Eileen Gannon teaches at St. Louis Irish Arts, an organization her parents have led for decades
Traditional Music / By Daniel Neely
Eileen Gannon is one of the great harp players around these days and she’s out with a new album, “The Glory Days Are Over.”
It’s a beautiful collection of intricate, expressive solo tracks that seem to run against the sentiment expressed in the album’s somewhat puzzling title.
What’s she on about there, anyway? Is it a disingenuous effort at false modesty? Could it be that she’s making a general statement about the direction of the world today? Or maybe it’s an aggressive message to the staid world of harping of her impending, take-no-prisoners takeover plan?
It’s actually none of these things. Or any of them.
The phrase is actually something Gannon uttered in her sleep at the 2016 Midwest Fleadh in Cincinnati. She thought it was funny, liked its open-ended ambiguity, and just committed to it.
I love it and see a subtle perfection in its humor, because it is entirely consistent with Gannon’s agreeable but incisive personality. Indeed, it’s this personality that comes through in each of the album’s 13 tracks and makes the album distinctive and enjoyable.
Gannon boasts a very impressive set of musical credentials.
Born in St. Louis, she was essentially raised at St. Louis Irish Arts, one of the country’s most important and longest running Irish arts organizations. (Her parents Helen and P.J. have been a part of SLIA since its founding in 1973 and have been the organization’s leaders for decades.)
She was a student of Tracey Fleming (of the Mullingar Harp School) and won the senior All-Ireland harp title in 2000. She’s performed with symphony orchestras. She’s earned a master’s degree in ethnomusicology from University of Limerick. Gannon teaches at SLIA, several of her students have gone on to win All-Ireland titles, and is in-demand at major festivals throughout the U.S. and Ireland. She’s a renowned performer as well. It’s been an impactful life in music so far.
Gannon’s brought this long experience to bear on “The Glory Days Are Over” and in doing so has given us an album that is quite beautiful overall. The sound of her harp is rich and resonant, her melodic phrasing and harmonic voicings tasteful, and she plays with an impeccable sense of rhythm. Tracks like “Paddy Mills / …,” which has a light and breezy feel, “Pay the Reckoning / …,” which presses along with a lovely bounce, and “Humours Of Ballymanus / …,” which has great drive, all showcase her superior ability with the dance tunes. I also love her approach to “Downfall of Paris,” which is played with a lift that suggests a dancer’s sensibility.
But where Gannon truly sets herself apart is with the slower tunes. Her superb right hand work on “The Princess Royal,” for example, gives the tune a very intense feel that makes it quite memorable. She also does a sensational job on “An Buachaillín Bán,” a breathtaking track that sets the tune’s stark melody against a wash of contrapuntal harmony. However, I feel the album’s finest track is “Táimse Im’ Chodladh,” a piece she learned from the singing of Iarla Ó Lionáird. It’s just amazing and the way it is played makes it as if you can hear the song’s lyrics through her hands.
Finding a way to sound that “vocal” on a plucked string instrument is an impressive feat, but it’s one she’s done very well to accomplish here.
“The Glory Days Are Over” will appeal to lovers of traditional music in general, but it is a must-have for harp players. The incredible expressiveness in Gannon’s playing is apparent throughout, but what I like most about the album is that it gives a clear sense of her individuality.
Listening to it is actually a bit like hearing her in conversation, in that her timing, humor, and intellect are all reflected in the way she approaches the music. Add to that the depth of her experience and you’re left with is a quite enveloping collection that bears multiple listenings.
Definitely check it out.
For more info, visit eileengannon.com.