The following is an abridged speech from musicologist and DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama lecturer, Dr Mark Fitzgerald which was given at the launch of the book in CMC on 6 November 2014
It is a great pleasure for me to launch Different Voices: Irish Music and Music in Ireland by Benjamin Dwyer this evening, a book which is a conflation of two separate yet interlinked sections. The idea of publishing a range of composer interviews (in the second part of the book) to give a snapshot of a time and place is one which will be familiar to many from such volumes as Walter Zimmermann’s 1976 Desert Plants concentrating on American experimental composers or Kevin Volans’s 1985 Summer Gardeners. However, in both these cases there was in a general sense a shared aesthetic among the composers chosen for interview whereas in Different Voices Dwyer has deliberately avoided narrowing the selection to one group or type of composer. The one thing these composers have in common is Ireland and yet even this is a loose connection, as its nature varies from composer to composer: in some cases it is the place they were born, in others it is an adopted home where they found their musical voice. In terms of timeline, the book covers composers active from the late 1950s onwards and whose aesthetic approaches cover everything from highly predetermined to improvised music. In short, the list of names indicates the hugely diverse range covered.
All of this is prefaced in the first section of the book by a short but dense exploration of the trajectory of classical or art music from the eighteenth century to the present. This section provides a contextual background to the interviews that follow, in particular offering an important insight into political and social issues that reverberate throughout the second part of the book. Indeed, this brief history is more important than its compact nature might at first suggest. In general cultural discourse in Ireland, music (except in its most commercial forms) tends to receive scant attention. It is a fragmentary and frayed history and, as Dwyer outlines, the reasons for this are complex. When the study of Irish music finally began to establish itself in recent years, a number of dominant narratives took hold because writers tended to accept unquestioningly each previously existing narrative without rigorous weighing of the evidence. In many ways the lack of debate was due to a sense of insecurity among a community focused on a cultural strand far removed from the centre of public discourse in Ireland. Additionally, one can argue that much musicological writing in Ireland has had a severe postcolonial chip on its shoulder. Of course, direct comparison between the relative poverty of pre-twentieth-century Irish repertoire and the Austro-German output from the same period can encourage a certain musicological despondency. However, there has been a tendency in some writing to ignore the social and political reality which created the situation in which Ireland could become the land with even less music than its neighbour.
Dwyer’s writing tackles these issues head on, beginning by interrogating the rather rose-tinted version of ascendancy eighteenth-century Dublin that has dominated musicological writing to date. For example, having noted Brian and Barra Boydell’s extensive writing depicting the eighteenth century as a golden period of music and inclusivity he pauses to ask the awkward questions – how many people was this a golden period for? Who was the music for? And how good or at how professional a standard was it?
Dwyer also questions whether nationalism can really be the scapegoat for all that has been wrong with the production and reception of music in Ireland as much of the literature suggests. Indeed, with the idea that the arrival of nationalism was a disaster that resulted in the destruction of the tattered musical fabric of the country, musicology was for once ahead of (rather than behind) its time, being more in tune with current government pronouncements, which seem to regard 1916 as a mistake and independence as an embarrassment.
Of course, this is not to in any way deny the ways in which the independent Irish state failed to address basic infrastructural issues – to this day the condition of music education nationally seems to be predicated on the notion that music is a hobby for those affluent enough to afford it. Indeed, Dwyer highlights the way in which Ireland, having emerged from colonisation by Britain, quickly betrayed the socialist ideals that drove the move towards independence one hundred years ago and submitted to new masters – first a quasi-theocratic one and more recently the religion of late-capitalist business.
Turning in more detail to the twentieth century, while much has been made of the disparity of coverage between literature and music, Dwyer makes the telling point that wheareas literature has, post Joyce and Beckett, for the most part left behind the experimental tradition in favour of a more commercial realism (or what he terms a post-colonial nostalgia), the period of this retreat in literature is the very moment when experimentalism takes hold in music – a factor which, along with the poor levels of music literacy in Ireland, has helped contribute to the paucity of coverage. The survey also takes an important swipe at the inflated position of O’Riada in the current literature – a figure who has a role to play in histories of the traditional music revival and a position in cultural histories due to his film scores but whose contribution to Irish art music is negligible.
The title of the book is apt as Dwyer’s voice is a different one to the majority of published trajectories of Irish music while in the second part of the book we are confronted with a range of different voices jostling against each other, sometimes converging on an idea but frequently providing the reader with a series of contrasting views in quick succession. Composers are asked questions which push them towards clear illumination of how they have reached their current aesthetic positions and they are given the space to develop their ideas. Key works are discussed by each composer to illustrate their approach and many of the composers discuss at length what makes up their signature in sound.
Unsurprisingly with Dwyer as author and editor, the volume does not shy away from more controversial issues. We hear from composers who have felt marginalised by changes in fashion for programmers in Ireland in the last few decades. Several interviewees comment on the tendency in recent years towards uncritical group embracing of particular trends – a generation who rushed to bang on an Irish can, a younger generation who have discovered the joy of spectralism. We are asked if composers are now merely aping the not-so-latest import, as one commentator puts it, arriving at the party fifteen years too late.
Different Voices: Irish Music and Music in Ireland is an outstanding book and plays an important role in promoting new music in Ireland. And so I smash the metaphorical bottle of champagne against its bow and declare Different Voices launched.
Dr Mark Fitzgerald (Musicologist and Lecturer at DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama)