No Brain Required

There is great satisfaction in producing an issue of JMI that contains reviews of both contemporary Irish music and sean-nós singing, if only because one does not observe this same sort of coupling often in Irish musical life. The division in understanding that exists between ‘classical’ and ‘traditional’ music in Ireland is a feature of our society today just as it has been in our history. Some of the articles in this issue point us to reasons why.

It would be exciting to think that, in some way, this coupling of genres might be a portent for the kind of musical life we can all look forward to some day, but for that new musical life to come into being the present conservatism will have to be flushed out. Unfortunately, it is not only the conservatism of those who are at present loudspeakers for the shaping of Irish musical life that we are faced with, but also the growing control over Ireland of the tenets of the market-driven society. Conservatism caused by historical biases or ignorance is one thing, but now it has the facility of hiding behind the lack of adventure inherent in consumerism and the dumbing-down demands of market economics.

Take, for example, Lyric FM. Essentially Ireland’s classical music station, receiving 35 per cent of its funding from the licence fee, it also features some jazz and ‘world music’. You won’t hear sean-nós singing on this station, and perhaps we don’t expect that (yet), but one expects the station to get right, at the very least, one of the most obvious components of its public service remit, that is, to play the music of living Irish composers. In fact, Lyric’s output in this regard has deteriorated.

In the May/June issue of JMI last year, composer Raymond Deane severely criticised the station for the fact that is has ‘cut to the bone the amount of new Irish music that it broadcasts’. Since then, with no sign of things getting any better, a delegation from the composer members of Aosdána have met with Lyric to try and reverse the trend.

Music by living composers (not necessarily Irish) is crammed into one short programme a week, as well the odd live concert. Indeed, what has really galled Irish composers is the fact that when recordings of contemporary music concerts are made – at great expense to Lyric FM – they are played only once and then consigned to the archives. Lyric therefore has an incredible archive of live music by living Irish composers stretching back to FM3 days (its predecessor), which has cost the Irish taxpayer a small fortune to create, but which we never hear.

With over a third of its funding coming from the Irish people, Lyric’s public service broadcasting remit is by no means inconsiderable. Irish composers are seeking to have music by living composers become just 5 per cent of the broadcasting output, but Lyric resists on the basis that they are under pressure to maintain and increase their listenership figures in order to continue to entice advertisers.

Surely there is a balance to be found here. It appears obvious that biases and a distinct lack of vision are getting in the way – plus the belief that they think they can get away with it. And if Lyric do believe that there is no audience for contemporary music – a theory untested – why then are they not doing more to build it up? We need substance in our broadcasting and we need to be challenged musically and intellectually. We need the work of our artists to be widely disseminated and our culture interrogated. For generations, those in control in Ireland have been complacent about such matters, gradually letting Ireland’s cultural life slip pathetically into the hands of any money-making half-baked philosophy that keeps the punters quiet. At present, there is a generation of young composers and performers coming up who, because of structures and resources now in place, have a much better chance of having their voices heard than did generations of artists past. Consider the youthful energy of the recent Up North! festival or the phenomenal amount of young traditional music talent. Are young people really going to tolerate another twenty years of mediocrity and poor-mouth excuses from those who will profoundly affect their artistic futures?

Ireland has youthful dynamism in abundance, but the country makes no creative use of that talent and energy beyond keeping the multi-nationals and the economy ticking over. How ironic it is that politicians and media commentators moaned for years about the ‘brain drain’ of emigration during the 1980s, and when all the young people finally did stay in the country from the mid 1990s onwards, the best Ireland could do with them was to create a consumer society where no brain is required at all.

January 2003

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