Losing their shackles to play from the heart
In a specially commissioned piece, composer David Flynn is bringing traditional and classical musicians together in Bantry for a very personal performance, writes Siobhán Long
A sure sign of when a festival has come of age is when it seeks out new territory, commissions new work and embraces rather than bristles at the challenges that navigating uncharted terrain inevitably brings with it.
West Cork Music has been instrumental in promoting chamber music in Bantry House for the past seven years, but it has only turned its attentions to traditional music since 2003, when Clare fiddler Martin Hayes was invited to preside as artistic director over a festival whose focus is firmly on the solo performance. With lightning speed, the Masters of the Tradition Festival has become a focal point for musicians and punters alike, who share an appetite for what Hayes calls "the lonesome touch".
Ruud Kupper, West Cork Music's director of traditional music, views the commissioning of new music as an exciting next step in the festival's progression. Having secured David Flynn's commitment to the festival, Kupper also invited classical violinist Ioana Petcu-Colan to collaborate with Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill in the performance of the commissioned piece, entitled Music For The Departed.
"Since the festival has its roots in chamber music, I thought that the time was ripe to commission music for Martin," Ruud explains. "There is a lot of fusion happening now anyway, with the likes of the ConTempo Quartet, but this time round, I was anxious that the music would be composed for the traditional musicians and that the classical musician would move towards them, rather than the other way around. It's in keeping with what we have been doing with our festival too, in that it is encouraging musicians to push at the boundaries a little more."
David Flynn is no stranger to composition, having first studied classical guitar with John Feely, and then completed a degree in music in Dublin Institute of Technology, and a Masters in Music Composition in London's Guild Hall School of Music. He also won the acclaimed Huddersfield Young Composers' Award in 2004, with a piece called Slip.
Not given to self-promotion, David Flynn has to be coaxed to cast light on the formative influences on what is still admittedly a nascent career as a composer. "I learned a lot from the experience of adapting Slip for the Smith Quartet, which I then re-titled The Cranning," he explains. "I just don't think it's enough that musicians should read music. They need to feel it, and the audience needs to hear it coming from deep within the musicians, not from sheet music."
Music is ultimately, a primal experience, Flynn suggests, and one which shouldn't be shackled to any one genre.
"All music is from the same source," he offers, "which is widely believed to be Africa, the same place where humans began. I think you can connect all forms of music with one another. Particularly if you use the six degrees of separation theory, you can probably link Schoenberg's 12-tone music with traditional Irish music, even though they mightn't sound anything like one another. There are, of course, limits in terms of what will work together, but I don't believe in musical boundaries and I believe that there should always be room for experimentation, just as long as you understand what you're experimenting with."
Hayes and Cahill's highly innovative approach to traditional music was hugely attractive to Flynn. He savoured their virtuosity, and the different influences of classical and jazz that they weave into their arrangements. The duo's weakness for freewheeling suites of music was another attraction to Flynn.
Music For The Departed is a highly personal suite, composed by Flynn as a tribute to his late mother, Joan Jennings, and his aunt, Catherine Flynn, both of whom died within the past few years. It's a musical chronicle of the grieving process, capturing in seven movements the often chaotic emotional states in which the bereaved might find him/herself, from immediate feelings of grief to shock, anger, tears, nostalgia, determination and ultimately a celebration of a life well lived.
"In its basic form, it's six tunes and a cadenza," Flynn says, with just a hint of a smile: evidently more comfortable with tackling the topic of the music itself than in narrating his own personal history. "I wrote the tunes with Martin's style in mind. I asked him to treat each tune as if it was a traditional tune, and although I wrote a full score for the suite, it isn't as detailed as a classical piece would be, because I wanted the musicians to feel the freedom of interpretation that's essential to traditional music."
For Flynn, the remaining piece of the puzzle is the dynamic that develops between the musicians during the live performance. It's here that the shackles of formal composition must be loosest of all, if the musicians are to make the music their own. And that's why Flynn is insistent that Martin, Dennis and classical violinist Ioana Petcu-Colan should know the music by heart. Reliance on sheet music for the live performance is a definite no-no for him, largely because he believes that it's in the internalising of the music that music and musician become one.
"I really want this music to grow organically through the performance," Flynn insists. "From my previous experience of working with classical musicians who just wanted to read their way through the music, I felt that it's not a good way of performing music at all. Music is far better performed when it's internalised, and Martin and Dennis believe that, too."
Flynn's enthusiasm for the task of composing for traditional musicians was stoked in no small way by the willingness with which ace players such as Seamus Ennis, Paddy Glackin and Matt Molloy embraced the challenging work of composers such as John Cage who invited them to play on his controversial Roaratorio back in 1979.
"I think this is something that a lot of traditional musicians are never given credit for," he suggests. "There's a lot of talk about purists in traditional music, but these musicians all played quite a bizarre piece of music for Cage, and they were so open-minded. That's what makes great musicians great, if you ask me."
Music For The Departed will be premiered at the Masters of the Tradition Festival in Bantry House tomorrow at 8pm. The festival runs until Sunday. For booking of all concerts, tel: 027-52788 or see www.westcorkmusic.ie