Monday, May 5, 2014

My Interview with Marla Fibish: The Pulse, The Flow, The Sound of Irish Music on Mandolin

Marla Fibish has been part of the San Francisco Irish Music scene for three decades now.  Over that time, she has become one of the most prominent players of Irish mandolin, contributing to the instrument’s growing acceptance within the trad community.  Marla teaches privately and at music camps such as Lark Camp, Swannanoa, and Portal Irish Music Week. 

So far, I’ve taken three Irish mandolin lessons from Marla Fibish on Skype.  After the last lesson I had the opportunity to do an interview/conversation, which allowed me to pick Marla's brain on some Irish mandolin related topics.  It was very enlightening.  A transcription of Marla’s comments is below.
Marla Fibish
Most common thing Irish mandolin students are in need of learning:
(MF) It's almost always the right hand (picking hand).  It has to do with a focus on picking out a melody and thinking that the right hand is only used as a mechanism to execute those melody notes.  Whereas, I take a very different approach.  What I want the right hand to be doing is creating a bed of rhythm and to be steady in that rhythm, and then the left hand can overlay the tune on top of that bed of rhythm.  

The mandolin is a picked fiddle, in a way, so our role in Irish music is to play the melody but we have to do it in a rhythmic way.  We have to focus on the right hand so that we can get those notes to come out in the pulse of Irish music.  It's that hand that creates the pulse, just like a fiddler who will say it's 90 percent in the bow.  For us it's the same way, but most newer players are not focused there.  They're focused on the left hand.

Scales and theory analysis vs. just playing the tunes:  
(MF) I used to believe that the tunes will teach you everything, and I still believe that for the most part.  But, over the thirty-something years I've been playing this music the tunes have shown me this structure that's lying beneath them.  Once that gets revealed, it's a valuable part of what you're learning.  

The more tunes you know, the deeper your understanding of the underlying structure of both the music and the instrument.  You can super-impose that knowledge or you can get it from the tunes themselves, or both.  People learn in different ways. I learned it from the tunes, but I've learned to recognize things that can maybe help others learn it a little faster by giving some surrounding information. 

The mandolin's strengths and limitations:
(MF) You can play to your instrument's strengths and you can turn your instrument's limitations into stylistic strengths.  Limitations of the mandolin include attack and decay.  We can't produce a single, sustained tone that doesn't decay over time.  So, we turn that into stylistic punchiness.  At the same time we want to minimize that limitation as much as possible.  I'm always harping on getting that sustained legato tone as your default.  To the degree that you can get that, the limitation disappears.

Playing Irish music on the mandolin:
(MF) With the mandolin we want to sound like we're a part of what this music is supposed to sound like.  We don't want to sound different.  We are playing Irish music on this thing that people haven't been playing Irish music on for very long and that the music wasn't built around, and there isn't this whole tradition of technique that goes with how to play the tunes on this instrument.  

We want to get the pulse, the flow and the sound of the music.  It's never going to be exactly with the same bits and pieces and ornaments and turns that a piper could play, or a fiddler could play, or somebody on one of the core instruments, if you will.  So we're doing a little bit of interpreting as we go to get the feel of the music.  That's our first job and then we can start to bring new things in.  
Bruce Victor and Marla Fibish
Playing in first position:
(MF) Staying focused around the offerings and the harmonic possibilities of what the first position gives you stays truer to the feel of the music as played on instruments that it's been played on for much longer.  You pick up cues from hearing the open strings on a fiddle.  Those are landmarks.  They are important inflections.   They are part of the style.  

The goal is not to be able to play that tune anywhere on the instrument and strip it of those cues to its fundamentalness.  It's not about just stringing those notes together anywhere one can. When you take a tune and you play it in a closed position somewhere else on the neck you're taking away those resonances that are rooting the tune in a certain harmonic structure of a key. 

I am all for moving tunes into keys that bring out something wonderful in the tune on the instrument on which it is being played.  But part of the beauty of a tune in a particular key comes from how its melody is organized relative to the 4 open notes of the instrument - how ringing open strings create drone notes - where string crossings fall in a melody, creating fluid lines against resonating notes.  The goal, then, for me, is not to be able to execute technically perfect uniformity across keys, but rather to embrace the differences that arise from a change in key -- the relationships between the open strings, the notes of the tune, and the resonances and overtones of the instrument that unfold when that tune is played in that key. 

First tunes learned:
(MF) I remember learning Tripping Up the Stairs before I even knew it was a jig.  I didn't know what a jig was but I remember playing it and thinking it was the prettiest thing I had ever heard.  I probably learned a lot of the same first tunes that people learn now, like The Blarney Pilgrim.  

I learned Loftus Jones very early on.  That's an O'Carolan tune that I learned off a Mick Moloney recording.  He was playing it on the mandolin so his interpretation of it made it very accessible to a new player.  I still play it.  I still love that tune.

Playing in a certain style:
(MF) Typically styles have been considered to be regionally based.  I had a conversation with Martin Hayes once where he was saying that regional styles came out of personal styles.  There would be an iconic player and people would start to gravitate toward that person's style and imitate it and play like him or her.  And of course those people that played like him lived near him, so over time you have a regional style.  

Those things happen not only within regions of Ireland but also within regions of America, where players who play in a certain style have come to this country and a generation or two goes by and you have a Chicago style or a New York style or a Boston style or a San Francisco style, based on the players that settled in those areas.

San Francisco, where I learned to play, was influenced by players who came from the west coast of Ireland, Clare and Galway, so we have a west coast style here on the west coast, which is rather poetic I think.  I've been told that I play in somewhat of a Clare style.  It wasn't intentional on my part.  I'm playing music with the flow from the session community that I learned to play in.  

Joe Cooley and Kevin Keegan were the figures that sort of started the revival of Irish music in the San Francisco area.  I kind of learned from the people that had learned from Kevin Keegan and Joe Cooley.  Not a particular person, but from the sound of the session at the time.   
On "hacking around" at accordion:
(MF) I've never spent the time or attention that I would need to ever get good at accordion.  It's a whole different ballgame than the mandolin.  It's physically fun to play.  To have sustain.  To be able to make a note and have it get louder over time.  It's like wow, I never had that!  But I have not spent the disciplined time with the instrument that I would need to really call myself a box player.  I hack around at it and it's fun.

About Noctambule (NAHK-tam-byool) - the duo Marla has with her husband Bruce Victor:
(MF) Bruce is a guitar player.  He plays in open, tunings, different tunings, and likes to swap strings around to get nice, lovely textures on the instrument.  The thing that we love to do is set poetry to music.  It's something that I've done intermittently for 25 years or more and now we're writing together and having a blast at it.  

Travel in the Shadows is a theme album.  We noticed that we had a whole cluster of songs that were based on poems that were about the night, so it's built around that theme. We perform together as a duo and that's my primary thing other than playing and teaching mandolin. 

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