Look Who's Talking!

A look at the current state of reviewing in jazz, traditional and classical music in Ireland.

It is not entirely surprising that jazz as a self-sustaining musical culture, and even more so the critical culture of jazz, is undeveloped in Ireland. Jazz instrumentation has been found here since the 1930s, but the music of the dance bands that played then and in the decades to follow – sometimes luridly denounced as a danger to the morals of the young – could not really be defined as jazz. Doubtless, they contained musicians of the highest proficiency but their musicianship was in the service of the arrangement, the group sound, and there was little scope for stretching the framework; even less, for an individual voice to break free and transform the framework. In this regard, a comparison could be made with the musical ethos of the ceili band – also containing fine individual musicians whose individual skill was subordinated to the group sound, and serving a similar social function. It would have been most unusual for a newly emerging American urban art form to have immediately flourished in a society like Ireland in the 1930s.

A small, more genuinely jazz world did gradually evolve, primarily in Dublin, but also in other centres. Making jazz was probably as much a statement of bohemianism, a mild form of social and artistic dissent, as a genuine attempt to lock into the creative principles of American jazz. In the ‘Commentary’ section of his book Fifteen Dead, the poet Thomas Kinsella’s beautiful memoir of his friend Seán Ó Riada gives a glimpse of what jazz could mean in the 1950s. The young John Reidy who turned up at the Department of Finance on a bright summer’s day (‘with death-white face, in a long black tight overcoat, with black umbrella, black beret, gloves and scarf’) was at that time interested in existentialism and science fiction, in assuming different accents, nationalities and personae, and in haunting smoky late-night dives; he was also ‘dogmatic about Gerry Mulligan and George Shearing. He had played the jazz piano himself, professionally…’

But whatever bohemian edge there was to jazz was always in danger of being dulled, with the music tending to become an agreeable, sometimes sophisticated, background to social life. If you are old enough to remember a couple of decades of jazz coverage on Irish radio, you will be able to summon up the undemanding musical menu which was served and the almost invariably suave, self-satisfied voices of the presenters. Was there ever a hint of the passion and individuality of voice that the late Tommy O’Brien brought to opera? And if the music of Louis Stewart is sweet, suave and extremely accomplished, it can also be seen as linking back to the rather undemanding jazz milieu from which it emerged.

There may be internal debate among musicians and there are undoubtedly jazz lovers with tremendous knowledge of the field, but little or nothing of genuine musical debate emerges into the public domain. It is perhaps symptomatic that the jazz scene has made such little use of the space offered by the JMI. Ray Comiskey has been at his post as principal jazz reviewer for the Irish Times for many years. It is no disrespect either to his knowledge or his taste to say that he writes from the perspective of his own generation and would have little feeling for any of the less orthodox movements that have sprung up and sometimes died away again in recent decades. As a result, quite a number of visiting non-mainstream players are likely to go unreviewed, as there is no agreed or regular understudy when music falls outside Comiskey’s own interests.

There have been very few in-depth profiles or interviews in recent years. A number of CDs are reviewed every week in The Ticket; naturally enough, these again reflect Comiskey’s tastes.

The Sunday Independent’s brief jazz column combines news round-up and gentle reviewing for a conservative audience. It is unlikely that anyone in the business worries about what Grainne Farren thinks. The Sunday Tribune gives a little more prominence to its jazz column. Unfortunately, instead of marking itself off from other media outlets by looking at the issues, the Tribune has tended to choose what in another context would be called an internal candidate – a Dublin jazz insider. The level of ‘insiderness’ and the lack of critical distance were immediately obvious when the column was penned by flautist Colm O’Sullivan. Would there be one or more references to Louis Stewart in any particular column? This was the only real question posed by the column. It was almost a disappointment – like a missing clue in a crossword – when none at all appeared. Things became more exciting still when Louis Stewart was conferred with an honorary doctorate. In a style reminiscent of an oppressed Abbey Street hack paying ritual homage to Dr – later, Sir – Anthony J.F. O’Reilly, it was now possible for our humble columnist to refer fawningly to Dr as well as Louis Stewart, as if honorary doctorates had anything to do with jazz or musical values. The Kings, Dukes, Counts and Ladys of jazz were not titles bestowed by any parliament or university.

Little of substance changed when responsibility for the column passed to Cormac Larkin. It is part of any columnist’s brief to draw attention to and provide information about forthcoming concerts, festivals and events, but care must be taken not to become a mere extension of the promoters’ publicity machine. It helps if an independent mind is displayed in the reviewing of concerts and if a genuine effort is made to cover a variety of styles, players and venues. In the May/June period, an article appeared on the pianist Brad Mehldau, a frequent and frequently written-about visitor to Ireland; the article coincided with the announcement that tickets were going on sale for an autumn concert. There was an article about the hardly neglected American guitarist Pat Metheney; soon afterwards it transpired that there would be a concert in celebration of Metheney’s music, with the participation of the columnist. There was also an article about the Portuguese folk group Madredeus – not a jazz group by any means, but part of the ESB Routes of Rhythm series that has brought some excellent jazz and so-called world music groups to Ireland. Meanwhile, nothing was written about the visit of Paul Dunmall, even though this British composer/multi-instrumentalist was playing in a trio with Steve Davis, an impressive young percussionist/composer, and Dave Kane, an equally impressive bassist, both from Northern Ireland. There was even less chance that there would be any word about the visit of the – admittedly rather obscure – Japanese performer Masayoshi Urabe, with his intense, ritualistic sound-world.

It is not unusual for significant events to go completely unremarked in the press. There also seems to be an unwritten agreement by organisers and reviewers to pay as little attention as possible to the fact that Barry Guy, a world-class improviser on the double-bass (as well as being a composer and group leader in more than one idiom), has been based in this country for several years. In similar fashion, only rare and grudging mention is made of Cork-based Mark O’Leary, a non-scene and almost unseen guitarist who has made his own connections with high-quality contemporary international players.

There is every reason for the jazz scene to take a look at itself, but no reason to believe that it is interested in doing so.

The place of traditional music in Irish society is very different from that of jazz. Thousand upon thousand of individuals across the country will happily turn, get through, or massacre a song. In addition to its (varying) presence in schools, the music can be learnt and practised by the young through organisations like Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann and Na Píobairí Uilleann. The music can still be played in certain areas as part of the everyday culture of a community. There are numerous pubs where paid or unpaid musicians gather and play. There are festivals and singing weekends. There are practitioners with an interest in reflecting on what is happening in the field. (The Crosbhealach an Cheoil/Crossroads conference in 1996, for example, was organised by practising musicians and showed a wide range of opinion, an admirable curiosity about the nature of music-making in different countries and social contexts, and a willingness to tackle the issues head-on.) The last decade or so has seen the publication of popular guides to the music, compilations and re-issues of older material, reference works and analytical studies. An institutional presence has been established – in various university music departments and the Irish Traditional Music Archive. Though RTÉ policy has wobbled somewhat, the music has been seen and heard on television and radio. Some groups and individuals have been operating successfully on the international circuit.

So what has the world of traditional music to complain about? The problem as usual lies at the interface between the broad public and the specialists, be they musicians or researchers. The choices facing individual musicians become choices for a whole sector of culture, and the changes in a sector can help us to understand what is happening in society at large. You’re a young musician of recognised ability. Do you keep your music-making for weekends and leisure-time while pursuing a normal working life or do you try to make a living from the music? If you find congenial fellow-musicians and set up a group, you will have to make choices about image, marketing, choice of material, arrangement and recording. You are now fighting for a professional existence just like singer-songwriters or boy bands or rock groups or ‘Celtic’ warblers. Will you play jigs and reels at high speed with a relentless banging on the beat in order to win over a section of the broader rock audience? Will you go for a schmaltzy plangent style on the single slow air that your producer has allowed or will you write something original that just might work as part of a TV soundtrack?

If you are a female fiddler, will you let your hair grow long so that you can sweep it back off your shoulders a la Riverdance? How will you talk about your music when Myles Dungan interviews you? Will you play the Celtic card when you go abroad? Can you allow your third CD to sound like the first? Will you stay in or near your own pool, or will you paddle happily down a tributary towards Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin’s universal river of sound?

In music as in other areas of life, simple polarities between (narrow-minded) purists and (broad-minded) modernisers are completely inadequate to the realities, as musicians perform across the categories. Ronan Browne is a case in point. He has played in Riverdance; he has been a member of Cran, possibly the best traditional music group in the country; and he has recorded an outstanding solo album that includes half-a-dozen beautifully played slow airs. Musicians negotiate these financial and cultural choices as part of their daily lives, and few are given to the grand statement, but it is important to be aware of how the international market and the access we now have to all kinds of music from around the world are changing the practice of music, the lives of musicians – and the meaning of a word like tradition.

Fintan Vallely’s column in the Sunday Tribune was one of the few places where questions like this could be put before the general public. That he was very critical of the ideology and ghetto-ising cultural politics of the Comhaltas leadership, at a time when the organisation seemed to have the ear of influential politicians, was important in itself and also as a challenge to the kind of cultural stereotyping sometimes indulged in by Diarmuid Doyle in another Tribune column. It is particularly unfortunate then that when Fintan Vallely moved on, the newspaper opted not to replace him.

At a stroke, the Tribune was removing a forum for intelligent discussion of contemporary culture in Ireland and reducing the difference between itself and the Sunday Independent. For an example of an intellectual recognising the importance of the public domain, the Tribune had only to look to Joe Lee’s column. There are, of course, occasional articles on such issues in the Irish Times, and flurries of controversy in the letters pages, but the normal coverage of the traditional music sector comes down to personality or group profiles and frequently effusive, hyper-lyrical reviews of concerts and CDs.

Though the musicians might not agree, it may be that – in a culture based so much on contact between players and listeners and on word-of-mouth – the issue of reviewing is less important than the lack of a public outlet for debate.

As this sector is extensively discussed in the pages of the JMI, comment here will be brief. Ian Fox’s column in the Sunday Tribune has always reflected the taste and musical outlook of middle-class musical Dublin. An occasional venture into the contemporary does not alter the fact that groups like the Crash Ensemble, let alone the Whispering Gallery, do not register; that the existence of the JMI has gone unremarked; and that a 100 per cent commitment to niceness means that anything challenging is carefully wrapped in cotton-wool before being tucked into a corner.

Looking at the Irish Times, where a very high percentage of performances by professional musicians are reviewed, people from other areas will be inclined to see classical music as receiving preferential treatment. The intensity of feeling within the classical world where reviews are concerned suggests that things are seen differently by those concerned. Though negative comment will tend to focus on the manner, taste and expressed preferences of the particular reviewer (usually Michael Dervan), there is also something in the way the whole sector operates – something beyond unavoidable personal vanity – that causes reviews to be scrutinised with special fervour and loathing. As suggested above, the Irish jazz scene is as much about belonging and a particular lifestyle as about stretching musical muscle. A bad review will be a brief ripple on quiet waters. Traditional musicians will be very happy if the Examiner or the Times or any paper notices their performance, but the opinion of peers and audience feedback are often more important than a review. There is also the fact that – with the exception of showcase events or breakthrough performances on television – a single performance is not crucial. Playing together over time allows musicians to know each other and to measure their performances over time.

Many classical concerts are once-off events and there will be only one chance to make an impact. Weeks of preparation will feel devalued if the only public recognition of the performance is negative. This all the more important where a new composition is being performed. Gerald Barry is now almost guaranteed to receive a positive review – the cultural world has decided that it can embrace one contemporary composer, however difficult he may be – but the five sentences devoted to a new Raymond Deane or Siobhán Cleary piece may be the only public echo that the product of many months or indeed years of reflection and work will receive. The general bias in favour of the literary in Ireland means that composers look with envy at the space routinely devoted to forgettable biographies or fiction in the media and wonder why they themselves receive so little attention.

While it is true that the world of classical music in Ireland could do more to look at itself, its history, its complacency, its prejudices and its connections with the rest of Irish society, the main problem once again lies in the poverty of debate, and of outlets for debate, in the public sphere. To say this, to complain about this, is all very well, but it must not be used as a lazy excuse for letting matters stand. The public sphere is not a structure manufactured out there somewhere by persons unknown, and which works or does not work. The public sphere develops under the cumulative pressure of those whose commitment to the circulation of ideas is not only theoretical, but tested in action. Too many Irish intellectuals, in the world of music as elsewhere, have not tried and failed, but have simply failed to try. The real challenge lies in breaking this pattern.

Published on 1 July 2002

Barra Ó Séaghdha is a writer on cultural politics, literature and music.

comments powered by Disqus