THE YEAR OF THE HARP, AND OF LATERAL MUSICAL THINKING
The harp moved front and centre at festivals as numbers playing increased. Elsewhere, there was an outflow of exceptional new tunes and bold exploration
As the only country in the world with a musical instrument as our national emblem, we have had a somewhat non-committal relationship with the harp, whose history stretches back a millennium. Turlough O’Carolan, Thomas Connellan and others may have bequeathed us with a dedicated repertoire for the instrument from the 17th century that’s the envy of other countries. However, for many, the harp has been relegated to the “mildly pleasant but effete” category, seemingly consigned to the outer reaches of our thriving musical tradition.
Over the past 10 years, though, that has changed dramatically. There are more harp players in Ireland now than ever before, with both female and male players attracted to its full range of innovative possibilities, and in particular, to the wide-open vistas of its rhythmic potential. Harp Ireland/Cruit Éireann has lit a fire in the belly of countless harp players, aided and abetted by the Music Generation fund which puts harps within reach of young musicians who might otherwise be unable to afford one. Harp makers are on the increase, the harp is moving front and centre at festivals and both of our national awards honoured harpers this year. Moya Brennan was the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award at the RTÉ Radio 1 Folk Awards, while last month Mayo harper Laoise Kelly was announced as the TG4 Gradam Ceoil Traditional Musician of the Year 2020.
Now, if only the harp can achieve Unesco ratification as a symbol of intangible cultural heritage, as Na Píobairí Uilleann achieved for the pipes in 2017, its reputation and future will surely be further secured.
At a time when funding for the arts in general, and for traditional arts in particular, is still shamefully low , making a living here in Ireland as a traditional musician is not for the faint-hearted. Trad Ireland’s Trad Talk seminar in Dublin Castle got people thinking and talking about how we can show more love to both the tradition and to traditional artists, with Steve Cooney offering a sophisticated assessment of what makes our music, song and dance tick. Among his myriad suggestions was the establishment of a traditional musicians’ union, which would surely have put a smile on the faces of those who saw precious little recompense for the legacy they left behind.
And still, the tradition is buoyed by so many emerging and established musicians who balance session playing and music teaching with international touring so that the music straddles boundaries of both the geographical and musical kind with ease.
There was, in 2019, a copperfastening of confidence among the traditional music community when it comes to bold exploration. Highlights included The Gloaming’s Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and Thomas Bartlett’s eponymous debut, a spare, incandescent, delicate thing of rare beauty; Mel Mercier’s Testament, his collective compositions for theatre and film; and Dublin band Lankum’s breathtaking album, The Livelong Day.
All possess a solid sense of themselves, and at the same time, a devil-may-care attitude: letting the music breathe free so that it finds its own shape, unconcerned for the strictures of what came before. And still, everything they do seems anchored to the tradition. (And Luke Kelly will never be forgotten for as long as Ian Lynch inhabits his songs on stage with a viscerality that suggests his life depends on it.)
The lateral thinking that propelled Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh towards a video recording of a sung version of the Blasket Island slow air Port na bPúcaí was another revelation. Her inclusion of the yaybahar, an oddly apt ancient instrument built by hand by her husband, folklorist, archaeologist and instrument maker Billy Mag Fhloinn, allowed her to go deep beneath the skin of a melody that has been held aloft as the zenith of slow-air composition (inspired, it is said, by the cry of the whales off the west Kerry coast), and boldly add lyrics that she got as a child from Blasket Island fiddle player Muiris Ó Dálaigh. In an age where the album format is quietly merging with the background, and where single track downloads rule supreme, Nic Amhlaoibh stepped outside her comfort zone to create something that shimmers in both sound and vision.
Exceptional new tune compositions are filtering their way into the ether too, with Josephine Marsh, TG4 Gradam Ceoil’s Composer of the Year 2020 composing a vast slew of tunes in preparation for the publication of a collection in the coming year. What a thrill it is to hear these tunes sidle up alongside those of Pádraig O’Keeffe, Liz Carroll, Paddy Fahey or Mary Bergin, as much part of the fabric of the music as if they had been around for generations.
And at a time when in public life, boundaries are promoted for their barrier qualities rather than being embraced for their porousness, the musical adventures of Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi on their album There Is No Other left all hang-ups about difference dead in the water. Giddens’s reading of Little Margaret or her reimagining of the Italian aria Black Swan reveal what a laser focus this duo possess, and how their music making is all about the collective and community, a celebration, rather than a denigration of difference.
Guggi, who turned 60 this year, is not resting on his laurels. With three solo exhibitions of new work, in Los Angeles, Tokyo and now the Kerlin Gallery in Dublin (he’s shown at the Kerlin since 1990), he’s been intensely busy in his Killiney studio.
He is surely happy about all this, not least because he really likes the process of painting, and always has. It agitates him slightly that there remains a common misconception that he is “a musician who paints” or a one-time musician who took to art late in the day. The reverse is the case. The art came first, the music happened semi-accidentally, but he always had it in mind to get back to making art.
If you spend some time with Guggi, you get the impression that, while he has no problem being still, his stillness always has a quality of coiled energy, of sudden movement waiting to happen. He looks fit and vigorous, and he still wears his hair long. Very long. Not that he’s aiming for an ageing rock-star look, though the description fits. It’s just the way he is. His commitment to letting his hair grow, he once explained, is a reaction to drastic childhood haircuts inflicted on him by his mercurial, disciplinarian father, a fundamentalist Christian.
After leaving The Virgin Prunes in the mid-1980s (he remains close to fellow Prune Gavin Friday), Guggi began to devote his attention to painting. Without question, at that point it was widely and unfairly assumed that he was giving painting a go having become disenchanted with the music industry. But you don’t have to take his word for his early visual flair.
He and Bono grew up close to each other and have been friends since they were four or five years old. In 2010, Bono recalled how his father, who painted, would regard his and Guggi’s artistic efforts, raise his eyebrows at his son’s daubs and sing Guggi’s praises.
It is generally known that it was Guggi who came up with the name Bono. Bono Vox, in fact, was the full, prophetic version, in time abbreviated to one word. Guggi also renamed himself (from Derek Rowen), his family members and friends with words he felt more closely defined their essence. Gavin Friday (Fionan Hanvey) was also a Guggi invention. As teenagers in the 1970s, they came into contact with the experimental visual art scene in Dublin, encountering Michael Mulcahy when he was engaged in his disconcertingly extreme street theatre phase and, in the Project Arts Centre, a naked Nigel Rolfe crawling across the floor. All of which fed into the music
| Saturday, December 7, 2019 theatre spliced with performance art mix of The Virgin Prunes, a mix that has proved to be enormously influential with musicians since, including relatively mainstream ones, earning the group cult status. Though the extremity of Friday’s improvisations, at one point involving a lot of raw meat flying through the air, proved challenging even for enthusiasts.
Against expectation, when he turned back to art Guggi was drawn to painting still life. If he had thought about it strategically he might have come up with something more sensationalist, but on the question of painting he has always followed his instinct and is very wary about rationalising or analysing what he is doing. The bowl shape that has become emblematic doubtless relates to his childhood. Several potential sources have been suggested. He recalls functional enamel vessels. But most importantly, it’s an instantly accessible symbol open to myriad interpretations.
He’s always liked distressed surfaces, from rough plywood panels to, at the moment, a particular coarse-textured, ragged-edged brown paper. He applies layers of paint, scraped and scoured, often inscribed with decisive linear motifs. All of which applies to his most recent work, a series titled Broken, in which panels of colour, textured and scratched, appear roughly conjoined, under pressure, but also, paradoxically, quite lush and luxuriant. “There might be an overload of turquoise,” he warns, sorting through them. “For some reason, turquoise has always affected me.” The vessel is there in outline, sometimes fragmentarily, too. The title invited speculation that he was alluding to the break-up of his relationship with Sybille Ungers, which happened some time
I know I’ve allowed opportunities to pass . . . the art world is known for people who talk the talk. It’s the same as music or film in that way. You have to remind yourself that nothing happens till it happens
Deep beneath the skin: Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh.