Niall Vallely - shinging bright as a Northern Light

Niall Vallely is talking about the Northern Lights project that brings him on a tour of Scotland that includes a Celtic Connections concert this month. As a musician who spends most of his time thinking up work opportunities and carrying them out – two recent examples being the superb arrangements he wrote for Irish band Lunasa’s album with the RTE Concert Orchestra and his role as producer on his wife, singer Karan Casey’s latest album, Two More Hours – Vallely appreciates when other people invite him to bring his concertina along and play their ideas.

In the case of Northern Lights, which has been put together by Scottish harpist and composer Ailie Robertson, Vallely along with Scottish fiddler Donald Grant, Irish flautist and whistle player Brian Finnegan and Danish musicians Nikolaj Busk and Ale Carr are a bit more than hired hands. All six musicians will be contributing to the repertoire. For Vallely, however, the possibility of combining composing and playing is especially exciting.

“I know Ailie a bit and I’ve known Brian Finnegan since we were small children really,” he says. “But the others I don’t really know at all. I’ve been checking them out on the internet to try and get some idea of what to expect but I’ve no idea what we’re going to sound like when we get together, and that’s going to make it very interesting, hopefully for the audiences as well as ourselves.”

Vallely comes from a family where, although they don’t all play professionally, everyone plays music. His parents have run the Armagh Pipers Club for as long as Niall can remember and he and his siblings all went to the club’s classes almost as soon as they could walk.

“There was no big deal made about it,” he says. “We didn’t get extra lessons at home or special coaching or anything like that. It was just the way of family life, part of the daily routine. I suspect it was cheaper for my folks to take us to music classes than to pay for a babysitter. But I don’t remember there being any pressure being put on us to play. It was very natural.”

For his seventh birthday, family lore has it, Vallely asked for a concertina. An Englishman called Paul Davis, who had befriended his parents, played the concertina and between his imposing presence – he was a big man with a big beard – and an apparently encyclopaedic repertoire, he made quite an impression on the youngster. Classical piano and trumpet lessons followed later, as did studies at Cork University with one of the great figures in Irish music, pianist and composer Micheal O Suilleabhain.

“A lot of the course was fairly typical academic music studies,” says Vallely. “But I’d been attracted by the fact that Cork was the first university to include traditional music and that was Micheal’s area – or one of them. He had an interest in and knowledge of all sorts of music and as well as talking about traditional music in a very interesting way, he’d, well, you didn’t leave his lectures with pages and pages of notes but your head would be absolutely buzzing with ideas.”

The first band in which Vallely made an impression, Nomos, came out of that course and some of O Suilleabhain’s ideas of combining traditional and classical music fed into his own thoughts about composition.

“I’d started writing tunes, not very well to begin with,” says Vallely. “Then I wrote a couple that I thought were quite good and then I thought it would be interesting to write something a bit longer and more involved.”

The first of these was The Singing Stream, written for four sets of uilleann pipes. He has subsequently scored music for the TV series The Flight of the Earls and between gigs with musicians including bluegrass multi-instrumentalist Tim O’Brien, piper Paddy Keenan and jazz violinist Regina Carter, he has written the multi-media piece Rakish, The Red Tree for concertina and strings, and commissions for the RTE Orchestra, fiddler Zoe Conway and his alma mater, Cork University. A piece for the Kronos quartet, following theirs and Vallely’s involvement in a Steve Reich at 70 celebration in Cork, remains a possibility if funding can be secured.

“I’ve always been interested in the meeting of musicians from different backgrounds” he says. “Not in a fusion sense, where players are asked to do stuff that’s out of their comfort zone, but in a way that’s complementary. That’s why for the Lunasa album with the RTE, I didn’t want the orchestra to play tunes, it was more about enhancing what is actually quite colourful, quite highly arranged music. I think in the end, with these projects that go beyond jigs and reels, it’s about representing myself and what’s going inside my head – it just comes out in different ways.”

Niall Vallely appears with Northern Lights at Gairloch Village Hall on Wednesday January 15; Lemon Tree, Aberdeen on Thursday, January 16; Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh on Friday January 17; Eden Court, Inverness on Saturday January 18; and Mitchell Theatre, Glasgow on Sunday January 19.

From The Herald, January 9, 2014.

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