Solo instrumentalists have a particularly hard job in trying to realise their own particular artistic vision. This rule was particularly pronounced in the ‘80s rock and metal scene, where a glut of extremely talented guitarists (and bassists) found their talents suddenly appreciated in the pop world and, for the first time in recent memory, were at the centre of a world where virtuosity was valued over simple instant gratification. The problem arose then when instrumentalists choose to eschew the traditional band format and pursue a solo or solo-oriented career where their instrumental prowess could be fully appreciated. The difficulty with music so concentrated on one instrument is that, usually, few but the most discerning listener can actually appreciate in full music so dependant on one musical voice (vocal-driven music is the obvious exception, however), and therein lies the trouble.
Many musicians have found their own solutions to this seeming brick wall. Many, like Joe Satriani, chose to ignore the fickle nature of pop audiences and still produces a particular type of guitar-driven music whether mass consumers are interested or not. Others, notably Carlos Santana, recruited a variety of talented vocalists and songwriters to boost the saleability of his music. More still, Steve Vai and Eric Johnson for example, chose to combine their esoteric musings with more standard vocal-assisted rock and pop songs, and this last category appears to be the most popular in broad terms. Flautists, however, have not the luxury guitarists have to combine voice and machine so easily. And thus we are thrust into the world of Matt Molloy, flute-player extraordinaire and member of three of modern Irish folk’s most influential groups: The Bothy Band, The Chieftains and Planxty.
As I’ve been trying to convey over the last two paragraphs, solo instrumentalists have a necessarily more difficult time translating their ideas to a wider audience, due to most peoples’ vocal-oriented, multi-instrumental bias. As such, variety is key to holding the audience’s attention. This is, of course, an obvious necessary for any musician but all the more so when preaching to an audience ill-equipped to suffer the nuance and qualitative differences of a single instrument.
Now, Irish music is primarily dance music, and this dance music comes in two broad forms: the more-popular reel which adheres to certain variations of 4/4 time; and jigs, which vary from the double jig (6/8) to the slip jig (9/8) and the single jig (12/8)- these are usually alternated between in a single piece of music. Why is this important? While Shadows on Stone
could rarely be described as ‘experimental,’ all but three tunes are traditional arrangements, it does contain a varied form of dances. We have jigs slip (‘A Fig For A Kiss’) and double (‘Wallop The Spot’); reels in abundance; polkas (‘The Galway Piper’ and ‘The Sligo Polka’) and hornpipes (‘Poll Ha’penny’). There’s even traditional Scottish and, most compellingly, Chinese pieces on offer.
As mentioned, experimentation isn’t particularly prevalent here and, as such, it’s prudent to note the immense tonal and instrumental variation on the record, from Matt’s soft, airy melodies on tracks like ‘Chinese Lake Reflections’ and ‘The Wind In The Woods’ to more upbeat, rhythmic dance tunes like album-opener ‘The Morning Thrush,’ on which he displays a rather thrilling vibrato, and ‘The Mason’s Apron,’ whereby he and The Chieftain’s Derek Bell engage their respective flute and oboe in spine-tingling polyphony. Bell also pops up in his usual capacity as a harpist throughout, most notably on ‘The Babbling Brook,’ adding classical overtones to Molloy’s instrumental acrobatics.
Guitarist Stephen Cooney provides rhythmic jazz chords to ‘The Wind In The Woods,’ on which Bell’s harp combines intricately with Molloy’s soothing tones to mimic almost perfectly a clarinet- the most unlikely of methods. The composition, though barely exceeding two minutes, is an undoubted highlight. It’s first of two songs written by accordionist Mairtín O’Connor, the second being ‘The Babbling Brook.’ Percussion is provided throughout by guitar or bodhrán, the latter from the hands of Christy Moore, who prefers to use his fingers rather than the palm or beater for a more subtle tone.
‘The Banshee’ (literally ‘female fairy’ whose appearance, celtic mythology holds it, precipitates the death of a close family member) is the only entirely solo flute piece on the album, and Molloy’s chilling higher-register jaunts are intended to imitate her legendary cry. It’s preceded by Shadows on Stone’s
magnum opus, the eleven-minute montage of traditional Scottish and Irish pieces ‘Music of the Seals.’ It’s based around another Scotch-Irish legend, that of the fisherman who marries a seal-woman, keeping her on land by hiding her seal skin from her. Ridiculous, sure, but also indicative of a more touching realistic truth; the pieces on show range from the highly-rhythmic cello-assisted ‘Seal-Hunter’s Fling’ through slower laments to the seal’s eventual exhilaration as she returns to her natural habitat, with the quick-paced reel ‘Seal Morning’ in which the cello returns in a far more celebratory setting.
Shadows on Stone
is the flutist’s fourth jaunt into the world of solo recording. Though a huge Chieftains fan, I’m yet to hear the rest of his recordings but if this is indicative of his talents, it’s sure to be a treat. Shadows on Stone
is simultaneously adventurous and conservative- adventurous because he takes in so many different pieces and influences and pulls them off so spectacularly, but equally structurally conservative. It strikes an amicable balance for me between the instant gratification of the familiar and infectious melodies and the added depth to be heard in the luxurious suite ‘Music of the Seals’ and the traditional Taiwanese adaption ‘Chinese Lake Reflections.’ As an introduction to Irish music, Shadows on Stone
may serve as a half-way house of sorts, but it’s equally worth considering on its own merits.