Thursday, October 07, 2004
A conversation with Beggars' Circus
The members of Beggars' Circus have been performing Celtic music for six years, but don't expect any tearful "Danny Boy" moments. The Circus plays traditional Celtic dance tunes, not Irish pub music. What you will see and hear is a live event, the product of three performers who make it their goal - both on and off the stage - to keep it unplugged and in the moment.
What instruments do you play?
Mary-Beth Coffey: Fiddle player.
Michelle Lawrence-Walker: I play flute, pennywhistle, concertina and dulcimer.
Tim Summers: I play guitar, bouzouki, flute, whistle, bagpipes, and other percussion stuff.
What about vocals?
MC: Tim tends to lead, and we do backup.
TS: And we do some a cappella stuff, three-part harmonies.
ML-W: And very dark songs.
TS: Yeah, we don't do any happy songs.
What kind of music do you play?
TS: We play traditional dance music and Celtic music - a lot of people have a certain image of what it is, and that's fine. We have typically our own idea of what it is.
ML-W: It has to be musically interesting.
TS: We try to select the most difficult music we're able to play. ... We've been described as medieval-sounding. ... It's dance music, so we try to put together ... jigs or reels or slip-jigs, depends on what the dance is.
ML-W: Sort of.
TS: Yeah, we do mix it up too, we do sets that you couldn't possibly dance to because they're all thrown together oddly. It depends, too - we'll mix up tunes from different countries: Celtic music not only is Ireland and Scotland, but it's also Wales and Brittany and France and Galatia and Spain and Cornwall and Canada. And all these really have distinct individual styles ... but we focus on the dance music.
ML-W: Because it's more complicated.
TS: Because it's hard.
What's your musical background?
TS: I grew up on rock and roll, blues, folk music. That's why I play the way I do, I guess.
MC: I played in the Roanoke Youth Symphony growing up; I played classical until we got together. I started in fourth grade.
ML-W: I started in fourth grade too.
You were both classically trained?
MC: Yeah. And I've always liked folk music. Peter, Paul and Mary. I had my guitar and played three basic chords. I've always liked folk music - this is the roots.
ML-W: I never thought I would play this sort of music. The first time I heard it I was in high school, and there was a radio show on Saturday nights, still going on, hosted by Mary Cliff, and the first time I heard Celtic music I was like, "Wow, this is it, I'm home." ... It was just so interesting and wonderful. But it took me many years and a very wise woman who said, "You don't have to play concert classical flute, you can play what you hear on the radio." What? Music is your ears and not your eyes? Not music on a page?
You all play a lot of instruments - do you swap instruments back and forth when you're playing live?
TS: Yeah, that's the "Circus" part.
So what's the "Beggars" part? Is it just the "It would be great to get paid more to have a gig" sort of a thing?
ML-W: We do need people to pay us.
TS: Well, I've always thought that beggars have a mystical significance.
ML-W: Interesting, six years, and I didn't know that about you.
What's your live sound?
TS: We like to be loud and very high-energy, and we're known as being pretty out there as far as energy level goes. That's what people say anyway. We play things very very fast.
MC: I think the more raucous the better. I think that's also the "Circus" part.
TS: On the edge of disaster. When we're nearing the edge of the cliff we know we're doing it right.
MC: When we recorded our CD we asked the guy recording it, "How did that sound?" And he said, "Close."
Are you really improvisational when you play live?
TS: It's pretty tightly arranged ... but my playing style is improvisational, and I'm really lucky because they let me do that ... but the music itself, it's not the kind of music that's meant to be improvised.
Can you tell me about your new CD?
TS: It's called Moor for the Asking; it's our second CD.
On the album, are you trying to recreate what you play live, or do something different?
MC: Yeah, it's what you hear live.
TS: We like it to sound live. One way to try to achieve that when recording is, we all play in the same room, and very little in the way of overdubs, just percussion stuff. It sounds pretty much like us ... We have to overdub percussion because there are only three of us and we have to put the drums in there somehow. But it's important for us to have a live sound. ... There's one tune on the record ... I had been playing bagpipes for a year when we recorded that, and you can tell, but that doesn't bother me so much. And I really like the quality of Michelle's voice.
ML-W: Very untutored.
TS: I don't know how to describe it, but some people might not have put that on their record because it does sound pretty raw; it sounds like a couple people out in the field.
A raw sound. So do you play acoustic only, or do you play amplified?
ML-W: We do make that concession to modern technology.
TS: You have to, or you'd never hear the whistle over the drum, for example. To get a balanced sound.
But you say it's a concession in a way. Is the goal to be as close to natural as you can get?
TS: We try to live without as much technology as possible in our regular lives.
ML-W: It's true.
TS: We grow most of our own food. ... We like to do for ourselves as much as possible. We place a high value on creating work for ourselves. We try to get along with as little as possible ... except for instruments.