A Composer of Destiny
PLUS Biography (Courtesy of Peer Music Publishing, 2005).
"I've never really been able to fully concentrate on making music and I think in a couple of years I may move into composing, records and concerts full-time and just see how far I can go," said Micheal O Suilleabhain as he passed the half-way point in his five-year plan as Professor of Music at University College Limerick.
How far he might go has long been a tempting speculation for more than O Suilleabhain. In a work schedule for which the word "tight" seems inadequate, his various lecturing duties across the world, writing papers and specialist articles on Irish traditional music studies, book editing, chairing numerous traditional music archives in Ireland, London and Boston, record production and broadcasting - he wrote, presented and performed in the acclaimed television series on Irish music, River of Sound, all compete for his time with composition and performance.
In 1995, this academic who set up the Irish World Music Centre at UCL with its specialist interests in music technology, ethnomusicology, ethnochoreology, even joined that bastion of Boom Bang-a-Bang simplicity, the Eurovision Song Contest, where his composition Lumen proved the highlight of a show watched by an estimated 400 million viewers.
Featuring Irish singers Maire Brennan, Noirin Ni Riain and Brian Kennedy, the Monks of Glenstal Abbey, percussionist Evelyn Glennie and a whole team of Irish traditional players alongside the RTE Symphony Orchestra, Lumen went on to instant chart success in Ireland after the broadcast.
It's O Suilleabhain's series of albums for Virgin Venture, beginning with the set of piano and percussion improvisations The Dolphin's Way in 1987 and continuing with orchestral compositions such as the stunning Oilean/The Island, that makes the possibility of his complete concentration on composition and performance at some stage such a mouth-watering prospect, however.
Born and raised in Clonmel, in County Tipperary, O Suilleabhain took to music as soon as he could bop around in his pram. His grocery store-owning parents weren't overtly musical, although he recalls his father singing and playing mouth organ when he could be persuaded, but they recognised young Micheal's aptitude and sent him to classical piano lessons with one of their customers.
The piano was fine for playing the rock music which "excited even parochial Ireland" in the 1960s. But when, as a Music student at Cork, thanks to the evangelical work and seemingly all-pervasive and immeasurable influence of composer/broadcaster/record producer/professor of music Sean O Riada, O Suilleabhain experienced his epiphany with both the Irish tradition and language, he was faced with a problem.
"I was either playing the wrong instrument or the wrong music," he says. "I could have tried forgetting Irish music and playing Chopin or giving up the piano and playing Irish music on the uilleann pipes, I suppose, but the piano was the first instrument I fell in love with. I play several other instruments but I can't communicate at the same intimate level on them as I can on piano. So I developed the cultural software, if you like, to devise a way of playing this music on the piano."
The first evidence international audiences heard of his successful experiments came on The Dolphin's Way, a record which showed keyboard artistry with complete sensitivity to the Irish tradition and brought O Suilleabhain favorable comparisons with jazz pianists Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea (neither of whom he had previously heard).
Subsequent releases, such as Oilean/The Island, from 1989, and Becoming, released in 1998, have combined his piano playing with compositions and/or adaptations of traditional themes for his beloved Irish Chamber Orchestra (Becoming itself is based on the song Casadh an tSugain and Letting Go, from the same album, is based on Brid Og Ni Mhaille), always bearing in mind the part improvisation plays within the tradition.
"When I write for traditional instruments such as the pipes, I always honour their need for spontaneity," says O Suilleabhain. "Similarly, when I play with the Orchestra, I'll write in spaces for me to improvise in and keep them waiting, it could be ten seconds, it could be three minutes, and within the obvious constraints there'll be different piano chords, or whatever, every time we play a piece."
O Suilleabhain's compositions often suggest a strong visual image. Parts of Becoming were actually written with a film in mind, Irish Destiny, dating from 1925 and one of the earliest full-length silent movies made in Ireland, but generally the visual aspect is in the mind of the hearer rather than the composer.
"I remember going down to Kerry with Sean O Riada around 1970 and the scenery hit me like a huge gong sound," he says. "But I've never tried to articulate that in music. I'm never really aware of landscapes, say, when I'm writing. I do often think of people dancing, though. (Must Be More) Crispy, from the Gaiseadh album, is very gestural, although nobody's choreographed it to my knowledge, and there's a piece on Becoming - Around the House, which was composed for a group of Irish set dancers and, to me, invites people to dance around the room. Yeah, maybe I should issue instructions with these records."
"Everything is a ritual, from shopping to Voodoo Trance dance to the Roman Catholic mass," says composer, academic and performer Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin. As founder of the Irish World Music Centre at the University of Limerick (where he also holds the position of the first Chair of Music), Ó Súilleabháin is one of few people in Ireland who can talk with both arcane knowledge and burbling enthusiasm about the place of Irish traditional music in society – past and present.
We meet in a chattering, clattering restaurant at the Irish World Music Centre, where Ó Súilleabháin – in a manner of speaking - holds court in a fashion that could reasonably be described as royal. He's a big, broad, ebullient and vastly intelligent man with a healthy shock of greying leonine hair. His voice, however, doesn't boom across the eatery with self-regarding regal ownership (a man for all seasonings?). Despite his obvious authority he comes across as someone who considers, listens and responds. On the way to his small office for our official chat, we stop off at one of the centre's many lunchtime concerts. Ó Súilleabháin is all ears for the time we are there, amidst the student body and casual visitors, searching through the music and performance for nuance and form, structure and balance.
He was born in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, in 1950. It was then, Mícheál says, a provincial garrison town with no real Irish traditional music history. The town boasted a good brass band and choral society, and he grew up in that musical environment. There was no overt music tradition in the Ó Súilleabháin household, no musical instruments, no record player. His father, however, played the mouth organ, and Mícheál retrospectively reckons he inherited from that without realising it. "I think music communicates in all types of interesting ways," he comments in the relative calm of an office that threatens to unfold with an avalanche of dissertations and theses. (Sample bed-time reading titles: Post Vatican II Church Music; Traditional Music in the Ottawa Valley.) "You've got body language, gestures, feet tapping and the nervous drumming of fingers on tables. There are all kinds of ways that sounds can be transmitted in body attitudes. You inherit more than you realise."
Virtually before he realised it, Mícheál became a 1960s teenager. With a passion for the in-built excitement of The Beatles and rock'n'roll he formed a series of pop and rock bands. He was also studying classical piano with a local teacher. The two forms existed as separate musical languages, but he had to admit that his social standing as an adolescent increased more through his involvement in pop than classical. At the age of 18, with inherent respect for where pop culture came from but realising that membership of the pop aristocracy was not to be, Mícheál left provincial Clonmel for the brighter lights of Cork's UCC to study classical music. It was here where Sean O'Riada taught. (O'Riada, a composer in the European art tradition who looked to Irish traditional music for inspiration and new directions, has often been described as Ireland's musical equivalent of Yeats.) The effect of O'Riada on the young Ó Súilleabháin was galvanising.
He went to Cork thinking that Irish traditional music was for the birds, he says; that it was silly music, passé, boring. "It seemed to be always out of tune and associated with an aspect of Irish republicanism and Roman Catholic ideology. It was a green package that I reacted very strongly against, a culture that was smaller than what culture could be - inherently dishonest, trying to contain culture within an ideological message."
Of course, what Ó Súilleabháin thought he was hearing as traditional music was not traditional music at all. Rather it was a particular diluted version of it on lunchtime Irish radio. Remember the muted clarion call of ‘If you're going to sing a song make sure it's an Irish one'? Well, Ó Súilleabháin was having none of that. He says he wasn't in touch with the real thing, but adds that O'Riada was. One of a huge number of his generation who was inspired by O'Riada, Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin's personality was such that he could not select one musical form or ideology over another. Instead of deciding to be a classical musician or a pop musician or a traditional musician he had to sit at the crossroads, so to speak, with the conflict of confluence. It is sitting with the conflict that the music he has created has come out.
The same is true of anything he has done educationally. He began working in UCC in the mid-1970s as a lecturer of music, integrating classical music with traditional musicians in a shared curriculum. At the same time, he twin-tracked his university job with performance, composition and recording, the two lives always bouncing off each other. Come the late 1980s, Ó Súilleabháin felt that the work he had been so assiduously involved in at UCC had come to the boil. "Instead of pushing something up a hill," he neatly explains, "I was trying to hold it from going down the other side."
In 1993, Limerick University built its campus Concert Hall and established a Chair of Music. At the same time, a Chair of Music was established in Cork. Ó Súilleabháin knew that in going for the two positions he might get neither, but for a variety of reasons he went for the fresh ground. When he began at Limerick, it was very much a square-one scenario. He says an idea he had was to establish a post-graduate studies centre which would focus on the often abstract notion of Irishness and cultural globalisation in tandem with his then RTE television series, River of Sound. "I had a poetic notion of a traditional river going into a river of globalisation, estuary and source, etc. It was a mythological thing," he says offhandedly, as if he's well used to thinking along these lines on a daily basis. "It was about how you can maintain an identity in the flow of the ocean, so to speak. The analogy only goes so far, of course…"
But also far enough. Now entering its ninth year of existence, the Irish World Music Centre hosts research programmes at Masters and Doctoral levels, a specialised research library, over a thousand visiting musicians, dancers, academics, newly commissioned music and dance and a suite of nine taught one-year full-time Masters and post-graduate programmes. In 1995, a year after the IWMC's founding, significant private sponsorship (including £500,000 from Toyota Ireland) allowed the centre to establish itself as one of the foremost commissioning agents for new music and dance in Ireland. (It is already the most active University Centre in the world in the area of Irish music and Irish dance studies.)
"Calling it the Irish World Music Centre got me into trouble straight away," opines Mícheál, "because people thought I was talking about world music as a commodity, as in the CD rack in a record shop. Of course, it is a marketing thing, but I was thinking about it more as an awareness, a consciousness in a particular social context. In the world we live you can no longer really talk about any music without having that consciousness."
By the summer of 1995, Ó Súilleabháin had concocted a plan which played as much to local as to international strengths. Linking the local with the global, the touchstone for him was the actual learning environment. "I looked around me and thought it was the best place in the world to study traditional music and dance, so we developed that."
Yet he had always felt there was an inherent problem of Irish people studying Irish music in Ireland. Broadly speaking, he regarded the social, almost gossipy intimacy of knowing whose father/mother is who and whether this or that musician played in this or that Ceile band as being too incestuous. Ó Súilleabháin determined that by linking such a local knowledge into ethnomusicology (the academic study of traditional music world-wide), he would be connecting it into an international discipline which isn't about any one kind of music, but rather theoretical concepts of traditional music in society. "It's all about how music changes under certain conditions – the process, institutalisation, commercialisation and migration systems relative to music. The application of those theoretical models to Irish music is what has been happening at the Centre."
Now, however, it is consolidation time for the Centre. Or as Mícheál phrases it: "It's got to go back in a way and gather up its roots." Staff at the Centre work in a way that is stitched into their lives. The feeling you receive as you walk around the bustling beehive offices is that nobody seems to treat it as a job. Motivation is therefore high, but the in-built danger is overwork and an accompanying freefall into stress. Currently, the unit is still small enough to have a firm sense of community. The challenge for staff and students will be to attempt to protect the Centre's special energy from matters common to university life – the dense fog of low morale and creeping territorialism.
But what of Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin and his twin-tracking? Ask him does he see his academic and performance functions as one and the same, and he replies that they're different things. "If you follow them back into my own psychological state, such as it is, they obviously come out of the same thing. A lot of the academic work is for other people. It's social work, really. You're creating patterns and trapdoors and energy points of access to people within an educational environment. When you're producing the work for yourself, it's a very different energy and it inevitably translates back into another part of yourself." Ask him what does he enjoy the most, and he diplomatically says " both of them."
"Administration is perceived as being dull," he comments. "For me it puts me in a learning environment. If I locked myself in a room all my life to make music, it would take me outside a certain social environment. It seems to me the people thing is very important. There's huge stimulation in that sense. Also, there's the other part of the mind that is non-musical, which is more rational that draws me: the articulation of what music means, the writing about it. But that is not enough to satisfy me, and I'm very aware that the deeper point is the actual musical path itself, the one that is linked down into the deepest part of me. Which I ignore at great peril."
With regard to Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin's music, it's clear that it stems from the twin points of purity and fusion, and is created by a person who has enormous respect for balance. As someone who says he can prove scientifically to anyone anywhere that Irish music is not about purity, he also says that we cannot dismiss the notion of centrality and the importance of continuity of traditional music.
"As an academic I know that purity is not what it's all about," he maintains. "The history of Irish music is one of fusion, but not the dramatic fusion you get now. That's one of the main reasons why the Irish World Music Centre was set up. You can dilute a music out of existence through fusion. It is potentially a dangerous process. But it is no more dangerous and maybe less dangerous than cultural fundamentalism. Within the context of Irish music, I would describe that as a romanticised, idealised version of a past. When you follow cultural fundamentalism down to its ultimate line you arrive at fascism, racism, exclusivity and the notion of the other as somehow dangerous. There's also the matter of ownership of culture. As an Irish person this is very disappointing to me. Why can't we share it?"
By Tony Clayton-Lea
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