One of the most interesting morsels to drop in my mailbag in many a moon is Speech Project, an album of unique compositions by Gerry Diver.
Diver weaves exclusive spoken word contributions from Irish music legends such as Shane MacGowan, Damien Dempsey, Christy Moore, Martin Hayes and Danny Meehan (as well as archive interviews) to create new songs from the inflections in their speech and native accents.
According to Diver, he was listening to a recorded interview of the late, great accordion player Joe Cooley and noticed that the voice sounded like it was in the key of B flat minor. There also seemed to be a slip jig rhythm to Cooley’s voice.
Diver put the interview into his Apple Mac and teased out the faint “pitch” tones and rhythms in Joe’s voice. These musical hues formed the basis for two new pieces, “When in New York” and “Old Time Musicians.”
When Cooley says the words “old time musicians” during the interview, Diver “rewinds the tape” on Speech Project and scratches a fiddle to match the tone of Cooley’s voice. A flute adds a counter-melody before more fiddles jump into the mix and a rolling bodhran beat propels the new melody into an effervescent traditional ditty.
“At one point, I stopped listening to his content and just focused on the melody in which he was speaking,” Diver says during our chat.
“From there, I went back into other interviews with Irish musicians to see if the same innate musicality was there in the way they spoke. There is such a melody and fluidity in the Irish accent. You can literally find the notes at the surface when you listen to them.”
Christy Moore was an early believer in Speech Project, according to Diver. Upon hearing these two pieces Moore immediately agreed to collaborate on the project, inviting Diver to Dublin where he spent some time interviewing Moore at his home, with the agreement that whatever was captured would be turned into a musical composition. Three new pieces resulted from that visit.
It’s fascinating to listen to Diver build these tracks from a grainy field interview to an original musical suite. Though the melodies and instruments are decisively traditional Irish in nature, Diver adds modern percussive elements and ambient textures into the arrangement to make this experiment even more offbeat, if that were possible!
One of the most moving tracks that mixes traditional and modern is “My Margaret,” a piece that samples a track by traditional Irish singer and banjo player Margaret Barry (1917-1989). As Barry explains the heartbreak over watching her mother die as a young girl “no more than 12 years of age,” Irish melodies squeezed from fiddle strings take on a Eurasian flavor, adding to the melancholy of the story.
“When she died she called me from the bed as she was dying, ‘My Margaret,’ she said,” explains Barry in the interview, the emotion raw in her voice as the old memory becomes vivid once more for her.
Diver couches the sensitive moment brilliantly with soft acoustic picking that sounds like tears hitting the turntable. “Margaret Barry’s piece came from Christy Moore,” Diver explains. “She was well known around Ireland and England as a traveling musician.
“I got hold of some of her interviews from the Albert Lomax Foundation and there were some amazing melodies in the way she spoke. She was so old school and the theme of losing a parent so universal.”
Barry returns to life again on “House Ceilidh,” a tender track that is built around her reminisces from a life on the road. “As soon as I’d finish up from some fair or market, I’d always be hired by some house around Monaghan -- would you come up to the house tonight and sing a few songs? So, there I was,” she says, as gentle harps pluck behind her.