To the Country

To the Country

Being cut off is a state of mind, writes composer John McLachlan

The city appears to be the natural habitat for the artist. There is a traditional expectation that the artist needs the stimulation and the freedom, the anonymity even, of the city, and that they need to be immersed in the work of others in the same field. So going to live in the country must carry all sorts of dangers for the artist. But does any of this actually apply? Is it largely a romantic cliché? And what of the other clichés that portray the country as a place to breathe freely and find oneself, all equally vital to the artist.

Five years ago I moved from the capital city of Dublin to rural Donegal on the northwestern tip of Ireland. Previously I had lived in the city for forty-two years. I was already aware of an exodus of writers and artists to the western reaches of the country. Economic pressure seems to be key: we are internal economic migrants, particularly because being an artist does not determine location in the way that most jobs do – if it can be described as a job. An artist can rarely afford a decent-sized flat in the city, tends to need office or studio space, and the price of an inadequate flat in a capital is the same as that of a multi-roomed house in the country. The reasons to move are not all economic though; society outside of cities is less class-ridden and stratified. That has a bearing on schools and other family considerations.

For visual artists there are sometimes obvious work-related factors: light, amount of sky, and so on. For writers and composers it is not at all so clear, and they may leave the city fairly unconcerned about those things. Most writers use a well-mulched version of their past experiences to fuel what they do, so their writing will not noticeably reflect, or may resist for a very long while, a change of surroundings. I think by extension the same goes for composers, even though a link between experience and artistic result is far, far less discernible among them.

Does the country provide an increase in freedom for the artist? Not really, except for that basic freedom that comes with physical space within a building, which is very important and rarely truly appreciated. If an artist is reasonably free, in terms of time, to concentrate on their work, surroundings are secondary to that. If the country is a solution to the search for independence in time and space, it is inseparable from the economic logic already mentioned.

There is also the issue of aesthetic freedom. I have found people commenting that my music is more passionate, carefree and even ‘pastoral’ since the move. There are three possible explanations for this: number one for me is the fact that people tend to see the patterns that they are looking for. Number two is the possibility that this is a comment upon ageing and maturing processes in the work, which would be independent of environment. Number three is the possibility that they are right! You become less concerned with an imagined self-image as you get older, but maybe being relatively isolated helps with that. In a general way, one can feel a sense of distance between the self and the society when one is in a remote spot. On the other hand I think the artist should assert ‘aesthetic freedom’ the minute they start writing seriously, so I am not especially pleased to have work written in the country singled out for praise.

The artist’s freedom can be about more than time, space or aesthetics – there is also the freedom from society. We hear a lot about the artist as an ‘outsider’, but I would say that the artist’s feeling for where he/she stands in relation to society is set at a very early age. While many set themselves as freethinking and against the grain of society, many more are comfortable enough in the present society, which for all its faults allows a lot of intellectual freedom.

But the change of society that comes with a move to a rural location is still worth reflecting on: in my case, Dublin was my home town, and therefore full of people who have the same bad mental habits as me. It is probably good for all of us, artists included, to get away (for a while or forever) from the comfortable prejudices that tend to surround us. The worst of habits are exemplified by people imagining themselves as belonging to tribes, which fosters division among people who probably should be taking common cause against those whom the divisions serve. Most obvious among the bad city habits must be anti-country bias.

I used to get annoyed travelling around the country at the pervasive belief that the city had all the civilised facilities, including the good roads and schools or whatever. I wanted to say: ‘Have you seen the appalling cultural deserts on the city’s fringes?’ On the other hand, back in the city I used regularly meet people who seemed to think that the country was full of inbred morons who seemingly couldn’t rub enough sense together to get the hell out. Stupidity or perceptiveness are evidently not confined to either city or country. I still find I have to explain to city folk that we have access to modern things like coffee and reflexologists, whereas the country people know exactly what the cities have, because they’ve actually been there! As for the artist brought up in the country, it is probably easier to feel free in the city, if that’s not too glib.

We might dismiss the problem of quasi-tribal opposition as not being pervasive, but it exists, dangerously, in official circles; a recent Government report in Ireland recommending that arts spending should be scaled back in the country before it is in the city is surely an example of this kind of tribal thinking.

It might be assumed that a move out from the city risks the composer becoming more cut off from the ‘scene’. But you can always feel cut off, even in the city. There are so many scenes that you feel left out as a composer all the time, wherever you live. The only scene that seems to work for composers is the one they create for themselves, and nowadays that can mean the community of people they work with, which can be spread globally. These days, ‘cut off’ is a state of mind.

Of course, you have to travel to cities to hear others’ works in the live setting. The biggest problem, everywhere, is finding the time to sift through and digest what is going on, and then to apply it meaningfully to ones own work. And though the quiet helps, this is more a question of mental discipline than anything else. As for general cultural immersion, I think many composers often find the choice of culture in the city to be a source of frustration and overstimulating. Cities are more enjoyable as a place to visit knowing you will be leaving again soon.

The rural-based composer also has to consider the local audience, and the local community. If they have moved from the city this concept will likely be a new one, since cities no longer have much sense of a local community. Since my move I have been involved in a local community group that brings classical music to the region – mainly famous names from Bach to Debussy – but I have had my own music feature in it a few times, including world premieres. What was a surprise to me was that firstly the audience reaction that I received was not only positive, but thoughtful and sympathetic in a way that you don’t access so much in the city. There the reaction you get is from colleagues and experts who are guarded and somewhat self-interested. Maybe even the general audience there is blasé also, because they feel they have a constant stream of great concerts to choose from, and yours will never be more than just another one. The audience in the country seems as musically educated as in the city, but crucially, they are hungry, and that goes for even the most avant-garde styles. As for local media, it is easier to get radio and press coverage on a local scale; my area has three local newspapers that are reasonably happy to report a world premiere as an item of news, and a local community radio station that plays work of local artists in any genre, and likes to interview them.

On the subject of the media, one just might occasionally wonder or worry about possibilities for building up a national profile. Artists in a day-to-day way don’t need the media as much as the media would like to think, but nevertheless the media will create a large part of the historical record of culture and the arts. It is a shame then that in Ireland the national media is centred on a small part of the capital city, unlike in those countries which address regionalisation along the BBC model. The so-called national broadcaster, in the form of its most listened-to channels, is obdurately anti-intellectual and insularly city- and middle class-based. The ‘national’ press is not far behind that, and people in the country constantly and with justification complain that they are ignored and not served by these ‘national’ institutions. To get a review, your concert pretty much has to happen in the capital, or at least in the second largest city. However, RTÉ Lyric FM, the classical-music broadcaster, is more enlightened, and while many, including myself, have criticised its light-music domination in the past, it also supports living composers, and does so in a way that is not at all city-centralised, perhaps partly to do with the fact that it is based outside the capital itself.

Both the pros and the cons of living far from a major city come down to the same thing: the obvious physical remoteness from the centres of cultural action. Nearly all contemporary music concerts take place in a city, and the larger the city the more progressive the music; that seems to be an inescapable fact that can not be wished away. How this is dealt with is the nub of whether the outcome is positive or negative: for an artist, not tied down to normal work schedules, this remoteness can be an inconvenience rather than an obstacle. The change in vantage point can lead to gains in perspective. The distance can foster a useful re-calibration of what exactly it is to be ‘current’ or ‘relevant’, and how that is squared with being integral to your own vision.

Published on 1 August 2010

John McLachlan is a composer and member of Aosdána.

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