Musician of the Month: Aoife Ní Bhriain | Cassandra Voices

Musician of the Month: Aoife Ní Bhriain


My formative years were spent growing up on a pretty amazing cul-de-sac called Verbena Grove in the north Dublin suburb of Bayside, a 1960s/1970s sprawl of low-rise semis that borders the coast road between the city centre and Howth Head. My Dad, Mick O’Brien was a schoolteacher and is one of Ireland’s leading uilleann pipers. My Mam, Fidelma is a music teacher who comes from a large family of Irish dancers and musicians. Both grandfathers were musicians, My grandad Dinny O’ Brien had a huge influence on us growing up. All of my aunties, uncles and cousins play. Music was water and air to my family. I had it on both sides, there was no escape.

So it started right there in Bayside. Once the parents on the road realised that Mam was a music teacher they came knocking on the door for music lessons. My first memories bring me back to the front room of our house with the children of Verbena Grove sitting around the table with tin whistles, I was often sitting on the table as a baby, watching, listening. Those children were the ones I looked up to, particularly the Peat family across the road who treated me like family from day one. So when Joanne Peat started playing the violin – so did I. I was two years old when I started violin lessons. The rest as they say was history.

Growing up in Dublin, I was very fortunate with the teachers that were available to my siblings and I. We all started on the violin in the Young European School of Music with Maria Keleman and Ronald Masin, to whom I owe my early years of practice and dedication to the violin. Then I was fortunate to study with Maeve Broderick in RIAM, Dublin before finding myself in Nantes, France under the watchful eyes and ears of Constantin Serban and eventually to Leipzig, Germany where I had my forever teacher, Mariana Sirbu. An incredible person, musician and friend. She took care of every student as a person as well as the music. But she was also very tough. She’d make me sweat. I really respected that. I’m not sure anyone had ever understood me as well as she did and I was so fortunate to have her in my life.

Throughout those years of study and practice I was working constantly, a musical gun for hire if you will. There are few gigs I did not do. From the West End to classical recitals and concerti, Bach to Tommie Potts, contemporary music with Crash Ensemble to performances with Baroque ensembles on period instruments, jazz improvisation and jamming in studios with singers and actors. Looking back it has shaped who I am in many ways, but I often wonder what life would have been like if I had chosen one path and dedicated my life to one musical genre.

When I think of those years I have a feeling of imposter syndrome. To exist in both and classical and traditional world musically was difficult to get my head around. Not only from a playing point of view but from a personal point of view. Who was I? And what was I trying to say with my music? Luckily I kept myself so busy I never had time to really dwell on those questions or answers! Then two things happened. A cervical cancer diagnosis put a stop to my worldwide gallivanting. Life got put on hold. Not a month after the final surgery this virus shut down theatres and concert venues all around the world. Now I had time on my hands. Lots of time and nowhere to go.

Fast forward to 2021. Lockdown was still in effect but Other Voices Cardigan were having their festival online and I got asked to play. It was a solo gig at first until the wonderful Philip King called me up and asked would it be possible to collaborate with the Welsh harpist Catrin Finch. “Catrin who?’ I asked. “Google her” said Philip “and call me back”. It was a very quick Google search and an even speedier reply when I called Philip back and said “absolutely 100 percent yes”.

Catrin and I met up to rehearse in Cardiff – no mean feat in lockdown. Test, letters and permission from the BBC just to play a few tunes. It was a hit. Having grown up playing music with my immediate family I knew what the feeling was to have an instant rapport with someone. It’s very rare and something I cherish anywhere that I find it. It all started with Bach, a composer close to both of our hearts. From there we just let the music take us where we wanted it to go and started composing together. We heard things similarly. We speak the same language, but we’re also not afraid to push each other. And I’ve never met anybody I’ve had that instant connection with who was not related to me or a musical friend from childhood. It was really extraordinary. From there the project has turned into our debut album “Double You”. A record I am very proud of as it combines all the elements of our musical lives and meanderings. The different musical accents we have developed over the years.

That is something that I feel explains what I do in music. Accents. My Dublin accent my Irish, my French accent, my German accent. All part of my musical DNA and all unique. In music I knew I could never play one style over the other. I never felt I really had the opportunity to dedicate myself solely  to the classical thing because there was always the responsibility to continue with the traditional music, I knew I could never turn my back on what my family gave me as a gift. And that brings us to the here and now. A real melting pot of music and ideas.

The future for me is as winding a road as ever. The next projects include a book on the fiddle player Tommie Potts who was a shining light for me growing up and someone whose recordings taught me a lot and allowed me a freedom I would not otherwise have known existed. A new album with the Goodman Trio (that being Dad and Emer Mayock) as we continue our excavation of the incredible manuscripts. There is an album to be released in the near future with my avant garde string quintet Wooden Elephant and the incredible spoken work artist Moor Mother, a new duo with viola da gamba virtuoso Liam Byrne; a new recording with my childhood friends Eoghan Ó Ceannabháín and Caoimhín Ó Fearghail; as well as a few solo recordings featuring Enescu, Locatelli, Ysaye and some Potts inspired traditional tunes.

It is definitely not an easy task being so in love with classical and traditional music and trying to respect them in their truest form also blending them in live performance to bring the music, regardless of genre to a new audience. I was fortunate enough to perform Shostakovich’s first Violin Concerto in Germany recently and my encore was Enescu into the Maids of Mitchelstown. A few years ago, I would never have had the courage to step up and be so musically blasphemous, but music is music, people are people and if you can convince the audience that what you are playing is informed, authentic and true to who you are as an artist, a musician and as a human – they don’t throw tomatoes, they applaud.

I think the future is bright for music, collaboration and open-mindedness, but, if anything, it takes twice the amount of work and practice, so on that note – I can hear my metronome calling!


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