The Who, What, Why, Where and When of Music and Ideas

Barra Ó Séaghdha looks back over the JMI's first three years and suggests possibilities for the future...

In the case of small magazines, virtue has to be its own reward. Yes, they will bring out anthologies of the enduring pieces, they will say how vital your publication was in keeping the spark of intellect and creativity alive in dull times, they will say how you were not as good as The Bell but nonetheless…, they will marvel over your discerning eye for talent, they will say how selflessly you worked against time and cynicism and the pressures of family and social life, they will deliver papers at conferences on the seminal importance of an unsolicited article that came in so late you barely registered what it was about, they will list you in encyclopedias of Irish culture, they will…

But – presuming you did actually have your finger on the pulse and were not indulging in prolonged and expensive self-delusion – all this will be decades later when you’ve given up, sold up (or out), moved on, emigrated, drunk yourself to death, are raising goats in the Burren, or have even been plucked from obscurity in Ireland and deposited in highly paid obscurity as mumbling oracle to Irish Studies in Montana.

A small magazine that matters needs a special mixture of realism and idealism. The realism is necessary in order to avoid falling into despair over sales, shops that don’t pay, grants that are never big enough, lack of public echo, the number of well-informed people you meet who have never heard of your magazine, the people who read the magazine bit by bit over a few weeks in the shop and are really sympathetic when it folds, the people who think the magazine is very important but somehow end up writing for older, more famous or more boring magazines, the arts professionals who think it would be great if you could turn the magazine into precisely what you were reacting against when you set it up.

These things take up ninety per cent of the time and energy and spirit of editors – but the brutal fact of the matter is that they do not matter. You have to accept that the bookshop which finds special-interest magazines too bothersome to handle will happily put a study of magazines in the window, that seventy per cent of relevant academics in Trinity will not cross the street to Books Upstairs to see what is happening in the magazine world, that the guy who has stolen a free read may be a more careful reader than the devoted subscriber who plans to get round to reading that tidy pile of magazines some day. You can rage or laugh to your heart’s content: the only things that matter are whether living minds are touched by the spirit of the magazine, whether the process of formulating and developing an idea for the magazine has triggered the mind of a writer, whether its existence gives encouragement to those who need some, and whether ideas are put into even limited circulation that would otherwise be lying inert in intellectual limbo.

The rules of the game
To assess how the JMI has performed over its three-year existence, it is necessary to look at the liveliness or otherwise of public debate and thinking in Ireland as a whole, and not just at the field of music. In the newspapers, most notably in the Irish Times and the Sunday Business Post, there is no shortage of comment, some of it sharp and perceptive, on day-to-day issues and scandals in political life, but even where there is antagonism the antagonists are generally operating within the accepted rules of the game, or within a shared framework of understanding.

Magill, now deceased, has always been associated with revealing scandal and with analysing the political game; some constructive writing has gone unread or unremarked because of the magazine’s erratic management and editorial history. Meanwhile, Belfast-based Fortnight has consistently failed to engage imaginatively with the troubled world around it. Television and radio rarely stray from the governing adversarial format: if X happened, someone is responsible – was it you? Andy O’Mahony and David McWilliams are almost the only high-profile figures who seem to relish exploring ideas. TG4 has failed to follow through on the achievement of Liam Ó Muirthile in producing engaging, personal and intelligent interviews. It is the small low-budget station NewsTalk which almost uniquely does not insist that all ideas come pre-wrapped and approved. As a result of all this, whole sectors of experience are neglected, connections and comparisons are not made, and history is dismissed instead of being treated as a major resource in facing a changing world. The opening of a factory up the road or the closing of a factory down the road will, rightly, make the news, but the transformations that Ireland and the world have been going through in recent decades are rarely articulated publicly in the language of the non-specialist. (Those who underestimate the power of ideas should not forget a certain bearded German of the nineteenth century who haunted the British Library, or the computer nerds who came up with the concepts that have been transforming the world’s economy and communications.)

Not surprisingly perhaps, key issues – the way in which the media themselves are controlled, the way in which they mesh with the international economic system, the particular understanding of the world conveyed by the way in which information is selected and structured – are insufficiently analysed or confronted. The servility with which Tony O’Reilly’s most recent self-branding has been followed is a minor detail; but it does suggest that our society – still calling itself a republic – lacks critical self-respect; priding itself on jettisoning an oppressive past, it risks embracing an oppressive future.

It is in this broad context that critical activity in the arts, and in music in particular, has to be seen. Our concern once again is with the public sphere. It is perfectly possible and legitimate for a composer or writer to shun all contact with the public, to explain nothing and to trust in the carrying power of the work itself. It is also perfectly possible and legitimate for a specialist to devote years of study to harp design and playing-styles in the late middle ages or to other matters which are unlikely to fascinate the broad public. Nonetheless, art that goes out into the world enters into some kind of conversation with the world, and inevitably becomes the focus of some kind of criticism – a quick word from a fellow-artist, excited argument in a pub or coffee-shop, a letter from a fan, a shout from the audience, a review, a letter to the paper, an admirer’s attempt to explain the work to the world, and on to the studies, the biographies, the histories… Much of this falls away into oblivion, but creative energy often finds form amid a rush of other energies.

Rising confidence and expectation in Ireland fed into literary as well as political activity and achievement a century ago. The explosion of poetry in early twentieth-century Russia was connected (often painfully) to the creative and destructive energies released in art, society and politics. New styles of visual art in France have depended on the enthusiastic backing and propaganda of writers like Baudelaire, Huysmans or Apollinaire. Being human, most artists respond to the quality of attention they receive.

In this regard, and despite the congratulatory noises, there is reason to worry about the contemporary arts scene in Ireland. The View on RTÉ 1, Rattlebag on Radio 1, Hugh Linehan on Newstalk 106, the Irish Times – with varying degrees of success, these and other outlets perform their function of responding to particular events. Interesting and surprising reviews appear on occasion in the books pages, but it is hard to understand why, with so many British papers and magazines available, space that could be taken by a substantial review of an un- or under-reviewed Irish book is devoted instead to the sixteenth or seventeenth or eighteenth review of the sixteenth or seventeenth or eighteenth novel of Anita Brookner, unneeded and scarcely different from the previous fifteen, sixteen or seventeen. Only rarely, however, does debate open out onto broader questions or is it allowed to run on for more than ten minutes or a few hundred words. There seems to be a general fear of untrammelled discussion. The View may bring lively and articulate people together but the producer’s watch is ticking and each item must receive its predetermined span of debate. A country internationally renowned for the quality of its talk seems reluctant to make proper and extended use of the many creative-critical voices it harbours.

With the prevailing bright-young-things ethos of its home-grown programming, TG4 has missed the opportunity to fill this gap. As Radio 1 is already providing a general magazine programme on the arts, it might be expected that Lyric’s arts magazine would cater to less orthodox tastes and interests. But no, but no… No matter how far it goes in its choice of subject (and we are not talking about specials on such neglected topics as the Oscars), wall-to-wall niceness is the rule, the studio an exclusion zone for human voices animated by a passion for ideas or the definition of experience, with interludes of relaxing music to soothe any hint of savagery in the breast.

Where stands music?
Since the demise of Graph, small arts magazines have tended towards specialisation. The Shop or The Stinging Fly exist primarily to present new writing; Circa, Theatre Ireland, Poetry Ireland and Metre cater to a particular sector of the arts audience. Though things may be changing, a hugely funded magazine like Circa has often given the impression that it exists less as something to be read than as a badge of sophistication to be brandished at international gatherings. While open to a variety of genres, The Dublin Review is more committed to presenting fine writing than to stirring up debate.

Where stands music in all this? Whether in the broadcast or print media, coverage of classical, jazz, traditional, rock, pop and other forms normally takes the form of profiles and reviews. As usual, the Irish Times provides the most comprehensive coverage. Where it provides the only mainstream review of a particular performance, it becomes the focus of intense interest – and not a little irritation. Some of this irritation should perhaps be directed at those national outlets which fail to provide alternative opinions. The Sunday Tribune should be congratulated on its most economical solution to the problem of replacing Fintan Vallely as traditional music correspondent: dropping the subject entirely. And the Sunday Independent can always be relied on for one thing, its comprehensive coverage of the Birr Jazz Festival, not excluding its sponsors.

For hundreds of years we have been told of the special affinity of the Irish people for music. And it is true that a social gathering in Ireland, of whatever class, can slide more easily from speech to song, and back, than in much of the rest of Western Europe. The who, what, when, where and why of the practice of music in Ireland is a history that runs parallel with, and comments fascinatingly on, our social and political history, with all its convulsions. The tensions, frustrations and excitements of music today are bound up with the many forces, national and international, that operate and compete in Irish society. If most of this energy is not sufficiently reflected, and reflected on, in other media, it is vital that music should have its own forum for genuine conversation and debate. This is the challenge that the JMI accepted on its creation and the challenge it continues to face today as it heads into its fourth year.

Ambitious goals
The first paragraph of the first issue of the JMI set the tone for much that was to follow:

‘The simple aim behind the JMI is to provide a space where those involved at the grassroots level of music in Ireland can pool their ideas, let them meet, clash and clatter, and above all progress to create a healthier environment for music-making in Ireland.’

The magazine was announcing that it was interested in the experience and knowledge of musicians. It was intended for those in or close to the music, not for a closed circle of analysts who could not communicate with actual musicians. It welcomed the frank expression of opinion and counter-opinion, and was therefore not going to be constrained by debilitating intellectual politeness. The clash and clatter of ideas would not be an end in itself – as in some kind of intellectual scandal-sheet – but would be channelled in constructive fashion towards creating a healthier environment for music.

The magazine would concentrate on classical, jazz and traditional music and would not merely echo the promotional activities of the marketing departments of record companies, or indeed the idea that the function of Irish music was to enhance Ireland’s image abroad. It was also stating its dependence on the interest and participation of its audience rather than inviting the world to listen in on the thoughts of an existing coterie. There was a whiff of genuine intellectual democracy about the whole project.

This was quite an ambitious set of goals.

The contents of the first issue suggested how these goals might be realised. There was a long article by composer Roger Doyle on the split between contemporary composers and the general audience for classical music, on what he called the ‘grisly death of a beautiful art form’. Another composer, John McLachlan did not share this sense of doom, while Ian Wilson used his own experience to write about the role of the composer in today’s society. Desmond Fennell had a brief article connecting his theory of ‘Postwestern Civilisation’ to the music world, while Nicholas Carolan’s lengthy article lucidly connected changes in the playing and recording of traditional music in the twentieth century to broader changes in society. There were reviews of books (one on guitar accompaniment in traditional music; one on Fintan Vallely’s Companion to Irish Traditional Music). One CD from each category of music was reviewed. The director of that year’s Sligo Festival of Contemporary Music also previewed its programme.

How then has JMI performed? Jazz is probably the area where coverage has been least satisfactory. There have been a handful of reviews, one rather routine interview, some pieces on jazz and education, and a set of articles – quite antagonistic to the Irish mainstream – by Declan O’Driscoll on the more avant-garde reaches of contemporary improvised music. It is not entirely surprising that the jazz scene has not thrown up a lot of vibrant writing. There is a public in Ireland for trad and for big band jazz, but the audience for living jazz – something other than sophisticated goodtime music or social wallpaper – is quite limited. The scene is as yet too small – and perhaps too complacent – to sustain an active culture. That appears to be why jazz was dropped from the masthead a year ago. The writing that has emerged from the scene has been largely concerned with gaining institutional recognition for jazz. The subject of music education – be it in jazz, classical or traditional music – can tempt the unwary into this kind of writing (in a reply to Ronan Guilfoyle):

‘Readers may be interested to learn that the OU offers a Diploma in Music (120 points) that counts towards the requirements for a BA (Hons) Humanities Degree with Music. The diploma may also help to satisfy the requirements for recognition from professional bodies. To obtain the Diploma in Music, courses A214, and either AA302 or AA314, must be taken. A214 is a 60-point level-2 course that makes intellectual demands appropriate to the second and third years of a degree at a conventional university. AA302 and AA314 are 60-point level-3 courses of equivalent standard to the final year of an honours degree.’

For further details, go to page 27 of JMI Vol. 1 No. 6, and read on.

But fundamental questions must not be avoided. A jazz lover may regret the fact that the children of Gneeveguilla are not educated in jazz, but if they have access to a vibrant traditional music scene, is the inculcation of jazz really something for the state to concern itself with? And what is jazz’s claim over other forms of music – reggae, hiphop, salsa, Mongolian throat-singing? Is it not rather up to jazz lovers to create a dynamic and open scene that will eventually create its own institutional momentum? Do we really want to entrust the future of jazz in Ireland to people who, for example, have entirely spurned the possibilities offered by the fact that Barry Guy, an extraordinary and inspirational improvisor, has been living in our midst for the last decade? Opinions will differ on these as on other questions, but a little less silence, a little more clarification, a little more clash and clatter too, would be welcome.

Classical/contemporary music has been better served than jazz by its adherents in the pages of the JMI. Roger Doyle is not the only composer to have expressed himself forthrightly. The combination of passionate commitment and a sharpness of style mark out Raymond Deane’s contributions. Ben Dwyer’s recent piece was also invigorating, and several reviewers (some composers, some not) have written honestly and illuminatingly. As with jazz and traditional music, and with all due respect to the idealism and good intentions of those involved, two kinds of writing are almost guaranteed to induce boredom: discussion of music education and organisers writing about their activities, institutions or festivals. If ground-level experience or experiment were described in living detail, something of general interest might emerge; the dialogue or interview form might also be considered. It is a sad fact of life that education is extraordinarily important but extremely difficult to write well about.

There are questions that will not even occur to good writers working from within a particular musical culture. There is resentment among some in the classical community at the perceived high profile of traditional music; there is resentment among some in the traditional community at the perceived high per capita funding of classical events. There are questions of class, nation and history, amongst others, that could be explored. Though classical and traditional music share a space in the JMI, they almost never speak to each other. A little cross-pollination – some cross-cultural debate or interviewing – might be tried.

The challenge to the Harry White/Joseph Ryan understanding of Irish musical history, as undertaken by Patrick Zuk in the JMI, and by myself elsewhere, need not be rehearsed here, but one point needs to be made in light of the earlier analysis of Irish public culture. Richard Pine, who at least acknowledges the existence of such a challenge, has referred to a ‘debate’. The fact is that there has been no debate. Like a number of other eminent figures in the Irish intellectual scene, both White and Ryan have responded to detailed challenge of their views by silence. Here, it is not the JMI, but the feeble Irish public culture it attempts to combat, which is at fault.

JMI has performed a very useful function, and has largely lived up to its goals in giving voice to debate within the field of traditional music, as it faces up to the questions posed by globalisation, professionalisation, commercialisation, institutionalisation, Comhaltasisation and IMROification. One challenge here would be to find younger contributors with the passion and style of veterans like Tom Munnelly or Terry Moylan. Occasional in-depth reviews and discussion of key recordings could help to show how the broader issues manifest themselves concretely.

Traditional music appears to be renegotiating its place in a society that is itself changing. Munnelly’s Jan/Feb 2001 article on singing, or the more recent controversy on sean-nós should not be isolated flurries of activity and controversy, but part of a continuing attempt to articulate and engage with the pressures and possibilities of the moment.

Gardening Ireland, Poetry Ireland, History Ireland, Technology Ireland – the tendency of Irish magazines (not to mention Irish bookshops and university departments) to separate Ireland from the world has its dangers. Perhaps it is too much at this stage to ask that, as well as propagating a live internal musical culture, JMI should actively seek to connect Irish experience with the world. A history of classical music in India, or a study of changing singing styles in Mali, may have more to teach us than some seemingly relevant but routine product of the Irish Studies department. The question of separateness arises also in another form. Perhaps the JMI should demonstrate that, where writers and ideas can be found, its doors are not closed to some of the many forms of music, from the popular to the obscure, that have not yet featured in its pages.

JMI has done more for its sector than any better funded magazine and deserves to be given the opportunity to do more. A showcase magazine is a form of cultural advertising, and is of little use to those active in the field. JMI has attemped to perform a far more interesting role and one in which it should be encouraged to persist. If it lives and prospers, it must be as the embodiment of what this country needs, and not only in the area of music – a living, critical public culture.

This essay is a version of a talk given at the Mostly Modern Open Day and Lecture Series on 30th October 2003. The Lecture Series was organised in association with JMI to mark the journal’s third birthday.

Published on 1 November 2003

Barra Ó Séaghdha is a writer on cultural politics, literature and music.

comments powered by Disqus