Welsh Harpist Catrin Finch And Ireland's Fiddle Virtuoso Aoife Ní Bhriain To Release Debut Album
By Glenda Rush.
Dublin native Aoife Ní Bhriain is one of her generation’s most versatile and gifted violinists, a dazzling musician who commands both the classical world and her Irish traditional heritage. From across the Irish Sea and the west coast of Wales, harpist Catrin Finch has also built an impressive classical career and ventured into uncharted musical territory, most notably through her award-winning international collaborations with Seckou Keita and Cimarrón.
Double You, Catrin and Aoife's debut album as a duo, features an exquisite collection of new compositions that draw inspiration from various genres, taking listeners on a captivating journey on the wings of the bees across the Irish Sea and inspired by the cultures of their home countries. Running through their stories – as individual creatives, remarkable women, and now as an inspirational duo – are universal themes of identity, self-belief and the courage to find yourself and follow your own path.
The album's title, Double You, alludes to the many similarities that connect Catrin and Aoife, making one the double of the other and creating a deep musical bond between the two. Double You releases on the bendigedig label on 27th October 2023.
The duo met in the depths of lockdown on the digital edition of Other Voices Aberteifi, the Welsh manifestation of the iconic Irish TV series and Other Voices Festival, which began in Dingle some twenty years ago. Catrin Finch, surely the most accomplished British harpist of her generation, was an obvious musical match for the polychromatic virtuosity of Ireland's violinist Aoife Ní Bhriain, and the resulting album, Double You is the superb product of their ".... innate synergy…(and is) an ingenious blend of myriad influences," – Miranda Heggie, The Arts Desk.
Both are incredible virtuosos of their respective instruments, who started young and trained hard with great dedication to achieve the highest world-class standards of their art. Both went through rigorous classical training and grounded their careers in the classical world. Given her family heritage, it was inevitable that Aoife would also become a master of the Irish tradition; and given her fearless and inquisitive nature, it was equally inevitable that Catrin would seek artistic satisfaction beyond the confines of the classical world. “Audiences just want to come away from a performance having been moved,” says Catrin. That becomes the key creative force, transcending the boundaries of genre.
Running through their stories – as individual creatives, remarkable women, and now as an inspirational duo – are universal themes of identity, self-belief and the courage to be who you really are, to find yourself, particularly when others expect you to conform. Theirs is a story of being brave enough to follow your own path. From fighting against cancer and embracing sexuality, to being courageous enough to express their full creative potential, both Catrin and Aoife have been forging their own paths of challenge and discovery.
Each track on the album begins with the letter 'W', spoken as ‘Double You'; the tracks allude to the many striking parallels that bind Catrin and Aoife together, making one the double of the other and affording a deep musical affinity between the two. The ‘W’ also traces the pattern of the famous waggle dance that bees use to tell their fellow workers where nectar sources can be found, their lower bodies indicating the direction of the nectar relative to the sun. It’s a suitable metaphor for a search for new creative possibilities.
Wonder is based on a prelude by Bach, blending variations with some original motifs. Catrin: “It’s our own improvisation on that original prelude.” The chords at the end are from a Mendelssohn violin concerto dear to Aoife, who studied for a while at the Hochschule that Mendelssohn founded in Leipzig, the city where Bach lived.
Whispers morphs from minor to major, building through a medley of pizzicato that constantly mutates. Aoife’s father, Mick O’Brien, has spent a lot of time in Norway, and Aoife has visited the country many times. She was inspired to buy a beautiful Hardanger fiddle, the nine-stringed variant of the traditional fiddle that is Norway’s national instrument, and she uses it here to dazzling effect.
Originally called ‘The Lost Bee’, Wandering evokes the sense of wandering aimlessly, or perhaps with a secret purpose that has yet to be revealed. “It has a really beautiful feeling,’ says Aoife ‘…like you’re there, but not there. You’re going somewhere, but you just don’t know why or where or how.”
The starting point of Waves is a simple hornpipe called ‘Galway Bay’. The piece goes into an old Welsh tune called ‘My Mother-in-Law’s Lament’ (Cwyn Mam yng Nghyfraith). Catrin: “It’s really funky…one of my favourite Welsh traditional songs.” The piece is called ‘Waves’ for the obvious reason that everything that goes back and forth between Wales and Ireland –saints, bees, music– rides the waves.
The track Why is dedicated to Pastelle LeBlanc (of the band Vishtén from Prince Edward Island) with whom Catrin collaborated in 2019. As a farewell gift, Pastelle gave Catrin a book of traditional music she’d collected from the Island and The Maritimes region of Canada. Sometime later, in the throes of the Covid pandemic, Pastelle was diagnosed with cancer, a journey both Catrin and Aoife have also experienced. Tragically, Pastelle passed away in April 2022. “She was my age. We were in contact when she was diagnosed, and she didn’t make it. Sometimes in life you have to wonder…why?, ”says Catrin. The track starts with an imaginative reworking of one Aoife’s favourite Breton tunes, ‘Personne n’est a Cause’ (‘No one is to blame’), popularized by the band Gwerz.
The baroque composer Pietro Locatelli wrote a series of Capricci for violin, as part of his masterful suite of concerti known as L’arte del violino. These ‘Caprices’ can be extremely challenging to play. Aoife felt that her chosen Caprice had a trad feel, so she transferred it to the Hardanger violin, changing its sound world for the track Woven. Aoife: “In fairness, the Hardanger fiddle is closer to the Baroque violin, which is what they would have been playing at the time.” Aoife and Catrin took motifs from the Caprice and threaded them together to make something completely new. It was an exercise in taking liberties and applying fresh ears to a very old tune.
Wings is a new version of Catrin’s dream-like tune ‘Listen To The Grass Grow’. Catrin: “Wings are a metaphor for escape; the idea that, every now and then, we need to fly off somewhere.” Like that one day in the year when the weather is perfect, weightless, and you’re blessed to find yourself up on a high ridge, looking over the reposing countryside, and just soaring. Aoife: “You can, literally, just float on this tune.”
Waggle is a nod to the figure-of-eight dance of the honeybee. By performing this dance, successful foragers can share information about direction, distance to patches of flower, nectar and pollen, and water sources or new locations. The piece nods to a variety of inspirations: tango, gypsy jazz, improvisation, trad and classical.
Wish is the marriage of two harp classics: ’Tabhair dom do Lámh’ (‘Give Me Your Hand’) and ‘The Ash Grove’, a very famous traditional Welsh tune in praise of the ash tree.
’Tabhair dom do Lámh’ is a favourite wedding song in Ireland and this marriage of two harp pieces is so seamless it seems predestined. Of course, if you get married you have to inform the bees, otherwise there’ll be hell to pay down the line…
So abundant are their musical affinities, Catrin and Aoife could almost be musical sisters, born of the same rigour, the same mingling of classical and traditional influences, with the same yearnings for freedom, fluidity and growth through challenge. After the success of her partnership with Seckou Keita, who couldn't have more different to her in almost every respect (male, African, the product of an oral tradition), it's as if Catrin has found her double in Aoife. "We've come from very similar worlds this time," she says. And the way Aoife talks about Catrin, it's as if she's found an important missing piece in the puzzle of her musical life. "I was just so happy, finally, to play with someone with the same open-mindedness. We hear things similarly. We speak the same language, but we're also not afraid to push each other. And I've never met anybody I've had that instant connection with."
Double You tells Catrin and Aoife’s universal story of having the courage to find and be who you really are, and, as part of the process, to create something extraordinary.
Catrin and Aoife’s October 27th release will be accompanied by a UK tour and international performances, which start in 2023 and run throughout 2024.
OCTOBER 20 NCEM, YORK 21 Y Tabernacl, MACYNYLLETH 27 Pontio, BANGOR 28 St Andrews Church, CAVERSHAM 29 The Apex, BURY ST EDMUNDS
NOVEMBER 4 Howard Assembly Room, LEEDS 10 RWCMD CAERDYDD / CARDIFF 13 Union Chapel EFG LONDON JAZZ FESTIVAL 16 Huntingdon Hall, WORCESTER 17 Sheldonian Theatre, OXFORD
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