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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - TRADITIONA­L 2019 - SIOB­HÁN LONG

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.

Bold ex­plo­ration

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.

Still life

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

PHO­TO­GRAPH: BRÍD NÍ LUASAIGH

Deep be­neath the skin: Muire­ann Nic Amh­laoibh.

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