Raymond Deane, one-time writer of acidic reviews, turns his pen on himself

When reviewing, the composer’s invective was extreme. He is no less frank when writing about his own life, alcoholism and recovery

Raymond Deane: his book is, if you’ll forgive the pun, a sobering read. But the message is ultimately positive

Raymond Deane: his book is, if you’ll forgive the pun, a sobering read. But the message is ultimately positive

Wed, Jul 23, 2014, 01:00

The composer Raymond Deane has never been a man for half measures. As a student, he was the angry young man par excellence among Irish composers. He was a dark, slightly glowering presence and gave the impression of always knowing his mind. He might mutter into his chin a couple of carefully barbed words that were capable of ripping an opponent apart or sometimes rail splenetically about things that got him worked up.

His musical sharpness sometimes found him at the piano parodying new works he had just heard, or singing with derision something he disapproved of. He did all this with the kind of aim that Dudley Moore brought to his satire of tenor Peter Pears singing Benjamin Britten. Britten is said to have cried when he heard it, and I’m sure if most of Deane’s targets ever got to hear his musical caricaturing, they would have wanted to weep, too. One who did actually stubbed a cigarette out on the back of his hand to make him stop.

The young Deane also had a profile as a performer, not just in the complexities of his own music but also in standard repertoire at the Feis Ceoil. Scriabin seemed to be a speciality, and one of the most dazzling flourishes I’ve ever heard in the left-hand runs of Chopin’s Étude in C sharp minor, Op 25 No 7 came from his fingers in a Feis competition. He showed a propensity for exaggerated accentuation, and this caused me for a while to think of that style of playing as “deaning”.

When I was editing Soundpost magazine, I invited him to contribute reviews. From the start, his invective was extreme. He had a go at Shostakovich, who, he wrote, “richly deserves our critical spittle”; and Colman Pearce, who in Mahler’s Third Symphony “dashed through the piece as if he was hurrying home to watch Dallas”. The conductor big-heartedly bore no grudge, and even recorded a CD of Deane’s music in 1997.

There was such a ruckus that I gave him a back-page column, Tailpiece, as well as his reviewing work. Provocation was the name of the game, and he was in turn reviled with the kind of vigour he expressed himself. His writing brought ire on my own head, too, from people who erroneously assumed that I agreed with most of what he wrote. The greatest friction I remember us having at the time was over an incident when one of his articles went astray.

The magazine’s typesetter was also a traditional musician who played sessions in Slattery’s on Dublin’s Capel Street, which we sometimes used as a collection point for copy. One of Deane’s pieces got lost. I never heard the end of it, not least because in the rewrite he never managed to capture the spark of the original.

 

Memoirs are made of this

His pen has been back out of its holster again for a memoir, In My Own Light, which, the blurb says, “evokes his near idyllic childhood on Achill Island, his adolescence in Dublin, and his rapid descent into alcoholism”. The book opens with the medical record of an emergency admission to St Vincent’s Hospital; alcohol is the cause. It is, if you’ll forgive the pun, a sobering read. But the message is ultimately positive: “I can describe how one hopeless drunkard stumbled through that gate [of recovery], thus proving that there is no such thing as a hopeless drunkard.”

On Achill Island there were bedtime stories; forbidden areas; the family rosary; a Dansette gramophone; worship of Cliff Richard and Frank Ifield; The Maiden’s Prayer and The Robin’s Return on the piano; reading, from Billy Bunter and Biggles to David Copperfield; the use of the word “Baluba” as an insult (after Baluba tribesmen murdered Irish peace-keeping troops in the Congo); visits by posh relations; and the “key listening experience of my childhood”, which was the Flower Song from Bizet’s Carmen. From the age of 10 he wanted to be a composer.

The family’s move to Dublin brought a transfer to Belvedere College, unexpected elevation to college organist, and, in 1969, a performance of his Format I in the first Dublin Festival of 20th-Century Music. He was still at school, but his career as a composer on the national stage was under way. Attendance followed at the summer school in Darmstadt, a place of pilgrimage for anyone seriously interested in the musical avant-garde. There was a burst of near-idolatry of Karlheinz Stockhausen, followed by disdain for “monomaniacs of Neue Musik”, and, back at home, an appearance on a children’s TV programme.

The piece for TV, says Deane, “set out as an essay in uncompromising dissonance, but for the hell of it I dropped a chord of C major into the mix towards the end, followed by a descending succession of reasonably euphonious chords. The piece ended with a sly harmonic gesture that both negated what went before while producing an ambiguous sense of closure. I did not realise it, but the template for everything I would subsequently compose was in place, if a little awkwardly.”

There was also a new relationship with alcohol, “an entrance ticket to sociability . . . The ice had been broken, and would be broken repeatedly until I began to sink beneath it.”

Deane’s frankness is the great appeal of his memoir. He writes about trying to drown himself in the Liffey, not by jumping, but by climbing down a ladder; of waking up in hospital with multiple stitches for injuries he couldn’t recall acquiring; of experiencing hallucinations of pop music; of attending classes in Stockhausen’s home, where shoes weren’t allowed and he worried about the smell of his socks; of fruitless entanglements with the opposite sex.

I remember his deterioration in the late 1980s, when he often seemed to be a ghost of his former self, and I was not alone in wondering how long it could all go on. It couldn’t and it didn’t. And this memoir, which is generously filled with still acidic musical views, also explains Deane’s attachment to the Palestinian cause because “a different world is possible”. He believes this because, for a quarter of a century now, he has shown that “a different life is possible”.

In My Own Light by Raymond Deane is published by Liffey Press

mdervan@irishtimes.com

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