Irish songs, under the spell of Joyce and Yeats
Fran O’Rourke doesn’t see any incompatibility between his day job— as a philosophy professor at University College Dublin — and his sideline as a singer.
“Literature, philosophy, music all fit very well together. They’re all parts of the higher things of human life,” says O’Rourke, the author of texts including “Aristotle’s Political Anthropology” and “Pseudo-Dionysius and the Metaphysics of Aquinas.”
The scholar/tenor will be in Washington with Irish classical guitarist John Feeley for a June 15 recital of songs from the works of James Joyce and William Butler Yeats. The performance, at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Northwest, is sponsored by the local Irish-arts organization Solas Nua and will honor Bloomsday — the annual celebration of Joyce’s “Ulysses” — and the 150th anniversary of Yeats’s birth. ( Yeats was born June 13, 1865; Bloomsday is celebrated June 16.)
Speaking by phone from Dublin, O’Rourke said the concert is part of his ongoing effort, in collaboration with Feeley, to draw attention to Joyce’s interest in traditional Irish song. Joyce’s enthusiasm for classical music, including opera, is relatively wellknown, but less attention has been focused on Irish song being central to his writings, O’Rourke said.
He and Feeley will perform such songs as “The Croppy Boy” and “The Last Rose of Summer” (both allude to “Ulysses”); “Ned of the Hill” (referred to in “Finnegans Wake”); and “The Lass of Aughrim” (which plays a prominent role in the short story “The Dead”). The concert also will include musical settings of such Yeats poems as “Who Goes With Fergus?” (a lyric mentioned in “Ulysses”) and “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.”
Originally from Galway, O’Rourke is a longtime singer — he has no formal training— and a longtime Joyce enthusiast, having fallen in love with “Dubliners” and “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” in his 20s. After the launch of his academic career, he became intrigued by Joyce’s conceptual debt to the philosophy of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. O’Rourke has written about that overlap of literature and philosophy in “Allwisest Stagyrite: Joyce’s Quotations From Aristotle,” among other works.
A few years ago, O’Rourke arranged for the restoration of Joyce’s guitar, which is at the James Joyce Tower and Museum outside Dublin. The instrument has been played by Feeley, accompanied by O’Rourke’s singing, in concerts at the Tower.
Paddy Meskell of Solas Nua says the concert will offer audiences a chance to look at Joyce’s and Yeats’s literary achievements from another vantage point.
“Instead of giving answers, which are easy, one of the great gifts of art is that it provokes new questions, new perspectives to explore,” Meskell says.
O’Rourke and Feeley’s trip to the East Coast is supported by Culture Ireland, which promotes Irish arts worldwide. The duo also will perform June 16 at a Yeats and Bloomsday celebration the Irish Embassy is sponsoring in Dupont Circle Park. On June 17, they will take their songs to Hagerstown Community College in Maryland.
The Swedish jazz trio Nils Berg Cinemascope has come up with a different way to collaborate with musicians from around the world, and it doesn’t involve a plane ticket.
The group— made up of multiinstrumentalist Nils Berg, drummer Christopher Cantillo and bassist Josef Kallerdahl — per- forms alongside video clips of performances found on such Web sites as YouTube. The trio, which will perform as part of Nordic Jazz 2015, has collaborated in this way with a Japanese flautist, a Maryland banjo player and a balafon player from Ghana, among others.
Incorporating footage into a jazz act is a stimulating challenge, Berg said via Skype from a Stockholm airport as he was traveling to Beijing. “It’s always a really good thing for your creativity to limit yourself, and this is a huge limit,” he said.
Berg said he often begins the hunt for new material by Googling a particular instrument or type of music but that the ease of search-and-click means “you always end up in totally different place from where you start.” And in most cases, he said, the performers give their blessing to the project.
This globe-spanning virtual teamwork has an optimistic geopolitical dimension, Berg said, by proving that people from different cultures can work together. In some ways, the strategy also captures the essence of jazz.
“To adapt to new things — that’s maybe the biggest part of the jazz identity,” he said.
Fran O’Rourke, left, and John Feeley (with James Joyce’s guitar), want to draw attention to Joyce’s interest in traditional Irish song.