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An Interview with Grey Larsen

Grey Larsen

Note: Mel Bay published Grey's Essential Guide to Irish Flute and Tin Whistle in November, 2003. Check out Grey's Web site for more details and ordering information.

Grey Larsen is a familiar name to folk music fans throughout North America, especially Irish music lovers. He is recognized as one of America's foremost exponents of the Irish flute, tin whistle and concertina. As a tune-smith his celtic-style tunes, especially "Thunderhead," are known worldwide. His expertise also extends to traditional fiddling in American and Scandinavian traditions as well as guitar and keyboard playing.

In the process of learning Irish traditional music Grey spent a great deal of time with Co. Sligo flute player Tom Byrne, Co. Leitrim fiddler Tom McCaffrey, and Co. Galway melodeon player Michael Kennedy, all elderly Irish immigrants to Grey's home state of Ohio. He has also made musical trips to Ireland.

Since he teamed up with Malcolm Dalglish in 1975, and then formed the trio METAMORA with Dalglish and Pete Sutherland in 1982, which later also included Martin Simpson, he has played for many thousands of listeners at concerts and festivals throughout North America and Europe. Still more have enjoyed the recordings that he and his partners have produced, records that have sold well in excess of 100,000 copies and have garnered the high praise of critics and music lovers alike. These include Banish Misfortune, Thunderhead, The Great Road, Windham Hill's Morning Walk and A Winter's Solstice II, and his own solo album, The Gathering, which won an honorable mention from NAIRD (the National Association of Independent Record Distributors) in 1987.

In 1992 he formed a duo with French Canadian guitarist and singer André Marchand. Their CD, The Orange Tree, was released in 1993 on Sugar Hill Records and was chosen by CD Review Magazine as Runner-Up World Music CD of the Year.

He is also known as a film composer, record producer and recording engineer and as the music editor of Sing-Out Magazine, an international folk music quarterly founded in 1950 by Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and others. Many thousands of film-goers have heard his music featured in the score to Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange's 1989 movie Far North and in the popular children's cable TV movie Tuck Everlasting.

Grey's Web site provides information on his recordings, books, concerts, master classes, residencies and a variety of educational offerings in Irish flute to music schools and music departments in academic institutions.

Selected Discography


Q: What kind of flute(s) do you play, who made the instrument, and why did you decide to get this particular flute?

A: I play a Firth, Pond and Hall flute, made c. 1850-60 in New York City. It has six keys and is made of cocus wood. It is a lovely sounding instrument with fairly small finger holes, which I like. The first time I played it I fell in love with its sound. It may not be as loud as some flutes with larger finger holes but I can get a wide variety of tone colors from it and it suits my inclination towards more delicacy and nuance of tone. Chris Abell made a new headjoint for my flute about four years ago. It increased the responsiveness of the flute significantly and made it easier to get a consistently good tone. I highly recommend Abell headjoints. I like the simplicity of the six key arrangement and the light weight of the flute,though I sometimes wish I had an extended low range. I also have a very nice anonymous German flute with 12 or 13 keys that goes down to B but I use it mainly for recording sessions where the low range is needed, preferring the sound, feel and response of my Firth, Pond and Hall flute.

Q: Who has influenced your playing style? Has it mainly been other flute players, or is your flute style also influenced by fiddlers, pipers, or other instrumentalists?

A:My style is certainly influenced by players of a variety of instruments as well as singers. Among the flute and whistle players that I admire the most are Josie McDermott, Mary Bergin and Matt Molloy. Other influences: Noel Hill, Kevin Burke, Paddy Cronin, Paddy Keenan, Liam O'Flynn and the singing of Dolores Keane, Andy Irvine, Micheál ó Domhnaill and Triona Ní Dhomhnaill.

Q: Can you suggest some favorite musicians for an aspiring Irish flute player to listen to?

A: Aspiring Irish flute players should certainly listen to Josie McDermott, Mary Bergin and Matt Molloy. We should do as much listening as possible to a wide variety of players of various instruments and of course to singers, especially if interested in learning slow airs.

Q: Do you have any general advice for beginning flute players? Any words of wisdom or warning?

A: Be diligent in learning to be able to do your ornaments (cuts, taps, etc.) dead on a steady beat. Use a metronome and don't practice at a tempo that is too fast. Otherwise you will be reinforcing your mistakes. Practice slower than you think you need to and always listen to yourself.

Try practicing in front of a mirror, for several reasons: 1) you can see what you are doing with your hands, shoulders, arms, neck, embouchure, etc., 2) the sound bounces back at you with more clarity and that helps you hear what you're doing, and 3) perhaps most importantly, it helps you to maintain your concentration. It is easy to get distracted when just looking out into space. The flute has the disadvantage that you can't see it while you play. Good practice is 90% good focus.

Also, one does not have to have super lung capacity to play for long periods without tiring. Instead, one needs to learn to use one's air very efficiently and this is mostly a function of embouchure, of learning to get a very small aperture between the lips without creating tension in the facial muscles. Of course good posture and diaphragmatic breathing are very important as well.

Q: As a multi-instrumentalist, how do you decide which tunes to perform on the flute, as opposed to concertina, fiddle, whistle, guitar, etc.? Can you identify a quality in certain tunes that seems to make them especially suited for the flute?

A: More and more I see it as a good challenge to try tunes on the flute that don't seem, on the surface, well suited to it. I like to learn to play in odd keys, e.g. B-flat or B major. Of course it it essential to have some keywork on your flute to do this. Also tunes that go "too low" for the flute are fair game for adapting. Transposing certain notes or phrases up the octave can yield some wonderful surprises. (Listen to "The Jug of Punch" played by Paddy Carty on his Shanachie record and by me on Metamora's "The Great Road.")

Q: One of my favorite bits of flute musicianship is, oddly enough, your accompaniment to the song "Western Highway," on Maura O'Connell's album "Helpless Heart." The flute comes in with a lovely, deeply felt, rather melancholy melody at the end of the song. Did you write that flute part? Can you tell us a little about how you came to appear on that album?

A: Bela Fleck produced that album and asked me to play on it. The part on the end of "Western Highway" was improvised by me with some input from Bela. When I was recording that part there was another instrument in there (can't recall what just now - perhaps I had done two flute parts or a concertina part). I was playing out and then laying back in some places, playing simple lines behind this other instrument. When they mixed the song they removed that other instrument leaving in those simpler phrases, which had been conceived as accompaniment to another melody line. I too like very much the feeling that the part creates. It was a good move on Bela's part to do that subtractive mixing. I don't know if he had that idea up his sleeve all along or if it was something he came up with at mix time. A good example of a time when less is more.

Q: What draws you to the flute -- can you articulate what it is about the instrument that you love? Anything you don't like about the flute?

A: This is a very big question. The flute suits my soul as a vehicle for expression better than any other. The music is created out of your very breath and is therefore very internal and personal. It is very akin to singing and speaking for the same reasons. It is a voice without words, which for me is liberating. The nuance of tone, expression, dynamic and blend that are possible draw me strongly to it.

As for drawbacks, I often wish I could extend the range downward further. Of course you can't smile, laugh, speak or sing while playing. It also puts an odd strain on your spine and upper torso. It really puts your body into a very unnatural position much of which is unmovable while you are playing. I was in a car wreck in 1987 and injured my spine just at the spot where the bottom ribs attach to the spine. A physical therapist told me that she thought that place in my spine was vulnerable to injury due to the twisting stress in that area from so much flute playing.