A bit late for a "releases" article, since the album has been out since March 2021, but still perfectly current!
It was a fortunate consequence of these pandemic times that many of the more attentive chroniclers had time to stop and reflect on their paths, thus becoming aware of how much in need they actually were of a bit of grounding in the here and now. After that initial frustration we all experienced, when those "2 weeks at home" proved to be well over 2 weeks, in March 2020, many of us had to learn to live with a mix of complicated thoughts and emotions - something between the relief of having time to ourselves, and the terror of having time to ourselves.
The experience was (and continues to be) quite unique to each person, but I dare say that I share some of the feelings of musicians from around the world, who saw their work interrupted indefinitely. From the standpoint of flutist Brian Finnegan, this was especially frustrating as, according to him, it is precisely in times of distress and uncertainty that music, poetry and the arts in general become that much more essential. He does not refer, of course, to the "escapist" dimension that entertainment may often occupies in our lives - but rather to that of welcoming us, reminding us of our humanity and presenting us with a world greater than the one contained within our heads. I think the conflict at hand is a particularly complex one, as perhaps we were not even used to considering thus far, since social isolation presented itself as the best way to prevent even more deaths from the Pandemic – simply denying it would not constitute a responsible alternative for those who had a commitment to the well-being of other human beings, even if lacking contact with them.
After that initial frustration, of someone who was already quite used to a frenetic reality of recordings and concerts, master Finnegan found himself isolated in his residence in Armagh (Northern Ireland), with his family, and pondered that this moment of homely reflection was actually something he was in deep need of. And in so realizing, he saw in it a great opportunity to catch up with a more dedicated daily practice of his music – which for some time had not satisfied him that well. And he found that his bathroom, at night, by candlelight, was the ideal place to spend hours playing. This had been the room where his grandfather used to practice his bagpipes, years before – he, who had built the house where his grandson now lives. And it was there that, between March and April 2020, the tunes appeared that would give rise to a new album.
These are tunes not quite like the ones that Finnegan had composed until then: they are, according to him, more difficult and dissonant, proposing new and trickier questions. Tunes fueled by that feeling of frustration, for what almost bumps into injustice, regarding what had been done to the arts at a time when they would have been so vital. Despite this, the artist took advantage of what he found most inspiring at the time he was living: “I think it’s at times of peril [...] that’s the catalyst for the creative", he told the Irish Times , “And I know a lot of artists and poets will echo that sentiment. That’s when the work starts to come. It was instinctive.” It is not, then, an effort to deny the harsh reality of social isolation, but rather to work out the complicated emotions that emanate from it.
Hunger Of The Skin is as much a product of Brian Finnegan's inner dive as it is of the 11 years that have elapsed since his last solo album, The Ravishing Genius Of Bones. That was a decade marked by a heavy amount of musical production and tours with bands like Flook , Kan and Aquarium (a beautiful folk rock group from Russia). Thrown in isolation, like all of us, he then collaborated online with 24 musicians and poets from Ireland, England, Mexico, Russia, the United States, India and Spain. Yes, yet again we are testing the limits of language, arrangement and instrumentation of traditional Irish music.
The album's title came, then, from the reflection on the vital importance of touch and human warmth that was made more than evident in this historic moment: we have all felt, since the very first months of the Pandemics, the absence of closeness, love, friendship, emotional and intellectual stimulation that human contact provides. All things that virtual reality is coldly unable to provide. The hunger that sets in and that is not satiated even by the brightest high-resolution screen or the fastest internet connection. A kind of hunger that technology does not satisfy: the hunger of the skin.
The album cover is a contribution by Russian artist Rus Khasanov, apparently based on his 2017 work "Over Your Skin".
The album is filled with poems from origins and languages most diverse, but “Dare” deserves a special mention. The poem for the album's last track was written and recited by Morna Finnegan, Brian's sister. She is an anthropologist, with a doctoral work developed among hunter-gatherer societies in Central Africa, having actually lived among the Mbendjele people in Congo. Within this other language of human expression that is science, Morna ended up developing a very synchronous work with her brother's new album.
Shortly before the release of Hunger Of The Skin, Brian Finnegan shared on his social networks an excerpt from a talk given by his sister called "Why an absence of REAL touch is making us lonely", which I strongly recommend watching:
The full talk, entitled "Touched: Hunter-Gatherers And The Anthropology Of Power", is also available on YouTube .
It was this very talk that made Brian seek out his sister and convince her to take part in the album. According to him, "Dare" accounted for everything that Hunger intended to convey.
FLOW, IN THE YEAR OF WU WEI
The first single that came out announcing the new album references the Taoist philosophy of “living without effort”. Which is not to be understood as a praise for laziness, but rather as the principle of making oneself tuned and resonant with the natural flow of reality – to welcome things as they are, rather than leaning on the expectation that they can be controlled. The idea is as simple to explain as it is complex to understand, at least on the level of experience (beyond the mere descriptions and shallow conceptualizations we make of things). You see, reality is like a river we are navigating: it would be a waste of energy, and a most frustrating one at that, if we tried to control the winds and currents – we can only steer our boat, and make the best possible use of the present conditions of wind and current to navigate in a more peaceful and profitable way. Regardless of all sorts of fanciful narratives and speculative conclusions about "The Universe" (which we constantly run into as Western literal interpretations of Eastern allegories), this is what Taoist philosophy teaches as a way to become “one” with the universe: a metaphorical union, that is, where reality is not rejected by virtue of what we would like it to be – it is embraced, and thus we end up finding ourselves trusting it as we trust ourselves. In another metaphor, it's about what the most skilled poker players know all too well: they don't entertain the expectation of controlling what cards they're dealt, and instead they develop the ability to make the best possible use of the cards they're dealt. Also for the Irish Times , Finnegan told of the brilliant philosophy his grandmother taught him: “She says 'the bird of paradise will not land on a hand that grasps'. If you let go of something, the chances are that it’ll be easier to traverse. And so it was by being at home, being with family and watching the seasons coming and going and how enriching that was for me.”
I leave, for those interested, an interesting lecture on the philosophy of Wu Wei, by communicator Alan Watts:
The music itself is one of the most exquisite pieces I've ever heard. It builds up slowly, growing in intensity and excitement as the track progresses. The first tune is a "warm-up" for what's to come, says Finnegan, who associates the first part with the sound and style of Breton music, which he greatly admires. A brief interlude leads into the second tune, which is much more intense and complicated – interspersed with a poem in Russian, a trombone solo and a touch of flamenco influences (featuring actual clappers for percussion), which the composer had absorbed in a recent trip to Seville. The poem and voice are by Boris Grebenshikov, leader of Russian folk rock band Aquarium, with whom Brian Finnegan also plays and has been collecting tours in Russia and Asia for the past decade. The end of the track is like a calming of the storm; to paraphrase the composer, it's a sort of arriving at an unfamiliar beach, where the unfamiliarity is balanced with a feeling of safeness. A kind of cathartic hope, suggesting that everything will be okay from now on.
Here it's worth to comment briefly on Brian Finnegan's creative process. According to his testimony to the podcast "The Rolling Wave", published by RTE, he composes his tunes in a very intuitive and informal way (in the case of this album, in the bathroom), playing melodies that come to his head without much concern for theoretical formalizations - he will sometimes spend days playing a new tune without even concerning himself whether it's a jig, a reel, etc. Interestingly enough, he comments that, on occasion, his bandmates will even have a bit of a hard time identifying the "1" (first measure) of his compositions. For "The SoundSpring Podcast", he said he doesn't like to "force" a composition to form - if, for example, he has a first part of a tune in his head, he doesn't go "chasing" the second part, because that, in his words, "would break the spell"; he waits for each part to come when it's ready. The tunes that compose "Flow, In The Year Of Wu Wei", then, were no different: they spontaneously sprouted part after part over successive nights, until he realized that they would all be components of the same track. And, once he has the tunes ready, he leaves much of the arrangement in the hands of the creative musicians he calls on to collaborate.
The single was deemed "Best Original Track" by the RTE Radio 1 Folk Awards 2020. The clip was filmed in multiple locations around the world: from Belfast (Northern Ireland) to Mexico City (Mexico), from Kirov (Russia) to St. Petersburg (Russia), and finally Armagh (Northern Ireland).
TWO TREES / TONY
A house that once seethed with movement and life and, overnight, became empty. This was the experience of Mr. Tony Donnolly, who celebrated his 90th birthday in the midst of the Pandemic. He is Brian Finnegan's neighbor in Armagh. An admirable person, according to the flutist, with the habit of collecting garbage from the street for recycling, “like a monk taking care of his Zen garden”. He is also a keen road bowler, as portrayed by the gorgeous second single clip that preceded Hunger Of The Skin.
Tony has always been very hospitable and wise, a teller of stories that are “like lotus flowers, revealing lives that are lived simply, unhurriedly, since the time my grandfather built the house I live in today”, Finnegan wrote in his social network. "He is shamanic in his knowledge of land and people and lore." With the Pandemic, Tony found himself profoundly lonely – and despite not being able to put a hand on his shoulder, Finnegan was able to talk to him over the fence that separates their grounds.
The track is introduced by the beautiful tune “Two Trees”, by Ashley Broder, which then takes us to the composition that Finnegan created in honor of Mr. Donnolly. The track is beautifully seasoned by Tony's own speech, telling good things about his life.
“He is the last of his kind, the world he knew is gone, my children will not know another like him. He is 90 years old today. This is for Tony Donnolly.”
In the podcast “The Rolling Wave”, Brian Finnegan speaks of his hopes that, soon, we will be able to meet again and share that human experience that we have been craving for so long now. He recalls the experience of playing live with other musicians, something very difficult to describe and that, quite possibly, is only truly known by those who have already experienced it. A “letting go into the meadow”, that is, without walls and without a roof, having only the here and now and the eternal flow of the present moment. He is saddened to hear from some less sensible people that musicians from now on should "get real" and find "real jobs" – tragically, they have little idea of what an experience music truly is. It reminded me a lot of a famous line by Dr. Richard Alpert (former professor of psychology at Harvard who, having been through a notoriously thorough initiation in Eastern philosophy in India, became better known as Ram Dass): "for those who have had the experience, no explanation is necessary, and for those who have not, none is possible".
Hunger Of The Skin can be purchased at Brian Finnegan's Bandcamp:
Alternatively, it can be heard on major streaming platforms: