A Nightnoise Retrospective

imageNightnoise were a musical quartet whose career spanned the better part of two decades. Although three quarters of the band came from Ireland, the group was based in Portland, Oregon. Despite backgrounds in traditional Irish music, classical, and jazz, the band’s style has most frequently been categorized, for better or worse, as New Age. The band released seven albums between 1983 and 1997 on Windham Hill Records.

Guitarist Mícheál Ó Domhnaill was well versed in the musical traditions of his native Ireland. As part of The Bothy Band, Mícheál was rightfully considered a legendary figure in Irish folk circles, but that had translated to zero commercial success during The Bothy Band’s brief but extremely noteworthy career. When the band broke up in 1979, three members — Ó Domhnaill, his sister Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill (vocals and keyboards), and fiddler Kevin Burke — relocated to Portland, Oregon. Mícheál made a couple of duet recordings with Burke, while Tríona imagerecorded with the band Touchstone. After a couple of years, though, Mícheál was ready for a change of
pace. He met up with Billy Oskay, a violinist originally from the town of Kingston in upstate New York. Despite Oskay’s classical background, the two had plenty of common musical interests and started working together.

The duo’s subdued, pensive compositions attracted the attention of Windham Hill Records, a label that was big in the genre of New Age music. In 1982, when the Donnegal quintet Clannad reinvented themselves while composing the soundtrack to the BBC mini-series Harry’s Game , they swung the door to the New Age market wide open for other Irish musicians to follow. However, and not entirely without justification, the term “New Age” has some negative connotations imagein popular culture. Nightnoise would have to compete for shelf space in record stores with seemingly anybody with a synthesizer and tin whistle who could record enough tunes with long pauses in the melodies and not-too-frequent chord changes to make an album, then call the album Celtic-something-or-other and get at least a few people to buy it. There was plenty of room in the genre for genuine artistry, though, and Windham Hill could guarantee Ó Domhnaill and Oskay a base audience. As a result, both the label and the musicians had much to benefit from the partnership that would last the full 15 years of Nightnoise’s recording career.

While the 1983 LP Nightnoise was officially credited to Billy Oskay and Mícheál Ó Domhnaill as a duo, it set the tone for the subsequent albums credited to the group Nightnoise. All the instrumental pieces were composed either by Oskay or Ó Domhnaill. In addition to a guitar and violin, each tune had a keyboard part, and most included a flute or whistle as imagewell. The style of the tunes was quiet, sparse, and subdued, providing the foundation of the basic sound that Nightnoise would carry with them for their career. The main criticism of this record, which also carried over into subsequent Nightnoise recordings, was that it requires a great deal of patience for the listener to distinguish most of the tunes from each other. There were a few exceptions, though. Ó Domhnaill’s “Bridges” features a haunting theme on the guitar that lingers in the mind long after the track ends. The album closes with a nice extended suite of tune fragments called “The Cricket’s Wicket,” also composed by Ó Domhnaill.

The project was put on hold for a couple of years after the first release. Ó Domhnaill joined his sister Tríona in a group called Relativity which also featured the Scottish brothers Phil (accordion) and Johnny (fiddle) Cunningham from the band Silly Wizard. When Ó Domhnaill and Oskay reconvened, they recruited Irish flautist Brian Dunning and officially named themselves Nightnoise. Most of the 1987 album Something of Time was recorded as a trio, with the two founding members taking turns overdubbing keyboard tracks. It was clear that they needed a imagefull-time keyboardist, though, and Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill was the obvious first choice. Tríona played on one piece on the album, her own composition “Après-Midi,” but she was a full-time member of Nightnoise from that point forward. The most distinctive track on Something of Time was the opening tune “Timewinds,” an Oskay composition. Despite a synthesizer that sounds dated today — ironically, the folk and classical elements in Nightnoise’s sound generally hold up much better — “Timewinds” has a vibrance to it that most of the other tunes on the album lack. Ó Domhnaill’s jig “Wiggy Wiggy” showed off his and Dunning’s Irish roots. It marked the band’s first attempt to blend traditional Irish music in with the basic Nightnoise sound, and it worked pretty well. On the whole, though, Something of Time was a bit too formulaic, and I’d rate it as the weakest CD in the Nightnoise catalog.

The next album, At the End of the Evening, came out in 1988. Having Tríona on board for the entire writing and recording process made a huge difference. For one thing, her keyboard playing provided a solid instrumental foundation for the rest of the band to build on. The title song, written and sung by Tríona, was the first Nightnoise track to feature vocals and gave the album some needed variety. Tríona’s most significant contribution to the album, though, was her classic composition “At The Races.” This joyously bouncy instrumental would become Nightnoise’s signature track. The other really good tune on this album is Dunning’s minor-key waltz “Forgotten Carnival.” So while not dramatically different in approach from its predecessor, At the End of the Evening was a clear step forward for Nightnoise.

image1990′s The Parting Tide was a bit anomalous for the band. In general, the composing responsibilities on Nightnoise albums were distributed more or less evenly among the members, but for this album, five of the nine pieces were composed by Tríona. By contrast, Ó Domhnaill and Oskay composed only one tune apiece. Still, the album showed some good variety. Dunning contributed a pair of strong tunes in the waltz “Bleu” and the extended suite “The Kid In The Cot.” Tríona started to steer the band more sharply in an Irish direction with the Gaelic song “An Irish Carol” and the tune “Jig Of Sorts.” Oskay’s lone contribution “The Tryst” was his strongest for the band, but it would also prove to be his last. Oskay had set up his own recording studio called Big Red Studio, and he left the band to give the studio his full attention. The 1992 compilation A Windham Hill Retrospective neatly summed up Nightnoise’ s career up to that point. While it did mark the end of an era for the band, Nightnoise were still far from finished.

Johnny Cunningham had played with Mícheál and Tríona in Relativity, and while his speciality was the more aggressive variety of Celtic fiddle music, he was somebody that the members of Nightnoise knew well and knew they could work with. Besides, the 1993 album Shadow of Time clearly indicated that the band had become eager to work their Celtic roots into the Nightnoise sound to a much greater degree than they had up to this point. Dunning’s edgy jig “Silky Flanks” is arguably the one Nightnoise tune you might hear at a pub session. Tríona sang “The Rose of Tralee,” a well-known Irish standard. Mícheál’s composition “The March Air” concludes with a Gaelic song whose melody had been performed at President Kennedy’s funeral. And in his one lead vocal on any Nightnoise album, Mícheál reprised “Fionnghuala,” a classic bit of Scots Gaelic mouth music from the repertoire of The Bothy Band. While the basic elements of Nightnoise’s established sound remained firmly in place, Shadow of Time was both the most diverse and energetic Nightnoise album to date.

imageNightnoise returned in 1995 with A Different Shore. While a bit more subtle than its predecessor, this album did have a few fine waltzes in Cunningham’s “Morning In Madrid” and Dunning’s “Clouds Go By,” Night Noise nice instrumental from Ó Domhnaill called “For Eamonn” that evoked the early Nightnoise sound, and Tríona’s best vocal contribution to the band in “Falling Apples.” My favorite track, though, is Dunning’s “The Busker on the Bridge,” which features a peculiar but fun vocal interruption in the middle. Following closely on the heels of A Different Shore came the live album The White Horse Sessions, recorded mostly in a studio in front of a small Portland audience in March 1996. Most of the material came from previous recordings, but the performance included three solid new tunes and a great Celtified adaptation of Van Morrison’s “Moondance.” The concert was very energetic throughout, and the band seemed to finally find just the right balance between their New Age foundation and their traditional roots. The White Horse Sessions was arguably Nightnoise’s finest recording.

It also was their last. Mícheál, Tríona, and Brian Dunning returned home to Ireland, while Johnny Cunningham remained in the States. Nightnoise re-convened occasionally in Ireland with John Fitzpatrick handling the fiddling over the next few years, but the band never sat down together for long enough to record a full-length album. The recent past has been horribly cruel to the band members. Cunningham suffered a fatal heart attack in December 2003. Then, in 2006, Mícheál Ó Domhnaill passed away from a fall in his house. Any chance of Nightnoise returning to action almost certainly died with him.

How you view the legacy of Nightnoise depends a lot on your perspective. For a fan of New Age music, Nightnoise were a flagship band who brought quality and credibility to a genre that didn’t always enjoy the best of reputations otherwise, and whose popularity has waned considerably in the intervening years. As a folk music fan familiar with the other work of Mícheál and Tríona and of Johnny Cunningham, I consider Nightnoise to be a worthy endeavor by some world-class performers, but most of their music fell a bit short of these musicians’ best work. A few tracks do stand out, though. Certainly “At The Races” is a very memorable tune, and a lot of Dunning’s contributions were subtly effective. To those not familiar with Nightnoise I would enthusiastically recommend The White Horse Sessions and A Windham Hill Retrospective, followed by Shadow of Time if they decide they want to hear more.

(Windham Hill, 1987 – 1997)

 

Scott Gianelli

Scott Gianelli is a research scientist at Columbia University and NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City. When not studying the atmosphere, he can be seen carting his guitar and bouzouki around to Swedish folk dances or amusing himself playing games of all sorts. Other online reviews and writings by Scott can be accessed at The Armchair Critic .He can be reached at smg58@columbia.edu.

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