Martin Hayes:
tradition through innovation

An interview by Bree Delian,
August 2000

After giving up on the electronic security buzzer in his apartment in Sydney, Martin Hayes (in Australia for the promotion of his new album Live in Seattle) takes the elevator down eighteen floors and manually opens the door for me. Even this small but comfortable flat ironically reflects the constant dualities that Martin struggles with. To get to these units, you have to walk through Kings Cross, the dodgy red light district of Sydney. As he takes me out onto the balcony, however, I am bowled over by the fairytale views of the inner city of Sydney and the Harbour.

Martin's personal musical quest is intensified by polarities: tradition vs. innovation, the desire to be as extreme and changeable as possible yet remain faithful to the music of Clare, to his upbringing. This is also apparent within the contrasting dynamics between Dennis Cahill (guitar) and Martin Hayes (fiddle): Dennis holds a steady rhythmic perspective, allowing Martin free reign to interpret the peripheral boundaries of musical expression. It is as though he actively seeks out contrariety in order to challenge and enrich his understanding of the world, and harnessing these experiences, Martin himself becomes the vessel of subtle yet intricate musical nuances.

Beginning playing the fiddle when he was 7, Martin always knew he wanted to be a musician. "I didn't realise that I'd be a full-time musician or make a living out of it. I just knew that I'd be a musician." He used to sit down and learn tunes by ear from his father P.J. Hayes. "I learn my music the same way a baby learns to speak. I just listen to sounds and imitate them." During the interview he brings up his father on many occasions, speaking of the "tremendous support" that P.J has been. Most important is the fact that, although P.J. was a well-respected, traditional musician with a very defined Clare style, he left Martin free to develop his individual musicality. "He was a patient man, well he was a gentle, quiet man. He could be impatient all right. But I was a high-wired kind of cantankerous little kid, you know, so I was difficult to teach because I had to know everything. In some ways we learned a lot together my dad and I about music." In 1989, Martin and P.J recorded an album together called The Shores of Lough Granney.

The Hayes household often had many of the older Clare musicians like Paddy Canny, Martin Rocherford, Junior Crehan, Bobby Casey, Tommy Potts and Tony McMahon drop by, Martin said: "A lot of people who were my mentors and whose recordings were really inspiring to me as a child." So Martin, influenced and encouraged by these musicians, grew up with a solid musical foundation. When asked how it had affected him, Martin replied, "You could look at it as arrogance on one level, but really it's like I have supreme confidence. I have no doubt whatsoever about who I am and what I play. I know exactly what I do and I know how good it is and how good it isn't equally well. I don't suggest that it is the highest form of musical expression ever created, because I don't believe it is. But, I also believe that it's far more than people give it credit for."

As part of his musical journey Martin moved to Chicago and began experimenting with other musical styles. He joined a folk-rock band called The Midnight Court with Dennis Cahill. "It was a band where we dreamt about things that we might do, but didn't very often achieve. To experiment, and be free from all kinds of background ... I grew up very narrowed in to Irish music and that was it, and a particular Clare style. It wasn't so much that I more than dabbled in other musics. ... But what I have done is grown to appreciate, to think about other musical styles, to understand other ways of appreciating the broader world of music around me, to understand how others perceive music, how they approach it and what it means to them."

For Martin, music is its own universal language of abstract thoughts and feelings, "like speaking in tongues, it doesn't matter which language you're speaking in. It's just is a matter of coincidence and historical and social context that I should grow up playing Irish music ... a matter of serendipity that you fall towards one music or another." Understanding other musical styles has strengthened Martin's bond with traditional Irish music. "The first area of security is to acknowledge the weaknesses in your own musical style. And then you're not afraid to distill it down to what its actual strengths are. It's impossible to find the strengths unless you acknowledge the weaknesses."

Martin also learns a lot from holding workshops. "Sometimes it will be more like a discussion group, talking about what my ideas are. It's only because that I have lived with it since I was a child and I know it intimately well, I've spent an enormous amount of time thinking about it, working on, living with it, being challenged by it. So I just share that experience." In his workshops Martin brings people back to the idea that the melody itself is the final authority. "So if the melody is the thing that speaks, then no matter where you come from, you are able to comprehend the message inherent, in the same way it's not necessary to live in Germany at the time of Beethoven in order to appreciate his music."

In Australia, Martin was impressed by the strong indigenous presence in the country. "The Aboriginal culture is not suppressed like other indigenous peoples of the world." During their tour of Australia, Martin and Dennis were asked to play at Corroboree 2000 as part of the reconciliation concert at the Sydney Opera House. Martin said he felt very honoured to be invited to play at such a historically important event. "I am a bit of a political junkie so I like to see all these politicians; I like to see what they look like and what their basic body language conveys. John Howard was a very embarrassed man. ... It seems that an apology to the Aboriginal people is a very frightening thing to the establishment, in the sense that it opens things up for lawsuits. It's an issue that has international ramifications because so many other countries have so many apologies to make. ... I'm sure there is huge international pressure on Howard not to do the right thing. It's unbelievable that it's not done."

Travelling around the world and finding people from many different countries and cultures who are playing traditional Irish music is symbolic of the times "where communities become virtual and scattered throughout the globe. Where you are more connected to somebody who is 5,000 miles away from you than you are the person next door. Connected by interest, connected by the sharing of experience. So you have a community of Irish musicians who might actually outnumber the Irish musicians in Ireland. It's a growing and diverse body of music, and everyone is entitled to contribute to it. It's no longer an issue of nationhood or simple national identity."

Martin believes Irish music has survived and indeed continued to grow in popularity around the world because "there's something very appealing in the fact that it never actually died. It may have declined in popularity somewhat, but it was always consistently existent. ... It's been evolving all through the last century, altering and developing and having many different strands run through it. That's why it's attractive -- because in some way it's old but in another way it's current."

Balancing the old and new, innovation with tradition, is a constant struggle, Martin said -- a "difficult choice and quagmire in the music. The decision about what you move forward is almost an ethical matter, dealt with internally. ... How truthful are you being to the spirit of the tradition? Whenever you do something different with it, are you losing something or not? Well you can move forward without losing things, I believe, but there's no doubt mistakes will be made along the way. There's no doubt that you will sometimes step over the line, where it starts to actually become less of a musical statement as you add to it." Martin feels he reaches that point all the time. "I go past it and pull back. It could happen in a series of concerts, where I move towards less genuine expression. It's not possible every single night to sit up there and have absolute pure unadulterated, uninhibited, untarnished expression."

Being on the road for eight months in the year is a tough life, he said, but not hard enough to give Martin the urge to settle down. "There's just something in me, like a resignation that I can't give. It is very hard to be with a musician. How you put music No. 1, it's a very frightening thing, to put something else always before a relationship. It takes out a big chunk of your life and then there is only so much left."

The experience shared between the musician and the audience becomes a relationship in its own right, a relationship of giving and receiving, he said. "Performance ... is a very addictive experience and a difficult one to give up. ... My dad is almost 80, he has Parkinson's disease and he has to go on stage, but it's impossible for him not to want to do it." He admitted that performance is also addictive, in part, because of the feeling of being admired respected and loved by the audience. "There is that too, absolutely, because that is the reward of the effort that goes in. For my dad it was the community who came along to dance and the community of the band itself. There are a lot of things other than music involved in touring."

Touring and living and playing music with someone for eight months in a year is an enormous commitment that can cause considerable strain. But for Martin and Dennis, it's an amicable arrangement. "If I were to play with anybody else, I would impose an enormous amount of beliefs on them. I just have to do it my way." Dennis balances and grounds Martin's temperament both on and off the stage. "He is a private, patient and quiet man," Martin said. "He's a slow deliberate thinker; he doesn't get upset about issues like me. I'm a bit fiery and excitable at times. I live with the emotional experience of up and down. Dennis holds this steady perspective whereas I swerve towards the peaks of extreme expression with the music."

And reaching the peaks of musical expression is like arriving at a particular place where the ordinary is transcended. Martin and Dennis seem to be able to access that place at will. "Put it this way, I'd love to be able to go there at will. I try very hard and we succeed a lot in getting there. I think that's the only ingredient that makes music good. It's so hard to reach. It's both draining and energising." Part of the essence of the live performances of Martin and Dennis is that they enable the audience to feel a part of that place, like a leftover magical quality. Many people leave their concerts feeling a connection with the past, with tradition, and inclusive in the creation of the musical interchange between Dennis and Martin. For Martin, though, striving to get to that "zone" can be a very painstaking experience. "Sometimes we try very hard, and most times I feel like we don't achieve it. I often feel very disappointed or unlucky that I only got a bit of it or that I'm on my way to it. Other times I feel like God Almighty and I can say, 'I know this is good music, this is great music.' But I do spend a lot of time thinking, 'Man, how can I be fooling myself?' And it really does sound second-rate sometimes, and it sounds like its right on the edge of something great at others. The music itself doesn't change that much, it's the perspective that swings."

Seeing Martin and Dennis live is an experience that goes far beyond listening to their recorded music. The intensity of Martin's approach to traditional Irish music is seen in his desire to delve deeply into the very essence of the tune, turn it inside out, determine what it is comprised of, and then with Dennis, deliver the tune accompanying a unique set of transitions and moods. The extent of self-examination that Martin undergoes to enable this process to take place is painfully complex, yet a considerably inspiring, progressive process. Within this enigmatic man is a passionately eloquent individual: "I don't have that many sadnesses, so mostly I am expressing the pure, unbridled joy of music."

[ by Bree Delian ]

Visit Martin's website.