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!)