Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

A whack of the baton

Crash Ensemble fella Donnacha Dennehy had a very interesting piece in yesterday’s paper tracking the ongoing rise and rise of new Irish classical music. The piece was to plug this weekend’s Shindig, a hooley to mark 10 years of Crash …

Thu, Oct 11, 2007, 14:29


Crash Ensemble fella Donnacha Dennehy had a very interesting piece in yesterday’s paper tracking the ongoing rise and rise of new Irish classical music. The piece was to plug this weekend’s Shindig, a hooley to mark 10 years of Crash Ensemble business, but Dennehy also had a tale to tell about the state of his artistic bailiwick.

In some ways, it’s a familar one which has been told many times before of how some classical outfits and activists are moving from the concert halls and conservatories into clubs and venues and letting their hair down. After all, if that’s where the audience is, that’s where the musicians should go. It’s something which has been addressed before and usually around this time too, as preperations get under way for the annual Dublin Electronic Arts Festival (DEAF), a gathering which has been to the fore in encouraging the various participants to shake hands and say hello.

While you can take or leave Dennehy’s talk about how New York’s once august downtown scene is somehow mirrored in an “open-eared” Dublin, there’s no doubting the substantive thrust of his drift: there is a new Irish classical scene and its composers and performers are working in that endlessly intriguing Venn diagram where rock, classical and electronica meet. He cites artists like Julie Feeney, Somadrone’s Neil O’Connor and Lakker as examples of those who’re thriving in this particular quarter.

They are as diverse a group as any. They are just as engaged with modern life and all its complexities, banalities and profundities as other artists. In Ireland, there has been an explosion in activity in the last 10 years, and one of the most interesting things is not just the openness of the newest generation but also the experimental cross-fertilisation between different genres.

Yet if such breeding is to continue, the artists need funding. While Irish composers may be getting their work performed in Holland, Germany and Scandanavia, they’re not getting the same level of support as artists in those countries.

At the moment, only three performance groups devoted to new music – Music 21, Concorde and Crash Ensemble – receive funding from the Arts Council. This compares with 26 theatre companies largely devoted to new work, and this figure excludes the large establishment theatres such as the Gate and the Abbey, festivals, administration bodies, actual buildings and youth theatre companies. Of these 26 companies, 10 received more than €220,000 for 2007. Not one of the new music performance groups received in excess of this figure. Irish theatre is rightly recognised for its originality and vitality throughout the world. It is time now for similar levels of funding for groups devoted to the performance of original, new music, so as not to stifle this exciting period of expansion, just as it is getting going.

Of course, every single arts sector would have the same gripes to make about their funding from the Arts Council. In some cases, there is a belief that it’s an excellence at filling out application forms rather than musical merit which results in a cheque from Merrion Square. In other cases (I’m thinking of the rock/pop field here which has always felt hard done by when dealing with the Arts Council mandarins), there’s a chip on the shoulder about getting over-looked or seeing the usual suspects receive funding year after year.

There are only so many ways of slicing up the Arts Council cake. Any attempt to take away the annual digout of big bucks given to the permanent arts establishment would mean gasps of indignation from the stalls and outraged letters to Madam. But there’s no more money in the pot and no signs of any new sources of revenue, especially as Taoiseach-in-waiting Brian Cowen has other things to worry about when it comes to his December Budget. As a result, the Arts Council will continue to get the complaints and gripes.

Naturally, as in Dennehy’s piece, you can look to other countries and see how they do things there. I’ve remarked in the last few weeks about the Canadian experience and, while it does involve a certain amount of form-filling, they do have the cash to pay for recordings, tours and the like.

On the face of it, the problem in Ireland is the lack of finance to go around. I am sure there are some who would argue that why should we fund arts and culture at all. Certainly, that was the argument which the Department of Arts, Sports & Tourism had to make when it put the kibosh on the terrible Music Board of Ireland idea (though I’m sure there were other reasons for this as well).

Maybe what we need to do here is to import the Radiohead model – how much would you pay for your arty fix? How much is support for a new Irish film or dance piece or experimental album or play about a young angst-ridden man’s relationship with his sullen father worth to you, the consumer? Or is the idea of market forces a step too far for our artistic communities?

However, the real problem with funding may have more to do with the lack of importance we as a society place on arts and culture. The constituency of people who support and are engaged with arts and culture in this country is minute and it’s the same people who tramp from theatre to cinema to concert hall. Such a lack of engagement carries through on a governmental level too (hello arts minister Seamus Brennan), so the curtailed funding should not really come as a surprise. Lip service is never enough, but it’s all Irish artists can confidently expect for the forseeable future.