Laundry hangs on the line, drying best it can in this humidity before we hit the road again. On my desk are half written lists of to-do and to-remember along with the fragments of last week’s fun in various states of unpacking, unfurling into readying and re-packing. My mind and heart are full to brimming with a collection of new tunes I can carry with me into the next journey which is to Maine. A yearly homecoming of sorts, much like many of my trips tend to be.
“May what I do flow from me like a river, no forcing and no holding back, the way it is with children.” ~Rainer Maria Rilke
Last week we leapt into the mists of yet another magical “Celtic Week” at the Swannanoa Gathering in beautiful North Carolina. Much like the story of Brigadoon, we picked up right where we had left off the year before greeting old friends as family, getting to know new friends as well, as if nary a day has passed, let alone an entire calendar year. Irish music does not follow the rules of linear time. The only line it truly follows is that of tradition. The river of music flows along over top of that tradition, above and below it, side-stepping occasionally into other musical paths, (this IS a living tradition after all.) Eventually though, it always comes home once again to the thing itself. We came to the week with no agenda except to improve our playing a bit by spending time with masters of the craft.
“The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing.” ~Socrates
Somehow I have carved my way into classes and sessions loosely labeled “advanced”, and yet I come to this week with my mind fully open to learn new things, to be -always – the beginner. There is no place at Swannanoa for ego or agenda.
Our musical “rock stars” who tour the world with their gifts come to camp not only to ply their musical wares….
…..but to have a laugh and a tune as well, to bask in the amazing community that is the Swannanoa Gathering. It is so readily apparent how hard they work all week, but it is also clear that this week is as special to them as it is to us.
As the space which holds this special time, Warren Wilson College does not disappoint. It is nestled in the mountains near Asheville North Carolina, with views and vistas at every turn and even in some of the classroom spaces which remind us of what is possible if we but relax into it all.
The week was one of metaphor and depth. We talked of honoring those who have come before us in this music by looking back often to older playing which may have gone out of vogue for a time. We must never forget those who have come before us.
Sometimes we wandered through cathedrals of bamboo and dove into the depths of the river Swannanoa for a bit of wild swimming. This returned many things back to center, especially our core temperatures. It was a warm and steamy time.
There were concerts and a bit of dancing. There were classes filled with new tunes, but not too many. Just enough. There were moments of goosebumps up our arms and spines as we felt things bump against the root of all things. Music and art making are conduits to this great source.
A few of us have been attending this week of music for many years and we opt for dinner and a bevvie or two out in town one evening each year. I was thrilled to see a bit of our musical shenanigans have made their way into that other world….. viva la flutilla!!!!
Soon, we had crested mid-week into late-week, then late-week into last night. The mists of time descended upon us that final night as if to tell us it’s time to go back…..
Many years, this thrust back into what some might call “the real world” is painful and we find ourselves pining and weepy. This year was different. This is not to say that I don’t miss my flute family. I really do. Instead, I think it is clearer than ever that the real world, at least for those of us willing to live in it on a daily basis, is that of art making and the sharing of a tune or a story. The real world is that quintessential Irish humor and side-eyed self deprecation which puts everyone at ease and the belly laughs that come along with this “craic”. We live in difficult, trying and combative times. Perhaps we can learn from the Irish tradition and its history that even in the most dire of times and conditions, there is always room for a tune.
“Have you also learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time?” That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past nor the shadow of the future.”
― Hermann Hesse
Thanks again to the staff and everyone who makes this gathering possible. til next year!!!
if you are new to the reading of this blog, I have other posts about other years. Just type Swannanoa into the search bar.
I write this to you from my soul-home in Maine where I can smell the ocean on the air upon wakening. I await those in my little family who can make it up here for even a day or two in the coming weeks and miss those not joining us this year. But while I fully sink into life back here where it feels so very familiar, I’ll admit that part of my heart is still under the enchantment of a week of music, magic and mayhem that is the Swannanoa Gathering. You will know that in year’s past there were much shenanigans (and one year even a wedding!!) amidst the musical goings on. This year, it seems that while we had an immense amount of belly laughter and all around craic, the music itself took front and center.
The trip down to Swannanoa this year began, blanketed by a low hum in my heart- consisting of worries Big and small, varying in proximity to me personally. Some closer to home, some via merely a glance at any news, at any time. It seems that the world-at-large continues to fly a bit close to the sun, cosmically speaking, and I don’t feel like I am the only one sensing it. Everyone I know seems to be feeling chaotic and a bit frenetic. These summers of mine, so gypsy-like from the outside-looking-in, are my way of assimilating the year past, and of lighting a way forward as the arc of each year moves on into the darker months ahead, to fall and winter. They are a necessary re-set button and I am glad of it.
My week of workshops in North Carolina last week (was it really just last week?) began Monday morning with classes with the fabulous flute-player and singer, Nuala Kennedy. You might remember her from her beautiful Behave the Bravest, for which I made the album art.
It was so wonderful to be sitting back again in music class learning a few new tunes. I have let my Riley School doings fall aside of late as I work to build my art and workshop-offering practice and I have missed it dearly. Nuala always teaches interesting tunes that strum the heart’s harp-strings and this year was no different. The first three tunes we learned – a march, a strathspey and a reel were all in the key of B minor.
Now I am no musical theory geek but I know enough to know that the minorish keys tend to be a bit more moody and pensive. For me at least, this key fit the mood of the early part of the week and we gobbled the beauty of them up in class and in our flutilla-led rehearsal time which we kept each day between classes, open to any of our classmates who could make it. It is here we made some new friends, which is a bonus each year.
Some days in Nuala’s class we had a special guest, for whom we played a gentle version of our March.
…or who graciously took our class photo.
Between classes we practiced more, occasionally napped or snuck in a shower- as camp life can make for late nights and sweaty days. And by afternoons we found ourselves in the presence of the one and only Kevin Crawford who keeps us on our toes and usually laughing a good bit too throughout the week.
Kevin hears every note. Good or bad. Especially if he sits right down in front of you….
And as if the flute weren’t difficult enough, he’s taken to trading instruments with his bandmate Colin Farrell and playing a jig now and again just to get a laugh from his class. If you are not a musician, you might not realize how hard this is. These guys make it look simple.
The week wore on and little by little, the key of things changed a bit. We came fully under the spell of music and the people who make it and there were moments of magic to behold along the way.
One evening a few of the staff snuck away to one of my favorite corners in which to play, the Kittredge breezeway, and had a bit of a session. Here is just a snippet….
It’s amazing when this happens. The staff at Swannanoa give their all to this week between teaching and hosting other goings-on, but much like us, sometimes they might simply want to run off and have a tune with old friends. Sometimes these are situations we students might join in if invited, other times, it’s nice to just sit back and listen awhile. And so I did.
This little session was a perfect blend of tunes and song. All of these artists listening to one another along the way.
There was even a bit of step dancing by dance instructor Siobhan Butler to add to the magic of the evening.
Our week at Swannie always seems to fly by but this year it seemed exceptionally quick-paced. One day it was Monday with the whole week ahead of us, then suddenly, just like that, it was Friday. But as I look back, there were at least a few shenanigans along the way….
There was a ceili to attend on Tuesday.
And I was sure to catch up with my new flute friend Julie so we could snap a picture of our matching flutilla swag!!
There were late night sessions with loved ones from near and far, and we enjoyed music and many many laughs.
By day the skies might open and deliver thunderous rains on occasion, but always the clouds parted, and the sun did shine once more, as it goes in these misty mountains.
Each day we packed in as much music as we could, learning from our teachers. It was fun to approach tunes we may have heard on recordings and to listen to the nuanced differences in how each player approaches each tune along the way. The goal is, after all, to take this music into our hearts and make it our own somehow.
Many evenings saw us attending concerts where we could watch our instructors do what they do best, which is perform. These folks are the best at what they do and it’s a true treat to hear them live. Especially when they gather together and make music perhaps never heard before.
When our days weren’t too full, and we weren’t too tired, we attended what are called ‘pot-lucks’ where some of the staff shared a topic of their choosing for an hour or so. I attended one by Cathy Jordan called The Happy Subject of Death. She and some of her fellow instructors sang murder ballads and other dark songs and there were many tears and a good bit of macabre laughter as well. This all felt in keeping with the minor key of the week for me and I loved it. I also attended a chat by Martin Hayes, sometimes referred to as the Buddha of Irish music. We talked about why we play music. Some folks look to perform perhaps, others might just want to play along with a recording by themselves or sit in the kitchen over a cuppa having tunes with friends. There is no wrong way. But the biggest goal for him, and I must say, for me, is to play with real Joy.
I read this week somewhere that on CNN, someone was quoted as saying,
“Joy is active resistance.”
I believe this to be true and I am holding on to it with all my strength and fortitude. What else do we have? It is this joy in the making – of music, of art, of laughter – which gives us the strength to do the hard things along the way in this crazy world. At least this is how I feel.
As I have stated, Friday came along on the heels of Monday far too quickly for our liking, and suddenly we were rehearsing for the student showcase. The showcase is a fun evening where we get to play a few new tunes together as a class to our fellow ‘gatherers’ and to hear the work of the other classes as well.
It was a steamy, North Carolina style evening and though we were all feeling sticky, we gathered down at the pavilion for the showcase. The photos that follow are some captures by photographer Tom Crockett who’s brother Tim was in class with us. He hiked and took pictures out in the mountains most of the week but attended the showcase on Friday and snapped a few photos of the Flutilla. I share them here with you by permission.
(Thank you so much Tom for the gorgeous photos! They are truly treasured.)
And now here we are. Back in Maine once again, soaking up a bit of the seaside and lake time which we will draw upon time and again in the year ahead. These weeks of art and music, friendship and fellowship, always set me to thinking about things in a deep way. They remind me to practice what makes my heart sing. To play my flute, no matter how clumsy it might feel when not backed up by my flutilla. To push a paint brush around even when I don’t know where it’s going.
To remember to head out into nature more often, as She is the real conductor of things.
And most importantly, to trust my inner knowing along the way. A lesson I am trying so hard to take more and more on board.
If you are reading this and attended the Swannanoa Gathering’s Celtic Week, do leave a comment with your favorite moment(s) of the week. I’d love to read them!
“Sing and you shall defeat death; sing and you shall disarm the foe.” – Elie Wiesel.
I am returned, once again, from the magical world of the Swannanoa Gathering, which this year celebrates it’s 25th anniversary. And once again, it was quite the week of music and mayhem, tunes and tricks, laughter and love, friendship and food, beverages and beauty.
There are many ideas floating around in my head for drawings and illustrations seeded by this past week which I shall soon share here of course. Art begets art and by spending the week with so many talented and creative folks, I am fairly swimming in artful thought-glitter!!
But in spite of dark times and a world awash with so much hatred and violence, we came together, once again. A dear friend of mine from Swannanoa overheard someone say one night at a ceili where everyone dancing seemed to have a smile on their shining faces, “Why can’t we be like this all the time? All of us?” I don’t think he meant just us at the gathering, but maybe more the world at large.
So hard not to smile in the midst of this music. Heartfelt, Joy-filled….
And in the midst of all of the fun, we were there to learn. Everyday, we went to the classes available to us to soak up all the tunes and tips we could from our multi-talented instructors. For me, this was Nuala Kennedy in the morning, and Kevin Crawford in the afternoons.
The rapport and sense of play these two bring to teaching and playing and performing is simply infectious and I find them both incredibly inspirational in my own teaching work as well as of course, the music itself.
Neither one of them lets us get away with anything but our very best work and so on the edge of our seats, we huffed away on our flutes and learned so very much. My mind is still quite thick with all of the information we gained over the week!
The week was not all classes though….
There were concerts, lectures, opportunities to play more slowly on a new instrument. There were sessions till all hours of the night. And of course lots of laughter and community with friends. Here is a small sampling…..
(side note: during the storm, a huge lighting strike occurred on campus. it hit a tree and out went the power. it was captured in this amazing sound byte by my friend Mary….. listen for at least 40 seconds…..)
There is so much more in the world of sweet snapshots I could share with you here. Special thanks to my flute friends Kate, Bob and Colin who generously shared their pictures for this post. And I could leave the update here and that might be the end of it. But while we were at camp, the world was continuing on its crazed path of recent self destruction. News was leaking in. The music we were making took on a whole new gravity.
As is often the case, the ‘Flutilla’ was planning some mischief for the end of week student showcase. In years past we had made fun with the ‘rivalry’ between Nuala and Kevin, as our allegiance to them both made them often wonder, ‘hmmmm, who do the flute kids like best?’ But of course we love them both equally and we get something different from each. So this year, we took on the fiddles. Which seemed a fun direction to go, based on the hijinks at the concert the other night. And so I drew up a little drawing, and we made a plan for take over in the form of wearable art…..
Update!!!: Due to the high level of interest in this design, I have created a tidied up version of it to put on products such as totes, shirts and the like which you can order from the link below. Proceeds will go toward a scholarship to Celtic Week at the Swannanoa Gathering. Viva la Flutilla!!!!
But then we awoke the next morning to read the dreadful news of Nice and beyond and we approached the day more somberly. I had the feeling that my blog post from before leaving for camp was even MORE important and we all talked about how important and actually ‘serious’ the ‘fun’ we were having at camp truly is.
My dear friend Joe Bly wrote a gorgeous poem, in true mythical epic poem format that had begun with the ‘let’s take down the fiddles’ sort of approach and idea. But as he wrote it, it changed. Into something bigger and better than all of that. With his poem, the ‘tyranny’ we speak of became all that is evil in the world at large. All the violence and negativity. The work and fun we embarked upon at the Swannanoa Gathering is the rejection of all of that. The folks I know from the gathering go back to their real lives as doctors, teachers, paramedics, therapists, healers, parents, lawyers and beyond. They are bright and active in their communities and keenly aware of the news. And into that work in the outside world, they bring the laughter and creativity that a week of music camp can ignite. I simply marvel.
Cloaked in the mists of Tír na nÓg, the Otherworld of Swannanoa, Where three hundred days pass as three, Rival Clans of the Blackwood vied in feats of strength and skill, Lost in the Loop of myths and legends.
Come! Ye Fianna of the Flute! Daughters of Méabh, Sons of Cúchulainn! Come forth from the mists and meet in the ford of the river that divides us, For now is the time to cast arms beneath the waves And in Friendship and Honor Unite.
We are reborn as warriors anew as we march forth into the shining day.
For are we not free? For do we not face the shadow of a common foe, Hearts and eyes open wide?
For we shall not grovel in fear of the Darkness But serve the light of the clear morning.
We cradle the sacred rite passed down through the mists of legends, And it is our sworn honor to push together against the night, With our strength and our weapons of music and laughter.
Now, more than ever.
I do believe that Joe may have channeled something divine in this poem. He read it aloud at the showcase before the flutes came together as one and played a jig together in unification.
The evening wore on and there were so many gorgeous tunes and songs put on by everyone…. We soaked up and steeped in the final evening together.
As the week came to an end, we all talked much of not only the music we had experienced, but also of the wisdom we were given by those who light this musical path.
A highlight of the week for me was a ‘potluck’ lecture-talk put on by Martin Hayes who is a great fiddler, not only in the traditional sense but also as one who is constantly pushing the boundaries of the music itself. He spoke of being truly present in our music and that to do that we must be present with ourselves. This notion of presence really struck me.
When I play music, or make art, I am most truly present. And the doing of these things over the years has enriched my life and caused me to be more present in all aspects of my life. Presence. It’s crucial. Presence in ourselves. Presence with each other. This alone could help heal a lot in this world, I do believe.
some notes jotted down from martin…
“…raw beauty of a melody.”
“simple music, heartfelt.”
“connective tissue between musician, instrument, and player”
“anything that further releases inner expression is valid”
“trying is an obstacle” (yoda?? is that you???)
“leave the safety zone behind”
“trust the unknown.”
“create a spell.”
Last week at Swannanoa was more than just music. It felt a lot like activism. Pursuing creativity and kindness, music and beauty in a world so hell bent on the opposite seems like an insurmountable challenge at times. But I accept this challenge. As best as I know how to. I share my approach to art work in the form of teaching and I’ve been told it has changed lives for the better. Much in the way my instructors at Swannanoa and beyond have changed mine.
I am deeply grateful to be on this beautiful planet at the same time as these people. These musicians and friends of mine. The world needs their beauty. My beauty. and Yours.
“Sing and you shall defeat death; sing and you shall disarm the foe.” – Elie Wiesel.