Dylan Fowler is a South Wales-born international guitar soloist, composer and folk music collaborator. He describes his speciality as ‘drawing together music from my Welsh celtic background and combining it with influences from my extensive travelling as both a soloist and collaborator.’
I walked across a field to meet up with Dylan and his long-time musical collaborator Gillian Stevens in their home not so very far from Abergavenny. We sat in their garden amidst a tumble of chickens, dogs and grandchildren and talked about their many and diverse musical involvements.
I began by asking Dylan what folk music means to him and his answer was about taking a journey. Folk music, he said, is something which ‘connects to a very deep part of us, to our musical being.’ When he was growing up in the South Wales valleys, it was a fairly bleak time and music was a glimpse of somewhere else, a form of travelling. He was in his youth very interested in music from other parts of the world, in particular that of the Brazilian classical/jazz guitarist, pianist and composer Egberto Gismonti. It was only after exploring music from elsewhere that he got to know the folk music of the British Isles and in particular of his home country, Wales. Now that he has incorporated that into his musical being he says his core feels more connected.
It was a concert by the English folk singer June Tabor that was a turning point for Dylan. After that he worked with Welsh singer/songwriter Julie Murphy on the album Ffawd (2002). The music they made together had, Dylan told me, influences akin to fado, Portuguese music of longing with a strong emotional connection. That untranslatable Welsh word hiraeth comes to mind. This concept of connection with listeners is clearly very important to both Dylan and Gillian. Clearly the music they make is from the heart, and this integrity speaks to people. Gillian told of an occasion she remembered when they were playing the Welsh song ‘Ym Montypridd mae fy Nghariad‘ and a noisy room fell quiet as people were drawn in to the music.
Gillian, like me and others of our generation growing up in England, learnt folk songs at school, but she thought that to have a love of folk music you either had to grow up with it or live in the country. She went down a classical route as instrumentalist and composer until she came together with Dylan. Their partnership goes back more than 25 years now; she brought the viola de gamba and the old Welsh instrument the crwth into play with Dylan’s guitars and together they have explored new directions.
The pair have developed a further collaboration in recent years with the Finnish musician Timo Väänänen, playing together as The Taith Trio. Dylan first went to Finland in 1999 and he and Timo worked together on the Music from the Northlands tour in 2004 and discovered a shared interest in improvisation. Back in Wales they planned a concert together with Gillian in the Norwegian Church in Cardiff, intending to perform solos, duets and maybe one or two pieces altogether. In practice they found that the intuitive musical understanding between the three of them enabled them, on very little rehearsal, to play the entire concert as a trio!
Gillian fetched a Finnish instrument to show me called a jouhikko, a bowed lyre which is connected with both the mediaeval crwth and the Finnish instrument of which Timo is a master player, the kantele, which is plucked rather than bowed. She played a sweet song in the warm Welsh afternoon as chickens clucked quietly in the background, stopping the horsehair strings with the backs of her fingers.
Amazing the connections – that three musicians meet and are able so easily to improvise together and that there are these very ancient instrumental links between Finland and Wales. Gillian is one of only three professional crwth players in Wales and got her instrument from Robert Evans of the duo Bragod, who she describes as the guru of the crwth in Wales. I asked why the instrument is not more widely played and Gillian explained that it is not easy to include it in ensemble playing today; it is restricted as to the keys in which it can be played and fits an earlier form of music, one in which melody is not of primary importance.
The music of The Taith Trio is recorded by Dylan in his own recording studio, on the label Taith Records. He told me that recording was something in which he had always had a technical interest, and it makes sense to record his own music, which is never going to be mainstream, as well as providing a suitable recording environment for people interested in acoustic music. Dylan is currently working on a recording of a concerto for kantele and chamber orchestra which Gillian has written for Timo Väänänen, for the development work on which she received support from Wales Arts International.
Dylan and Gillian both clearly love making music both together and separately and having connections with creative artists from other countries and other musical traditions. Gillian says it is an amazing part of being a musician. She has recently returned from working in Helsinki on a composition project with a Finnish choreographer, Päivi Järvinen. Days after we talked Dylan was heading off on a solo guitar our of Canada, to be followed by a visit to a Celtic Music Festival in Brittany and a tour of ten venues in Wales in November (part-funded by Arts Council Wales) as a member of the Celtic Guitar Trio with fellow players from Scotland and Brittany.
In two years time the National Eisteddfod of Wales is coming to Monmouthshire and Dylan and Gillian told me they hope to be involved. At one time, apparently, Gwent songs were regarded as the most beautiful in Wales. So perhaps these two musicians will be giving the Ancient National Airs of Gwent and Morganwg an outing on the Maes in 2016? We’ll have to wait and see, but we can be sure that whatever they do their music will continue to involve collaborations, explorations and improvisation.