Sean Gavin recorded his five O’Riada submissions on his iPhone.
By Daniel Neely
On Feb. 6, it was announced that flute and uilleann pipes player Sean Gavin had won the prestigious Seán O'Riada Gold Medal competition, an annual award given out in County Cork for each of the past six years. Gavin is one of this country’s finest musicians and is the first American to win the competition. His success speaks volumes about his own life in the music, but it also makes an important statement about the high quality of traditional music now being played in the United States.
Gavin will be well known to lovers of traditional music. He grew up in Détroit (his father, Mick Gavin, is a respected musician from County Clare) and in his youth found inspiration in the playing of flute player Leo MacNamara and uilleann piper Leo Rowsome. (In fact, Al Purcell, his pipes teacher, was a student of Rowsome’s.) A member of the group Bua (buamusic.com), he moved to Chicago in 2008, developed a strong reputation as a teacher, and became a major player on the city’s session scene. More recently, he formed the group NicGaviskey (with Sean McComiskey and Caitlin and Bernadette Nic Gabhann; nicgaviskey.blogspot.com) and has taught and toured extensively. This spring he’ll be hitting the road with Téada on its west coast jaunt and will release an album with fiddle player Jesse Smith and multi-instrumentalist John Blake this summer.
The O'Riada award (which includes a gold medal and cash award) is a special honor and a great feather in Gavin’s cap. Named after Seán O'Riada, the composer who was a towering figure in the 1960s traditional music revival, the competition was established by Seán's son Peadar, and celebrates a different traditional instrument each year. Previous winners include Aoife Ní Bhriain (2010), Tim Mc Hugh (2011), Tiarnán Ó Duinnchinn & Oisín Morrison (2012), Cormac Ó Beaglaíoch (2013), Daragh Curtin (2014).
The competition was created “to counteract the over-emphasis on technicality in other music competitions, and the failure to recognize the importance of spirit and musicality in playing.” You would, of course, have to be a top player to stand a realistic shot of winning, but it’s the notion of “character” – which is separate from technical brilliance – that is at the competition’s heart. Indeed, character is at the heart of O’Riada’s basic advice to participants, noting that adjudicators are instructed to look for “the character found in music from musicians whose life experience and witness grows with age and which invests their music.”
It’s a remarkable standard because it eschews ability without inspiration. There are no age categories nor requirements, it is simply about rewarding the best music. Those who wish to compete must submit five solo tracks. The sound quality of these tracks makes no difference. (Gavin told me he recorded his submissions on his iPhone!) A group of 15 finalists are the determined by a group of judges who choose blindly from the submitted files. (This year’s judges were Mary Bergin, Patsy Hanley, and Mick O’Connor.) Once named, the finalists are invited to Cork and are then asked to compete in front of the judges. It’s a rigorous and unforgiving process that ends with a concert that includes the competition’s former winners.
Although Gavin’s music is the product of many sources, he cited the legendary Chicago flute player Kevin Henry when asked about the character of his own music. “When I hear [Henry] play,” Sean told me, “I don’t feel I’m listening to someone play music, I feel like I’m listening to someone’s life experiences.” From the town of Doocastle on the Sligo/Mayo border, Henry lived in England and Canada and worked in mines before settling in the U.S. A friend of Gavin’s father, Sean remembers hearing him years ago at the Milwaukee Irish Festival and knew he was a great player with a sterling reputation. It’s why he made a special effort to find Henry when he moved to Chicago, but he ended up learning much more from him than just music. “When I moved, I went to Lanigan’s, the pub where Kevin played, to try to hear him, to play with him and learn about how he played his music. But after I got to know him, I’d just go and visit with him. He’d play me recordings he had, I’d bring him recordings I was interested in, and we’d talk about music. I got to know his family. I learned tons from going down to visit him. Not technical stuff, but a way of talking about and respecting the music – it was inspiring to be around somebody like that.”
It’s fair to say that Henry left an indelible mark on Gavin’s playing, but it is just one of the many experiences that gives his music character. Listen to him play live or on record and you’ll hear a thoughtful, studied musician with great musicality and I’m sure you’ll agree that the O’Riada medal was richly deserved. Congratulations, Sean!
The 2016 Seán O'Riada Gold Medal competition will be open to uilleann pipes and harp. To learn more, visit nua.cuireadhchunceoil.ie.
Dan Neely writes about traditional music each week in the Irish Echo.