This Sunday will see an amazing piece of avant garde traditional music – yes there is such a thing – when Gerry Diver’s Speech Project ends its Irish tour with a performance at the Sonic Arts Research Centre at Queen’s University in Belfast.
Growing up in Manchester, Gerry got all the musical benefits of a typical Irish emigré upbringing.
“There is a very strong Irish community in Manchester,” he recalls, “and I started playing the Irish fiddle at the age of eight, and then it was céilís bands three nights a week and fleadh ceoils and all that kind of stuff, you know. It was a very Irish upbringing and then I moved over to Donegal when I was 14 and I kept playing the fiddle and other instruments but I also got to become aware of other kinds of music as well.
“I probably had a slight departure in my early teens but I was grounded in the Irish upbringing and playing Irish music at home,” Gerry told me through the miracle of skype.
His parents didn’t play instruments but they were keen that their children did and so the house was full of musical instruments. Whenever interested would wane in one of his siblings. Gerry would inherit the instrument which has made him the fine multi-instrumentalist he is today.
The young Diver knew from the very outset that he wanted to be a professional musician, “not a very wise career decision when you’re 9 or 10,” he laughs, “but it didn’t matter. I would do it anyway because I love it.”
Gerry went on to be taught by Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin at UCC and his love for Irish music was re-invigorated by his studies in Cork.
“One of the things Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin taught me was that it was okay to think about other musics and how Irish music fits into the grand scheme of things,” he says.
In the beginning people learn how to play tunes and then when they reach a certain technical proficiency and after they have got into the heart of the music, they are given divine permission by the Muse to do whatever they want with it. To stretch it, play with it, take it on strange journeys and that is what Gerry Diver has been doing not just as a musician but as a studio producer too.
“I think that is just a natural, human urge to be creative, no matter what the artform is,” says Gerry, “and there is a real joy for me in composing and creating music and on the production side too.
“I do like that way of looking at music, which isn’t so much about the notes but about the emotional response.”
There have been many highlights in Gerry’s career – too many to mention but some do stick out like the really great memories he has of gigging out in Syria, with a Syrian band called Kulna Sawa and playing Irish music in Kazakhstan and Kurdistan with a band called Sin É, and then the stuff he did with Van Morrison.
Gerry’s latest project promised to be another highlight. The Speech album is like no other. It is traditional and avant garde at the same time, human speech and music, earthy and ethereal.
It is basically the sound of various Irish singers and musicians – Joe Cooley, Christy Moore, Martin Hayes, Margaret Barry, Damien Dempsey, Danny Meehan and Shane McGowan with new compositions by Gerry interweaving though the speech patterns of these great Irish musicians and singers. The project came about due to that great creative force, serendipity.
“Yeah, it really was a serendipitous thing, actually,” explains the Mancunian.
“I was working at home when I heard an interview with Joe Cooley I had heard many times before on a famous Gael-Linn LP just called Cooley where it precedes The Boyne Hunt.
“I heard the interview and it was raining outside but I had a fiddle in the studio and I could hear this inherent, natural lift in this voice and I wondered would it work together. It was all very speculative but I decided to have a go. It worked and then Christy Moore heard it from a mutual friend and he was very, very enthusiastic about it. Then when I started getting positive reaction from other people. the idea of doing something bigger started to develop.”
Gerry began choosing other people to give the same treatment too. His wife, Lisa, has heard a mini-disk of Martin Hayes talking during the Willie Clancy Summer School and Hayes’ philosophy about music and the sound of his voice made him an obvious contender.
Christy Moore suggested Margaret Barry as another one, the Donegal fiddler Danny Meehan was recording an album that Gerry was producing and so he is part of the Speech Project. So one thing led to another.
Once he had the voices, the phrases the speakers used lent themselves to phrases of music and then Gerry would decided what instrumentation was best suitable.
“Repetition plays a big part in how I approached it,” he explains, mentioning the fact that he is also interested in the workings of the mind.
“It is Irish music but it is not meant to be traditional. The speakers are quite introspective and I have a great interest in things like hypnosis and I was keen to get them talking about the more spiritual aspects of their performance. It didn’t take a lot of encouragement, these people have so much to say.
“The spiritual side of things is the most interesting part for me, the part that language cannot express, the part for which there are no words, whether it’s Irish music or any kind of music, that’s the place hopefully you can touch, or you can try to get to. That for me is where it at, that spiritual part of music is the place we musicians are all trying to get to.
“I think we are over-exposed to music nowadays, there is so much of it everywhere, we are almost de-sensitized to it.
A lot of critics have pointed out that The Speech Project is almost like listening to the spirit of the diaspora and Christy Moore says on the recording that a tune played in England will have a different feel to the same tune played in Ireland. Christy, of course played for a long time in England as did Margaret Barry and others spent time abroad.
Gerry says he didn’t realise this until the project was finished.
“It was only when people pointed it out that I looked back and joined the dots that things made sense. I chose the bits of the interviews we used so the diaspora certainly is a theme. What Christy said really resonates with me, when people leave home the music takes on a different meaning to them and its more relevant now with more people unfortunately having to leave.”
Gerry has taken the Speech Project to Ireland for the first time, thanks to the Irish Arts Council, and the sounds are complemented using Will McConnell’s videos.
Playing with Gerry will be his wife, singer, fiddler and hammer dulcimer player Lisa Knapp, Jonathan Hennessy-Brown on the cello, Monaghan fiddler Declan Daly, uilleann piper, Colman Connolly all the way from north London as well as pianist Gaz Wilkins.