The music in the gift of the gab
Gerry Diver was carrying boxes up a ladder into the loft of his house in south London when he heard the voice of the late Joe Cooley playing in a nearby room.
It was a CD recording of the last interview the legendary accordion player had given, just a month before he died in 1973. Diver was struck by the lilt of his voice, slipping in and out of what he calls "a slip jig rhythm".
The emotion of Cooley, looking back on his life, and knowing that he didn't have long left on this earth, could be heard in his voice.
Diver -- an accomplished musician, composer and producer -- dashed to his studio to write a musical accompaniment to Cooley's final testament.
So began The Speech Project. The Manchester-reared, London-based Diver decided to repeat the trick by interviewing a number of significant figures in Irish music (Christy Moore, Damien Dempsey, Martin Hayes and Shane MacGowan -- Diver is a former member of The Popes) and raiding Alan Lomax's famous folk archive (for the 1953 interview with Traveller singer and banjo player Margaret Barry) and composing tunes that complemented the cadence of their speech.
The result is a fascinating and highly ambitious album that can be read as a homage to the vitality of the Irish diaspora -- Diver has Irish roots and lived for a time in Co Donegal.
"I grew up in Manchester in the 1980s," says Gerry. "Irish music was as much an issue of identity as anything else -- there were céilís three nights a week. You think you're Irish when you're in England but then you go home and you're seen as English.
"But a lot of Irish people, when they go away from Ireland, they get more of a sense of national identity, which they might not have plugged into when they were living at home."
Joe Cooley talks about the 18 years he spent away from the old country in New York, while Christy Moore reminisces about his first trip to London, and the dawning realisation at just how important traditional music was to the Irish community there.
"I was very fortunate that Christy Moore came on board. He was the first person I contacted. He was very supportive early on. He then suggested other people -- the Margaret Barry track was his idea.
"The Shane MacGowan track was the only one where the music was already written. I thought it was going to be an instrumental piece but then I had this noisy recording of an international pop singer so I put them together to see what would happen.
"I saw Damien Dempsey when he played the Liverpool Irish Festival last October. He's got a real staccato Dublin accent, which is quite rapid-fire. He was great -- he started talking about things like spirituality, which was quite different."
Despite taking us on trips down the boreens of times past, The Speech Project also feels thoroughly modern -- like a slice of avant-garde performance art.
Some of the sentences are looped, creating a hypnotic effect on the listener.
"The repetition is like a skipping rope," says Gerry. "Once it happens in speech, the pitch becomes more solid. And obviously repetition can give the meaning of the words more resonance. I find it takes on a different emotional kind of depth. Also, there seemed to be more emotion in certain parts of the interview that were in a stronger key."
Diver himself plays a dizzying number of instruments on the record: fiddle, viola, piano, hammered dulcimer, harpsichord, finger harp, tin whistle, recorder, guitar, autoharp, banjo, bodhrán, cuddly toy . . . (okay, I made that last one up).
He cites Mícheál ó Suilleabháin as a big influence from his time studying music under him at University College Cork.
"When I was a student in Cork, I started getting more and more into contemporary stuff, like minimalism -- Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Scott Johnson. That works its way into music. Growing up I would have been listening to everything: Sean Maguire, The Chieftains, Planxty Noel Hill. I was also into rock -- I got an electric guitar when I was a teenager and was in a band."
The multimedia live show Diver has devised around the album kicked off in London's South Bank earlier this month and is currently touring. It should reach Ireland in October.
So how will it work live?
"There will be cellos, uileann pipes, pianos, strings, dulcimers. The voices are triggered and hooked up to live video. The musicians are using visual queues. There's a certain amount of free-form performance where anything can happen. And some of it is quite structured and metred."
'The Speech Project' is out now on One Fine Day Records. For tour details, visit www.speechproject.net.