An Interview with Brian Finnegan
This interview was conducted on 28th July 1999 at Burwell House, Cambridgeshire, England, during the week-long flute and whistle course for which Brian Finnegan was the tutor. (For information on this annual event, check out the Burwell Bash web site.) The interviewer was Rachel Marsh who was a student on the course. Brian Finnegan is currently playing in a band called FLOOK. He plays flute and whistles. The other band members are: Sarah Allen – Accordion and flute, Ed Boyd – guitar, and John Joe Kelly – bodhran.
- “When the Party’s Over.” 1993 ARAD CD 101 (Celtic Music label)
- FLOOK “Live!” 1997 Small Time CD9405
- FLOOK “The Four of Us” (America release only) 1999 Flatfish 001
- FLOOK “Flatfish.” September 1999.
- FLOOK. “Rubai.” 2002.
I started playing music when I was 8 years old under the guidance of Eithne and Brian Vallely, two amazing musicians from Armagh in the north of Ireland. They ran a class that has been going for 30 years now,called the Armagh Pipers Club. Brian’s a piper and Eithne’s a fiddle player. They both organised an athletic club in Armagh at the same time, and my family were involve in sport; we were actually connected to the music classes. At that stage in Ireland there were a lot of Comhaltas organisations and there were very few independent music teachers who worked outside Comhaltas because they had an almost vise-like grip over the Fleadh Cheoils. Brian was actually one of the founder members of the Dublin Piper’s Club with Paddy Molony and then he moved up north and married Eithne and formed the Armagh Piper’s club.
So I went along there when I was 8 years old, starting on the whistle and they gave me my first flute when I was 10 and that was it! I started playing away with the Piper’s Club and travelled quite a lot with them. They took me all over the world, even at that young age. We used to have amazing adventures during foreign trips, and just have a really good time.
Then when I was 18 I decided that I would form a band. I played a lot of music at school as well. There was a group at school which was the school equivalent of the Fleadh. We had a pretty good group and we won a couple of national titles. It meant a lot for the school to have someone represent them at national level, and just being up there on stage gave me the bug to form a band. It was called Gan Ainm and lasted all of six months before we changed our name to Upstairs in a Tent. Some fantastic musicians went through the band like John McSherry and Eamonn McElholm. That lasted 3 years and then sadly came to an end. We didn’t actually make a CD. One of the players in the band was a nurse and he couldn’t afford to take the time off.
I took a break and went off to Hungary for a year to teach — to do something different in my life. And when I was in Hungary, FLOOK was formed by a mutual friend called Becky Morris, who knew myself, Sarah Allen and Mike McGoldrick. There were three flute players in the band. It started off basically as a one off project called Three Nations Flutes – although there weren’t three nations involved at all. (We kept wondering how we could get round that when we met the press!) We decided after a few weeks of playing together that we needed a guitar and roped in Ed Boyd. We’ve been doing that now for over three years, and it’s all just starting to fall into place.
Q: Which flute players have been your greatest influences?
A: When I started playing the flute I think that the very first album that my parents bought me was the very first Matt Molloy album. There weren’t a lot of sessions or musical social activity in Armagh so I did a lot of playing at home and the Matt Molloy album was my guidance — I learnt everything that he did. It really epitomised my flute playing — I was a big fan of his! And then my father took me to see Jean-Michel Veillon when I was 14 or 15. He was quite young at that stage and he came along to Armagh to do a gig. I remember sitting in the audience and him taking out 100s of flutes out of this big green duffle bag and putting them all together and getting confused as to which one fitted which; and then getting up on stage and playing this most beautiful music I’d never heard before — It was Breton music. It was such an eye- opener because I thought there was only one flute player in the world — Matt Molloy!
So I think the two most important influences were Matt Molloy and Jean-Michel Veillon, but in the end Jean-Michel has shone out like a star — he’s just an incredible flute player. But there’s also many more; I listen to a lot of Indian flute music. Hariprasad Chaurasia, Deepak Ram, Rajendra Prasanna, people like that.
Q: Your flute playing has been described as quite “untraditional”, for example you use your tongue a lot. Do you feel yourself to be part of the tradition, or as breaking away from tradition?
A: Well, I think of tradition as events and things that have shaped your life and the things that have shaped my life have led me to this style. I think that if that is the style where you use your tongue, then that’s your tradition so … A lot of people say “Why do you play so fast?” but when I was growing up, all the old men in Armagh were playing at like 100 miles an hour – so it wasn’t something I invented! And the tonguing thing; Sean Ryan was a great exponent of using his tongue in his whistle playing and I listened to a lot of Sean Ryan. I also listened to a lot of flute and whistle players from South Africa and jazz flute playing. But at the end of the day, I grew up playing Irish traditional music from two very wise musicians – the Vallely family from Armagh, and whatever went in as a tradition, comes out as a tradition.
Q: And of course Matt Molloy uses his tongue quite a bit.
A: Oh yeah, and Kevin Crawford uses a lot of tonguing and Niall Keegan. I think it’s a form of expression, and your tongue is a part of your body, and you should use it all!
Q: What got you started on the triple tonguing?
A: I never really triple tongued until I got my first Patrick Olwell flute. I was playing a Sam Murray flute and that was a really nice flute but it was quite mellow. I was down in Ennis one night in a session and Patrick was there. He’d just come over from America and he had this big bag full of bamboo flutes. I managed to sit down beside him and he offered me a go on one of them. It just like… a vision appeared as soon as I put it to my mouth, and I thought “Wow! This is just incredible” It was the very first bamboo flute I played and it was at that session. The flute played itself. It just came alive, and I thought that this is the sound I’ve wanted. It wasn’t as rich or earthy, or timbral as the black wooden flute, but it allowed me to express myself in a way that I couldn’t on the other flute. I could do a lot of double stopping and quick rolling. He gave me the flute at the end of the session as a gift. I took it away and spent six – seven months just playing that. The triple tonguing just developed with the flute. It seemed to come with it as a complete package, and I don’t know _where_ it came from. Maybe it was just influences from time gone by that I just hadn’t explored.
Q: How long ago was that?
A: About 1994-95. I had a very different style before that. A kind of northern cum Matt Molloy kind of … a lot of northern tunes but in a flowing way with Matt Molloy breath control tied to the rhythm of the tune rather than… A lot of northern flute players are very percussive with their breathing. I was more rounded in my flute playing. But no triple tonguing – nothing flashy.
Q: Where did that jazz influence come from?
A: That’s another good question. I’m not really sure. I spent a lot of time down in Belfast and there was a strong culture and mix of music down there. I also listened to a lot of Roland Kirk when I was young. So I think that it must have come from different places. I’m not sure I understand what jazz music is, even! I think that improvisation comes from just knowing the tune and permitting yourself to be adventurous with it. I never studied jazz, and I never understood the theory behind jazz, but I just leave the tune, but without wandering too far from it. Like someone said recently, to have a jazz break in the middle of a traditional piece of music is too far removed from the tune. A jazz solo is way out there, but I improvise without going too far. I’m very conscious of the root of the tune and where it comes from – probably the tradition, you know.
Q: The variations you do on stage with FLOOK are amazing. What would be your advice for players who’d like to start doing some of that?
A: Get a good guitarist and a good bodhran player, and another good flute player, or melody player who will allow you to do that. That’s basically it. If you’re playing with musicians who you trust, whether that’s on stage or in a session, who you know will be there following every breath, and if you fall over yourself then they’re there to pick it up and nothing’s disappeared – the structure hasn’t fallen apart. In FLOOK I’m very lucky because I have the most extraordinary bodhran player in the world and he’s just as solid as a rock. You know that no matter what happens, no matter how big a mistake you make….
Q: You are making mistakes up there then?!
A: Oh yeah! I make mistakes all the time! But I’ve also watched Jon Joe and Ed, they are so aware of every shift in the mood of the piece, so if I make a mistake, they’ll actually pull the audience from me to them, just as it happens so they’re lifting it all the time. As soon as something falls apart they’ll spark off each other into something really syncopated, and people will shift across and it gives me time to regain my composure. Sarah is really important as well because she’s underneath with this big bass line all the time.
It’s been quite good recently: When Mike McGoldrick was in the band, he was a brilliant brilliant improviser, and an incredible fast thinker, and when he was playing music he could leave the tune at any point and at any time. He was always egging me on so there was always this energy, this almost telepathic thing going on between us where we were constantly reacting to one another. The audience just homed in on that, and it was almost as if Sarah and Ed were just in behind. But now that Mike has gone and John Joe Kelly has come in, I’m feeling far more relaxed because I don’t feel that I have to connect with anyone in that way. It’s such a delight because I can now hear what Sarah, John Joe and Ed do now – it’s really really good. I’ve been searching so long to find these three people. They push me 100% every single night.
Q: What if you’re practising at home on your own without the benefit of Ed, Sarah and John Joe? What do you do then?
A: The way I started to improvise was that I’d put on a trad album like Matt Molloy or Altan and I’d play along with it. Once I knew the tunes and could play along with it, then I’d turn it up really loud and play as though there were two flute players in the band. I’d just do a few things like a harmony that wasn’t there on the CD and it sounded good, so I thought I’d try some variations. The thing about improvisation or harmony is that you have to make a fool of yourself to progress. If you keep playing within your limits then that’s just what you’ll do. But if you try something and you think “This isn’t going to work at all – I’m going to make a complete idiot of myself” and it might _not_ work, but if you try 100 times eventually it will work. If you give up after the first or second attempt then you probably won’t do it again. I just behaved like an idiot for a long time until it worked!
Q: I must admit that I sing along to tapes in the car, and sometimes sing variations on what they’re doing on tape. Is that a way to maybe make a start?
A: That’s it exactly. I did a lot of singing whenever I wasn’t playing. If I was out walking and it was quite quiet I’d start to hum a song, or just hum, and suddenly they’d be patterns of notes and I’d get a key and I’d almost start to improvise with my voice.
The other thing that helps is to create an environment where you feel that you’re comfortable doing that, and that no one is going to put you down for trying it. You can do it at home, but if you’re out in a session or in a gig, you have to create this environment. Sometimes you can’t ask for a 5.6 increase in the creativity portion for the night – you have to feel that you’re in the right place to do it. I think it quite important to be with musicians who are up for it as well.
Q: What other flute traditions have inspired you and what is really inspiring you at the moment?
A: Burwell House is inspiring me at the moment! Meeting all of you and teaching. I don’t often get the chance to teach. I do two workshops a year; this and the Durham Folkworks summer school. I’m doing the adult school this year. It’s inspiring for me because it gives me a chance to go back and play music slowly. It’s tiring, but it’s lovely to sit down in a room with thirteen people and I don’t even know what most of the people do, and it doesn’t even matter. It’s just being with a few people who only get a few chances a year to come and learn and they want to get the most out of their five days. I remember the first time I taught at the Folkworks summer school: I arrived and I was totally exhausted, and I didn’t really want to teach. I wasn’t in the right frame of mind. Ros Rigby met me at the door of the taxi and said “I want you to meet this little guy Harry. He’s been doing a paper round every month for the last year to come and pay his own way to do your course.” It’s very inspiring for me that people would want to come and learn from me. I never read a lot of books and I wasn’t very good at school, so to be able to pass something on in another way is very inspiring.
Flute players: I did a tour around India in March, and that has musically been the most inspiring thing recently. Meeting a lot of great musicians out there, some very wise people as well, and just learning a little bit about a tradition that I knew nothing about.
Q: Do you think that will feed into what you do with FLOOK? It must do.
A: I think it has already and it will continue to, and in a big way. Maybe not in the tunes we choose but in my playing it will definitely influence it quite a lot – It’s also all I talk about!
Q: What about other cultures? Hungary must have had an impact?
A: Hungary was fascinating for me because it came at a real turning point in my career and in my life – because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I’d left one band behind and I was pretty disillusioned by the whole thing. I still passionately loved playing music, but I didn’t know how I could get it across in the way that I wanted to. So I went out to Hungary and it’s funny because you can never really turn your back on something that you’re meant to do. It wasn’t long before I was in a lot of Hungarian dance houses listening to folk music and learning how to dance. Then one night I was coming home from school (I was teaching English in a Jewish Grammar school) and literally round the corner from the flat was a poster that said Shooglenifty were playing the next night in a tiny little hall. So I went back to school the next day and got all the kids, and they were saying “Folk music?! We want to dance in a club!” and I said “No, you’ve got to come and listen to this.” So I was national hero the next day at school after they came and heard Shooglenifty! But I just remember going straight home after the gig and getting out my flute and waking up the neighbours and getting back into playing. I did a lot of playing with a fantastic Kaval player whose name was Andras Monori [who featured in the Folkworks Flutopia tour] who was an amazing guy and an incredible musician. He played a lot of jazz and folk fusion. He played in an amazing band called the Tin Tin Quartet. They have an unbelievable tabla player and quite a strong Indian influence. I also did a bit of collecting for a Hungarian institute. We had to go out and collect folk tunes out in the villages so I met a lot of old Kaval Shepherd players.
I’ve been incredibly lucky actually. There’s no other profession in the world where you can get to meet such amazing characters – the real people of the country that you go to. Music kind of invites you to walk into these lives. They’re not great academics, or geniuses – they’re just ordinary people, like you and me. That’s the lovely thing about music, and it’s the same with art and the same with poetry.