Writing about music is like bottling the wind – difficult at the best of times. Then you hear something like Gerry Diver’s Speech Project and it opens not just your ears, but your eyes too, and other senses that you’d forgotten about.
At first I thought I’d received some kind of dud CD for on the opening track the voice appeared to repeat as on an old scratched record. Soon thereafter a fiddle entered tentatively, like a blind man homing in on the source of the voice and eventually caressing it; and with that the recording had my full attention.
This was obviously no high tech pop song where banality is frozen in place and stitched together perfectly to appeal to the broadest demographic. No, this was real music, more than a little unhinged, but touching me much as it did in childhood.
Gerry Diver’s conceit is to record a human voice while in conversation, find its key, isolate and loop a phrase or two, then add complementary lines of music.
It seems so obvious and yet I can’t recall any precedent; still, there’s no mistaking the album’s ultimate effect for I began to listen to the voices around me in a new way - not just for content but for inherent melody.
Gerry has chosen a number of familiar voices: Christy Moore, Shane McGowan, Damien Dempsey to name a few; they speak quietly but with conviction about matters of importance to them – emigration, the spirit of music, memory. An accomplished multi-instrumentalist, Manchester born but Irish bred Divers clothes these shards of speech with evocative melodies and rhythms that deepen the very nature of the words spoken.
My own favorite piece features Margaret Barry, a traveling street singer who performed at fairs and outside GAA grounds on big match days.
I’d long been fascinated by her, yet I only saw her once. My grandfather had taken me to see Wexford hurl against mighty Kilkenny in the town of Enniscorthy.
Some of you will recall the excitement of match days as diverse streams of people coalesced into a torrent heading for the park while all around hucksters hawked hats and rosettes emblazoned with the colors of the teams; suddenly we were halted by a big crowd, hushed and silent as they craned their necks to catch the clatter of a solitary banjo.
My grandfather reached down, placed me astride his shoulders and murmured almost reverentially, “That’ll be Maggie Barry.”
She stood within a semi-circle of people, her back to the wall of the park, and began to sing as if to herself. Yet her voice and banjo cut through the murmuring silence. She looked vaguely forbidding – a tooth or two missing – but there was an inherent kindness and wisdom about her.
I don’t even recall the song, but it spoke of a different time, one that was already fast disappearing, the old Ireland of glens and boreens that the English had barely touched. The song and its treatment were already old-fashioned, unscathed by the popular music of the day, and yet I can still recall its effect on me.
As if by magic Maggie’s voice again leaked out from Gerry’s CD, though this time it was relating the story of her mother’s passing rather than singing of a fading way of life. Still Gerry had captured her essence - not just her spirit but the times that inspired it. Some of the music he spun around that oddly comforting voice was as old as the hills, more of it was closer to the repeated rhythms and rippling arpeggios of a Philip Glass opera, yet it all meshed seamlessly.
You may need to search the CD for a particular voice that speaks to you, but I’m sure it’s there cloaked in its own exquisitively tailored music. That’s what makes Gerry Diver’s Speech Project an album for the ages. Be sure to pick up a copy, it will restore your faith in music; chances are you’ll remember something about yourself that you’ve either forgotten or misplaced, and you’ll be the better for its return.