What should we make of ‘Composing the Island’?

Adrian Smith

A century of music in Ireland, 1916-2016, was presented at the National Concert Hall, Dublin across three weeks of concerts in September 2016 - generously sponsored by Bord na Móna and presented by RTÉ and the National Concert Hall as part of RTÉ 1916 and Ireland 2016. ADRIAN SMITH reviews the festival.


What should we make of the National Concert Hall and RTÉ’s ‘Composing the Island’ festival? In the century since the 1916 Easter Rising, Irish composition has undergone quite a transformation, enduring several bleak decades before emerging onto more fertile plains from the 1970s onwards when a number of distinctive voices begin to emerge. Gaining recognition for the significant achievements that lie within this body of work has not been easy; it is a process that is still ongoing and one reflected in the title of the companion volume to the festival The Invisible Art: A Century of Music in Ireland 1916‒2016. A lot was therefore at stake with this particular centenary celebration which, if programmed effectively, could have had a decisive impact in disseminating the accomplishments of Irish composers to a public that still remains largely unaware of them. But did it achieve anything along these lines or was it just the usual cursory nod to music in keeping with its traditionally low place in the pecking order of the arts in Ireland? A month has passed since the festival concluded in Beethoven Ninth-style with a choral finale featuring music by Norman Hay and Rhoda Coghill, time enough to ponder the highs and lows of the festival, to consider what it was and what it could have been.


Reviewing any artistic festival involves matching the goals it set itself with the steps it took to realise them. The first question one must therefore ask is: what did Composing the Island set out to achieve? The description that appeared on the festival website could hardly be described as detailed in terms of laying out any coherent overarching theme, but nevertheless did say that it would attempt to examine ‘how this music developed, and the times and circumstances in which it was written’. These are admirable intentions but of course there is just one complication facing such a strategy. Anyone familiar with Irish music in the previous century knows that far from being a smooth development from one generation, it is a veritable hodgepodge of conflicting trends – some heroically progressive, some downright regressive and much that seemed to perpetually exist in that grey zone in-between. Considering all the talk of ‘fertile imaginations’, ‘sheer stylistic diversity’ and ‘ground-breaking’ music in the festival’s promotional literature, it may come as a surprise to learn that not all Irish works composed in the last century were masterpieces. This is particularly the case with much of the music composed before 1970, a great deal of which consists of well-crafted works by competent composers, who although in possession of solid technique, were at least three decades out-of-sync with developments in composition internationally. Given these limitations, such repertoire demands imagination to make it work. It is not simply a case of pulling out what one thinks are the best pieces and stringing them together. The second-order quality of much of the music ensures that with certain exceptions, the experience of listening to it might not be exactly riveting. But that is hardly the point. Through imaginative programming one can shine a light on many of the fascinating micro-narratives of Irish music during this period, illuminating the ideological climate that hindered its progress and allowing those precious few composers who occasionally showed flashes of genius such as Frederick May and Ina Boyle, a chance to stand-out from their more run-of-the-mill contemporaries.


One could expect the organisers to be cognisant of this, breaking the festival down into a series of focused concerts covering the main trends and letting other smaller concerts, featuring smaller ensembles and solo performers, articulate particular repertoires. In his welcome note to the festival, Simon Taylor appeared to suggest something along these lines when he said that the organisers intended the six major orchestral concerts to outline the arc of this narrative, with the twenty or so additional concerts being tasked with filling in the gaps. With the bulk of the responsibility placed on the six orchestral concerts to order proceedings, it quickly became apparent however that the organisers had struggled to come up with a coherent programming strategy other than a simplistic recourse to chronology. For instance, the two major orchestral concerts on the second week featured the RTÉ Concert Orchestra on the Wednesday and RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra on the Friday. The Wednesday concert entitled ‘New Beginnings’ took the establishment of the Radio Éireann orchestras as its starting point but included music on no other basis but for the fact that it was played by those orchestras in the ensuing two decades. This was a rather flimsy framing device and not surprisingly the resultant concert was a succession of wildly different pieces that sounded more like the surreal soundtrack to a David Lynch film than a coherent programme. What exactly the link between Éamonn Ó Gallchobhair’s light-hearted Waltz from Nocturne sa Chearnóig, Noel Kelehan’s jazzy Cuchulainn’s Lament  and A. J. Potter’s anything but light-hearted Sinfonia ‘de Profundis’ is anybody’s guess? On the face of it, the ‘Visions of Irish Modernism’ concert on the Friday might seem to have provided a stronger contextual backdrop starting off with a postcard from Darmstadt in the form of Seóirse Bodley’s Configurations.  Yet heads were left well-scratched trying to find the modernism inRoger Doyle’s student offering Four Sketches for Orchestra (1969), or Gerard Victory’s neo-classical Miroirs (1969). Surely a more sensible programming of the same repertoire would have attempted to tease out the presence of Irish traditional music in art music composition – one of the century’s most persistent preoccupations – tracing a path from the insularity of Ó Gallchobhair to the more adventurous avant-garde/traditional fusions of Bodley. And this strain needn’t have ended here, it could have continued into the next generation surveying works by Donnacha Dennehy, Ryan Molloy or David Flynn which are also in this vein. The other concert that week could have perhaps taken a highly qualified look at the belated rather than visionary ‘modernism’ that eventually reached Ireland in the 1960s from the full-on integral serialism of Bodley’s Configurations to the reluctant serialism of Sweeney, Victory and Potter. As regards Doyle, the obvious focus should have been his electronic music, as he is the pioneering figure in this field in Ireland but no electronic music concerts featured in the festival.


In fact, as it turned out, the first and second weeks were comparatively well planned in contrast to what followed in the third where even the meekest framing devices were dispensed with and replaced by empty phrases such as ‘New Directions’ or ‘New Century’. Music that engaged with the political troubles in the North was overlooked as a connecting thread despite the inclusion of four composers from Northern Ireland in the two orchestral concerts that week. Indeed one of the titles of the orchestral concerts ‘Alchemy’ could have described the general approach whereby unconnected pieces were piled into programmes more in hope than anything else that something coherent would emerge. This casualness greatly inhibited the ability of the six orchestral concerts to articulate any kind of nuanced narrative other than a strictly chronological one and made the overall programming of the rest of the festival look decidedly chaotic. Had things been different one could forgive the impression given by the festival that in devoting three concerts to the instrument, the organ had apparently replaced the harp as the emblem of Ireland in the 20th century. Nevertheless, many of the smaller concerts by groups such the Contempo Quartet and the Fidelio Trio as well as solo performers like Hugh Tinney and John Feeley did a much better job of turning the spotlight on particular repertoires, something which can be attributed to the performers’ intimate knowledge of their own field rather than a strong curatorial guiding hand.


If Irish music before 1970 could be said to present certain challenges for a curator, with Irish music after 1970 it is an entirely different story. Imaginative programming would have worked wonders in highlighting some of the many trends that have impacted upon composition in Ireland in recent decades: Minimalism, Postmodernism, Spectralism, the New Simplicity, the New Sincerity. But even without such contrivances all one really has to do is to make sure to include those works which have stood out over the past forty years. Even here, the inevitable squabbling about why this piece by such-and-such was chosen over that one was rendered quite unnecessary, overshadowed by the alarming realisation that many of the more established composers hadn’t even made it on to the programme. Aosdána members Fergus Johnston and John McLachlan found themselves without a single work in the festival. On the draft programme released in June, Benjamin Dwyer also found himself persona non grata. But while Dwyer eventually wound up on the programme with a solitary piece on the second last day, his place seemed to be won at the expense of Kevin Volans who was unceremoniously booted off the festival programme entirely. The mind truly boggles at how Volans, a composer with a massive international reputation, failed to make the cut. If this decision was made because Volans was born in South-Africa and only became an Irish citizen in 1985, it is surely contradicted by the inclusion of the English composers E. J. Moeran and Arnold Bax, both of whom received three performances each. It also ignores the fact that Volans has played a hugely influential role as a teacher and mentor to many of the younger composers such as Jonathan Nangle, Siobhán Cleary, Garret Sholdice, etc. Even the festival webpage mentions his importance in this respect when profiling Andrew Hamilton. So why not include him? Given the existence of these gaping omissions it seems an act of the utmost pedantic quibbling to question precisely how a limited composer like Brian Boydell managed to end up with more pieces than Gerald Barry. By any measure it is a strange festival indeed when Norman Hay, whose Dunluce (1921) was regarded by many of those present as the worst piece of the festival, managed to have more orchestral works performed than Ireland’s most prominent living composer. In fact such was the bizarre prominence accorded to Hay that his works both opened and closed the festival.


While all this is bad enough, these strange decisions pale against the furore that took place when the draft programme was released back in June and swiftly criticised for neglecting to include a fair proportion of living female composers. The organisers can consider themselves quite lucky that the kind of scenes that took place outside the Abbey late last year when Fiach Mac Conghail and the rest of the Abbey board found themselves besieged by angry feminists objecting to the lack of women writers on the theatre’s testosterone-fuelled centenary programme, failed to materialise outside the National Concert Hall. That they didn’t, says much about the marginalised position of Irish classical music in the mainstream cultural discourse and while it is contentious territory indeed to prioritise gender parity over artistic quality there is hardly any need for such handwringing when it comes to female Irish composers who have been steadily carving out a significant body of work for decades. But in the draft programme Ireland’s most high-profile female composer, Jennifer Walshe, was omitted altogether while one of our foremost composers of orchestral music Gráinne Mulvey, failed to appear in any of the orchestral concerts losing out to the likes of Hay and Boydell. The National Concert Hall’s carefully considered response to the debacle was to put together an all-female concert of piano music performed by Isabelle O’Connell in the hope that it might assuage the critics. Such ham-fisted measures bring back unhappy memories of the lessons that should have been learnt when Field Day Publishing brought out its male-dominated anthologies of Irish writing in the early nineties. After the predictable backlash the editors tried to row back furiously by claiming that they would soon be bringing out a female-only volume. Of course nobody was impressed by this particular story. Surely such incidents are mentioned as case-studies in arts administration handbooks of what not to do? But then again maybe they are not. The implication is of course that female composers are not quite on the same level as the male and need a rather patronising form of affirmative action to help them along. The whole affair prompted much talk on social media of ‘ghettoising of genders’ which could and should have been easily avoidable.


It would be wrong to suggest that such decisions were taken intentionally; they are rather a product of administrative short-sightedness. Intention was precisely the quality that was lacking throughout this festival where it was never clear what the organisers’ priorities were, other than to pack as many concerts as possible into the three weeks and hope that it all worked out for the best. This, along with a very last minute and half-hearted publicity campaign, explains why it largely failed to capture the imaginations of the public. Most of the concerts just about made it to the half-full mark and on the few occasions were the public did show up in numbers, this was clearly due to particular ensembles pulling in their own dedicated following. How else to explain the main auditorium of the concert hall packed to the rafters to hear Col. Fritz Brase’s General Mulcahy March played by the Defence Forces Band. Col. Brase’s most notable distinction is that he was the first Ortsgruppenleiter or local branch leader of the Irish Nazi Party, a fact which the National Concert Hall chose not to mention in their programme notes. Indeed it is a measure of programmers’ naivety that on the one occasion where a full-house was virtually guaranteed ‒ Culture Night’s free concert ‒ the organisers came up with the idea of putting Bodley’s Configurations, the most austere of his mid-career flirtations with integral serialism, as the first item on the programme. If the aim here was to administer an Adornoesque shock to the tender ears of the masses it certainly worked. Predictably, half of the audience suffered a bout of squeamishness and failed to return for the second half and while it might seem patronising to suggest as much, surely a more accessible programme could have been devised for this particular occasion. If RTÉ and the National Concert Hall had spent many years assiduously educating audiences on a diet of post-war classics then it might have all worked out fine, but composers like Boulez and Stockhausen never appear on their programmes and given the conservative nature of the repertoire which religiously follows a narrow, bums-on-seats first policy, it is not surprising that Culture Night’s fair-weather audience was left unimpressed.


Of course, the festival was not without its highlights. Works by figures forgotten until recently such as Ina Boyle received several performances; it produced some surprises such as A. J Potter’s Sinfonia ‘de Profundis’ that may be worth reviving; and it was good to see some attention given to a younger figure like Andrew Hamilton whose works in particular stood out. The performers acquitted themselves extremely well throughout the three weeks, displaying a commitment to a repertoire that is inevitably uneven and not always easy to bring to life. The overall direction of the festival however should have been much more incisive and there is the sense that an opportunity to make a wider impact amongst the general public has been let slip by. It is notable that in the weeks since the festival, apart from some grumblings on social media, the composers themselves have been strangely quiet. Rather than representing a feeling of satisfaction with the festival, it seems more likely to reflect a general atmosphere of resignation that an uncoordinated festival was the most that they could expect. Arts administrators never tire of telling us how the infrastructure for contemporary music has been transformed over the past forty years and that there is no going back to the dark old days. However it is worth reminding ourselves that back then there was a festival called the Dublin Festival of 20th Century Music that was tightly focused and had special concerts where many of the figures who are now our most acclaimed composers, such as Gerald Barry and Raymond Deane, first came to prominence. There are still no signs of a decent annual festival other than the inadequate New Music Dublin weekend which has similarly suffered from inconsistent programming and funding shortages. It wasn’t lack of funds which hampered the festival on this occasion but a lack of imagination and direction - but then it’s hard to be good at something when you’re so out of practice.  


Musicologist Dr Adrian Smith lectures at the DIT Conservatoire of Music and Drama.