MATT CRANITCH

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Matt Cranitch

Biography

Musicians of Cork: (Courtesy of the Knotted Chord Archive, 2002).
PLUS: Interview (Courtesy of Irish Fiddle
Matt Cranitch. Fiddle.

Born in Cork and raised in Rathduff, County Cork where his father Micheal played fiddle and accordion. His grandfather Matt was a melodeon player and step dancer and his maternal grandfather came from the Sliabh Luachra area on the Cork/Kerry border.

Matt received his first fiddle when he was five or six and his father was his earliest teacher. As well as his traditional study he also attended the Cork School of Music for formal classical training in violin. These studies continued in parallel until his mid-teens when traditional music finally held sway. Growing up, the music presented by national radio presenter and collector Ciaran MacMathuna enhanced his education, introducing him to many different fiddle styles.

As well as his father another major influence was Denis Murphy, the Sliabh Luachra fiddler who had been taught by the Master Patrick O’Keeffe.

Matt himself is now considered one of the foremost exponents of the Sliabh Luachra music. His Ph.D thesis, through the University of Limerick’s Irish World Music Centre, is based on the fiddle-playing style of this region.

Matt was a member of Na Fili with Tomas O’Cannain and made several recordings with them.

He formed Any Old Time with Mick Daly(giutar/vocals) and Dave Hennessy(accordion) and they released 2 albums, "Phoenix" and "Crossing", both on the Dara label.

His most recent band is Sliabh Notes with singer/guitarist Tommy O'Sullivan and accordion player Donal Murphy. They have 3 albums, "Sliabh Notes"(CBM), "Gleanntan"(Ossian) and most recently "Along Blackwater’s banks"(Ossian).

Matt has also released two solo albums "Give it schtick!"(Ossian) and "Take a bow"(Ossian). They form the backbone to his highly regarded fiddle tutor "The Irish Fiddlebook"(Ossian) 1988, now in it’s 3rd edition.

Matt teaches at the University of Limerick’s Blas Summer School and has also been a guest teacher at Seamus Connolly’s Boston College "Gaelic Roots" festival. In 1990 Matt was invited to participate as one of the performers in "Irish Perceptions", the lecture/recital series presented by the Irish American Cultural Institute in cities throughout the United States.

Matt was an original organiser of the Patrick O’Keeffe traditional music festival held in Castleisland each October and has been director of the Cork Arts Festival since it’s inception in 1993.

Matt also has a major interest in Bluegrass and Apalacian fiddling and swapped ‘music lessons’ with Henry Benagh the bluegrass fiddler from Nashville who’s based in Ennis. Matt’s subsequent expertise led to his taking over from Henry in the Lee Valley String Band. He has also been a regular with Chris Meehan and His Redneck Friends band.

Matt continues to perform solo and with Sliabh Notes and is regularly featured on television and radio. He also gives lectures, master-classes and workshops at various festivals. He is a graduate in Electrical Engineering and Music at University College Cork and lectures in Electronic Engineering at the Cork Institute of Technology.



Interview:

Matt Cranitch is something of a renaissance man in the realm of Irish traditional music: player, scholar, exponent, teacher, writer. With a long history of tunes under his belt, having played with Na Filí, Any Old Time, and currently Sliabh Notes, Matt is also the author of The Irish Fiddle Book, one of the most useful and comprehensive instructional texts available to beginning students of the music. It was that book that got me on the right path with my bowing after some initial misadventures, and that I recommend to all of my serious students now. It's a rare combination -- someone who's able to both play the music with great skill and swing, and someone who's able to analyze as a scholar.

A Senior Research Scholar for the past year, with support from the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences, Matt is at work on a dissertation looking at the music of his beloved Sliabh Luachra in greater detail. We met at his home in County Cork on a lovely afternoon this past winter.

Matt Cranitch:
I grew up in the little village of Rathduff in County Cork, midway between Cork City and Mallow. Both my parents were teachers and taught in the local primary school, or national school, so they taught me at some stage. My father Mícheál played the accordion and the fiddle and sang a bit as well. My mother Kathleen sang. And my grandfather on my father's side, whose name was also Matt, was a melodeon player and a stepdancer. Now I never remember him playing, as he died when I was too young, but certainly I was aware that this was the case. When I was maybe seven my parents got me a fiddle and the plan was that my father would teach me. But the lessons tended to take the form that he'd play the fiddle and have me sit down and listen to him; so they decided to send me to the Cork School of Music instead. I went there when I was eight to learn what's called classical violin, and I continued with that and playing traditional music at home, both those activities in parallel. By my mid-teens I opted for the traditional playing and gave up the classical lessons. So that would have been my early development.

In your mid-teens, were there other young people opting for traditional music?

I should tell you my parents decided when they would get married and raise a family that they were going to speak Gaelic, so I grew up speaking Gaelic as my first language. We were the only house for miles that spoke Gaelic and English was my second language -- though when I went to school I suppose it became the dominant language. At that stage it's fair to say that there weren't many people around us that played music. I can think of one family in the parish who did play music -- a slightly different style of music I suppose, but outside of that we would have to travel into Cork city to encounter anybody else. We were kind of isolated in that we lived in a farm community in the countryside, so I didn't have other youth of my own age around me, playing.

Usually when you're a young fellow you want to be off playing hurling with the other lads. What was it that made you opt for the traditional tunes?

Well, I played hurling, too, with my friends. Even now I find it difficult to explain what the attraction is, but certainly at that stage we were drawn very much to the music. There's also the fact, even though we tend to forget about it, that our parents made sure that we practiced and there was discipline in our lives from that point of view. The music has rubbed off on all the family -- I have a sister in Italy who's a violinist, I have a sister here in Cork who plays piano primarily, but fiddle as well, and I have a brother who plays the tin whistle, the flute and church organ. All of us had music lessons when we were young, and we've all continued to play.

Where did you take it then, when you decided to focus on traditional music?

Like many other people, we went to the Fleadhanna Cheoil and competed in the various competitions. We had a family band; my father and the four of us playing. We used to compete and play at local school concerts and events like that. When I did my leaving certificate I went to University College Cork to study electrical engineering, but while that was going on I was playing, both in UCC and in various groups. It was while I was in college that I met Tomás Ó Canainn, who was teaching in the department of electrical engineering, and it was there that Na Filí were formed in 1969, with initially Raymond O'Shea on tin whistle. He left after a year or so, and then Tom Barry took his place. While all that was going on, I finished my engineering studies, but I decided to go back to college and study music, so I took a music degree. At that stage I was starting to develop an interest in indigenous styles of music. Up to then, I suppose, we were all playing the music that we heard at the Fleadhanna Cheoil and listening to the radio; Sean Maguire and Paddy Canny and the Tulla Ceili Band and whatever else was on the radio -- Ciarán Mac Mathúna's Job of Journeywork in particular. When I had finished my BMus, I felt like maybe I'd try my hand at doing a Master's degree relating to indigenous playing. The nearest such style of music to here is the Sliabh Luachra style, so I choose Mick Duggan, a Sliabh Luachra musician, as my subject. I went and spoke to him and did lots of field work and all the rest of it; recordings and interviews and so on, but of course, never wrote it up. I'm not alone in that, but I think I got the benefit from it in everything except the official piece of paper, in that I learned a huge amount, and it stimulated my whole interest in the question of fiddle playing styles and fiddle playing technique.

I continued playing with Na Filí until 1979, when we disbanded. I did a solo album of slow airs, Aisling Gheal, on the Gael Linn label, about 1984. I also started playing with two other lads here in Cork -- Mick Daly and Dave Hennessy, a great melodeon player -- in a group called Any Old Time, and over the years we did three albums: Any Old Time, Phoenix and Crossing. In 1983, John Loesberg of Ossian Publications approached me to write the Fiddle Book, which eventually was launched on the 9th of March, 1988. If I were to do it again I would have done it in a much shorter space of time, but as you know yourself So that came out in 1988, and soon afterwards the accompanying CDs, and in a sense that pushed the MA out of the way, with little hope of resurrection.

So going back -- that time you spent with Mick Duggan is what got you interested in Sliabh Luachra history and repertoire.

And particularly on one visit to Mick Duggan, on the 5th of February, 1978, he gave me all this pile of music, and inside were original Pádraig O'Keeffe manuscripts, in O'Keeffe's own writing. When I look back at it, that's the thing which fired me onto all of that; I became very interested in the whole Sliabh Luachra thing and spent nights and nights down in Knocknagree in particular. I suppose 'twas also the time that the Sliabh Luachra music was getting a bit more popular. The Kerry Fiddles record came out in 1977, and The Star Above The Garter had come out a bit before that. Jackie Daly and Seamus Creagh were playing wonderful music in that kind of style, and in Cork the set dancing revival had started, led initially in Cork by Timmy McCarthy, or Timmy the Brit as he is generally known, and also by Joe O'Donovan. Timmy was very adamant that the local sets, the polka sets, would be featured, and then, of course, the musicians had to play for those sets, so there was a cross fertilization. Lots of musicians, not only myself, became increasingly interested in the repertoire of the region and the repertoire of people like Denis [Murphy] and Julia [Clifford] and Johnny O'Leary. So from then on my interest in it became more and more and more, and I decided that I should embark on a kind of academic approach to it once again. But in parallel with all of this, I was working as a lecturer in the department of electronic engineering at Cork Institute of Technology. So my life was two-fold. On the one hand I was teaching electronics and related subjects, and on the other hand I was playing a lot of music. In 1994, Sliabh Notes was formed; in 1995 the first CD came out. In parallel with all of this, I decided to get back into academia. I spoke to Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin about embarking on something like this again and taking the bigger picture. I felt like O'Keeffe warranted an inclusion in the bigger picture, so after a while I decided that I'd sign on to work towards a PhD. This year I got an award of Senior Research Scholarship from the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences. So that's enabled me now to work full-time at this project, and I've also just submitted some things for publication.

Tell me more about Sliabh Notes.

Well, Sliabh Notes is the present group I'm involved with -- we have Dónal (Murphy) on accordion, Tommy (O'Sullivan) on guitar and songs, and myself on fiddle. Dónal lives in Abbeyfeale, and his father is an accordion player with great allegiance to the music of Scartaglen and places like that. Dónal'd grown up hearing lots of slides and polkas, so he and I had a huge rapport with regards to that kind of music, and find that we're asked frequently to play at céilís and sometimes at house dances. But our repertoire is not exclusively Sliabh Luachra; well over fifty percent is Sliabh Luachra material, some of it from the O'Keeffe manuscripts. On each of the CDs, we've also included music by Cuz Teahan. There's such wonderful music there that we feel we're delighted, and indeed honored, to put this stuff on CD, and make it more available to the public. We are also conscious of giving credit where possible to the sources and people like Mick Duggan, Johnny O'Leary and Paddy Cronin, because for a long time they were never known about. In a ay they're the forgotten heroes of this music -- the people who have passed this music on so generously.

Thinking about the book, one of the things that makes it such a good tool for people learning how to play, particularly people learning how to play who don't live in Ireland, is that you explain what to do with the bow.

musicians. They go to fiddle class a half hour a week and for the rest of the week they don't hear a note of the music, so they have no reference. The only thing they have is the bow directions, but for the most part they would often interpret the bow directions like a classical player would interpret them. Now contrast that with, let's say, the time when Pádraig O'Keeffe was teaching: there weren't radios, the only music that a lot of people heard was fiddle players playing in houses, so there was a lot of unwritten and unspoken musical education imparted in the sense that you knew how the music should sound, you knew what the swing was, you had all that unwritten information and nobody needed to tell you about it. When I was doing the book, I felt that I wanted to be able to give sufficient directions that people got some sense of the swing of the music. If I were writing the fiddle book now, in the light of the additional knowledge I have, I would probably be even more overt in that sense. When I give workshops I tend to start from that viewpoint; at a lot of workshops people get taught tune after tune after tune but, in my opinion, very few tutors talk about the "how." Over the years, people have asked me, "How do you do it, how do you play that?" All of which has led me today to be very interested in trying to answer the question of what it is that the fiddle players are doing to make the music sound the way it does. When I talk about Pádraig O'Keeffe or Paddy Canny or Johnny Doherty or Jay Ungar or whoever, I'm interested in what they're doing, and in the power of the bow. The power of the bowhand is absolutely immense and greatly underrated.

How do you approach teaching?

In master classes, I tend to look more at passing on to people the ideas and the techniques that will help them to advance themselves. It would be very easy for me to go into a class and teach two tunes today and two tunes the next day, but I think that will never improve a person's overall playing. My approach is that I'm teaching this tune today, but we're doing this because we're going to concentrate on rolls or on a certain aspect of articulating phrases. We'll concentrate on that tune and get into the swing of it, but then at the end of the class I'll say, "Now if you take those ideas and try to incorporate them into your existing repertoire you can improve all of what you have, all of your music." I find that people are trying to learn, or are being taught, tunes slowly, complete with all the ornamentation included. I would tend to think that at a beginning level, a bit more emphasis needs to be put on looking at the less obvious part of the music, the swing and the articulation and all that. It's a bit like talking -- none of us talks in a monotone, people don't sing in a monotone. You phrase your talking and you can accentuate the meaning of what you want to say, rather than saying a lot of complicated words in a hurry. It mightn't be a great analogy, but my thinking would be along those lines.


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