The Sligo Festival of Contemporary Music, November 24-26, 2000
The race-memory is long. Hugh (‘The Great’) O’Neill may have brought back Tudor music to Dungannon. We didn’t hear it. Handel’s financial success in Fishamble Street made no impression on the peasant Mac and Ó Corcoráins of Sligo and Roscommon. Nor did child-prodigy John Field’s youthful concert in, was it 1793? Why should they?
Ireland’s political history never allowed for a development of art-music such as Esterhazy and Vienna witnessed in the eighteenth century – I am including Georgian Dublin here. Nor did nineteenth century Buttevant, Mallow, Kilkenny or Galway have a Meiningen-like orchestra to play the symphonies of an emerging native school of composers. Our music was monodic, a subtly varied store of dance-tunes and slow airs, some of which went back far into the mists of time. Yes, the race-memory is long. The instruments, aura, conventions, settings of continental music-life are, even today in my Ireland, not neutral. How could they be free of the whiff of a foreign, non-Gaelic (I am watching this mine-field of definitions… ) society? Art-music is different. It demands retention of structures of a sufficient complexity to carry our concentrated interest over large spans of time.
I was eleven. It was hard to retain these tunes of the Borrisokane Bagpipe Band; after the first eight bars I was lost.
I suppose it begins with God’s stutter, two blown tones on a swan-bone flute in the tenth century BC. Catal Huyur, that South Turkey hunters’ village (gazelle meat, it seems) the archeologists recently unearthed. Art-music (sorry!) has an uneasy place in the native Gaelic genetic memory. The upright piano is a symbol of the Big House. The string-quartet connotes: ‘I’m maybe in the wrong place here… We Irish are deeply uneasy when faced with retention of eight bars. Wrong, it’s a question of context. Every film or television score parades subcutaneous tonal sophistication.
We dont notice it.
Yes, we are a post-colonial situation. No, we must not close our Celtic ears to upright or string-quartet.
My music matters. It took me years to leap over my Tipperary shadow, to accept I have the power. Okay, my Ireland – de Valera’s – came late to art-music. One John Field doesnt make a summer of Irish composers. There is a problem. We lack experience. That’s all. I had no composer giants on whose shoulders I dared stand. Okay. But my music had to come out. I compare it to Irish painting, poetry, film. My new Irish works are new. Irish. Sligo is my mythic choice for the world premier of my Wind Quintet and for the Irish premiere of Cúig Amhráin de Chuid Ghabriel Rosenstock (we premiered them in Berlin over 20 years ago!), Buile Suibhne, Music for the Book Of Kells (Lake Michigan, exile’s eyrie, was how many times bigger than Lough Derg on ‘my’ Shannon?), Trauerfelder (I wrote it for the fiftieth anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz, but haven’t we got enough ‘Goirt a Bhróin’?). I twinned these with other Irish and European works. Sligo was the centre of megalithic culture, of the Táin’s beginning. I see this Festival of Contemporary (too many syllables, Herr Mozart … ) Music as mating my musical thought with a tradition going back to that South Turkish gazelle-hunters’ village. Nua. Sean. Listen to the music those pierced swan-bone tones sang. Bígí ag clois. Tones matter. In Sligo.
First published in JMI: The Journal of Music in Ireland, Vol. 1 No. 1 (Nov–Dec 2000), p15.
Published on 1 November 2000
Since 1983 Frank Corcoran has been Professor of Composition and Theory in the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst, Hamburg. His CDs include Mad Sweeney (BBM 1026) and Symphonies Nos. 2, 3, & 4 (Marco Polo 8.225107).Frank Corcoran is guest composer and artistic director at the Sligo Contemporary Music Festival, full details of which appear on the back cover of The JMI. Since 1983 Frank Corcoran has been professor of composition and theory in the Staatliche Hochschule fur Musik und darstellende Kunst, Hamburg. His CDs include Mad Sweeney (BBM 1026) and Symphonies Nos. 2,3 & 4 (Marco Polo 8.225107)