The Journal Of Music In Ireland: Ireland's Bi-Monthly Music Magazine
JMI Cover Image, September/October 2007
Irish Traditional Music Archive
The Arts Council / An Chomhairle Eala&iacuteon
<< September/October 2007 : Volume 7, Number 5 >>

Barra Ó Séaghdha, Dublin, writes:
Having complained so much about the poverty of debate on cultural matters in Ireland, I must thank Leith Davis, Ronan Guilfoyle and Barra Boydell for having taken the trouble to respond to recent articles of mine (July-Aug).

Leith Davis has calmly outlined her position in a spirit of dialogue. Her analysis of key texts in Irish musical history is valuable and her view of Moore well argued. Authors are right to be irritated when reviewers go on about the book that they imagine should have been written rather than the one in front of them. I was not suggesting, however, that she should have written a general history of musical practice in Ireland. My point was that a study relating to matters of national identity would have benefited from a more clearly sketched social and political background. I also feel that concepts drawn from recent (and very interesting) studies in British cultural history and from current academic fashions were not sufficiently inflected by the particulars of Irish experience in the period. As Professor Davis’ concluding words suggest, these are subjects that await fuller exploration.

I thank Ronan Guilfoyle for acknowledging that, as usual when writing about festivals and concerts, I write from the point of view of a curious observer with particular tastes rather than as an authority. It seems to exasperate him that, in reviewing the RTÉ Living Music Festival, I described the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra as old-fashioned and he vigorously rebuts the notion – which I had not stated and had not intended to imply – that their approach is the same as Duke Ellington’s (though one could be accused of worse). The fact remains that the SJO’s presentation is highly structured, with musicians stepping forward from the orchestra on cue, soloing within a given language and so on. I made no derogatory comment about their musicianship. I simply believe that they inhabit a musical territory quite different from Tim Berne’s, with a largely different audience. If a substantial proportion of Tim Berne fans turn out to have SJO CDs in their collections, I will stand corrected.

Responding to my comments on the discussion in the Sugar Club, Mr. Guilfoyle correctly points out how improvisation is part of almost every aspect of our daily life. But this does not mean that my choosing a pair of socks in the morning deserves an audience. I think Mr. Guilfoyle is a little too generous to jazz in general as against other genres. As with the range of socks in my drawer, there can be too little variation and too many choices, however improvised, that are dull and predictable. I realise too that the process by which a jazz recording comes into being is different from that involved in classical music. At a concert, I am aware of how unpredictable the choice of note or tempo is from moment to moment and I listen in the hope that the music will flare into sustained life. But in the age of recording, musicians cannot help but be influenced by earlier recordings and by the knowledge that what they play may be recorded. This must work its way into the texture of the music. As a listener to music at home, I will return to those recordings that seem to me to be rich enough to bear repeated listening. Effectively, though I am listening to a ‘photo’ of an ununrepeatable instant, I am looking for those stretches of music where Monk or Mingus or Davis or Lacy have, through their creativity and musical culture, produced musical compositions of the highest order. To that extent, I am looking for more than ‘a document of a process in action’. That is why I will return to one document – the Kind of Blue recording mentioned by Mr. Guilfoyle, for example – but not to many others of the same period.

Regarding the music of John Adams, I have done my best, but with little success, to hear in it the qualities that Ronan Guilfoyle and many others perceive. When listening to the music that I love or admire by Biber or Bach or Beethoven or Bartók or Barry or many others, I do not find myself inventing film scenarios to pass the time. It was out of sheer boredom that I did so; it would have been dishonest to pretend otherwise. I do not regard Adams’ current popularity as an argument either for or against his music, and I find the vernacular American traditions on which Adams draws far more interesting than his own music. For mistitling one Adams piece, but not for my opinions, I apologise.

My article on the projected Encyclopædia of Music in Ireland has drawn comment from Dr Barra Boydell, writing on behalf of the editors and publishers. He suggests that I wrote a personal diatribe against his co-general editor. I did not. I explained how generous in spirit such an encyclopædia should be. I suggested that, since 1999, when I reviewed his book, The Keeper’s Recital, Professor Harry White, the originator of the project, has had ample opportunity to respond to that and other challenges to his view of music in Irish cultural history. Instead of dealing with those challenges, engaging in debate or, indeed, quietly rectifying his earlier misinterpretations and omissions, he has chosen silence over debate and repetition over development. With neither Professor White nor any of those who share his views having responded to criticism of either their general framework of understanding or of particular errors and omissions – and with those erroneous or profoundly questionable views having already been enshrined in various reference works – it is surely understandable that we should fear more of the same in the projected encyclopædia. It was on a matter of intellectual values, therefore, rather than of personality, that (as clearly explained in the article in question) I took the unusual measure of writing about the encyclopædia before publication. If Dr Boydell was not being either obtuse or disingenuous in his comments, I trust that the above will clarify matters to his satisfaction. And let us hope that the encyclopædia will reflect the cultural pluralism of the Canadian model that initially inspired Professor White rather than those restrictive intellectual practices that disfigure contemporary Irish musical culture.


Joy Fitzgerald, Dublin, writes:
Dermot McLaughlin declares many interests at the end of his article on the Arts Council and traditional music (‘In Safe Hands?’, July-Aug 2007), but he does not declare the one that is most ironic. Perhaps your readers need to be reminded that Mr McLaughlin spent over 15 years working at the Arts Council (1986-2003) initially as Traditional Music and Music Officer, later as Artform Director. As such he was one of the principal architects of Arts Council policy for a long period leading up to the publication of the damning report in 2004. He now suggests that the Arts Council is pursuing ‘dilatory and careless behaviour’. Is this new, or was this always the case?

Dermot McLaughlin replies:
Joy Fitzgerald’s point is one that I anticipated in response to my ‘In Safe Hands?’ article and it’s a point that she could/should have made at the time of publication of my ‘Road Map’ article (Nov-Dec 2004). Adequate reference to my role with the Arts Council is included in the July–August issue on page 4. Interested readers in search of retrospective information can find out what was going on in the Arts Council and traditional music during my time there (July 1986–January 2003) by referring to the annual reports which are accessible on the Council’s website. However Ms Fitzgerald’s letter entirely misses one of the principal points of my article – that it is difficult to excuse the Council’s continuing failure to do its job in the current resource-rich environment for the traditional arts. My focus on the present and the future is deliberate given what we know of human experience in trying to change or reinvent the past. My prior work experience has no bearing on my assessment of the current unsatisfactory situation.

Eric Sweeney, Waterford, writes:
John McLachlan’s article on the future of minimalism (‘The Life of Riley’, July–Aug 2007) raises a number of interesting points and the time is surely ripe to assess what Steve Martland has provocatively called the main, if not the only, important development in musical style since the 1960s. The term minimalism, as John McLachlan correctly points out, has become outmoded as a means of stylistic definition and if we think of composers as diverse as John Adams, Arvo Pärt, Michael Nyman and John Tavener it is difficult to see what, if any, shared language their music illustrates. It’s perhaps easier to describe what their music does not express in that they have turned their collective backs on atonality, serial technique and aleatoric procedures. Indeed the term minimalism has really become meaningless unless as a definition of an historic style which emerged in the USA in the 60s and whose ideas were to influence the next generation of composers in widely different ways. Whatever our views of it, it was the first style to challenge what Tavener delightfully called ‘the po-faced serialists’ and their Darmstadt-led dictates about what should or should not be regarded as proper music. For this we should be grateful and, as a teacher of composition, it is refreshing to see the present generation of young composers expressing themselves with a freedom and confidence which was sorely lacking in previous decades. No longer is there any sense of young composers having to be on their best behaviour and looking anxiously over their shoulders for peer approval.

Reich’s poetically phrased vision that ‘in the future composers will be free to play in the garden of all that has gone before’ perfectly describes this new sense of liberation from the dour orthodoxies of Darmstadt and their self-perpetuating elitist view of the musical world. The irony is that the modernists who once led the brave new world of experimentation and exploration have themselves become the conservatives desperately trying to defend a rapidly diminishing artistic position, and their shrill protests that ‘surely music cannot be any good if so many people like it’ falls increasingly on deaf ears. The success of the last two RTÉ Living Music festivals is proof that, contrary to what we were always told, there is an audience for new music and, while they may not be the normal classical music buffs who attend the National Concert Hall on a regular basis, they have a healthy curiosity about what is new and their informed musical tastes may range from experimental rock through free improvisation to whatever you are having yourself. Their presence and involvement in the new music scene is surely a cause for celebration.

Interestingly, minimalist music is far from easy to write and eager composers with their fingers poised on the Copy/Paste commands of Finale or Sibelius will find it is a technique which makes surprising demands. Yes, of course it’s easy to produce limitless streams of musical sounds at the touch of a button, but to make musical sense, to create pieces which are well structured, to engage and to sustain the listener’s interest is as difficult, if not more difficult than ever.

Minimalism is no easy cop-out and demands a rigorous command of the composer’s self-limited material as well as a radically different approach from the listener who must be prepared to delve below the surface of seemingly similar patterns of sound to find out what really is going on. The importance of minimalism is that it has radically altered the way we create, assess and listen to music as well as the fact that it has pointed to a new liberating way forward for so many composers who had found themselves in a creative cul-de-sac. If we think of Louis Andriessen’s persuasive amalgamation of Stravinskian rhythms and Reichian textures it is but one of the many ways minimalism has opened the doors to a new and highly personal language.

It seems clear to me that minimalism would not, and could not, have come about without the radical redefinition of music by Cage and La Monte Young in the 50s and 60s. Their fundamental re-examination of everything we take for granted about music cleared away decades if not centuries of casual assumptions and made us look with new eyes at the raw essentials of sound. What is clear now is that music in our post-modernist world can be created from whatever elements the composer wishes and that it is the healthier and more genuine for that.


Peter Budge, Crouch End, London, writes:
John McLachlan’s article on Terry Riley makes me think of my debut at the Royal Festival Hall in June – at last as I am 65. The London Sinfonietta were performing Riley’s In C. There were some spare seats at the back of the band so I went and sat in one, whipped out my C harmonica and joined in. They could have come and removed me and made a scene but the conductor gave me a thumbs up when he spotted me. There are not many orchestral pieces you could do that in. (I had gone there to take part in Billy Bragg’s Big Busk so my second RFH performance took place almost immediately!)

Sarah Glennie, Director, Model Arts and Niland Gallery, writes:
Further to your review of the Sligo New Music Festival (‘Sketches of Spain’, Jul-Aug 2007), I would like to clarify a few points with regard to the future of the festival and the redevelopment of the Model Arts and Niland Gallery in 2008. As festival producer The Model is committed to the long-term development and growth of the SNMF and although the venue is indeed closing next year it is only a temporary closure to enable building works and improvements to take place. The Model will re-open in 2009 and the Sligo New Music Festival will continue to be part of our programme.

The Sligo New Music festival has been operating annually since 2001 and while we learn much each year, a specific period of reflection is much needed to ensure it’s continued success. The landscape of contemporary music in Ireland has changed considerably in the last five years, as have the goals and aspirations of the Model and the level of programming in which it engages. We feel strongly that the festival, alongside our other programmes and activities, would benefit from a period of research and development. It is our intention to use the venue closure period in 2008 to talk to the festival’s audience and artists, visit other comparable events and festivals, identify potential partners/sponsors and develop a strategy and best practice to ensure the Sligo New Music Festival’s continued growth.

In addition to this we plan to hold a single event, or a day of events in an alternative venue in 2008 to mark the Sligo New Music Festival and to stay in touch with our audience, returning in 2009 with a new space and a stronger festival. We will certainly keep you and your readers posted on future developments and would greatly welcome feedback/suggestions from musicians, composers, new music attendees and any other interested parties to [email protected]