Book review: Different Voices: Irish Music and Music in Ireland

MARK FITZGERALD reviews a book that looks to illuminate the under-documented rise of Irish contemporary classical and art music and which includes interviews from some of its current leading lights

I’ve frequently noticed when visiting other countries that people who regard themselves as culturally aware will be able to name at least a few artists from each of the main art forms. In Ireland, while cultural commentators can discuss literature, theatre, visual arts, film and commercial music, it is somewhat unusual to come across anyone not involved in music who can name the most important Irish composers of the last 100 years. Indeed, the knowledge of some people involved in the music business can also be startlingly vague. This national myopia was the spur for Ben Dwyer’s publication Different Voices: Irish Music and Music in Ireland. The book is a conflation of two separate yet interlinked sections: a short but dense exploration of the trajectory of classical or art music from the 18th century to the present, and a set of interviews with 12 composers, most of which were conducted in 2013.

The first part of the book provides a contextual background to the interviews, in particular offering an important insight into political and social issues that reverberate throughout the second half of the book. This brief history is more important than its compact nature might at first suggest, as it writes against the dominant narrative currently available in Irish musicology. It should of course be remembered that musicology has only begun to flourish in Ireland relatively recently, and even today the study of Irish music is in some institutes not seen as a ‘serious’ pursuit — more than once I have come across senior figures, in institutes happy to teach composition to PhD level, who dismiss the study of Irish composition as ‘provincial.’ This strange post-colonial attitude has both informed some of the writing on music in Ireland to date, as well as perhaps limiting the level of engagement which has occurred: and so a small number of texts have tended to dominate the discourse. Unlike in other disciplines where each generation of writers has rigorously scrutinised the previous one, proposing revisionist stances or overturning previously held ideas with new research, musicology pertaining to Irish art music has frequently merely replicated and extended pre-existing ideas. Of course, direct comparison between the relative poverty of pre-20th-century Irish repertoire and, for example, Austro-German music from the same period can encourage a certain musicological despondency, particularly if one makes unrealistic comparisons between nations purely on the basis of size - being part of the Austro-Hungarian empire at the end of the 19th century is a very different musical context to being part of the impoverished colony of the ‘land without music’ still reeling from the social impact of the famine. More problematic is the propensity in much writing to project the despondency of the 19th century on to the 20th century and our own time via a sort of narrative of failure, which ignores the real achievement of Irish composers in the second half of the 20th century and beyond.

Dwyer’s introduction tackles these issues head-on, acknowledging the fragmentary and frayed aspect of our musical history, but also demonstrating that the reasons for this are more complex than they are sometimes portrayed as being. The first section interrogates the somewhat rose-tinted version of ascendancy 18th-century Dublin that has dominated musicological writing to date. For example, having noted Brian and Barra Boydell’s extensive writing depicting the 18th century as a golden period of music and inclusivity, he pauses to ask the awkward questions — how many people was this a golden period for? Who was the music for? And how good or at how professional a standard was it? In particular, Dwyer highlights how the short-term interests of the 18th-century elite were to negatively impinge on the development of music and musical infrastructures, in contrast to the standard texts which tend to posit the growth of nationalism in the 19th century as the scapegoat for all that has been wrong with the production of and reception of music in Ireland. Dwyer’s account of the 19th century again moves away from simple binary oppositions to a more complex and nuanced approach that takes in post-colonial and orientalist theory and examines in detail the British administration of education in Ireland. The evidence is not used to excuse the complete failure of the independent Irish state to address the deficit of both musical infrastructure and education which persists to this day, when levels of access to musical education are directly linked to both location within the country and one’s level of disposable income. Indeed, Dwyer highlights the way in which Ireland, having emerged from colonisation by Britain, quickly betrayed the socialist ideals that drove the move towards independence 100 years ago and submitted to new masters, first a quasi-theocratic one and more recently the religion of late-capitalist business.

As in previous sections of the book in which he examines music in relation to other art forms, Dwyer discusses the disparity of coverage between 20th-century literature and music. He makes the telling point that whereas literature has, post-Joyce and Beckett, for the most part left behind the experimental tradition in favour of a more commercial realism (or what he terms a post-colonial nostalgia), the period of this retreat in literature is the very point where experimentalism takes hold in music, a factor which along with the poor levels of music literacy in Ireland has helped to contribute to the paucity of coverage. He also addresses the inflated position Ó Riada has assumed in cultural studies in Ireland; while Ó Riada played a pivotal role in the traditional music revival and had a certain impact on the generation growing up in the 1950s and '60s via his film music, his contribution to Irish art music was negligible and awareness of his Nomoi among younger generations is minimal. The final section of the introduction focuses on issues of identity, feminism, politics and globalisation, highlighting the problems inherent in producing a music which is not viewed as easily commodified: either by a government which, via the Arts Council, distributes much of the funding used to sustain the various music infrastructures in Ireland, or by cultural commentators unable to move beyond a simplistic shorthand for Irish cultural identity.   

Unlike the approach taken in books of composer interviews such as Walter Zimmermann’s Desert Plants (Vancouver, 1976) or Kevin Volans’s Summer Gardeners (Durban, 1985), where the chosen composers can be seen in a general sense to share an aesthetic viewpoint, in Different Voices Dwyer has deliberately avoided narrowing the selection to one group or type of composer. The one thing these composers have in common is Ireland and yet even this is a loose connection as its nature varies from composer to composer; in some cases it is the place they were born, in others it is an adopted home or place where they found their musical voice. In terms of timeline, the book covers composers active from the late 1950s onwards. The chosen composers, aged from mid-20s to early 80s, are (in chronological order) Seóirse Bodley, Frank Corcoran, Jane O’Leary, Barry Guy, John Buckley, Kevin O’Connell, John McLachlan, Benjamin Dwyer (interviewed by Kevin O’Connell), Gráinne Mulvey, Siobhán Cleary, Nick Roth and Dorone Paris. This selection results in discussion of music ranging from the highly predetermined to the improvised and from works which are easily defined in terms of genre to works which defy such categorisation. Instead of any tidy account of composition in Ireland, here the different voices jostle against each other, sometimes converging on an idea but frequently providing the reader with a series of contrasting views in quick succession.

Certain themes recur from different angles. Several composers reflect on the sometimes circuitous route they took to being a composer, while the difficulties encountered by those who wanted to study composition in Ireland as recently as the mid-1980s is highlighted by Gráinne Mulvey, who could not find any Irish institute offering lessons in composition. The composers are asked questions which push them towards clear illumination of how they have reached their current aesthetic position and they are given the space to develop their ideas. Key works are discussed by each composer to illustrate their approach, and many of the composers discuss at length what makes up their signature in sound — or, in the case of Nick Roth, he explains why he feels, "If [empowerment of the performer] means to a certain degree sacrificing a sonic signature in place of a philosophical one, of course that is a sacrifice I would make gladly any day." The position of composers in contemporary society is also dissected and Dwyer asks most contributors whether or not a composer has a political role to play. The latter results in a wide range of answers, from Jane O’Leary’s "I really believe in art for art’s sake [...] The type of music I write is as far from reality as you can get [...] I can’t deal with art as a political statement" to Dorone Paris’s "I think it’s bad that people are still writing things that don’t mean anything [...] Art is for reflecting what the world actually is, not trying to pretend it’s something else." For those unfamiliar with the chosen composers’ music, there is a supporting website created by the Contemporary Music Centre ( which includes sound clips and videos of selected compositions by each composer.

Refreshingly for a book on Irish art music, the volume does not shy away from more controversial issues. Frank Corcoran outlines the narrow sectarian vision of music in Ireland when he was young, while Jane O’Leary is frank about how long it took for her to be accepted in the insular world of Irish music and Kevin O’Connell reflects on how he felt marginalised by changes in fashion for programmers in Ireland in the last few decades. Most composers comment on the huge increase in the number of Irish composers as can be seen from the ever-expanding list on the CMC website, but while Ireland in the past has been noted for its lack of a dominant school and the great individuality of its voices, several interviewees comment on the tendency in recent years towards uncritical group embracing of particular fashions — a generation who rushed to bang on an Irish can (not to mention promoters who hope to turn 21st-century Dublin into 1990s New York) and a younger generation who have discovered the joy of spectralism. We are asked if composers are now merely aping the not-so-latest import, as Kevin O’Connell puts it, arriving at the party 15 years too late. Attendance at events such as the Free State concerts show that there is still considerable diversity in Ireland, but the tendency of composers (of all ages) to form distinctive factions with different audiences and the tendency of programmers to sustain these factional divisions tends to mean these ideas do not get debated.

And then there is the issue of what I have referred to elsewhere as the transitory or disposable nature of composition. By this I am referring to the way in which many organisations fulfil their required quota of new music by hosting a constant stream of world premieres of works which are never given a repeat performance. As John Buckley notes, "Many orchestral works proclaimed as 'world premieres' might well have the advertising slogan of the late-18th-century press: 'Positively the last performance in this kingdom.'" On a similar note, Kevin O’Connell asks, "Does anybody remember Bo Nilsson? [He was] the Swedish whizz kid of the late '50s and early '60s [...] Like spring snow, he was there, then he was gone," while Frank Corcoran describes his teacher Boris Blacher as "the most wonderful man. He was the most successful composer in Germany until the day he died in 1975. The day he died everything stopped [...] because his publisher stopped pushing him." Jane O’Leary brings this idea closer to home, highlighting the lack of programming of Irish music from the 20th century, asking, "How many pieces by Jim Wilson have been performed since he died? None. Because he’s not alive to go screaming and shouting for his music to be played." Performers and promoters will decide whether in the future Different Voices is an essential guide to a living tradition or a fascinating guidebook to the dust-covered museum.

The days when composers might be interviewed by a national newspaper are clearly gone and there are few platforms available for non-commercial composers in Ireland. Within days of the launch of Dwyer’s book, the Irish Times announced a new series entitled ‘Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks’, which will focus on literature, painting, sculpture and architecture, with periodic appearances of "Irish music and song, Irish humour and Irish film", once again demonstrating the myopia of Irish media. The need for volumes like this one, which are both readable and informative, is therefore all the greater as a record of music creation in our time and to further promotion of new music in Ireland.

Dr Mark Fitzgerald completed his PhD on rhythmic structuring in the late works of Alban Berg at Trinity College Dublin in 2004. He was a postdoctoral fellow in the National University of Ireland, Maynooth from 2004–2008. He was appointed to his current position in DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama in September 2008.
Benjamin Dwyer, 'Different Voices: Irish Music and Music in Ireland' (Hofheim: Wolke Verlag, 2014).

Main photo (at top): Benjamin Dwyer. Photo by Brian Kavanagh