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Brock McGuire brings sound, feel of Irish music to W&M

{{youtube:medium|G2-WZCfNNiU, Brock McGuire Band works with the W&M Appalachian Music Ensemble}}

Irish music is about more than certain notes or arrangements.

“There’s a vibe in Irish music that you can’t read from a page,” said Garry O’Meara. “You need to hear the music; you need to understand it. We’ve all seen, for example, a fantastic classical violinist who reads an Irish reel off a page, and it doesn’t sound right. You just have understand the feel of the music.”

William & Mary students had the chance to further that understanding last week as one of the top traditional Irish music groups in the world visited campus. The Brock McGuire Band met with classes, hosted a master class with the Appalachian Music Ensemble and performed in Williamsburg Regional Library as part of the W&M Department of Music’s Ewell Concert Series.

The group is named for founding members Paul Brock, a button accordionist and melodeonist, and fiddler Manus McGuire. O’Meara, who sings and plays the banjo and mandolin, and Denis Carey, a composer and pianist, complete the band, which was named “Best Instrumental Band of the Decade” by the Irish American News. The group has performed in locations around the world and has released several CDs, including 2011’s “Blue Grass Green Grass.” The band collaborated with several American country and bluegrass musicians on that album, including the legendary Ricky Skaggs.

In Adjunct Professor Branislava Mijatovic’s Worlds of Music class Nov. 7, the band performed a variety of short pieces and provided students with a history of some of the instruments that are traditionally associated with Irish music, such as the violin.

{{youtube:medium|uXIQTmAqx8Y, Brock McGuire Band performs in W&M class}}

Stringed instruments may be seen on Irish stone carvings dating back to the first millennium of the Common Era. By the Middle Ages, the violin – later referred to as the fiddle – had become a part of the Irish music tradition.

Some of the other instruments took a little longer. The accordion, for instance, was invented in Austria in the 1800s. Factories in Germany and Italy soon began pumping the instrument out by the thousands and selling them to musicians across the world, said Brock.

“The reason why is that they were inexpensive at the time, portable and made lots of noise so you could hear them in the pre-amplification era,” he said.

The banjo also made its appearance in Irish music in the 1800s. Originally an African instrument, it was recreated in America by enslaved people and gained popularity as part of minstrel shows. One such show, the Virginia Minstrels, brought the banjo to Ireland in the 1840s, but it wasn’t until Irish immigrants in America began producing music in the states did the banjo really start making an impact on Irish music.

“These recordings came home and had a big impact on the scene at home,” said O’Meara. “But the banjo still didn’t gain full popularity until 1960s when there was a big boom in ballad groups which coincided with the folk boom over here.”

Today, the banjo remains a very popular instrument in Irish music, especially with young musicians, he added.

“Whether it’s a good or bad thing, the banjo is here to stay in Irish music,” O’Meara said.

The piano was also a bit of a latecomer to the Irish tradition and, like the banjo, was incorporated in large part due to the influence of Irish musicians in the United States. Recording in America, the musicians were required to have a pianist accompany them.

“So you listen [to those recordings] and you hear brilliant musicians backed by people who didn’t know how to accompany Irish music,” said Brock, “but over a period of time, that all changed and now the piano is very much a feature of Irish music.”

Because Irish music has influenced and been influenced by music across the world, the Brock McGuire Band members are always looking for connections between the traditional music they play and the music they hear as they travel.

“You hear it in the Appalachians, you hear it in bluegrass, old-timey and country music,” said Brock, adding that they also hear it in Canada, particularly Quebec and Nova Scotia.

More than 16,000 Irish dance tunes, including reels, jigs, polkas, slides, mazurkas and hornpipes, have been documented throughout the years, said Brock. Although many tunes have been around for years – centuries, even – Irish music leaves room for individual interpretation.

“While we’re working in an ensemble setting, the music allows us to do individually our own thing while at the same time complementing each other,” said Brock. “In a sense, it’s a bit like jazz with people doing their own thing, so you never get the tune played the same way twice. Individuals bring their own interpretation, their own feel for the tune and play it in a way that makes sense, in a way that’s tasteful, in a way that’s right for the music.”

The evolution of the tradition throughout the years is part of what gives Irish music its distinct feel – something that can’t be learned by just reading sheet music.

"At home, we say, you have to have the 'nyah,'" said O’Meara. “It doesn’t mean anything; it just means you have to understand the music.

“The big thing is you just have to listen. You have to get it on your ear. You just have to listen to it and get it by osmosis eventually.”