Brendyn Montgomery is a New Zealand born Irish traditional musician who plays and teaches the wooden flute, whistle and fiddle. In 2003, Brendyn earned an M.A. in Traditional Irish Music Performance with first class honours from the University of Limerick – the first person in Australasia to do so. His debut album Mountain Air collected the Recording Industry Association of New Zealand’s 2004 Tui Music Award for Best Folk Album. Brendyn records, travels and performs regularly, and is involved with Ceol Aneas in Nelson. Brendyn also designs websites and offers music courses online.
In this interview Brendyn offers his thoughts on growing up around the folk music scene, his development as a traditional Irish flute player and teacher, and shares with us his view of Irish music in New Zealand. This interview was recorded on Thursday July 15 – 2004. Our thanks to Brendyn Montgomery for kindly giving his time to record this inspiring and informative interview.
Brendyn Montgomery: For me really it’s the stillness. Castle Hill is not even really a village – there are no shops, no petrol station – nothing! There’s a little collection of houses and about ten of us live there permanently – the rest are all holiday homes. So in that sense, it’s still as there are not a lot of people around. But in a greater sense for me there is tranquillity about the place that I haven’t really encountered anywhere else, and because I do so much travelling, it’s really nice to be able to come home to Castle Hill and relax.
S: Is the proximity of the Southern Alps a factor? I hear you’re a big fan of the mountains.
BM: I just love the stillness. If I could, I would live in a place by the sea where I could see the mountains, but living amongst them is the next best thing. I love the cold and the effort of having to stay warm. Keeping the fires going is very vital; it’s very raw. Most of these experiences have been removed in the society that we live in now.
S: Does living near the Alps have any influence on your music and practice?
BM: Yes, I suppose it does. I have the time and the space to dream big dreams up here and I am less caught up in the rigours of life in the city. So my music does not take on those influences either.
S: Are you doing anything outside of your music? You completed a degree in Zoology I believe.
BM: I did, though I don’t really have any aspirations of doing any Zoology ever again. In the end, I completed the degree purely to get myself onto the degree course at Limerick. Music is definitely the main thing. I do a little bit of graphic design; although mainly as an adjunct to my music and often it will be design just for myself or for projects that I am working on. I do sometimes do design for other people to help pay the bills, but my main source of income is from teaching, lecturing and performing traditional Irish music.
S: Growing up in Dunedin, was there music in the house; any musical influences from within the family?
BM: Definitely music in the house. My Mum was in a pipe band and my Dad played the button accordion. They both played Irish and Scots music, so there was definitely a playing influence there. I guess that I can’t really say that they taught me how to play because there wasn’t that kind of family relationship, but they were involved in the folk scene and they had a lot of records of Irish music. So I was always listening to Irish music as I was growing up. The influence was there and I played with them a little bit, but as apposed to some of the families in Ireland where your Mum or Dad would sit down and teach you tunes, they didn’t have that kind of direct influence.
S: You once told me that you had an older relative in New Zealand that is a traditional Irish musician.
BM: Yes – Charlie Montgomery. He lives here in Auckland and plays the fiddle. He’s a relative of mine but he was born in Northern Ireland and emigrated. We didn’t find out about him till quite recently.
S: A good fiddler?
BM: Fantastic! Best Irish traditional musician in the country!
S: What’s he doing in Auckland; does he play much at all?
BM: He was a plumber and he’s retired now. He is in his seventies and his health is not that good so he doesn’t play out; his health prevents him. And he’s also one of those older, quieter and very modest gentlemen, you know. He just doesn’t seek to impose himself on the scene. I also think it’s a little bit of a reflection on the fact that there have never been a huge number of people for him to play with over the years.
S: Your roots are Irish to some extent then?
BM: Sort of seven-eighth Northern Irish but its back about five generations. While I’d say yes, my roots are Irish, I definitely wouldn’t consider myself to be Irish in that sense. I don’t aspire to try not to be a New Zealander.
S: So as a kid, there was a bit of music around. What got you really interested in playing the music yourself?
BM: I wanted to play. When I was seven my Dad said to me, “You can learn a musical instrument or you can join the Boy Scouts.” And so I started playing the fiddle! I was going through Suzuki classical lessons on and off for about five years I suppose and I was terrible. I didn’t practice and didn’t think I needed to. One day I woke up and I realised that I really wasn’t very good! I was about twelve at that stage and kind of gave it up overnight. I wondered around for a while not really playing anything and started playing pipes again purely for my Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, which was an accomplishment program run through my high school. I needed a skill and I thought I’d go back to the music malarkey – ‘I’d done that before so I can do it again’ kind of thing. It was going down exactly the same road playing bagpipes but I was mainly playing the chanter because I wanted to play Mum’s Scottish smallpipes. So one day I realised that I had got just a little better than the last week; which was the first time that had ever happened to me. It just sort of threw on a switch at some level and I kind of haven’t ever really looked back. To admit to myself that I was actually capable of improving was all that really needed to happen.
“Somebody came up to me and said, “You blow that thing (tin whistle) harder to get into the second octave – don’t you!” And I said “Yeah!” and went behind a tree and tried it. I discovered that it was actually capable of a second octave and there was no stopping me after that.”
S: What age were you when this happened.
BM: I was about sixteen at the time and suddenly very into playing because I realised that I could get better. The first week I learnt a tune and the second week I learnt two tunes and the third week I learnt four tunes and then it was all on!
S: It’s nice to get over that hump isn’t it; everybody seems to go through that phase.
BM: Oh, absolutely. I started playing tin whistle at about the same time – Mum dredged an old whistle out of the draw. That must have been about October or November and over New Year there was a folk festival which I had been going to for more than half my life. At that stage I had given up going because it wasn’t cool and suddenly all of my friends at high school discovered this fantastic ‘new thing’ called a folk festival. At this point I realised that there really wasn’t any escape from the music and like, if I couldn’t get away from it, I may as well do it properly. So it was at that festival that I started playing a lot of whistle. I was sitting there playing quietly outside my tent and mainly playing bagpipe music on it which only has one octave. Somebody came up to me and said, “You blow that thing harder to get into the second octave – don’t you!” And I said “Yeah!” and went behind a tree and tried it. I discovered that it was actually capable of a second octave and there was no stopping me after that. It was a bit embarrassing but…
S: Your horizons expanded.
BM: They did!
BM: I discovered the Irish flute without discovering it, if that makes any sense. I ordered one – I just knew that I wanted one and it felt like a good idea at the time. I was playing whistle and a bit of low whistle and had become a little frustrated because I wanted a flute sound. So I ordered a wooden flute and then hired a classical flute just to see if I could play one. Actually, I may have hired the classical flute first and then decided that the classical flute definitely wasn’t going to cut the mustard and just ordered a wooden flute without ever having played one. I’d had a recommendation from a guy in Dunedin who owned a Michael Grinter flute and Bob Bickerton also recommended that maker, so I just ordered a flute and it turned out to be the best move that I ever made. I was very lucky because just after I ordered that flute, Michael’s prices went up!
S: Were you listening to much music then? What was influencing you?
BM: By that stage I had left school and I was in my first year of university. I must have ordered the flute about the middle of the year and towards the end of the year, I joined the first band that I was in. I was listening to a lot of stuff; The Bothy Band, Planxty, and things that I had listened too growing up. I was also starting to listen to other music that the band was trying to recommend; more modern bands like Danu and Dervish.
S: Were you getting any lessons at this stage?
BM: Well about this time I met Darren Hurley and he really turned things around for me. Darren is a flute and bouzouki player from County Limerick. I was going through a whole process of having to play in a band – which was all terrifying and very scary and a big learning curve for me because my timing wasn’t very good and my repertoire of tunes was fairly small. So I was struggling with that whole issue but putting a huge amount of time into it and into getting better.
In the middle of that big rush of impetus and at the start of the next year Darren arrived. He turned up in February, so I hadn’t been in the band very long. Darren was around for a good year, on and off, and he was somehow able to pass on to me the spirit of the music. He’s one of the people with whom I’ve had the most fun and the most kind of spiritual connection with, for want of a better way to put it, in my music. We just spent hours and hours and hours playing tunes. He taught me so many tunes and from him not only did I get the feel of the music but I got the spirit of learning by ear and being taught tunes and associating tunes with people and places. I think without that I wouldn’t have got very far – I don’t know that I would have carried on. Darren really opened something up inside me.
S: What was happening in the local scene in those days? Were there people to play with or role models around?
BM: I didn’t really know much about the scene outside of Dunedin at that stage. I knew a few people like Bob Bickerton in Nelson. There were some good players in Oamaru – a couple called Steve and Marion who we used to go up and play with a bit. Around that time I met Garry Leahy who is a fiddle player from County Cork – he had married a New Zealand woman and was living in Lyttleton. There were some alright players in Dunedin and they were certainly better than I was at the time, but there was no one really teaching in those days. I mean, you could constitute what Darren was doing with me was giving me music lessons at some level and there was sort of a parade of people after that. But there was no one offering formal flute tuition until several years later. So the scene was solid and there were session’s maybe once a month. But I would only ever say that it was solid; I wouldn’t say that it was truly inspirational. I was mad for it though and so it was fine.
S: You were chasing it anyway.
BM: I was definitely chasing it! We started playing with Gary Leahy quite a lot; as often as we could actually and he really was a very good; a lovely player. Gary was one of the few players that I think I’ve seen in New Zealand with that really laid-back attitude. Gary just loved the music – all he wanted to do was play tunes and he was a real joy and such an inspiration to play with.
“Tone! Above all else, the sound that comes out of the wooden flute is rich and creamy and powerful. It is capable of great rhythm and is therefore greatly suited to Irish music.”
S: Given the lack of lessons and what have you, you’ve done very well. It was a great joy to see you and Duncan Davidson on the Wooden Flute Obsession 2 set – that is quite an accomplishment when you consider that a lot of the names on there are those of older and more established players from the Irish traditional music scene, especially from Ireland. That must have been nice and speaks volumes in terms of the value of hard work and persistence.
BM: That was a bit of a buzz actually – yeah! I’m quite touched by that; I certainly wasn’t expecting to be disc one track one. All I can say is that I was committed to the music at quite a deep level and I poured my heart and soul into it. It’s not even really important to me how good I am or how other people perceive me but if I can play to my hearts content the music that I love playing and at the same time try and make a living out of it while still enjoying myself, then that’s a real success for me. CDs are nice, but it’s not why I do it. That’s kind of almost incidental and I think that at some level, that is almost why the recordings happen.
S: It often seems to be the case that when someone is trying very hard and really aspiring to excel at something, the power of their enthusiasm and persistence seems to attract circumstances that assist their efforts. Doors open, as it were and it certainly seems to have been a factor in your case. Were you conscious of this process at the time?
BM: Yes I think I was and I remain very grateful for it. People stepped in to help me particularly when I was going to Ireland. Nobody ever asked me what I was going to do with that degree; they just gave me their heart felt support and I remain eternally grateful to them all.
S: How important do you think it is to get some formal tuition if you can? You have obviously done it the self-taught way, as did Pat Higgins, and a lot of people do. There’s no doubt about it – the music’s in them and it comes out – it has to in a way. But how helpful is it to have tuition and the help of someone to teach you?
BM: There are two things about that. One is that I think it depends a bit on the person and the personality. I mean, I’m quite a driven person, so it’s very easy for me to ‘go and get it’ – I can make myself sit down and listen to a CD and learn tunes and try to figure out what this or that flute player is doing. But there are some people that; A – don’t have the familiarity with the music, or B – don’t have the time, or C – they don’t have the drive to sit down and learn in that way and so would rather be taught. And at that level tuition is great. And secondly, inspiration is so important. For me, just having somebody around to inspire me when I was getting started was so important. I couldn’t possibly have done this without Darren; and he will totally disavow everything I say about how great he is if you ever talk to him, but he did it for me and that’s what is important. It’s not really what he thinks of himself or what anybody else thinks of Darren, but for me, Darren is the sole reason that I am playing music to the level that I am today. He turned something on in me and in that sense, if you can find a teacher that can do that for you, that is the single most important thing. They can teach you technique and they can teach you tunes but if you can find somebody or some music or some thing that will switch you on in that way then that’s invaluable!
S: Inspiration often seems to be more valuable than mere information don’t you think?
BM: Correct! Absolutely – one hundred percent! I can’t sort of stress that enough.
S: We were talking beforehand about the familiarity of music and you were saying that in Ireland the traditional music is greatly respected there. There is an ingrained respect for the music and for the large number of musicians in Ireland. The music scene is obviously strong there and has its various modes. Here it is still an unknown music in many ways. Have you noticed an increase in the awareness of the Irish traditional music or indeed a willingness to learn new music styles in New Zealand?
BM: Again, two points really. One is that at a fundamental level, New Zealanders are getting used to the idea of being able to play any type of music at all! For example, it’s not just traditional Irish music that is booming in Ireland, it’s every kind of music. If you go to Ireland and people say, “What do you do?” and you say, “I’m a musician,” they say “Ah yeah – that’s nice.” And they don’t really make anything of it because it is such an established aspect of Irish culture. Whereas here in New Zealand they say, “Oh wow – how’s that – what does that feel like,” and they genuinely really want to know because they don’t have any experience of other people in their lives being musicians; it’s not a common thing in New Zealand. I think that’s changing. I definitely think that there are more and more people playing music, partly because there are more schools. You can go to a Polytechnic and do a jazz course in many of the main centres in this country now. You can go and do classical music courses at several Universities and there is other contemporary rock courses starting up. So there are a lot of people choosing now to make a career of music; which was not happening before. But it’s still quite unusual to be a musician. Secondly, in terms of relating that to Irish music, it’s not just that you have to teach people about Irish music, which is largely unfamiliar to them, but you also have to teach them about this music thing and how this music thing works. So it’s not like people who have played jazz all their lives coming in to learn Irish music.
S: How important do you think it is to be able to read music? There sometimes seems to be a misconception that in order to be a musician, one has to read music and no doubt for many people this is beneficial. Traditional Irish music is mostly taught by ear is it not?
BM: I do read music and I do find it helpful as a memory aid from time to time, but I would prefer to learn by ear if at all possible and I prefer to teach by ear. I am finding that one of the things that you have to do, particularly with Irish music – and to come back to the second point of that question – you have to get over the unfamiliarity of the music. With the Irish music, it’s not like Hip-Hop where a lot of people basically understand how hip-hop works, or to a lesser extent how Jazz or classical music works. They’ve heard it before. You might not have heard Irish music or you might have heard it a limited number of times but decided you might want to know more about it.
S: Or a limited aspect of the music.
BM: Yeah; or maybe you have only heard the pipes and perhaps want to learn the pipes, but you need to understand the rest of the context of the music. So what you have to do with people is split the learning process up and make the element of learning the music a bit separate from learning the instrument. I’m not saying do these things in a separate order and learn about the music first, but you have to make it so that they’re not trying to fight two battles on two different fronts simultaneously. On the one hand, learning the music; and on the other, trying to learn how to play the instrument. Make it so that as they try and apply it to there instrument, they are applying some knowledge that you have already given them. Then they find it easier because then they’re only having to fight that battle of the instrument not wanting to do what they want it to do, rather than they’re head not remembering where the tune goes.
S: I had always assumed that the Irish that immigrated to New Zealand in the nineteenth century would have brought the traditional music with them, and when I recently became more aware of the Irish music scene here, I was surprised that the scene was really quite small and young – at least in terms of the pure Irish traditional music. Historically speaking, did the emigrants bring the traditional music with them and if so, what do you think happened that there is not a really well established scene that dates back over the last 150 years or so in this country?
BM: Yes, I believe that they did bring their music with them, but not very much of it seems to have survived. All of the players that I know have got there music from sources external to New Zealand. I think that this is also due to the break up of the extended family unit; even though both parts of Ireland have strong religious traditions which discourage this disintegration. Irish music is traditionally transmitted orally and I think this breakdown severely limited the spreading of the music. I don’t know as much as I would like to about this subject but it is something that I will be doing some research into soon.
S: In your musical life, where do you feel your music comes from; at a seed level if you like?
BM: At a seed level it just comes pouring out from inside me and there is not much that I can do about it. In those moments where it’s really flowing, I’m not even aware of it. At some level it’s just pouring through me and that’s a fantastic feeling.
“I always stress that where you have to start from is with a real love for the music; whatever kind of music it is… And then and only then; with the love of the music firmly established, is it time to start thinking about technique.”
S: Having heard and seen you play, it’s obvious that you have a real love of the music.
BM: I always stress that where you have to start from is with a real love for the music; whatever kind of music it is. Whether it’s hip-hop or electronic music, or whether it’s jazz, classical or Irish; if you love it, then that makes it easier and more fun to begin performing it. And then and only then; with the love of the music firmly established, is it time to start thinking about technique. My own process has been a bit interesting because I have been and learned music at university level; so I have studied technique to quite a high degree and it becomes a very “in your head” experience. It becomes very technical, thought out and academic. Some people would tell you that that’s not true music; they tell you it should be a heart thing. I actually don’t see that as being so disparate, but then the struggle is to merge these two things – emerge the love of the music with the technique. The really good musicians, even if they can’t tell you what they are doing, still have that aspect of technique to their playing. They may not be aware of it – so there’s different levels – you don’t necessarily need to be aware the technique, but all good players; the players that people revere, are extremely technically talented – regardless of how they got there! My own personal journey has been to go to university – and I’m not sure that I would recommend that path to for everyone – but that is what I have done; I have been to university and have studied the music.
S: I guess mastery of technique develops and matures over time with practice and playing. Is there a danger that we can become too caught up in technique and loose sight of the real heart of the music.
BM: Yeah. I think that once you have learnt some technique, the challenge is to not think too much about it. You need to learn it and then you need to do it in an almost mantric way so that it gets out of your head and into your subconscious. The head is very good at learning how to do things, but then you need to almost unlearn it or forget that you’ve learnt it so that it becomes just this natural thing that you do without thinking about it. When it’s back at that level you know that you are getting more at the heart of the music and then you can apply the feeling and expression to it. While you are still in your head about this note has to be exactly this long and then this note followed by this note, you’re never going to get the emotion into it – the emotion is what counts – the feeling. That is why we play.
S: Tell us about your year in Limerick and getting your Masters. What do you feel that you got from that experience.
BM: Well, I went over to Ireland and did a one year masters degree at the University of Limerick. It was taught masters so there was no thesis; it was mainly performance assessed. I had master classes with some amazing musicians; eight or nine of the best flute players in Ireland. These are people that I had revered as idols.
S: Who were they?
BM: We had Conal O’Grada, Jean-Michel Veillon who I consider to be the best wooden flute player in the world at the moment – he’s a Breton player. People like Brian Finnegan from Flook. We also had Kevin Crawford from Lunasa who has recently been in New Zealand for the Ceol Aneas weekend in Nelson. We also had Desi Wilkinson, Eamonn Cotter, Johnny McCarthy from County Cork and Harry Bradley. There’s probably some I have left out. For anyone who is familiar with traditional Irish music, these guys are household names.
S: What was the feeling of the whole thing like? Was it fairly intensive situation – were you happy to be in that scenario?
BM: I was; definitely! I can’t tell you what it has done for my playing. That year has just advanced my playing hugely and again at a very technical level. I’m still in the process of assimilating the experience. I’ve got tapes that we recorded there that I still haven’t listened to yet. I promised myself that I would look at them one day but I’m still trying to assimilate the things that I am holding in my head and get them into my system so that I’m back at playing at a heart level again. I am still quite technically absorbed in my music at the moment and there is a process and an evolution going on. I think it will take me two full years post-course to assimilate the experiences of that one year in Limerick. I mean, really the whole thing is a life’s work.
S: Did you manage to travel at all and get a taste of the music scene there or get to meet many musicians?
BM: Yeah, I did. I didn’t travel as much as I would like to have because of the need to be at the course in Limerick and being constrained by the lack of money but I did get around a little. I spent a bit of time on the West Coast of Ireland in various places. I was in County Galway and went up to Westport which is further north up in County Mayo. That is where my friend Gary Leahy now lives having returned to Ireland and so I spent a good few weekends there. Ultan Molloy is another friend who had just returned to Ireland from New Zealand and so I spent a good bit of time up around that area playing music. I also went to Skibbereen, which is right down the bottom of Ireland in West Cork, and had a bit of time down there. I went to see Kornog, which is the band that Jean-Michel Veillon is in. I didn’t really spend any time in Dublin – I spent a weekend there on my way to the Isle of Man but mainly just hanging around the West and a bit in County Clare and Ennis. And naturally I went to the Willy Clancy week at Miltown Malbay.
“So all of a sudden there was this little network and everybody decided that it was a great idea and “let’s do it again next year.” That little seed has formed quite big fruit; now we are four or five years on (2004) and we have just had Lunasa through. 120 players attended the weekend this year with classes for a number of different instruments.”
S: Oh that’s nice. I guess it’s good to be over in the West as a great deal of the traditional music is out there anyway.
BM: Well absolutely; and also it was quite accessible to me as I was in Limerick and didn’t have much cash.
S: And you generally liked being in Ireland?
BM: I did. I found it extremely expensive but I very much enjoyed my experience. Although I think as a Kiwi; culturally I felt a bit out of place, certainly from the drinking point of view; which is not something that particularly interests me. And I was quite pleased to be home in that sense I guess. But I certainly don’t regret going by any means. Even apart from the music, it was a great experience!
S: What about the scene here. How do you think the traditional Irish music scene is developing in New Zealand?
BM: It’s been pretty static. From what I can gather and certainly my own memories as a kid, from the early 80’s onwards until the mid 90s it was pretty static. The general focus would have been folk festivals and the line-up of people playing over that period wouldn’t have changed that much. So it just kind of existed and there were sessions around the country. The scene has primarily been based on ex-patriot players – people like Bob Bickerton, Pat Higgins, Jimmie Young, Davy Stuart and Michael Considine; who are from English, Scottish and Irish backgrounds. They have been mainly playing kind of Irish music but there has been a fair number of New Zealand players come through in more recent years. Barry MacDonald, who is a wonderful piano accordion player and is now living in Christchurch, has really excelled. Two others who have also done really well are the Davidson brothers, Alec and Duncan. They were originally from Wellington but Duncan now lives in Palmerston North and Alec lives in Nelson. They really have pushed themselves and are doing very well. Duncan is also on that Wooden Flute Obsession 2 CD. In the 90s there was a band called Rua, which Jimmie Young was in. It probably started before the 90s but those guys did a lot to popularise Celtic music in New Zealand to a slightly wider audience. They were able to pull good crowds to the Christchurch Cathedral and to various other venues and so that really helped to build up a bit of momentum. My real knowledge of the scene comes from about 1998 when I stepped into playing music in a band in Dunedin and started spending more time playing.
S: What was the name of that band?
BM: Blackthorn originally and then it changed to Marannan at some point. Blackthorn was going for a long time in Dunedin.
S: What kind of music did you guys play?
BM: Some of that pub Irish stuff. You know – The Pogues and that kind of genre; because it was requested. But when we played Irish tunes we tried to keep it pretty traditional.
S: Were you playing with guys from university?
BM: No; older musicians from the folk scene. It kind of got more and more trad and we spent some time trying to educate the pub audience. We had a residency and when you’ve got a residency you have to do things to make people comfortable and familiar. I’ve stepped right out of that pub scene now, but I respect what it did for my playing. And so, there were people like us, and we were trying to move away from that pub music and I think this was happening in other places at that time as well. But certainly in Dunedin, we were trying to remove that image so that we could play more traditional Irish and Scots songs. At that time if you said ‘Irish music’ people said ‘Pogues’ and we wanted to play really nice traditional tunes. There was a desire to start moving the music forward and since then I think, the traditional Irish music scene has began to stand on it’s own two feet and step outside of the pub or folk scene to some extent.Around the same time that I met Darren Hurley, I became aware of a few of these really good Irish musicians that had started to come out here to New Zealand. Ireland had become quite prosperous in the 90s and so some of these good musicians took to travelling the world.
After Darren there was Shane McAleer who used to be with the band Dervish and is probably one of the best fiddle players I’ve ever heard; he was here for a while. Various other people came through; Linda Gardener who is a fantastic concertina player and then June McCormack and Michael Rooney; Alan Doherty, who was originally with the band Grada, was here. You could list a number of names and they were all of a younger age group. My friend Finn had been playing violin but got thoroughly inspired about Irish music. He had been playing for a long time, but he really just decided that Irish music was it! He’s a year younger than I am. We would play a lot; we weren’t in a band together, we just played a lot whenever we got the opportunity and that encouraged a few other people. About that same time there was a woman in Christchurch called Laura Tomlin who started getting into it as well. So since then there has been a gradual recruitment of some younger players and it’s starting to bear a little bit of fruit now. It’s still early stages yet, but the scene is a bit more open now. It’s not just a scene of older players; and there is nothing wrong with the older players, but it is just harder to convince a young person who’s into all kinds of music that it is worth learning Irish music when that’s all they ever see. So that sense, the recruitment of young people makes it a bit more vibrant and interesting.
S: How has the Nelson Flute School (Ceol Aneas) helped the situation?
BM: Well about the time that we were starting to get a few young people come along, Alan Doherty was visiting New Zealand. Bob Bickerton and Pat Higgins decided to run a flute teaching weekend which attracted around twenty of us for a weekend of tuition with Alan. I had never even dreamed that there were twenty Irish flute players in the country! So all of a sudden there was this little network and everybody decided that it was a great idea and “let’s do it again next year.” That little seed has formed quite big fruit; now we are four or five years on and we have just had Lunasa through. 120 players attended the weekend this year with classes for a number of different instruments. Flute and fiddle; bouzouki, guitar and accompaniment; tin whistle; Barry MacDonald taking concertina and the organisers are looking to extend it all the time now. This is a really good focus for Irish music in New Zealand and it has almost come to that point where people are saying, “Well that’s only once a year; what’s happening the rest of the year?” And so there feels like there’s a bit of impetus now.
“So there’s a real sense of evolution within the Irish music scene here at the moment. We’re in an exciting time I think and the next five years will be really interesting.”
S: Is this attracting more Irish musicians and bands to New Zealand?
BM: Well we have concert promoters like Mike Considine [now based in Los Angeles] bringing out Irish and Celtic music acts. He toured Lunasa in conjunction with the Nelson school this year. He has toured Grada, The Emily Smith Band and is bringing out Sharon Shannon who is a fantastic box (accordion) player. Mike is starting to bring out some of these really good traditional acts, so not only are we able to get tuition now but we are also able to get people hearing really good quality music in a performance context. Previously the good musicians, as I have said, have been coming out here but they’ve only really been playing in sessions and so people haven’t been able to participate in that unless they feel like they’re good musicians and good enough to sit in the session. There’s a real sense of evolution within the Irish music scene here at the moment.
We’re in an exciting time I think and the next five years will be really interesting. I sort of look to Australia a lot because I spent some time there recently and the scene there is extremely healthy. They whinge that the scene is nothing like it is in Ireland; of course it’s not – and how could it be! But it’s 10 times better than here really. The thing about it is that it is all Australians playing the Irish traditional music. There are expatriates involved obviously, but the majority of the players are people who are born and bred in Australia and they are a variety of ages and skill levels and some of them are extremely competent. The scene there is healthy because it has been taken on into the culture of Australia at some level and there are a good number of Aussie musicians saying, “This is our music.” That’s where we need to get to in New Zealand. We need to get a good number of New Zealanders playing rather than just people coming here from Ireland and Scotland and saying, “Well I still want to play my music.” If we are to look at it as a genre and if we are looking to expand it and improve the scene here, then we need to get Kiwi’s saying, “That’s a valid music type for me as a New Zealander; I’m going to play that kind of music.”
S: Can you see that happening yet?
BM: It’s still quite infantile but I believe I can see the beginnings of it. And for me, as a traditional Irish musician, that’s very encouraging because, to look at it from my own point of view, in twenty years time who am I going to have to play with when all the older guys that I am playing with now are not involved so much anymore.
S: What do you think is special about traditional Irish music?
BM: For me personally, it’s the rhythm. I mean its dance music and its feel-good music. Its music for social occasion; it always has been. It’s not so much played for dancing these days; it’s played in a performance or concert context. But traditionally, Irish music would never ever have been played in public if there wasn’t dancing; you just wouldn’t have done it. It wouldn’t have been logical as it was created for dance. But even though that context has changed, the purpose of the music hasn’t and so it provides that rhythm and that lift for people. Even if you’re not dancing to it, I think it’s uplifting. It gives you joy and picks you up; especially when you hear people playing it well.
S: What do you feel are the special qualities of the wooden flute; as an instrument to play and to listen to?
BM: Tone! Above all else, the sound that comes out of the wooden flute is rich and creamy and powerful. It is capable of great rhythm and is therefore greatly suited to Irish music.
S: How much time do you put into your practice Brendyn?
BM: Not as much as I used to – and that’s probably to the detriment of my playing – definitely not as much time as I should. I used to play twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week! But I would be playing, not practicing. I’d just be belting out tunes. I practice a lot more now; as I said, my approach is a bit more cerebral at the moment.
S: What’s the difference between playing and practicing?
BM: Playing I would just constitute as playing tunes and not thinking about things; just playing. And I would rather be doing that but at the moment I’m aware of making mistakes or wanting to play things at a higher level. So I actually sit down and go over things more.
S: Which is natural enough if you are aspiring for a better standard?
BM: Yeah. It is but I also think that I really do need to play more than I am at the moment. Partly that’s a time thing. I am spending a lot of time getting a business up and running and developing product, which is again a worthwhile experience but at some level detracts from my playing.
S: This is in terms of teaching?
BM: Yes teaching; particularly distance teaching. But also just in terms of performance and practice products, image and graphic design, posters – the whole thing that goes with making a business work.
S: You obviously have plans for teaching flute. What do you have in mind?
BM: My teaching plans revolve around three aspects; one on one tuition, group courses and distance teaching. I am also running some courses for the continuing education department at Canterbury University and hope to expand this in the future to other universities and the like. My private tuition is not limited just to Canterbury, I am also teaching in Auckland when I am there and in other places as well. Distance teaching is perhaps the most exciting and uncertain of the three. There are many people that cannot get lessons from me as I simply do not get to their part of the country very often. I’m planning to release lessons on CD and other formats so that people can get some of the benefits of a lesson without waiting for me to be in their town. It’s all there on my website.
S: Who inspires you in your playing Brendyn? Who do you look to as a role model or for inspiration when you practice?
BM: There are a number of good players in Ireland that really do it for me. Conal O’Grada and Harry Bradley are two flute players that I really admire. People like Matt Molloy – I am hugely inspired by his music; although it’s not my own personal style. John McKenna who is an older player from the 1920s would be another of my inspirational people. But then I’m inspired by a lot of other things as well. John Carty is a marvellous fiddle player and he has done a huge amount for my playing and I tend to incorporate some of his ideas, even though I play a different instrument. I do play a bit of fiddle, so that gives me some insight into what he’s doing. I am tending to try and think about my flute playing in a fiddle kind of way at the moment; in terms of articulation and how I tie notes together. Because I am aware of my bowing as a fiddle player, I’m trying to incorporate some of those ideas into my flute playing. It’s a new approach for me but I really think that it’s a worthwhile approach. So I’m playing the fiddle quite a lot at the moment.
S: How would you describe your playing style?
BM: Loosely; really loosely speaking, roughly north Connaught – so kind of Sligo, Leitrim, Roscommon – more Leitrim than anything else.
S: Is your style of playing something that you consciously tried to develop or did it develop and then you associated it with a particular traditional origin?
BM: It’s more that those were the guys that I ended up listening to and liking. I mean the reason that I say loosely is that I kind of follow Harry Bradley and Conal O’Grada in some respects but those guys would play in a really exaggerated Leitrim style. They would have taken the Leitrim style – actually neither of them is from Leitrim; Harry’s from Belfast and Conal’s from Cork – and they’ve moulded it into they’re own personal thing. They are both quite flamboyant players. I wouldn’t be as flamboyant as they are, but I have taken aspects of what they do, which is extended on the Leitrim theme, and I have added elements of my own to it and I do things that neither of them do but wouldn’t be appropriate for Leitrim style either. So I mean, in the end you can only ever say that I play in my own style, but in terms of where it originated from, a lot of the players that I admire either play in that style or have spent time playing in that style. Paul McGrattan lived in Westport in County Mayo (North Connaught) for a long time and I have a lot of time for Paul’s playing for example. Matt Malloy is from County Roscommon, so he has that kind of style. Peter Horan is a lovely old flute player from County Sligo and has a lovely twist to his playing.
S: What is it about that style of playing that makes it distinctive?
BM: There are two or three things. It’s very rhythmic for one. You are really looking to drive the rhythm all the time. The second thing is that you are looking to take breaths for rhythmic effect a lot. Flute players have this constant battle between hiding and showing their breathing. Because you have to breathe, it’s a sort of impediment in your playing. Fiddle players don’t have to do it, pipers don’t have to do it, and box players don’t have to do it. So you can either hide it at certain points or try to minimise the effect that it has on your playing; or you can really exaggerate it. The Sligo players really look to use it as an ornament. They love to take pieces out of the tune and put a big breath in there; rather than a little tiny wee breath in a space that might naturally be there, they will actually take notes out. And thirdly, there’d be a relatively large amount of ornamentation and a lot more triplets than in other places. In Clare it’d all be lovely smooth rolls, but in Leitrim and especially in the older style of Leitrim, Roscommon and Sligo music there’d be a lot of triplets; what we call back-stitching. There are a lot of points in tunes where they will have little step-downs but the Sligo/Leitrim players will replace those step-downs with triplets – they will just tie these runs of triplets together. It has a different effect when you replace rolls and step-downs with triplets; it makes the music more bouncy. Those would be the three key elements. I mean, there are obviously lots of other things.
S: How much of a good players embouchure and style dominates what the flute they are playing sounds like? Can a good player get a good sound out of any reasonable flute?
BM: Yes you can get your sound on pretty much any flute. It has more to do which the physics of the embouchure than your style (although obviously if you play loud because that is your style you will be loud on any flute compared to those who play quietly). The embouchure does not vary all that much between wooden flutes, relatively speaking. It is a little harder when you get down to bamboo instruments because the walls are so thin. That requires some readjustment of the angles that you are blowing and the embouchure shape. Being adept at both of those things is quite a feat. There is also a large difference between wooden flutes and classical instruments.
S: What would you have to say for people who are just beginning or thinking about beginning – what kind of encouragement could you offer them?
BM: Well, particularly if they have not grown up with the traditional music then get hold of as much music as possible, listen to it and absorb it. Don’t even worry about trying to play it, just let it soak in because familiarity with what you are trying to do will make it a hundred times easier later on.
“Above all really, just enjoy it! Music is not meant to be a trial. There are times when your going to need to practice and that’s not always fun. But play for the love of it… “
S: Like an emersion.
BM: Total emersion; try and make it part of your life. Here in New Zealand, because of the lack of opportunities, if it doesn’t become part of your being, then it’s going to be very hard to progress very far. It is very easy to get all inspired for several weeks and play and learn a few things, but you know, life gets busy and you have to go to work and so on. What will sustain you though, is if it is actually part of your being. I believe that it’s good to learn to sing the tunes; learn to get them into your mind so that you can be humming them to yourself while you are doing the dishes or whatever. Lilt them to yourself, you know. And if you can get that happening then you’re practicing even when you haven’t got your instrument in front of you; and that’s half the battle. Above all really, just enjoy it! Music is not meant to be a trial. There are times when your going to need to practice and that’s not always fun. But play for the love of it; and make yourself play sometimes. If you feel that you have been practicing too much, put the flute down and go away for a while. When you feel that you really want to play, come back and let yourself play; just ignore the mistakes for a while. It’s really good at some point to just say, “Right! Today I’m going to turn off my mind; I’m just going to play and I’m not going to listen to my playing. Warts and all, it’s just going to come out and I’m going to let it flow.” And the more you can do that, the more you will get used to the music welling through you and not needing to control it. That’s what will get you the fluency.
S: Which is also giving credence and respect to the reason for music. I mean, if it is driving you nuts and frustrating you, it kind of defeats the purpose of music; which is to give us joy.
BM: Right. I also think that on a practical level, if it’s driving you nuts and you are getting frustrated, you will actually find that your hands are starting to tense up and that your shoulders get all tight and you won’t be playing music in a really relaxed and peaceful manner. The physical tightness will restrict your capacity to play freely.
S: Your debut album, Mountain Air, won the New Zealand Music Association‘s Tui Award for best folk album this year. Mike Considine also featured on that album playing bouzouki. You also featured, along with Duncan Davidson (bouzouki), on the Wooden Flute Obsession 2 set. It’s great to see you having a good time and excelling in your chosen field. What are your plans for the future?
BM: There are more albums, fame and fortune… No really, if I have any choice over the matter, all I want to do is to play to the highest level possible and achieve the greatest joy for myself in my music. If other people enjoy this, then I’ll be rapped. Ideally, I would also love to be heavily involved in teaching, as I feel a real commitment to give some of this knowledge back.
S: What are you doing in terms of touring and performing at the moment?
BM: I am mainly playing in a duo with Bob McNeill. We play contemporary Irish dance music and powerful original songs written mostly by Bob. We are on tour in November and December and have various other gigs in places around the country. I have a few other projects that I would like to work on but I have not yet had the time or the personnel to put into them.
S: How is the music being received around the country?
BM: We are building a diverse audience at the moment; that covers many walks of life and extends beyond the boundaries traditionally associated with this music.
S: Well Brendyn, best wishes for the future and thanks for taking the time to share your inspiration and these insights with us.
BM: You’re very welcome. Thank you.
For more information or to contact Brendyn Montgomery, visit Brendyn’s website.
- Cultural Biodiversity: Finding A Sense Of Place – by Brendyn Montgomery
- An Interview With Pat Higgins
- The Wooden Flute in New Zealand – by Pat Higgins
- An Interview With Bob Bickerton