Nightnoise, founded in Portland, Oregon, mixed Celtic and jazz music together to make a sound that inspired a generation of Irish musicians, including the star of New Age music, Enya. Their mix of chamber music with jazz staples like the trumpet and piano gave them a unique sound that caught on even in Ireland, where fusion music is not as popular as it is in the United States. The music surprises the listener by shifting among sounds that aren't usually mixed together, resulting in atmospheric music ideal for listening to at the end of the evening. Their second album, appropriately titled At the End of the Evening, seemed to understand its audience very well and went on to be a steady seller in the New Age category. Although the music has been difficult for mainstream press to recognize, All Music Guide 's Richard Foss said of their CD A Different Shore, "This album has changed more than one skeptic's mind about jazz/Celtic fusion."
Nightnoise was created after the legendary Bothy Band disbanded in 1979. The Bothy Band made its name in Ireland and internationally with a lively sound, filled with fiddles and toe-tapping pieces that brought Irish music into the mainstream. One of the Bothy Band's original members, Michael O'Dhomhnaill was from a long line of Irish musicians (his aunt contributed 286 songs to the Dublin University Folklore Collection), and he was considered one of the finest musicians in the country.
O'Dhomhnaill, a guitarist, was looking for a new project to start when he met Billy Oskay in Portland, Oregon. It was 1983 and O'Dhomhnaill was restless to get started on something. He had been in the Bothy Band for almost twelve years and he was looking to stretch himself a little and take his sound in a completely different direction. He had been going from project to project since his band's 1979 breakup but nothing was sticking. Most of his time had been spent in a collaboration with Kevin Burke, the master fiddler, but it was too much of the same for O'Dhomhnaill. Luckily Oskay was in the same kind of restless mood.
Oskay, a native of Kingston, New York, had developed a reputation of his own on the international music stage. He started playing violin at the young age of seven and went on to study with violin master Eugen Prokop at the International Academy of Music Palma de Mallorca in Spain. His classically trained style was well-complemented by a talented ear for composition. He graduated from the esteemed academy with a professional diploma in violin and chamber music. His dream was to have a recording studio of his own; he thrived on recording sessions, diving into the details of both the recording and the playing.
Oskay and O'Dhomhnaill spent some time talking about what kind of music they wanted to do next and decided that if they wanted to start playing together they should just wing it. They hadn't had enough of a chance in their careers and education to improvise, so they were ready to give it a shot.
The end result was that they loved what they heard. The two men composed and recorded some songs in Oskay's Portland home just to see how things came together, and what they ended up with was unique. The sound they made was more understated than that of the Bothy Band, which was fine with O'Dhomhnaill. Their music had a rough but fresh quality that engendered a serene atmosphere. They realized that the work they had done might be good enough to be its own album. Using his connections in the music business, O'Dhomhnaill helped to secure a contract with William Ackerman at Windham Hill Records, a label that's become well known for its lineup of relaxing, low-key artists. The tracks they laid down were collected and mixed into their first album, the self-titled Nightnoise, which was released in 1984.
The reaction to their debut album was good. Both sales and reviews were strong enough to warrant a second album. The two men enjoyed working together as a duo, but they both yearned to get a more complex sound out of the next album. Oskay's training was, after all, in chamber music, so he was ready to play around with the Irish sound in a more grand fashion. They gathered together some of the talent they used on their first album, including clavinet player Triona Ni Dhomhnaill and flute player Brian Dunning. Triona is O'Dhomhnaill's sister, and she had previously played with her brother in the Bothy Band. Dunning's specialty was playing jazz flute, but he had experience with traditional folk as well with the band Puck Fair.
With a lineup of musicians ready to display their Irish and American sensibilities, Nightnoise decided to tour, even though the Dhomhnaills were weary after being on the road with the Bothy Band for over a decade. O'Dhomhnaill ended up playing the guitar while his sister took on the harmonium, flute, and whistle. In spite of their reservations, the touring went very well and their fan base grew. The band members clicked when they played live, and they gathered new material on the road that they looked forward to recording.
When they went back to the studio, it was quickly apparent that the sound they were making together was unique to the music industry. The members seemed to gravitate toward a mellow Irish sound but with compositions that made use of Dunning's jazz expertise as well as Oskay's chamber music and American ear. The end result was an album filled with Irish/country western riffs, arranged with a number of instruments not usually associated with Irish bands, including classical piano.
The tracks were collected into the album At the End of the Evening, which was released in 1987. The album was a quick success. The touring they had done in the United States and abroad had resulted in an ever-expanding fan base, and the four professional musicians were gelling as a band, all of them relishing the opportunity to play Irish-inspired music that was different from what the mainstream expected. Just as the Bothy Band had introduced the world to the upbeat Irish dance sound, Nightnoise was introducing fans everywhere to the historic and contemplative side of the Irish tradition.
The band could not have known at the time that they were influencing a generation of up-and-coming Irish musicians such as Clannad and Enya. They were aware that they were creating a new sound, but they didn't yet realize that they were on the cutting edge of "new age" music and would influence its sound for decades to come.
Over the coming years the band released six more albums. Although the style of the band was innovative, it still presented limits to the members and, after the fourth album, Oskay left to start his own recording studio in Portland. The result was Big Red Studio, a beautiful and successful facility on the outskirts of town.
Johnny Cunningham, the "fearsome fiddler" from the band Silly Wizard, replaced Oskay and did the honors on the band's fifth album, Something of Time. Cunningham's bold style of fiddling had its effect on the band, adding a touch of country western that hadn't been heard since Nightnoise's first album.
In the late 1990s, Nightnoise returned to their roots and moved to Ireland, where they got a gig on a weekly television show called Brid Live, broadcast by RT1 in Dublin. Nightnoise also contributed accompaniment for Japanese vocalist Mimori Yusa's album Mimori Yusa Meets Irish Superstars.
At this time Cunningham's participation in the band was wrapping up, and he left after the release of The White Horse Sessions, a retrospective live album released in 1997. Nightnoise toured Japan, Europe, and the United States to promote the album with John Fitzpatrick replacing Cunningham. Since then, however, the band has mysteriously faded away, neither touring nor recording.
For the Record . . .
Members include Johnny Cunningham (joined group, 1990), violin; Brian Dunning , flute; John Fitzpatrick (joined group, 1997), violin; Triona Ni Dhomhnaill , flute, clavinet; Michael O'Dhomhnaill , guitar, piano; Billy Oskay , violin.
Group formed in Portland, OR, c. 1983; released debut album Nightnoise on Windham Hill, 1984; released At the End of the Evening, 1988; released Something of Time, 1989; released The Parting Tide, 1990; released Shadow of Time, 1993; released A Different Shore, 1995; released live album The White Horse Sessions, 1997; joined Irish television show Brid Live, 1998.
If this is indeed the end of Nightnoise, then the band's legacy is best summed up by the reviewer Paul Verna of Billboard: "In the midst of the current wave of Celtic enthusiasm, Nightnoise reminds us that it's been creating a Celtic fusion longer than most. The band has roots in the 1970s Celtic renaissance, with members of the Bothy Band and Silly Wizard. Now it deploys a pristine embroidery of keyboards, flutes, tin whistles, guitar, and violin in the service of vibrant instrumentals…. The haunting, melodic atmospheres of this group are long overdue for discovery by fans of Enya and Clannad."
Nightnoise, Windham Hill, 1984.
At the End of the Evening, Windham Hill, 1988.
Something of Time, Windham Hill, 1989.
The Parting Tide, Windham Hill, 1990.
Shadow of Time, Windham Hill, 1993.
A Different Shore, Windham Hill, 1995.
The White Horse Sessions, Windham Hill, 1997.
Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, MD), November 28, 1990.
Billboard, June 3, 1995, p. 82; January 18, 1997, p. 72.
"Nightnoise," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (September 20, 2002).
"Nightnoise," RollingStone.com, http://www.rollingstone.com/artists/default.asp?oid=1348817 (September 25, 2002).
"Nightnoise: Biography," The Iceberg, http://www.theiceberg.com/artist/29527/nightnoise.html (September 25, 2002).
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