Roots, Pop, World, or Art Music? How Ireland’s Ceol Cuts the Edge for the Planet

Enya, U2, Bob Geldof, Sinéad O’Connor, Van Morrison—perhaps no other country of its small size has contributed so disproportionately to international pop than Ireland. The same could be said for the immense literary influence of its poets, playwrights, and novelists, and for the global reach of ceol traidisiúnta (Irish traditional music): the Chieftains, Clannad, the Clancy Brothers, etc. But not so the art music of Ireland. Michael Balfe, John Field, Hamilton Harty, and Charles Villiers Stanford, if known at all, are regarded as second drawer to nationalist European composers like Grieg, Sibelius, Bartok, and Janacek. From a country that produced such world-class writers as Joyce, Yeats, and Beckett and that is so intensely musical in its folk culture, why has there never been a “great” Irish classical composer?

But 21st-century Ireland—the so-called “celtic tiger”—may yet change all this. Not only is there a nationwide revival of the Irish language via Gaelscoileanna (el-hi schools taught entirely in Irish), but there seems to be a surprising profusion of young art music composers, and they are far better supported by state institutions over there than we are over here. Funding and performance opportunities are plentiful and, as on the European continent, national radio is a major player as a new music commissioner. The Aosdána—roughly comparable to the American Academy of Arts and Letters—gives some member composers ongoing annual living stipends. The Contemporary Music Centre is Ireland’s American Music Center, providing elaborate composer webpages and CD compilations.

In the last month, two leading Manhattan venues presented entire programs of contemporary Irish art music. Judging from what I heard, most younger Irish composers are already taking sky-dives into the cosmopolitan avant-garde, while others are bungee jumping still tied at the heels to traditional elements. But certainly none of them are channeling John McCormack. At Weill Hall on October 14, in a program sponsored by the Consulate General of Ireland, the Argento Ensemble and Irish-born Manhattan freelancers performed works that embraced minimalism, performance art abstraction, Bang-on-a-Can-ism, and other cutting edge international styles. The most substantial and impressive piece was Belfast-born Ian Wilson’s 20-minute Cassini Void for ten instruments and percussion, lead by the gifted Carol McGonnell’s incredibly agile yet mellifluous high licks on Eb clarinet.

On November 2, the Miller Theatre presented a “composer portrait” of Gerald Barry (b. 1952), Ireland’s best-known avant-garde export. Barry studied with Stockhausen and Kagel, and a hint of Cage shows, too. Every Barry piece alternates cyclically between violent fff percussive sections that sound like an attack by Clockwork Orange hooligans, and lovely, kinetic-yet-catatonic lyric interludes. In “____” (1979), loops of upward chromatic scales endlessly recycle, like lunatics in an insane asylum repeating themselves. In Barry’s Piano Quartet No. 1 and Octet there was even nostalgic satire of Irish trad (though Barry’s is a Picasso cubist version of trad). But his piano writing out-pugilized Leo Ornstein with pile-driver clusters that forced the wind players positioned in front of the piano to self-defensively stop up their ears. In the evening’s world premiere, enigmatically titled Los Angeles, one musical non-sequitur dadaistically “non-segued” upon another, culminating in the pianist playing and singing a variant tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” An Irish John Zorn on magic mushrooms, this Gerald Barry?

The key transitional figure in Ireland’s modern musical history, however, is not Gerald Barry but Seán Ó Riada (born John Reidy), who was a kind of Irish cross between Copland, Ives, Gershwin, Jean Cocteau, and Orson Welles (Ó Riada was not only a composer but a writer and filmmaker). In his 20s, Reidy was writing music for the Abbey Theatre (shades of Boulez and Jean-Louis Barrault) and avant-garde pieces he called “Nomos,” whereupon he began to turn to Irish sean-nós (old style) tunes and instruments like the bodhrán for a “roots” kind of music. He changed his name, learned Irish, wrote Irish folk-inspired symphonic music for the films Mise Eire and Saoirse, and from 1961 directed the Ceoltóirí Cualann, the first well-known traditional music band, which eventually morphed into the Chieftains. Ó Riada drank himself to death at 40 in 1971. If he had lived longer he might have become a roots-music Sibelius of Ireland. He is still a figure of some veneration in his country.

Some in the U.S. are saying that the future of art music lies in a merger with pop and roots musics (actually, that future is already here). Ó Riada traveled those roads first. In fact, the “groove” that is definitive of pop and world music owes as much to the beat of Irish trad as to West Africa. The new bestselling book How the Irish Invented Slang argues that many contemporary urbanisms like “dork” and “twerp” have their origins in Irish Gaelic words (dorc and duirb). The Irish got there first in a lot of ways (they were the pioneering writers of Broadway musicals, too). Perhaps their musical trajectories, from roots to avant-garde and back, might well serve as weathervanes for our own new directions to come. As an American composer who has already worked in Irish musical idioms (a cantata, The Rose of Tralee, which premiered this spring), I am embarking on another go at it, an Irish-Spanish-English song cycle entitled Nuevo Sean-Nós. Uh oh! Ádh mór orm! (Lots of luck!)

4 thoughts on “Roots, Pop, World, or Art Music? How Ireland’s Ceol Cuts the Edge for the Planet

  1. Chris Becker

    “In fact, the “groove” that is definitive of pop and world music owes as much to the beat of Irish trad as to West Africa…”

    You can probably thank Cromwell for that…

    “In the l650s, after Oliver Cromwell had conquered Ireland in a series of massacres, he left his brother, Henry, as the island’s governor. In the next decade Henry sold thousands of Irish people, mostly women and children, as slaves to the West Indies. Estimates range between 30,000 and 80,000. The higher number seems quite likely, in the light of a letter Henry Cromwell wrote to a slaver, saying “it is not in the least doubted you may have such number of them as you thinke fitt.. . I desire to express as much zeal in this design as you could wish.” This Henry of the Uprighte Harte, as he called himself, said in another letter to a slaver who wanted only girls, “I think it might be of like advantage to your affaires there, and to ours heer, if you shoulde thinke fitt to sende 1500 or 2000 young boys of from twelve to fourteen years of age, to the place aforementioned. We could well spare them . . ..”

    “And so we find, in West Indian Voodoo, a center-post, a gaily painted pole very like the maypole that survives in Europe from Celtic pagan celebration, at the center of every ceremony. You see it plainly in Maya Deren’s 1949 footage, made into a documentary in the l950s, titled, as is her book, Divine Horsemen. The gods are said to enter through the centerpost, and the dances for most ceremonies revolve around the centerpost. We don’t find this in the accounts from Africa. It speaks of a definite Irish-pagan influence. Virtually every account of Voodoo notes, at some point, how similar are its sorcery practices to the practices of European witchcraft, but no one has, to my knowledge, mentioned the connection with the Irish slaves.”

    (Both quotes from Michael Ventura’s essay Hear That Long Snake Moan)

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  2. William Osborne

    I don’t know the details, but artists in Ireland are also freed from paying income taxes.
    A land where Yeats was a parliamentarian….

    William Osborne

    Reply
  3. MarkNGrant

    An astounding but convincing new theory: the word “Jazz” is Irish-derived
    Both the Revised New Grove’s and Nicolas Slonimsky concur that the first recorded occurrences of the word “jazz” in print were in the spring of 1913, in columns about the San Francisco Seals baseball team by a San Francisco Bulletin Irish-American sportswriter named Edward Gleeson. Author Daniel Cassidy, in his above-mentioned book How the Irish Invented Slang, goes one further. Cassidy presents an extremely convincing (not merely chauvinistic) case that the word derives from the Irish language word teas (pronounced “jass”), which means heat, passion, or excitement (Gleeson used it as a synonym for “pep”). Cassidy argues that linguistics experts have never traced the word “jazz” to African languages, reminds us that the Original Dixieland Jazz Band of 1917 was an all-white group including Irish-Americans, and notes that Duke Ellington, Sidney Bechet, and other African-American jazzmen long publicly fingered the term “jazz” as a creation of whites. He also quotes other oral reminiscences of the word’s use as a term for sex in San Francisco in the 1890s (by that time San Francisco had a large Gaelic-speaking immigrant population). He discounts non-Gaelic origins of the term in “jazzbo,” noting that the Irish word teaspach (which is pronounced “jass-puch” with the “ch” like the “ch” in the Scottish “loch”) means “sultriness” or “animal spirits.” I can’t do full justice to Cassidy’s argument in the space allotted here, but it should be vetted seriously by musicologists.

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  4. Chris Becker

    Thanks, Mark for this. It IS fascinating the etymology of these words we throw around today without much thought…

    Not contradicting what you found but Robert Farris Thompson thinks that “jazz” and “jism” likely derive from the Ki-Kongo dinza, which means “to ejaculate.” But I don’t have more details than that…

    The Hear That Long Snake Moan essay was given to me by my friend visual artist Jon Graubarth (who did all of the artwork for my Saints & Devils CD) about a month after I’d arrived in New Orleans. Reading it immediately blew my little mind and later provided some direction in my own music making after relocating to NYC.

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