Radio: A bit of fine tuning and Iarla Ó Lionáird will hit all the right notes

‘Vocal Chords’, ‘Voices’ podcast, ‘The Ray D’Arcy Show’ and ‘Today With Sean O’Rourke’

Iarla O Lionáird: the sean-nós singer wants to know “why we sing and what happens to us when we do”

Iarla O Lionáird: the sean-nós singer wants to know “why we sing and what happens to us when we do”

 

Once upon a time, to describe music as “noise” was not to compliment it. Even when the phrase was defiantly adopted by experimental musicians looking to turn a pejorative into a positive, much of the music sounded like, well, noise. But for the singer Iarla Ó Lionáird there seems to be no higher praise, particularly if he’s talking about a folk song.

Presenting the first episode of Vocal Chords (Lyric FM, Friday), a documentary series that bears the portentous if vague subtitle The Noise Before Meaning and the Sounds Before Singing, Ó Lionáird enthuses about wordless songs from around the world with no apparent meaning but a supposed universal resonance. As he says, “I’m fascinated by us being united by noise.”

It’s all part of his broader aim to explore “why we sing and what happens to us when we do”. A sean-nós singer renowned for his adventurous collaborations, Ó Lionáird draws on personal experience, academic contributions and a global cast of vocalists. It’s an approach that yields surprising connections as he moves between Inuit throat singing and the joik of the Sami people in Finland, wondering if there is a “singing voice that reaches back to our origins”.

Produced by Helen Shaw of Athena Productions, Vocal Chords clearly isn’t pitched at listeners whose idea of folk is Foster and Allen in leprechaun outfits. Both in its worldwide reach and in its stimulating, often otherworldly soundtrack, it displays admirable ambition and a sonic chutzpah ideal for radio.

But alongside these qualities lies a self-conscious air of reverence that occasionally threatens to tip into parody: “the acoustemology of the living planet”, anybody? And for all the assertions that song somehow speaks to us at a more fundamental human level than speech, little evidence is offered to back this up.

That the opening instalment not only overcomes such obstacles but leaves the listener curious to hear more is a tribute to the sincerity and conviction of Ó Lionáird, as well as to the stimulating opinions of guests such as Christy Moore, Peter Gabriel and Sinéad O’Connor. It could do with some fine tuning, but so far Vocal Chords is making the right noises.

Still, the notion that song packs more punch than the spoken word will seem outlandish to anyone checking out RTÉ’s podcast series Voices (rte.ie/voices). The idea is as simple as the title suggests. In each new episode, posted every Monday, people recount personal experiences in their own words, with no adorning narration save a brief introduction by its producer, Evelyn McClafferty.

This stripped-back approach ramps up the impact of the stark tales, which deal with everything from direct provision for immigrants and enforced electroconvulsive therapy to drug abuse and suicide.

The most recent instalment features Bernadette Goulding, who recalls moving from repressed rural Clare to libertine London in the late 1960s, a discombobulating shift that resulted in pregnancy and abortion. Goulding remembers being suicidal before her abortion but is then guilty about the termination. When one of her other children subsequently dies, she thinks, I deserve this.

Goulding’s testimony is unbearably raw but also highlights that Voices isn’t quite as unmediated as it might seem. Despite the charged nature of the subject matter, Goulding offers no explicit opinion on abortion, although she hardly appears to favour it. (She now counsels women who have had abortions.) Her painful experience seems like a deliberate counterbalance to an earlier episode featuring Suzanne Lee, a pro-choice student who recounts terminating her pregnancy with abortion pills. It may be online, but Voices maintains the scrupulousness of public-service broadcasting.

In common with other episodes, these tales are unflinching in their graphic language and emotional honesty but offer little in the way of wider context on the issues they deal with. And, though short, the stories are skewed towards the extremes of human experience, which can be draining when listening to several episodes in a row.

Overall, however, Voices is an intriguing sidebar to RTÉ’s sterling radio-documentary strand, an arresting if troubling series of verbal postcards from the edge of Irish life.

There are times when talk radio is a better medium for difficult issues. On Monday my Irish Times colleague Una Mullally appears on The Ray D’Arcy Show (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) to discuss her recently diagnosed cancer, which she has revealed earlier in the day in her newspaper column. It’s potentially tricky territory, but host and guest strike up a chemistry that is candid yet allows Mullally to come across as a real person finding her way through a trying situation rather than a stoic observer distantly bearing witness to a personal misfortune.

“I do envisage just talking like Oprah for the next 12 months,” Mullally quips in conclusion, “which is probably worse than having cancer.” In all its contrasting tones, the bitter-sweet conversation has the truthful ring of everyday human experience. No wonder D’Arcy, like all of us, wishes her well.

Moment of the Week: Noonan v O’Rourke
Minister for Finance Michael Noonan maintains his poise while being robustly quizzed on several issues when he appears on Today With Sean O’Rourke (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays). But when O’Rourke suggests that the Minister did not fully answer Dáil questions on the former Anglo-Irish Bank’s controversial sale of an office block to Denis O’Brien’s company Siteserv because of an old ministerial “mindset” to “tell them nothing”, Noonan loses his cool. “Ah, you’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel with that,” he says. “I mean, RTÉ isn’t great at disclosure. You’re sitting on reports for 12 months, that you haven’t published yet, about an analysis of the future of RTÉ. So get off the stage.” O’Rourke laughs the outburst off: it’s obvious who’s really hamming it up.

radioreview@irishtimes.com

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