How it’s New York: Although a resident of Elkins, West Virginia, John treks up to New York regularly. Word has it he will again make the annual trip to the Catskills for CIAW.
How it’s Irish: John makes top quality Irish flutes that are popular with many contemporary players.
Originally published in the Irish Echo, June 19-25, 2013, p. 22.
The United States is full of exceptional instrument builders. Unfortunately, many of them are not as widely renown as they deserve to be. One such builder is flutemaker John Gallagher. Based in Elkins, West Virginia, Gallagher is a top builder who has turned out exceptional wooden flutes for musicians of all stripes for years. However, it’s his love for Irish music and his sensitivity to its nuances that endear trad players to his work. Never one for the spotlight, people now have a better opportunity to get to know his instruments through his newly redesigned website, gallagherflutes.com.
Gallagher set up shop in Elkins, WV in 1999 and since then has built a strong, reputation for building consistent, top quality flutes. His specialty are the simple system models – the Rudall & Rose and Pratten varieties, with keys and without – generally preferred by trad players. However, he also offers models (based on the Denner, Grenser and Stanesby patterns) better suited to classical and baroque music. All these models are detailed on his new site.
I spoke to Gallagher recently about his journey as a flute maker. He told me he’d really always wanted to be an instrument builder. Inspired to work with his hands by his father and grandfather, he went to school in California for furniture making. He worked in West Virginia in the building trades (e.g. houses, barns and cabinetry) for a while and made a decent living at it. However, the musical itch proved too strong, and after a bit of schooling he found work with
noted California-based flute maker Rod Cameron. He stayed with Cameron for seven years:
“I Picked up a hell of a lot from him,”
“He was a fantastic maker and a great teacher.”
Gallagher is philosophical about his work and feels his role as instrument maker
“is to serve musicians and try to get instruments into their hands so they can play the music they want to play.”
He also explained that an instrument is, in many ways,
“ a conversation between player and maker.”
His job is to listen to what musicians want, or to intuit what they want by watching them or listening to them play.
When he can, he likes being able to get completed instruments better in tune with the player him/herself after they’ve had some time with it. This means listening closely to the player as s/he plays and imagining how adjusting the shape of the instrument, i.e. the bore, the tone holes, the keywork and the embouchure, could improve the sound further. For him, it’s not enough that an instrument just be good, it’s about how well suited the instrument is to that person.
Several top musicians own a Gallagher flute. New York’s own Father Charlie Coen and Italy’s Michel Balatti (of Birkin Tree) each have one. Gallagher also recently finished a flute for noted Irish player and writer Fintan Vallely. In addition, the legendary Cathal McConnell has one of Gallagher’s flutes, an experimental model made from dogwood. Dogwood isn’t a particularly common wood for flutes, but Gallagher made it work well. I was talking with the notable flute player Ben Power (from Liverpool, but now finishing up his Ph.D. at USCD) who happens to have played the dogwood flute, who described it’s tone as “roaring,” a sentiment only trumped by McConnell, who, before claiming it for himself, cheekily declared the instrument had “a lot of bark.”
It is worth noting that in addition to his work as a flute maker, Gallagher is a gifted fiddler and singer of old time music. He recently released No Corn on Tygart, an album of old time dance tunes and songs, with Scott Prouty and Chris Coole. The music is brilliant and rootsy, with a “roomy” sound that reminds me of Bobby Casey’s In the Cowhouse album. The groove in fiddling tracks like “Wiley Lawes / Lady Hamilton” and “Wine’s Delight / Lady of the Lake” is as deeply lovely as the lonesomeness in songs like “The Moonshiner” and “Pretty Saro”; this spirit pervades the whole album. If you’ve an affinity for old time American music, this definitely is one to have. (It’s available on Amazon, CD Baby and iTunes.)
In addition to a gallery of the models he offers, Gallagher’s newly-styled website also includes a lovely, professionally-done mini-documentary shot by Blayne Chastain that brings viewers through his shop and acquaints them with his work – it’s worth a visit just to check it out. Learn more about Gallagher’s flutes at gallagherflutes.com.