It just happens that everyone in our band is a virtuoso,” declares Sarah Allen, flautist for Flook, but somehow her statement isn’t a show of hubris for the young musician. After all, the band’s name isn’t only a reference to their extremely talented dual flute players, both well-known in Irish traditional music circles. A fluke is something out of the ordinary, and, as Allen says, it’s a “happy coincidence” that there’d be so much talent in the energetic group.
Allen refers to John Joe Kelly, who plays bodhr†n (a traditional Irish skin drum) and flautist Brian Finnegan. Both are receiving exclusive attention in the competitive world of Irish music with their virtuoustic abilities.
Kelly hails from Manchester, England, famously home of Joy Division and has been heaping praise for his technique on the bodhr†n. The drum is played with a two-headed “beater,” which suggests, perhaps, the clomp of horses, but Kelly manages to create something broader, hinting at, alternately, either tabla, the Indian rosewood drums, or perhaps a deeply-resonant dance track. Thanks to what Allen calls his “impeccable traditional credentials” and an open mind, Kelly has become, with apologies to the Clash, perhaps the only bodhr†n player that matters; his technique on the instrument is so far above the rest.
“He doesn’t limit himself to jigs,” Allen remarks. “Everyone is copying him now.”
Finnegan was competing at a young age in traditional music competitions and according to Allen, winning them all but even at a young age, judges called him to develop his own sound, moving away from such giants of the genre as Matt Malloy, of such influential groups as Bothy Band, Planxty, and the group to which all traditional musics owe a debt, the Chieftains.
The suggestions must have struck a chord with Finnegan-both he and Allen exhibit distinct skills on flute. Finnegan is capable of interpolating difficult triple tonguings as accents, creating a sort of pastoral sibilance.
Allen’s technique is also far from the mainstream. In addition to doubling on accordion, she plays the alto flute, which exhibits a characteristically more mellow sound. With certain techniques, she is able to create, among other things, the distinctly non-traditional sound of upright bass.
“The way I play is quite different-I put a sharp attack on the front of the note, sharp like the string of a bass.”
Creating harmonies in the lower register is also part of her role. Traditional songs are usually dictated by ear, and only the melody is constant, their otherwise-strict forms allowing for plenty of variation for more creative musicians. Though she has quite a bit of formal training, she’s loath to explain the process of creating harmony.
“There are so many harmonies,” she says, “and it’s one of those things that makes things sound differently. I don’t know how I do it.”
Whatever the method, the sound of two so-talented leaders playing separate-but-equal parts with guitar and percussion is of one of the best in the game.
But it’s difficult to ignore the cultural ramifications of three musicians from England excelling so at Irish music, considering what is perceived as a history of English aggression against Ireland.
Asked whether culture has ever been a boundary for the band, Sarah replies in the negative. “Blimey, it’s actually strange: we get a huge welcome and they love our music [in Ireland].” Flook has been recently incorporating folk music from all over Europe into their sets, and the open-mindedness of their fans only seems natural. Whether it is a factor of changing times or music-widening minds, it’s a good sign for the future.
Unlike many other world musics, Irish music differs from the European sense of harmony and rhythm only slightly; thus, it’s both more accessible and more open to criticism. One obvious angle is the level of discipline it requires. In addition to the technical skill required, for example, by 9/8 slip-jigs and the occasional blistering tempo, Irish traditional musicians are expected to remember upwards of 200 melodies to participate in the “session,” the exchange and performance of Irish music. It’s not that the community is purposely insular but rather a result of the reality that an art steeped in tradition has as an entry price: the expectation of discipline.
Arts have reinvented themselves by looking beyond raw talent, but villianizing skill is self-defeating. In this dialectic between mind and body, Flook seems like a natural synthesis, a band whose abilities are chance, but as accomplished as could be hoped.
“The thing about [traditional music] is that anyone can play it at the end of the day.” It truly is a fluke to have so much talent together, though, and one worth recognizing.
The band is celebrating 10 years together and working on a new album, which strives to surpass their two previous lauded LPs, including 2002’s Rubai, which features such creative twists as wah-wah mandolin and trombone ostinatos infused into traditional song. While Irish music is often an exclusive club, making indie rock seem warm and accepting by comparison, Flook is an open-minded, cross-cultural model of a band, making music with that is lively and original.
Flook will play this upcoming Wednesday at Gregory Hall on campus as part of the Piper’s Hut Concert Series. The show begins at 8 p.m., and tickets are $15 (adults), $10 (with University ID) and $8 (children). The show is also sponsored by the University of Illinois’ Society of Celtic Cultures.