An Irish fiddler in five days? How 'musical extreme sports' connects.

If music is the universal language, the violin speaks many of its dialects. In a documentary, classically trained American-Israeli violinist Daniel Hoffman takes us on his quest to learn more of them.

Courtesy of Natalie Muallem
Classically trained violinist Daniel Hoffman set out to learn how to play different violin styles from around the world in one week – and to play a concert at the end of that week. His new documentary on the project is called 'Otherwise, It’s Just Firewood.'

About 20 years ago, Daniel Hoffman, a classically trained violinist who had turned his bow to Klezmer, found himself on the back of a moped of a fellow violinist, weaving through the back streets of Marrakech’s Old City for what would be his first lessons in Andalusian music, the classical music of North Africa.

Mr. Hoffman and his teacher that week, a young musician he met playing in the town square, communicated in the little French they both knew, but their main common language was music.

“He played, and I copied him,” Hoffman recalls, sitting on a closed-balcony-turned-music-studio overlooking fuschia bougainvillea and neighboring boxy concrete buildings in Tel Aviv, where he now lives.

That experience gave birth to an idea: What would it be like to try to learn how to play different violin styles around the world? And in just one week? Oh yes, and at the end of that week, play a concert. He even has a name for the concept: “musical extreme sports.”

It took almost two decades and a friend introducing him to the wonders of Kickstarter, a funding platform for creative projects, to launch that dream, which has taken the form of a new documentary premiering on American public TV stations this week called, “Otherwise, It’s Just Firewood.”

In the documentary Hoffman travels to County Clare, Ireland, where he takes lessons with James Kelly, a master Irish fiddle player, for less than a week and then performs together with him in front of an audience, many of whom are fellow star Irish musicians.

'Like Irish storytelling'

Amid scenery full of the requisite sheep grazing on green hillsides, and traveling down roads lined with squat stone walls, Hoffman explores not just the tempos and rhythms that make Irish fiddle playing unique, but the soul and history of Ireland itself. He interviews Irish musicians, Mr. Kelly included, steeped in the history and culture that inform what has become one of the most popular traditional music forms in the world today.

“My thinking is that Irish music was like Irish storytelling and Irish poetry,” says musician and composer Paedar Ó Riada, one of Hoffman’s guides into the soul of Irish music. “It told a story. And people knew the stories, and the structure of the stories, and knew what was going to happen. But it was in the telling of the story that the thrill was.”

Courtesy of Daniel Meyers
Daniel Hoffman plays in the streets of Galway with Pádraic Joyce of The Rascals.

The film is what Hoffman hopes will be the first of an eventual series of short documentaries where he learns how to play the violin in a variety of styles, including the folk music of South India, Sweden, Greece, Romania, and West Virginia. That would add to his extensive repertoire, which already includes Klezmer (his specialty), and Balkan, Middle Eastern, and Turkish styles.

The violin, Hoffman intones in the film, over the sounds of musicians playing in styles from around the world, was perfected in its current form 500 years ago in Italy and has “the amazing ability to speak almost every musical language.”

'A different way of thinking'

In the documentary, Hoffman sits with Kelly for five lessons, and we are along for the ride of his struggle – the awkwardness of learning a new style, of his bow going the “wrong way.”

“It feels like the rhythm is never flowing.… It certainly doesn’t sound Irish.… The feel just kind of eludes me,” Hoffman tells Kelly, a musician who is as talented on stage as he is a generous and warm-hearted teacher.

Kelly looks at him and says, “You’ve set yourself up physically to express yourself in another way. In different styles. And now I want you to reshape yourself for another expression. This is the hardest thing about learning another style.… It’s a different way of thinking.”

In between practicing and lessons, Hoffman visits musicians playing at an Irish pub and their homes, all the while trying to unlock what will help him transition – even briefly – into an Irish fiddle player.

“The big joke is what’s the difference between the fiddle and the violin? It’s the person who plays it,” says Niall Keegan, a traditional flute player and associate director at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, at the University of Limerick. “It’s the music you make on it which makes it Irish or English or French or classical or jazz or whatever else. It’s how we imagine it. And how we create through it that makes it, that gives it character.”

“Otherwise, it’s just firewood,” he says, words that become the film’s title.

In his Tel Aviv home music studio Hoffman, who was born and grew up in southern California, reaches for his violin and demonstrates the ornaments, the musical term for embellishments or flourishes that give any music its own particular style. Or as he puts it, “it’s the spice, what makes everything tasty.”

On the Irish fiddle that means intricate ornamentation that really drive the rhythm forward, not just to make it beautiful. It’s that rhythm with a punch on the beat, physically seen in the footwork of an Irish traditional dancer.

'Happy music out of tragedy'

Hoffman sees a link between Irish folk music and Klezmer, which first opened his ears up to non-classical music, in the sound and history of both peoples that travel in their notes and melodies.

“I feel something similar in Irish music in a way that there’s lots of this happy music coming out of a lot of tragedy,” he says.

By the end of Hoffman’s Irish sojourn we see him practicing in the car on the drive over to his concert with Kelly. On the small stage the two face each other, sitting in matching wooden chairs, and begin a pair of duets. The two lean into their instruments and as the music flows, Hoffman seems to have gotten the rhythm down, and he smiles in relief as they finish.

The rapt audience breaks into cheers.

“I was a little nervous, but I was having a good time because playing with James is like getting on this amazing train – he sort of carried me along,” he recalls at his home.

For a few minutes on stage, time seemed to stand still, bringing home Mr. Ó Riada’s musical wisdom, which appears true no matter the genre: “Life is not a return trip. It’s very short. If you knew exactly how many days, hours, and minutes you had left, you wouldn’t waste one second. The only time that life stands still is in the middle of a piece of music. That’s why we play it.”

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