The Edges of Revolt

What makes a political folk opera work? Do traditional musicians go far enough in their experimentations? And what is the ‘social side’ of classical music? Toner Quinn reflects on a range of questions raised by the musical riches at this year’s Kilkenny Arts Festival.

I’m picking up fragments of a conversation at the next table in Kilkenny’s Marble City Bar. It’s initially good humoured but then starts to heat up. ‘The EU is a German project, not a European project!… What Ireland should do is… What we need is… no, no, no… listen, that won’t happen…”. The accents are Irish, British, Eastern European. Nothing special about a chat like that in Ireland these days? If you were at Kilkenny Arts Festival this year, it certainly felt different.

The previous night I had attended Counting Sheep, a folk opera by musicians Mark and Marichka Marczyk and featuring the Lemon Bucket Orkestra. There was something about the way Festival Director Eugene Downes spoke about it as he introduced a different concert on the Monday night that compelled me to go. ‘It’s about freedom,’ he said, pausing, still obviously dwelling on the performance he’d seen that night.

There are two ways of attending Counting Sheep, ’viewing’ and ‘immersive’. Immersive enter first. Marichka sits at the piano playing accompaniment to Mark Marczyk’s fiddle. We sit at, or around, a table (the viewing audience are seated further back) and a cast of perhaps ten begin to serve food and drink – bread, broth and bright-coloured drinks. Moments later, the Ukrainian special police – the Berkut – will appear and forcefully charge down the table. The audience scatter. What was festive turns into horror – with the audience at the centre. Continue reading


From Crisis to Combustion

Daring performances in ‘The Second Violinist’, a new opera by Donnacha Dennehy and Enda Walsh premiered at the Galway International Arts Festival, explore a range of personal and musical crises, writes Toner Quinn.

Where does it all go wrong for musicians? How do they get to the stage where they waste their gifts? For those who are close to them it can be perplexing, but musicians and composers naturally carry a large bag of insecurities. One slight jolt can change everything.

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Music in the Wake of Manchester

The suicide bombing at Manchester Arena was the second such attack at a music event in two years. What is to be the role of music in this ‘age of anger’, asks Toner Quinn.

I was going to surprise my daughter the next morning with some chat about Ariana Grande.

It was Monday night around 11.25pm. Winding down, I was watching a Hozier song cover and scrolling through the comments. Someone pointed to another of his covers, of Ariana Grande’s ‘Problem’.

Ariana Grande, a name I hear often. A star that compels my daughter to sit as near as possible to the TV whenever she’s on. I would listen to the cover and tell my nine-year-old about it. As I switched between Hozier, Grande singing ‘Problem’ and other YouTube suggestions, suddenly a New York Times alert flashed up in the corner of my screen: ‘Ariana Grande… bombing… Manchester.’ I thought my tired eyes had mixed up the lines on my computer screen. But no.
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Concertina Journey

Concertina player Cormac Begley’s creative journey has been one to watch, and his new solo album is an assertive next step, writes Toner Quinn.

With so much commentary on traditional music giving the impression of homogeneity – a music that carries heritage, ancestry, regional styles and community values in one go – it is worth emphasising that all creative journeys in this genre are actually unique. Where musicians end up may be reminiscent of one or other artist; how they got there is not.

Concertina player Cormac Begley’s creative journey has been one to watch. As a student of psychology in Galway in 2008 he founded the concert series Tunes in the Church. In 2015, he established Airt, a residential school for musicians and artists in his family home of West Kerry.  Continue reading

At the Heart of Fiddle-Playing

Liam O’Connor’s first solo album strikes the balance between virtuosity and style, writes Toner Quinn.

The 1960s and 1970s were breakthrough decades for Irish traditional music, triggering a climb in popularity that continued right up to the 1990s.

In terms of fiddle playing, the ‘post-peak’ generation that rose to prominence after the 1990s, in an even more diverse environment, have continued to produce original approaches. Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, Zoë Conway, Ciarán Ó Maonaigh, Breda Keville, Malachy Bourke and Liam O’Connor – all of whom would have been born within a decade of each other – illustrate the diversity of fiddle styles today. If Bourke and Keville work on a compact area of musical ground; and Ó Raghallaigh and Conway are innovators; then Ó Maonaigh and O’Connor lie between, drawing in wider influences but always second to intense solo and duet playing. Continue reading

Goodbye to the Storytellers

Johnny Óg Connolly’s new song cycle for Liam Ó Maonlaí captured a range of atmospheres, from mystery to melancholy, writes Toner Quinn.

It’s never enough of course, but the Arts Council’s Deis scheme continues to fuel interesting projects that are opening up new possibilities in traditional music, from the successful launch of the inaugural Achill International Harp Festival last October to the live recording of This is How We Fly’s second album in January, and many more projects before and after. 

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The Classical Music Establishment Strikes Back

Michael Dervan’s new book, ‘The Invisible Art: A Century of Music in Ireland 1916–2016’, is, like the Composing the Island festival last September, an attempt at addressing the ‘invisibility of composers in Irish life’ – but not all composers, writes Toner Quinn.

For a time as a teenager all I wanted to be was a composer. I sought out biographies of the greats, from Bach to Ravel, read manuals on orchestration, entered competitions. Then my performance side developed more and it took a back seat, but my abiding interest in the craft of composition stems from those days.

My early idea of a composer reflected my music education – the classic, pyramid type: classical music at the top and folk music at the bottom, starting with plainchant and working its way through fugue, sonata form, Sturm und Drang, serialism, and all the other agreed signposts. Once I learned more about traditional music, classical music, popular music and the wider contemporary music world, that pyramid dissolved into a world with not so much a clear structure, but rather a sparkling criss-crossing world of personal and community expression that could be understood in much more open ways. Continue reading

Irish Musicians, Do Not Normalise This Hatred

A line has been crossed. Will Irish musicians and composers participate in the new US regime?

The Friday before the presidential election, I attended a Music for Galway concert by the JACK Quartet from New York. The final piece in the concert, Early That Summer, was written by the American composer Julia Wolfe. About that work she has written:

While living in Amsterdam [in 1992] I began Early That Summer. I was reading a book about US political history and the author kept introducing small incidents with phrases like ‘Early that summer…’. The incidents would eventually snowball into major political crises or events. I realized that the music I was writing was exactly like this – that I was creating a constant state of anticipation and forward build…

The last line describes the final moments of the work in particular. The four members of the JACK – Chris Otto, Austin Wulliman, John Pickford Richards and Kevin McFarland – play flying notes and intervals. Their familiarity with the work means they can push it and stretch it; it is a high-wire act, almost alarming in its pace. Sizzling intervals spring from the violins; cello releases irate notes; viola is mediating in intervals. We are seized by Wolfe’s musical propulsion… there are no clues as to where it is going… and then it stops. The quartet play restrained simple intervals, light bowing, a modicum of vibrato, gradually coming to a halt. The concert ends and the audience begin to leave. I find I am still in my seat.
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Which Political Party Should Get the Music Vote?

The Journal of Music looks at what the parties are promising for music.

What is the Government’s vision for our musical future? How can we ensure that young musicians realise their potential? How should Ireland’s music infrastructure be developed over the next five or ten years? How can we help musicians and composers achieve international success?

As long as basic services such as health and housing are inadequate, it is difficult to generate detailed or prolonged public discussion on music. Nevertheless, those concerned about Irish musical life do have a case to make. The figures are there – Arts Council funding, upon which music is heavily dependent, has been cut by 29% since 2007.  Continue reading

Will 2016 be a Turning Point for the Irish Harp?

Having a harp on our coins only really matters if we give meaning to that symbolism, writes Toner Quinn.

In the summer of 2014, I returned from three days at An Chúirt Chruitireachta, the Irish harp school that has taken place in Termonfeckin, Co. Louth, for thirty years. That evening, I happened upon a discussion on RTÉ 1’s Primetime about the Irish Government’s then budgetary plans.

It wasn’t long before I began to notice the large image intermittently flashing up on the television screen behind the discussion. It is an image that in Ireland we have become so used to that it is sometimes almost invisible to us, and yet there it was, at the heart of our national affairs, its presence a perennial reminder of the depth of Irish musical expression, and it is still reaching out to us one thousand years on. Continue reading