'You Know My Music!'

Donnacha Dennehy

'You Know My Music!'

The recent RTÉ Lyric FM three-part radio series on contemporary Irish music had honesty and many good stories, writes Dónal Sarsfield.

There was a lot to celebrate last year in Irish contemporary music: Composing the Island, The Invisible Art, and, if that wasn’t enough, a 174 -minute radio series on RTÉ Lyric FM, focusing on the boom in Irish compositional activity since the 1970s.

That the festival, the book and radio series appeared around the same time is a happy coincidence, and Cross Currents (which was produced by Athena Media in association with the Contemporary Music Centre) was repeated on Lyric FM this February. The story of Irish composition in recent decades has been told before, but usually incidentally: programme notes for concerts, infrequent public or press interviews, occasional musicological analysis, or even over the quiet sip of a pint in the corner of the pub. Not quite so visibly on national radio. Cross Currents is therefore a welcome addition to anybody interested in Irish contemporary music.

Cross Currents
tells the story of the breakthroughs of Irish composers in the 1970s and how their activity helped cultivate a richer musical ecology on the island, forging a path for the volume and diversity of compositional activity today. The not entirely random selection of fifteen composers were interviewed at length by Jonathan Grimes of the Contemporary Music Centre. From these interviews, 5 to 10 minutes were extracted and sieved across three programmes, while Barry McGovern provided contextualising links and some declarative identification of musical works.

Flowing in a roughly chronological order, the first episode, ‘Breakthrough’, focuses on the composers who came of age in the 1970s: John Kinsella, Frank Corcoran, Gerald Barry, Raymond Deane, Roger Doyle, Jane O’Leary. For some, this generation of Irish composers marks a turning point for Irish classical music because, as Benjamin Dwyer (offering some musicological perspective) notes, ‘almost overnight we have this sudden embracement of high modernism’.

We hear about what the musical environment was like in Ireland, although mostly in Dublin, and how certain composers went abroad to further their education. Both Barry and Deane had the privilege of studying with the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, and his influence permeates the first episode. We hear two accounts of his teaching: one diplomatically quixotic, the other less so. It seems Stockhausen did not subscribe to the ‘student-centered learning’ so fashionable nowadays, but rather offered an example through his music to others, which is perhaps the best any of us can do. 

Accessible orchestra
For various
reasons there was a certain amount of good will towards contemporary music in the 1970s, in the capital at least, which hosted the biennial Dublin Festival of 20th Century Music from 1969 to 1985. There was also a desire on the part of RTÉ to give composers a chance to use their orchestra, and multiple pieces are mentioned and heard throughout (Barry recounts that the RTÉ NSO was ‘surprisingly accessible’ to young composers in the mid 1970s). Then there is Aosdána, set up in the early 1980s ‘to honour artists whose work made an outstanding contribution to the creative arts in Ireland’, in many cases offering crucial financial support to composers in a challenging decade.

Looking back, Seóirse Bodley remarks, ‘well, just, in some ways I think there was probably more opportunity earlier on than there is today, because there was financial backing for new works, which are much less nowadays than they used to be’. It is hard to weight such a statement objectively, although, as with any limited resource, a rise in demand (i.e. the composer population) will increase competition. Funding is an important factor affecting the musical ecology of a country: ecology matters because it can influence what evolves.

‘Expanding Horizons’, the second episode, introduces Linda Buckley and John Buckley, and expands upon the achievements of the composers, offering greater details about their pathways to composition: Frank Corcoran studying with Boris Blacher in Germany and how he ‘wanted colour, colour, colour’; Linda Buckley’s secondary school teacher Mary Lordan encouraging her early composition efforts; and Roger Doyle declaring how ‘music saved my life, and my sanity, and everything’.

Who can we thank for Gerald Barry having access to the Limerick School of Music’s small orchestra at such an impressionable age? He describes how he left one concert ‘in a state of levitation– I just glided along the streets of Limerick in a totally altered state’. Though each story is slightly different, these retellings of the magic of discovery offer a window into a passionate, lonely, mysterious excitement that is the creative act of making or organising sounds. In a way the series is less about composition, and more about being a composer.

Irish classical tradition
The third episode, ‘Full Circle’, introduces some composers of a younger generation, such as Dublin-born Donnacha Dennehy, Dublin-born Jennifer Walshe, Dublin-born Garrett Sholdice and Dublin-born Dave Flynn, and looks at the changes in the world of the composer in twenty-first century Ireland, from the increase of university courses offering certification in composition to the making of an ‘Irish classical tradition’. As part of his interviews, Grimes asked all the composers an open question about tradition. We hear how forging an Irish classical music is a distinct concern that some composers have consciously tackled. Dave Flynn felt he obtained encouragement to use his native tradition within another while studying at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. He recounts: ‘Malcolm Singer explained it in quite a straightforward way. I’m Jewish, it’s my culture; I’m also English. I’m not going to deny either of them’. This example opened a door for Flynn into a territory which he is furtively exploring more than a decade later.

Throughout the series, and in all different manner of ways, we hear how composers have responded to the country of their birth: Bodley striking traditional and avant-garde materials off one another to create some greater musical spark, or Flynn composing for specific traditional musicians, or Walshe’s Aisteach project, which re-imagines an Irish experimental tradition that never was but could have been. Guaranteed Irish!

Then you have pieces like Dennehy’s Grá agus Bás, or Barry’s Chevaux-de-frise, and one has to wonder where do pieces like that come from? In part from Ireland, yes, from her challenges, her song, and also in part from abroad, incorporating the best of this with the best of that. Evolution! Where it comes from should be of less concern than what the composer does with it.

Of course, there is some misery in the series, not quite of An Béal Bocht, but a gentle dose of begrudgery, be it a drought of professional recordings, a dismal music education curriculum, temperamental financial support, or indeed lack of awareness amongst the ‘Irish, ignorant, public’, as Frank Corcoran describes native Radio Éireann listeners unaware of contemporary European music. The greatest resentment is sometimes directed towards Ireland herself, her ‘behind the times-ness’ (‘time’ being set much closer to the heart of Europe). Speaking of the musical culture in Ireland at the start of the Dublin Festival of 20th Century Music, Deane reminds us: ‘you can hardly imagine the level of unsophistication in this country, there were no electronic studios for example’.

I wonder who sets the standard for sophistication?

It is fitting that the series highlights the role radio has played in bringing new and mysterious sounds into so many composers’ lives. John Buckley recounts that when he was growing up, ‘the wireless brought the world into our kitchen’. Throughout Cross Currents, the moments when the interviews are utilised alongside sound to heighten or question what the composers are telling us are really thrilling. I’m thinking here in particular of when Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima screams while John Buckley recounts Fr Pat McCar playing him this work and Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony in a boarding school in the middle of Ireland in 1966. Or at the end of the same episode where Barry’s One-Armed Pianist looms ominously, in the background, while Benjamin Dwyer informs us that the cocky self-sure generation of the 1970s stood firm to say ‘this is where I am going – I am not going to do some mixture of Irish and European music of a semi-tonal nature’. This friction, when sound and language suggest more than what is heard, utilises the medium at its best.  

Orchestral and choral
For a series all about composers, it is a shame that their music, which runs throughout in the background, is only rarely allowed brief snatches to itself, freed from the words it is underpinning. And almost half of the musical examples are orchestral. The implied veneration of orchestral music as the ultimate mode of expression is outdated, especially when most twenty-first century composers are more likely to express their ideas with a computer, chamber ensemble or even a choir, than with an orchestra. And yet across the entire series we hear only two choral works. Who knew orchestral music was so easy to speak over!

There is some great honesty in the interviews, be it Deane’s pop-star-like veneration of Stockhausen; Dennehy’s underage drinking and fortuitous encounter with Roger Doyle on the same day an interview with the electronic composer appeared in the Irish Times (‘You know my music!’); the sound of farm machinery embedding into Linda Buckley’s consciousness; or John Kinsella’s delight in discovering the ‘Jupiter’ Symphony while on his lunch break at school. If only every child could relish the sound of milking machines and Mozart.

Plus ça change
The overall narrative of Cross Currents runs something like this: as possibilities were limited, Irish composers went abroad to further their education. Nearly all came back and continued to compose, often against numerous challenges. An ensemble was set up forty years ago, and is still performing. In Dublin a festival was set up to promote twentieth-century music, but folded. Things got a little better for some composers, either because of institutional or governmental support, or because of a sliver of public recognition. Educational opportunities improved to some degree, and there are now more composers than ever before. An ensemble was set up twenty years ago, and is still performing. In Dublin a festival was set up to promote living music, but folded. Plus ça change…

By its very nature a documentary has to tell a story; if you overlook that responsibility the series offers the opportunity to hear composers communicate the most wonderous things.

Sometimes even in words. 

Listen below to the series, or visit the Cross Currents website: www.crosscurrents.ie

Published on 2 May 2017

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