Why are We Forgetting the Tune Composers?

Fiddle-player and composer Brendan McGlinchey (Portrait by Mike Lancaster – www.mikelancasterportraits.co.uk)

Why are We Forgetting the Tune Composers?

In 2014, without explanation, the TG4 Gradam Ceoil award for traditional music composition was dropped. Given the current thriving tune compositon scene, Dave Flynn asks why.

Is it possible to compose a ‘traditional’ Irish tune? Yes it is, and many living composers have not only composed ‘traditional’ music but have subtly evolved the tradition through their tunes. Between 2001 and 2013, this art was recognised by the annual TG4 Gradam Ceoil Irish traditional music awards. Living composers such as Paddy Fahey, Tommy Peoples and Liz Carroll were honoured for their work. As the Irish-languge television station’s website states,

Gradam Ceoil TG4 recognizes the importance of constantly adding to our vibrant dance music repertoire by presenting Gradam an Chumadóra [Composer’s Award] each year. Much of the work of these composers has already become a part of the tradition, regularly played at sessions and recorded by other artists. 

Yet in 2014, without explanation, the award was dropped. It was as if the practice of composing tunes had suddenly stopped. The art of Irish tune composition is in fact thriving, but due to the oral nature of traditional music there may be a lack of awareness of traditional music composers – and who has composed what.

Ironically, the winner of this year’s main award, the outstanding accordion player Máirtín Ó Connor, is also a renowned composer and in fact the awards ceremony featured one of his remarkable pieces, ‘The Trip to Gort’. He recently published a collection of 60 tunes. Siobhán Long has written in the Irish Times:

…his cache of original compositions along with his store of traditional tunes would offer a lifetime of listening …. Even the most cursory listen to his tune ‘The Road West’ reveals a musician who has never let the limitations of human anatomy limit the intricacies of his compositions. 

This reinforces how short-sighted it was to drop Gradam an Chumadóra. O’Connor is one of dozens of composers who have been overlooked in the process. It would be impossible to mention them all, but below I list several, and some of their compositions, many of which are session standards.

Martin Mulhaire, for example, the accordionist from East Galway, has composed many tunes including ‘The Golden Keyboard’, ‘Martin Mulhaire’s No. 9’, ‘The Old Thatched House’ and ‘Carmel Mahoney Mulhaire’. These tunes are now so much a part of the tradition that very few people realise their composer has a name and is still alive!

The same is true of Brendan McGlinchey, the influential fiddler from Armagh, whose popular compositions include ‘McGlinchey’s Reel’ and ‘Splendid Isolation’. I once attended a fiddle class with him in which a young fiddler played a tune and he asked her if she knew the name of it. When she replied, he told her the name she had was wrong: ‘I can tell you it’s actually called “Sweeney’s Buttermilk”’, he said with a smile. ‘You know why I know that? Because I composed it.’ The young fiddler was amazed! McGlinchey reassured her it wasn’t the first time someone played him his tune without knowing that he composed it.

The composing gifts of fiddle-player Maurice Lennon, a founding member of Stockton’s Wing, are comparable to his uncle Charlie Lennon. Among Maurice’s numerous tunes, ‘The Trip to London’ and ‘The Golden Stud’ have entered the wider tradition through Stockton’s Wing, and ‘The Stone of Destiny’ emerged from his ambitious Brian Boru Suite to become a session favourite. 

Tony ‘Sully’ Sullivan, a prolific banjoing composer, has produced several tune-books. His music, including popular session tunes such as ‘The Roaring Barmaid’, ‘Exile of Erin’ and ‘The Butlers of Glen Avenue’, has been recorded by artists such as Lúnasa and Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill.

Brooklyn accordionist Billy McComiskey, a former member of the group Trian with Liz Carroll, is the composer of such ubiquitous tunes as ‘The Commodore’ and ‘The Controversial Reel’. His compositions are particularly popular on the Irish-American scene.

Dinny McLaughlin, the Inishowen fiddler, had many of his tunes published in Dinny McLaughlin: From Barefoot Days – A Life Of Music Song & Dance In Inishowen (2005) by Liz Doherty. Both Doherty and the group Altan regularly champion his work, for example ‘The Jinkin’ Mermaid’ and ‘The Gally Canter’.

Cork fiddler Connie O’Connell composed the standard reel ‘The Torn Jacket’. His album Ceol Cill Na Martra further displays his ability to compose beautiful tunes with ingenious, subtle twists. University College Cork hosts a collection of his compositions online.

Marcus Hernon, the Conamara flautist and composer, published the album/tune-book The Grouse in the Heather (2011) that includes ‘The Beautiful Goldfinch’ and ‘The Linnett’s Chorus’, revealing him to be a natural heir to the late flute composition master Vincent Broderick. 

Virtuoso Manchester flautist Michael McGoldrick’s use of syncopation and jazz inflections have influenced a new generation of traditional musicians that regularly play tunes like ‘Farewell to Whalley Range’ and ‘Trip to Herves’.

Finally, the extraordinary fiddle-player and founder of Dé Dannan, Frankie Gavin, who has never received any TG4 Gradam Ceoil award, has composed several popular tunes including ‘Alice’s Reel’, ‘The Wren’s Nest’, ‘Josie Begley’s Fancy’ and ‘The Doberman’s Wallet’.

Each of these composers has their own style and they have made an invaluable contribution to the tradition. They would keep Gradam an Chumadóra going until the late 2020s, when there will be a new generation queuing up.

The self-publication boom of the twenty-first century has allowed vibrant new voices to emerge. Recent collections by Niall Vallely, Kíla, Enda Seery, Michael MacCague, Michael Rooney, Sandie Purcell and Colin Farrell provide ample evidence that the art of Irish tune composition is thriving. The Arts Council even provides a Traditional Arts Commissions award for new work – one recent example is Sruth, a suite of music by Mary Bergin and Johnny Óg Connolly.

Some composers exhibit a more experimental approach that challenges the very nature of Irish tune composition. Their work goes beyond the TG4 definition of composers who add to the standard ‘dance music repertoire’.

Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh’s Where the One-Eyed Man is King (2007) remains a landmark recording in this respect, due to the manner in which he created multi-layered new music from deceptively simple tune fragments. Since then, Lorcán MacMathúna and Daire Bracken, Martin Tourish, brothers Flaithrí and Eoghan Neff, and Ensemble Eriú’s Jack Talty and Neil O’Loghlen have continued to redefine the notion of what it means to be a composer within the Irish tradition.

Meanwhile, Micheál Ó Súilleabháin, Bill Whelan, Shaun Davey, Neil Martin and Dónal Lunny have brought the art of Irish tune composition into orchestral and ensemble formats. While many musicians would know their work well, their tunes would not be heard regularly in sessions, yet should that disqualify them from being recognised as composers within the Irish tradition? The session is not the one defining platform for traditional music.

This article mentions thirty-two renowned composers working within traditional music who have never received Gradam an Chumadóra. Surely that is grounds for reinstating it?

Published on 1 April 2015

David Flynn is a composer and musician from Dublin

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