J.B .Vallely (1941- ) was born and educated in Armagh and went on to attend the Belfast College of Art and later, the Edinburgh College of Art as a young man. Throughout his career, he enjoyed numerous awards and accolades, culminating in the eponymously named, celebratory exhibition, Vallely at 80, that ran from 20th Nov, 2021 to 15th Jan, 2022, in the Bishop’s Palace in Armagh. As the notes from that exhibition declare “Vallely’s subject matter depicts rural Irish themes, including its strong traditional of which he is passionate about on a personal level. Music, sport, mythology, history and culture feature predominantly in his paintings” (http://www.jbv.ie/recentwork.html). Further biographical details can be found at https://www.rosss.ie/artist/jb-vallely/3556/.
It is his in-depth knowledge of and love for Irish traditional music that makes this month’s painting, ‘The Session’, such a compelling piece of work. We are presented with two musicians in an apparently decontextualised setting. The backdrop operates as a kind of sliabh bán,an almost empty canvass at first glance. The composition focusses entirely on the two musicians, an uilleann piper and a fiddle player, in the throes of a tune, judging by their body and hand positions. While the pipes player has some discernible facial features, the fiddler player has none. This type of impressionistic approach is not just technical; it also speaks to the unimportance of identifying the performers, for it is the music and not the people playing it that is the subject matter here. Structure and form are sublimated in favour of the dynamic flow. The musicians do not need to face each other to communicate intentions; the music drives them. The fiddle player is, perhaps, being somewhat differential to the pipes player, facing towards the piper’s body, to where the sound is emanating, drawing him in. The iconicity of the pipes as an 'authentic' expression of Irishness is also part of the dynamic here - the pipes and the piper are more defined, more fully rendered. The piper sits contentedly, eyes closed, completely at ease in his world, fully engaged and present in sound, gesture, and nothing else. Contextual detail is therefore not required, and the white background is not about absence. On the contrary, it speaks to the irrelevance of the material setting of this session. This is a moment of absolute flow and boundless, borderless creativity. The music is all the context that is required.
When performing in a pub session or house session, musicians occupy their own world, even if they happen to have some listeners or an enthusiastic crowd around them. Sessions do not have an 'audience’ in the traditional sense and this is not presentational music to entertain people. Rather, this is music for the musicians themselves and people outside this line or circle have the privilege of looking in upon this world of sound, gesture, affect, history, and experience, but cannot make any demands of it. Their role may be to show appreciation, but even that matters little to the musicians who stay inside the mesmeric round of the tune. In the musical moment, the now, musicians harken back to past settings of tunes, while simultaneously generating new momentum into current and even futures iterations of this shared repertoire and activity.
The repertoire of Irish traditional music has been characterised as drawing up the ancient musical modes of suantraí, geantraí and goltraí – sleeping, happiness, and sorrow. Sometimes the pipes or fiddle will play a solo slow air, of goltraí modality, in a session. This is generally a moment of repose when, as for a song, the session quietens and all social conviviality ceases for the duration of this tune. But the session event is generally dominated by geantraí aesthetics; tunes flow at pace, freely, with verve and joy, even if a bittersweet sorrow lingers in the eddies beneath. ‘The Session’ captures this moment beautifully, and J.B. Vallely communicates to us not only his deep understanding of the dynamics of the session and its social role, but also his appreciation and respect for a tradition that continues to enrapture musicians and listeners alike.
The following excerpt is from Ciaran Carson’s Last Night’s Fun: In and Out of Time with Irish Music, first published in 1996. As well as being a poet and writer, Carson (1948-2019) was a fine flute player from Belfast, and this book captures the sound, and energy of Irish music and its associated performance tales and tradition beautifully. It complements Vallely’s painting and the deeply Northern Irish approach to thinking about time, space, place and belonging, as well as the aesthetics of collective playing in a session, bringing the painting to life. Here, Carson talks about the morning after a session the night before, that leaks into a new session the next day and inexorably draws musicians back to the musical universe that is a session, where the playing of the music created a cosmology all its own.
“We are fragile, and it is the morning after; rather it is early afternoon, and we have settled in a dusty sunlit corner of an empty pub. Our talk is desultory till we think to play a tune, and we are all reluctant. Yet we start because we have to. And somehow two bars into it, we sense each other’s playing in the way the Zodiac arrives are the planetary conjunctions, and we can do no more than play the pattern out. And thought the starts, by now, are out of line with what they were two hundred years ago, we too have moved, or have been moved to know that until now we had not played this tune. We did not know its beauty, nor had we realised the marks of other hands that knew it and had passed it on to some they hoped would eventually manage to figure out its gorgeous shape. We repeat this same tune many times, and ‘bout the twelfth or thirteenth time, we know it’s time to stop, since we have gained a century in those few minutes of horology. Then were like some watchers of the skies, or we had gazed at the Pacific for the first time, and we were silent as we contemplated time in all its mirrored constellations”
[From ‘Boil the Breakfast Early’, p 21, Last Night’s Fun 1996]
This set of tunes performed by the band Lúnasa* comes from at TG4 (a popular Irish language TV station) broadcast from 2004. The recording was made in a pub in Dublin and the musicians occupy a typical session nook. The all-male line up resonates with the male subjects of Vallely’s paintings about music making and session playing. The uilleann piper is none other than JB Vallely’s son, Cillian Vallely, one of the many Vallelys who play Irish traditional music professionally. His brother Niall Vallely, a concertina player, has been the subject of another of J.B. Vallely’s paintings. The way Cillian sits facing outward, adjacent to fiddle player Sean Smith and interacting with him without looking at him, echoes the format and energy of Vallely’s painting. The garb may be more modern now, and the tunes too, but something timeless persists and in a similar manner, the modernity of Vallely’s painting find expression in this joyous and technically sophisticated music.
[Lúnasa/Lughnasadh is a Gaelic Festival marking the beginning of the Harvest Season]
Aileen Dillane is a traditional musician, ethnomusicologist and Associate Professor in Music at the Irish World Academy of Dance, University of Limerick. She was a Visiting Professor at the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies in 2017. Aileen is a member of the Templeglantine Ceilí Band (All-Ireland winners 2010) and frequently collaborates with Marty Fahey and The O’Brien Collection of Irish Art.