a reminder of the common roots of Ulster and Scottish fiddle music, bred over years of immigration, and new friendships baptised over new tunes.
The album’s more unusual tunes, such as an Edward Bunting air, reveal the depth of the duo’s knowledge. This level of expertise is no surprise- both fiddlers are traditional music researchers, Caldwell in Queen’s University Belfast and Diamond in Dublin’s Irish Traditional Music Archive. It is perhaps this familiarity with traditional repertoire that enables both fiddlers to compose such great tunes! Each of the several newly composed tunes demonstrates a deep understanding and respect of what has gone before them, as well as a love and enthusiasm which wishes to drive the tradition forward. These new tunes are lovely moments on the album, casting light onto what the future of the tradition may be.
Distillation of instrumentation down to two fiddles gives the listener the space to hear what’s important- the notes. The accompaniment on this album is harmonically simple, but crafted expertly, experimenting with tunings and textures with a real understanding of what works. The two fiddles dance between ranges and each other, weaving a delicate tapestry as a backdrop to the melody. This simplicity allows the emphasis to be placed on the tune, and avoids the common trap of an overly ambitious accompaniment strangling the beauty of the original melody.
The success of this album is best summarised in the sleeve notes, where Diamond sets out their objective when recording the second track, The Boys of Bluehill/ The Plains of Boyle (or is that the other way round?), two hornpipes popular in Belfast sessions: “We tried to put our own slant on them without losing their character”, and that is exactly what they’ve done. Throughout this album, Caldwell and Diamond’s great achievement is the unmistakable expression of their own personal styles, while remaining loyal to the essence of the tradition.
Buy the album here.
(Fiddle player and student, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, London).