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

Time to Reignite the Fight for Music in 2016

RTÉ Lyric FM is in the news because of its schedule changes, but the strength of the response is a positive thing.

As 2016 begins, and the economy starts to recover after the crash, how will musical life in Ireland fare? Will it benefit in proportion to the improving economy? 

In Ireland, the cost of music is underestimated. Music is expensive. Musicians and composers of all genres develop their work over decades and they require a substantial infrastructure of venues, promoters and organisations to assist them in reaching their potential and creating the experiences that enrich our lives and our society. Continue reading

Why We Need a Traditional Music Infrastructure

The world of the professional traditional musician appears to be contracting, writes Toner Quinn.

First published in The Journal of Music on 7 July 2015.

In 2012, when we launched a listings service on The Journal of Music, it was in an effort to capture what was happening musically, as in concerts, festivals and other performances. There are not enough writers and editors in the world to track the range of activity in contemporary music life, but using the internet and enabling readers to contribute suddenly presented that opportunity. The key was creating a listings service that was flexible enough to accommodate a huge range of styles, but organised enough to make sense of it all.

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The End (and the Beginning) of the Experimental Music Festival

Published in The Journal of Music on 29 April 2015

Far from ‘anything goes’, programming a festival of experimental music may be the most difficult type of all. With a new artistic director, the Borealis festival in Bergen, Norway, seized the challenge, writes Toner Quinn.

A brown duffle coat and a cap pulled down. A full, warm, airless room. The audience stood close to the small stage. Shoulders up, he walked around the stage. Hands first in pockets, then wrapped fully around the microphone, then in his pockets again. Halted, at times breathless, conversation; sparks of humour; he would withdraw to the back of the stage to examine his guitar, pick a few notes, then put it down again. He circled the stage a few times more, and then Richard Dawson walked to the front left corner without his guitar, closed his eyes and sang.

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Who Will Invest in Irish Music?

(Published in The Journal of Music on 10 March 2015)

The next steps for the Irish music industry require ‘strong leadership’, says a new report, but where will it come from?

A little while ago, I had a conversation with a man in Conamara, someone who has spent forty years campaigning for the Irish language.

As he related to me some of the details of his campaigns – regular tussles with the state, attemping to elicit support for the minority language community in the west – a question occurred to me: in those forty years, I asked, had any private individual of means ever approached him, intimated that he or she appreciated his efforts, and offered financial support for his ambitious ideas. The answer, to my genuine surprise, was no.

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