Looking for the Irish Bartók

The ‘Irish Bartók’ question has been around for decades, but is there still some value in the concept? Composer David Flynn argues that there is, and that now is the time for a new engagement by Irish composers with Irish traditional music and musicians.

As someone who composes and performs both classical and Irish traditional music, I am only too aware that there is a huge gulf between traditional and classical musicians in this country. There are historical and social reasons for this, but I believe the fundamental problem lies in musical education, for it is there where the divide between traditional and classical musicians begins.

In general, traditional and classical musicians learn in completely different ways, are rarely exposed to each other’s music and in some cases do not want to know anything about the other genre. There are of course many exceptions to this. The renowned traditional fiddle player Paddy Glackin, for example, studied classical violin in his youth. It is interesting to note that despite this, Glackin has devoted almost all of his musical life to traditional music – aside from one key project: John Cage’s Roaratorio, which also involved Séamus Ennis and Matt Molloy among others.

Is it not a sad state of affairs that it took an American composer like Cage to utilise the considerable talents of some of Ireland’s finest traditional musicians in a contemporary classical context? One must ask why leading Irish contemporary composers have not worked with the likes of Paddy Glackin, Matt Molloy and Liam O’Flynn. Musicians of such obvious talents would undoubtedly respond to the challenge. One only has to look at the recent collaboration between the traditional accordionist Tony MacMahon and the Kronos Quartet for evidence of this.

This is yet another case of American classical musicians approaching an Irish traditional musician. One has to ask: what are Irish composers waiting for? Why has there not been a concerted effort by Irish composers to embrace the traditional music and musicians of their native land? Thus looms the unanswered question: Why has there not been an Irish Bartók?

Working with traditional music
In an interview in New Music News in May 2002, the Irish composer John Wolf Brennan hinted at a reason: ‘I was interviewed by Jerome de Bromhead for RTÉ about twelve years ago. Afterwards he said to me, “Over here (in Ireland), everybody shies away from being the Irish Bartók.” Why? He couldn’t explain. Over the years, when I was over, I discussed it with John Buckley, Raymond Deane and all these guys and Jerome was right. There was an unconscious or unspoken reluctance to be the Irish Bartók.’

So why is there this reluctance? I believe there is a simple answer. At a musical education level, classical musicians and composers are not really exposed to traditional Irish music. The only way they can study it is if they make it a personal study away from classical music, as Bartók did with Hungarian traditional music.

Between 1999 and 2003 I studied for a classical music degree in one of the main Dublin music colleges. During this time there was virtually no reference to Irish traditional music in course content for those studying classical music. We were taught nothing of Turlough O’Carolan, Seán Ó Riada, Séamus Ennis, Martin Hayes, and so on. This was despite the fact that there was a degree in Irish traditional music running parallel to the classical degree, but while classical music students did not have to attend any traditional music lectures, those studying traditional music had to take classical music classes such as history, harmony and counterpoint. While I don’t dispute the value of traditional music students learning about classical music, I think it is a terrible shame that the reverse doesn’t happen. If the Irish language is compulsory in school, why isn’t Irish traditional music compulsory in music school?!

The almost total lack of education on the topic of traditional music given to classical music students in Ireland has a major part to play in the way traditional music has been awkwardly used, or ignored, by Irish classical composers. There are few examples which come to mind of Irish composers who have utilised traditional music or musicians in a tasteful manner. Some of Ireland’s foremost composers such as Frank Corcoran and Raymond Deane have one or two pieces with traditional instruments – most have none.

Roger Doyle and Michael Holohan are notable for each having a number of works utilising traditional musicians, but unfortunately these pieces are not as widely known as perhaps they should be. Doyle’s music with traditional musicians plays a small part in his overall output. Nevertheless his collaborations with the uilleann piper Brian Ó hUiginn and the sean-nós singer Sarah Grealish are of great importance and he must be given great credit for this kind of work, which he continues with the whistle/guitar duo Cormac Breathnach and Martin Dunlea.

Michael Holohan has collaborated with some very prominent traditional musicians including Michael McGoldrick on The Lost Land and Mick O’Brien on The Road to Lough Swilly, yet these pieces remain relatively unknown and are thus far unavailable on CD.

Recognisably Irish
Of the other major figures, Gerald Barry’s Piano Quartet No.1 is the most famous instance of a contemporary Irish composer using a traditional tune as the basis for a piece, but ask a traditional musician to listen to it and the chances are they aren’t going to recognise much of their tradition in it. There is no doubting the piece’s innovative qualities and worth as a piece of contemporary classical music, but it can hardly be seen as the harbinger of a new school of Irish composition, whereby one can instantly proclaim ‘Now that’s Irish music!’.

This piece is the most high profile example of the way in which prominent Irish composers have addressed Irish traditional music, i.e. taking a traditional tune and fitting it into classical music structures and theories. Seóirse Bodley takes Irish airs and harmonises them with serial technique; Eric Sweeney takes traditional tunes and fits them into a minimalist context. These approaches highlight a fundamental problem I see for Irish composers. The vast majority of Irish composers, without a school of their own to turn to, have turned to the dominant central European and American schools as the focal points for their own music. I would propose that this method is never going to result in a definably ‘Irish’ school of composition. Maybe most Irish composers don’t want to be part of such a movement, but for those who do, there is a solution. Such composers must engage with traditional and contemporary music in a way that has not been done before, even by Ó Riada.

The Volans model
Despite his many achievements, Ó Riada didn’t produce enough work in a classical medium to really address Irish traditional music in the way Bartók addressed the traditional music of his country. Nevertheless the music of Ó Riada provides an important stepping stone between traditional and classical musicians.

So what can be done in order to develop a recognisably Irish school of composition? There is one Irish composer whose work suggests a way forward: Kevin Volans. Volans, an Irish citizen born in South Africa, has received great acclaim for bringing influences from African music traditions into contemporary classical music. By taking Volans’ ideas as an example, a recognisably Irish school of composition could be developed if composers thoroughly studied Irish traditional instruments, modes, melodies, techniques, ornamentation, and structures, and then merged this knowledge with their studies of classical music and other genres. This is a healthy alternative to the tired method of forcing traditional melodies into frankly irrelevant European avant-garde techniques and theories. Ireland may be part of Europe, but Irish traditional music has little in common with central European ‘art’ music.

I personally feel very little empathy for central European ‘art’ music as a means of expression; it does not express Irishness. I feel ‘Irishness’ should be an essential characteristic of the music of any composer wishing to be identified as Irish. One can recognise the nationality of most French, Russian or American composers by just hearing their music, the same cannot be said of many Irish composers. Ireland is a unique country with its own wonderful musical tradition, so why is this tradition not fully engaged with the so-called ‘art’ music produced by Irish classical composers? It is indeed insulting to the many talented traditional musicians in this land that the music they play is not regarded as ‘art’ music equal in value to the classical ‘art’ music. Perhaps it is time for Irish contemporary classical composers to redress this balance and really engage with Irish traditional music and musicians.

Before composers undertake an academic study of Irish traditional music, however, there is something else I feel that they would benefit greatly from – learning how to play it. An ability to play traditional music is vital to a proper understanding of the genre; composers have perhaps misunderstood traditional music for the very simple reason that they don’t play it.

There are few Irish classical composers who can say they regularly play in traditional music sessions or recitals, or even play a few traditional tunes. They are therefore more likely to approach the challenge of using traditional music in a blinkered way. The general approach seems to be to find a traditional Irish tune in a tune collection and then try and fit it into Europeanised or Americanised techniques and theories, where it clearly doesn’t belong. This is as ridiculous as a traditional musician trying to fit a Schoenberg ‘tune’ in between two jigs! It is simply alien and completely out of context.

I believe it would be enormously beneficial for any composer if they dedicated time to studying traditional Irish music. This is what Bartók did with Hungarian traditional music. He didn’t simply take the tunes out of a book – he engaged with traditional musicians, notated their tunes, learnt from them and respected their artistry. This is what I believe needs to happen if we want to develop a recognisably Irish school of composition. Instead of putting traditional tunes into dodecaphonic theory, the Irish composer could be out at sessions, taping sets, learning tunes by ear on traditional instruments, and meeting traditional musicians in order to learn the vast array of interesting sounds and techniques that come from the Irish tradition. In doing so, they will discover that Irish traditional music is an extremely well developed and complex art-form deserving the same amount of respect and study as the work of Bach, Schoenberg, Reich and Bartók.

Future directions
As it stands, however, Ireland has no definable national compositional sound in the same way most countries with significant classical music traditions have. Aside from the odd work which quotes a traditional tune or rhythm, none of the established contemporary Irish composers have a definably ‘Irish’ sound to my ears. They mostly sound like European or American composers who may occasionally use Irish influences. This is not to say they aren’t highly skilled, interesting composers; I just think it is a terrible shame that they don’t sound Irish!

To me this is something which needs to be seriously addressed and perhaps it is a challenge that the next generation of Irish composers will take on, if as it seems the majority of the current generation isn’t prepared to. There are already signs of such progress in the work of younger composers like Rachel Holstead and Jürgen Simpson. Some of Holstead’s most recent works such as Thar an bhfarraige gheal and The Tune Ship are scored for both traditional and classical musicians, while Simpson recently collaborated with the uilleann piper Davy Spillane.

It is my hope that the coming generation of composers will not shirk the challenge of becoming Irish Bartóks or Volanses. These composers engaged with the traditional music of their native countries in such a way that they defined the sound of their lands in classical contexts. No established Irish composer has come close to doing this. If Kevin Volans can earn international respect and influence a generation of African composers by creating music fundamentally based on African traditional music, then why can Ireland not produce a similar composer?

I believe it can and will because the climate for collaboration has never been so open. The potential for utilising Irish traditional musicians, techniques and instruments in the realm of contemporary classical music is endless and exciting. Irish composers haven’t even scratched the surface of what could be produced. Perhaps now is the time for us all to start scratching, because there is an Irish Bartók somewhere in all of us, just itching to get out!

Published on 1 July 2005

David Flynn is a composer and musician from Dublin

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