Eileen Ivers:
beyond space to fiddle

Once upon a time, Eileen Ivers dreamed of the mechanics of space flight.

"I loved math in school," she says. "And science. When I went to college, I was on target for a career in aeronautical engineering."

Things didn't work out the way she planned, and she couldn't be happier.

Ivers discovered music, and it changed the way she looked at the world.

"It was the heart of it, the wonderful experience of playing with people," she says. "Old music in particular lends itself to sharing. I found it interesting, and very fulfilling."

Before she knew it, music had become her life's work.

"The way you can affect people around you, in a good, healthy way, is what did it for me," she explains. "My music touched people, and when you can do that in life, it's a good thing. I love the power of performance, and the passion I feel when I play."

Now one of the world's most foremost Irish fiddlers, Ivers has become a musical trailblazer, boldly crossing musical boundaries to blend traditional Celtic styles with classical, jazz and a variety of world music styles.

Not bad for a girl from the Bronx who once dreamed of the stars.

Ivers' New York state of mind was tempered by her first-generation Irish- American parents, who took her to the motherland often enough to instill a love of native melodies. Still, she admits with a chuckle, her first exposure to great fiddle playing wasn't at the feet of some wizened Irish bard; it was as a child, sitting in her parents' home and watching Hee Haw on TV.

"The fiddle lends itself to so many emotions," she says during a telephone interview from Fayetteville, Ark., where she had just concluded a program for high school students -- she's a big advocate of music in education, both as a separate discipline and in tandem with other subjects -- and was preparing for a concert that evening at the Walton Arts Center.

"Fiddle music is usually folk music. For instance, you can touch people with the simplest melody, a good slow air. It's very empowering, the nature of what the instrument can do. And the extreme joy that's in the instrument can get people to move and feel that joy."

Intrigued by the instrument, she developed her love of Irish music and set out to master the tradition. But her strict adherence to the way things had been done before veered to the left one day when she went for a stroll down 48th Street in Manhattan and passed a music shop with a blue electric fiddle on display in the window.

Ivers had to go in for a closer look, she recalls. While she was admiring the instrument, an employee there showed her how a wah wah pedal -- made for a guitar -- could work with that fiddle. "My life changed in a matter of minutes. I walked out of the store completely broke," she remembers.

Ivers has been an integral part of Irish heavyweight ensembles such as Cherish the Ladies and Riverdance. She has recorded with the likes of the Chieftains, the Afro Celt Sound System, Paul Winter and Black 47.

She credits that period with honing her skills considerably.

"When you're sharing the stage, it definitely changes the way you're performing," she says. "I look at it as a chance to better yourself, get better at what you're doing ... and to keep learning from all folks in all walks of life."

But it was as a solo artist -- and later with her band, Immigrant Soul -- that Ivers really made her mark.

She began exploring other styles of music in earnest, focusing particularly on connections between Irish and African-Caribbean-Latin themes.

While there are plenty of fiddlers who stick to the straight and narrow -- playing traditional music in a traditional style -- Ivers doesn't regret galloping off in diverse directions.

"It's the heart. You have to follow it," she says. "My head said I could have stayed in a very traditional style and played things the way they'd been played before. But I felt a need to collaborate and share with musicians of different traditions -- even classical, even jazz. It sings."

As for ramping up her sound with electric fiddles and effects pedals, Ivers can't resist a chuckle. "You have so much power at your fingertips," she says. "All of that shaped the way I play. ... It also makes my music a little more accessible, gives me more of a diverse program."

Ivers' Hee Haw roots are also still known to make their presence known in her performances.

Some of her concerts pierce the thin line between Irish music and bluegrass, drawing on the Appalachian roots of American fiddle playing and comparing that sound to the Irish traditions that spawned it.

But she also breaks the barriers between Irish music and all kinds of other sounds that a casual listener would never associate with the rolling green hills of Erin.

In fact, when asked if there's anything that wouldn't work with Irish music, Ivers laughs.

"Actually, no," she says.

She thought she might have hit a roadblock when she teamed up with Burhan Ocal, a Turkish multi-instrumentalist who was bringing his darbuka (a finger drum) to the mix.

"The rhythms, the scales, everything is pretty much different," Ivers says. "But we found places where we could meet. ... I think the audience was as surprised as we were."

Ivers -- who's often called the Jimi Hendrix of the violin -- and Ocal together crafted a show "that highlighted the differences and found similarities," she says. "The world is a lot smaller than we think."

Even her background in math -- she graduated magna cum laude from Iona College in New York and completed post-graduate work in mathematics -- comes into play, she says.

"I had a great professor in college, in a post-graduate class, who said you can go anywhere with a math background.," she says. "That's certainly true."

Mathematics provides "elegant solutions" to musical problems, she explains. "The forms and structures, the harmonies and counter-melodies -- the fundamentals of the discipline are very much there in music, and they always come out when you play. Even when you're improvising, you're aware of the structure. Long story short, it certainly has helped me play live and work out arrangements."

Global influences aside, Ivers remains an Irish fiddler -- a style of music she believes will endure because it connects with so many people in different ways.

"It's something I think about a lot," she says. "The music touches people of all ages and ethnicities. And the honesty of the music -- it reaches out to a lot of life's emotions."

Irish music spans the musical spectrum "heart-wrenching slow airs" to very danceable, fast-paced "four on the floor" reels, Ivers explains.

"And it mostly uses friendly, pentatonic scales," she adds. "It feels very familiar to people, even if they don't know why. It's certainly a feel-good music at the end of the day."

Holiday music is also feel-good music, she says, and that's why Ivers enjoys doing Christmas concerts.

At the time of this interview, she was getting ready to take her holiday show, "An Nollaig: An Irish Christmas," back on the road. The concerts include "beautiful old Irish carols," she says, as well as standard holiday songs in an Irish setting.

"We take it to some fun places," she says -- such as finding the hornpipe origins of "Deck the Halls" and reinventing "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring" as a jig.

"We love this time of year," she says. "The concert is definitely in a spiritual vein. ... These tunes help us get centered. There's so much commercialism out there -- this brings us back to the miracle of this time of year, the extreme joy of it."

Another joy -- one she confesses she misses more than she'd like -- is the simple pleasure of sitting down with a bunch of musicians just to jam in a good, old-fashioned session.

"Oh God, you try, but not as often as you'd like," she says, a touch wistfully.

Ivers says she's looking forward to an upcoming trip to County Mayo, Ireland, where there's a regular session she's been known to attend "in a little pub on a Monday night."

"It's important. Performing folk music is an oxymoron, because it's not really meant to be a performing art in some ways," she says. "It was really for social gatherings. It's wonderful, now it's on the world stage. But when you get the power and the beauty of the music, then you sit down in a session and start throwing tunes back and forth -- there's such an energy in that. It's why I love the music."

Sure, she's best known as the lass with the blue fiddle, front and center on stage, but who knows, if you're lucky, you just might find Eileen Ivers sawing away in the crowd in some wee pub in Kiltimagh or Kilkelly. And how great would that be?

[ visit the artist's website ]

interview by
Tom Knapp

15 December 2012

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