Close encounters with Irish slides — #Berkshireweekend

In Matt Cranitch’s hands, the bow draws down in a sinuous movement, sliding notes together and flicking them apart, and a jig takes on an insistent rhythm that swings in your shoulders.

He calls it a slide, and you can tell this is dance music, the kind of music friends play on the steps on warm nights, as easily as you can tell he’s been playing for more than 35 years.

And I’m finding it glorious and a touch surreal that a fiddler from County Cork is out here on an odd Thursday night in March, teaching us a song from his own mountains. He’s in Dewey Hall with accordionist Dónal Murphy from Limerick and guitarist and vocalist Tommy O’Sullivan from County Kerry, all of them on a cross-country tour to celebrate their band’s 25th anniversary.

Together they’re called Sliabh Notes, in a kind of Irish and English wordplay, because they play the music of Sliabh Luachra — an area in Southwestern Ireland that spans their counties. The name means a mountain bog or a high heath. It’s a high, remote and beautiful place as they describe it, with a long and rare musical tradition.

Roaring Brook curves across the plane at the edge of October Mountain State Forest on a snowy March day.
Photo by Kate Abbott

Roaring Brook curves across the plane at the edge of October Mountain State Forest on a snowy March day.

The three of them live out near the tip of the coast, if I understand right, in some of the places farthest from the centers where the English held control for centuries. The Irish language has survived there unbroken, and Cranitch plays another tune in a beautiful amorphous tradition that has welcomed guests to Irish homes long before jigs ever came here …

O’Sullivan sings love songs to the spirit of these old cities above the harbors, where he keeps a pub and musicians come to play informal jams. Murphy leads into a waltz his wife fell in love with, the music she walked up the aisle to at their wedding.

And Cranitch tells us about Pádraig O’Keeffe, one of the last of the traveling fiddle teachers a hundred years ago — he walked from house to house and student to student, sometimes 20 or 30 miles a day, and he invented his own system of notation to explain the movements of his bow.

When Cranitch plays then, he draws attention to the the expression and sinew in his movements. With confidence, the fiddle bow becomes a deeply expressive tool, launching a run, drawing out a note, driving the beat. Sitting there with my tenor recorder, I try to translate the movement into embouchure — the way the shape of the mouth and the breathing shapes the sound.

I’m listening for the swing of the dance ryhthm in a jig and the way he plays a Polka with a pulse on the second beat. People are dancing along the wall, moving in what I thought might be Irish percussive footwork, and laughing.

Live music and more

If you’re looking for a Saint Patrick’s day celebration this weekend, or a night of live music, or a glimpse of courage and resistance … the Scots band Cantrip will come to the Foundry this weekend, German Amercan artist and graphic novelist Nora Krug will speak at the opening of her show at the Norman Rockwell Museum, Berkshire Theatre Group will celebrate women in the Berkshire music scene … and check out the BTW events calendar.

Berkshire and nationally known vocalist Wanda Houston. Press photo courtesy of the artist.
Wanda Houston

Berkshire and nationally known vocalist Wanda Houston. Press photo courtesy of the artist and Construct, Inc.

Events coming up …

Find more art and performance, outdoors and food in the BTW events calendar.

Pastries topped with nuts and frosting gleam at the Break Room cafe in GreylockWorks, in North Adams.
Oct 1 2023 @ 9:30 am
GreylockWorks brings a mini makers market with a rotating array of local artisans, open studios and thoughtful food and drinks from The Break Room.
Kenneth Tigar stars in The Happiest Man on Earth, adapted from Eddie Jaku's memoir from World War II through a century. Press photo courtesy of Barrington Stage Company
Oct 1 2023 @ 1:30 pm
Eddie Jaku was a teenager as World War II began, and he survived Buchenwald, Auschwitz and a forced death march — a new play tells his story.
Justin Adhoot appears as Bilal as in ABCD. Press photos courtesy of Barrington Stage Company.
Oct 1 2023 @ 2:00 pm
In Sanaz Toossi's 2023 Pulitzer prizewinning play, four students meet regularly in a classroom in Iran, preparing to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language proficiency exam.

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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