For over a year now, I have lived away from Ireland. It is perhaps something of a cliché, but sometimes you really do have to be on the outside to begin to understand your own culture, and it was not until this year that Irish musicallife began to really make any sense to me – from within, it looks and feels a swarming, anarchic being, full of activity, but following no logical organisation. There is, for example,no clear distinction between musical genres or styles in the way you find in other countries; where in Berlin – my adoptive city – there is a measurable distinction between various schools of musical practice, in Dublin, the lines are blurred, the traditions coalesce. Out of this culture, in late 2009, two classical musicians started a monthly night of music called Kaleidoscope. Held in a plush members’ club in Dublin’s city centre, Kaleidoscope brings together almost all the strands of the city’s musical culture. On a given night you might hear some Baroque music on period instru-ments, or a jazz band with Fender Rhodes piano, or some improvised electronic music played on laptops, or a new commission for string quartet follewed by a group combin-ing Middle Eastern melodies with traditional Irish instru-ments and ornamentation. The event is always booked out one week in advance. For me, it points to the absence of any crisis in contemporary music, at least in Ireland, but it also questions what contemporary music is and who it is for.
This is surely due, in part, to the country’s small popula-tion – it simply cannot sustain dozens of separate musi-cal cultures. But it also has to do with Ireland’s peripheral status and its complicated post-colonial history. It is out on the edge of Europe, an island nation, and it is out of the mainstream cultural discourse – or rather, it contributes from the fringes. Far from an impediment, this is enormous-ly freeing for the country’s musicians. Where in various countries in mainland Europe – and even in Great Britain to some extent – there can be an oppressive sense of dogma, Ireland is a country in which artists now feel free to make the work they want, without risk of estrangement on the basis of style or aesthetic. For composers, the absence of any substantial history of a classical music tradition is also freeing, though it comes with hazards, too. In the twenti-eth century, each generation of composers has had both the burden and opportunity of creating a tradition from the ground up. For the most part this has involved borrowing from the traditions of mainland Europe, and later the United States, sometimes creating strange hybrid aesthetics. Only composers of my generation – that is born in the late 1970s onward – would have found a precedent to be built on rather than replaced. It is also no coincidence that this generation was the first to reach adulthood in a relatively prosperous, modernised, liberal and diverse society. What-ever the recent economic disasters, there is no going back to the poverty and idealogical restrictiveness of previous decades.
These circumstances – artistic freedom, together with a strong foundation and a changing society – have led to an extraordinary confidence in the current emerging genera-tion of Irish composers. And the happiest development from this, as far as I can see, has been to give the culture not so much its own style, but its own ethos. At the heart of this ethos – which has really only emerged in the last two or three years as a noticeable trend – is a new desire for beauty in music, or rather, an acceptance of the idea of beauty being a valuable artistic pursuit. This might seem obvious, but in previous years, as in many composition cul-tures, there was sense that music is first an foremost about the intellect, and should be its most complex incarnation in sound. Even the music of American minimalist and post-minimalist composers, which has formed the most recent major influence on our Irish composition, was by design cold, cerebral, albeit often wonderful. Now, in Ireland, we hear words like ‘beauty’, ‘emotion’ and even ‘spiritual’ back in the discourse. As the composer Linda Buckley – whom we will return to later – said recently, ‘Beauty is not a dirty word’.
The most recent and high-profile example is Donnacha Den-nehy’s ‘That the night come’ (2010) – a song cycle based the poems of WB Yeats, written for the American soprano Dawn Upshaw and the Crash Ensemble, the group Dennehy founded in 1997. Dennehy, born in 1970, was one of those composers who, to a large part, still had to invent his own culture on fresh ground. He did this through the inventive-ness of his music, but also by creating a whole culture and audience around his music with the influence of Crash Ensemble in Dublin, who brought a completely new aes-thetic and energy to the Dublin music scene – at the time they followed the model of the Dutch tradition of Louis Andriessen and others, and New York groups like Bang on a Can. Dennehy’s music was, for the longest time, full of sharp corners, subversive and agressive – what one writer called ‘composition as vandalism’. In ‘That the night come’, you can hear a mellowing of Dennehy’s style, and the first song, ‘He wishes his beloved were dead’, shares all the melancholy of that title. But there is still the rigorous craft developed in Dennehy’s earlier music. To me, it is the finest current example of a this culture producing work that holds the head and the heart in equilibrium.
The American composer James Tenney – the most cerebral of composers in many ways – once defined musical genius as ‘feeling more deeply’. The question then arises: is it this emotional depth that makes the current crop of composers so interesting? There is no doubting the intensity of this new emotional engagement, but when we ask ‘what is the spirit of this music?’, it surely must be about more than the rejection of an ideology. I think think it is more sincere than that – in my eyes: as I see it, this trend in Irish music is fundamentally about a search for a state of ecstasy, the longing for an experience that actually goes beyond feeling. And this is not necessarily about religious experience – one could even argue that this trend is about the hunt – per-haps innocent, perhaps futile – for a contemporary, secular sublime.In this, these composers are remarkably close to much of the country’s traditional or folk music – Ireland’s most an-cient and embedded musical culture – which often aspires to the same kind of ecstatic experience through music, what the filmmaker Werner Herzog calls the ‘ecstatic truth’. Another recent piece by Dennehy engages with one part of this tradition, the sean-nós singing tradition. ‘Grá agus Bás’ (2007) is a twenty-five minute work for Crash Ensemble and Iarla Ó Lionáird, a leading singer from the sean-nós, or old style, tradition. Sean-nós is typically unaccompanied, heavily ornamented and almost always sung in the Irish language. In ‘Grá agus Bás’ – which is Irish for ‘love and death’ – Dennehy has deconstructed two songs from this tradition, fragmenting and re-contexualising them, or rather obsessing over their smallest details. Dennehy was ‘in-spired by moments of ecstasy’ in these songs. He focusses on the confusion, or deliberate ambiguity, between plea-sure and pain found in these sean-nós lyrics, where love and death are closely bound, if not the same thing.
[...] Dá tiocfadh sa ghreann dúinn clan do dhéanamh,‘So go mbeifeá séantach insan ghníomh,Gur ghearr on mbás mé,...‘S im ghóist im aonar bheinn romhat sa tslí.
[...] If it happened in our pleasure that we made a child,And if you were to deny the deed,I would be near death...And as a ghost on my own I would be before you on the road.
Dennehy’s vehicle for ecstatic experience is surely this obsessive twisting of the material, persistent repetition, as well as the exhuberance of his rhythmic writing. But other composers appear to be after the same thing through dif-ferent means.One of these is Linda Buckley (b. 1979), whom I mentioned earlier. The youngest of nine children, Buckley grew up on a dairy farm in Kinsale, County Cork, in the south west of the country. Buckley, too, is undeniably influenced by Ireland’s traditional music, having grown up in its midst – she is an accomplished sean-nós singer in her own right, as well as a devoted player of Javanese gamelan and is known as much for her electronic music as her instrumental output. Buckley, too, seeks this state of ecstasy in her music, but her method is more gentle than that of Dennehy, once her teacher. In Buckley’s music, the ecstatic experience is sought through immersion in the material – she wants you to get inside the piece; then it is about sitting there and letting something happen. The opening of her recent or-chestral piece, ‘Chiyo’ (2011), does this. At first, it sounds like the most innocent material – a little scale derived from Léonin, worked tenderly, almost lazily. But by the end of the first section you realise that something is taking effect, like a drug administered in small doses. Now you feel the process, the slow unknotting of material’s inner turmoil, as if it is asking what lies beyond itself.
You also hear this approach in Buckley’s string trio, ‘Fíol’ (2008), too. ‘Fíol’ just means ‘viol’ in the Irish language, but without the fada, or accent, the word means ‘blood’ – my guess is the possible ambiguity was not lost on the com-poser who gravitates towards the darker subjects. In ‘Fíol’ we again here Buckley’s way of letting the material play itself out. Touchingly, Buckley also brings in ornaments, harking back to the Baroque tradition she so admires, as much as her traditional Irish music heritage – the increas-ingly common use of ornamentation in recent Irish composi-tion seems double as a light provocation to the music’s critics.
Also in this piece, you can feel the composer focussing intently on the sounds, as if they are mandalas, capable of inducing the state of ecstasy she seeks. This concentration on, or perhaps sincerity with, material is another hallmark of Irish composition in recent years – a sense of composers loving the material and being content to do so.Another composer who does this is Simon O’Connor (b. 1975), who has written almost exclusively very slow and contemplative music in the last ten years – always with this sincerity that seeks to dig so intensely into the material, as if to find a way beyond it. O’Connor’s music is completely unassuming - even moreso than Buckley’s, I hear in it the same desire to reach some other type of experience; he is simply very patient with the process but knows, like the most devoted monk, that point of trancendence will happen in a single moment when it is least expected. O’Connor is loving with his material; he is not as prolific as the oth-ers, and perhaps the spareness in his output results in this sense that one could live and die in the duration of a single note.
The last composer I will mention today is perhaps the most awkward fit, but he is the surest example of someone from that empowered generation who can feel that anything is possible, while knowing that it is still best to do as little as possible. Garrett Sholdice (b. 1983), another Dubliner, does not expose the heart in his music. And yet, while he surely composes with a theoretical and analytical mind above all else – comparing his thoughts to that of an architect, Sholdice’s music is as much in search of an ecstatic sublime as that of the other composers mentioned here. Sholdice doesn’t share the love Ireland’s traditional music heritage with Dennehy, Buckley and O’Connor, nor do I hear in his music their existentialism. But where these are personal composers, Sholdice is a standard bearer for the craft - his experience is that of a shared culture, a worldly one, and so much of his music connects the traditions he holds dear, from Bach to Javanese gamelan. It is as if he doesn’t bal-ance the mind and the heart, but finds a way to make the intellect feel. For Sholdice, to paraphrase his one of his heros, Morton Feldman, that moment of ecstasy will be in the execution of a perfect chord on the right instruments at the right time.
Benedict Schlepper-Connolly is a composer and producer born in Dublin. He is a Director of the music company Ergodos and is Editor of The Journal of Music.