‘Composing the Island’ was a landmark and there is no going back

The event highlighting a neglected repertoire from Irish composers should happen every year

There was nothing obvious in the idea of celebrating a century of work by Irish composers as part of the commemoration of the centenary of the Easter Rising. So much so, in fact, that if Composing the Island had never taken place, I doubt if anyone would have lamented that an opportunity of any kind had been missed.

It was John O’Kane, executive director of RTÉ’s performing groups, who came up with the idea of a series of orchestral concerts offering a chronological survey of the period 1916-2016.

Simon Taylor, chief executive of the National Concert Hall, rowed in with a series of smaller scale concerts. Bord na Móna provided the sponsorship to do it in some style. And the 28-concert result stands as a game-changing retrospective of the work of Irish composers, all recorded for broadcast by RTÉ Lyric fm, and already partially available online.

No one who heard orchestral works from the 1920s, by Ina Boyle and Norman Hay, being played in concert in Dublin for the first time, is ever likely to view that decade of Irish music in the same way again. The performance of Seóirse Bodley's Configurations for orchestra of 1967 can have left no one in doubt about how thoroughly the ideals of the postwar European avant-garde were embraced by an Irish composer during the year of the summer of love.


European trends

Bodley was helping Irish music catch up with European trends. Most major 20th-century developments had passed by unnoticed. There seems to have been no direct impact in Ireland of the early work of Stravinsky or atonality, no early adopter of 12-tone composition, no follower of the once so fashionable taste for neo-classicism.

We seem to have had no outliers like Denmark's Rued Langgaard (whose 1918 Music of the Spheres anticipated postwar techniques to such an extent that György Ligeti once declared himself "a disciple of Langgaard"), Norway's Fartein Valen (who developed his own atonal system between the two World Wars), Russia's Andrey Volkonsky (who, in 1956 at the age of 23, dared rile the Soviet authorities by writing a serial piano piece), or Iceland's Jón Leifs (famous for his tone poems celebrating natural phenomena – Geysir, Hekla, Dettifoss, Hafís – written in a deliberately rough-hewn, often primitive-sounding style).

The key influences towards a wider perspective in Irish composition seem to have been the creation of the Dublin Festival of 20th Century Music in 1969 as a window on what the wider world was doing, and Ireland’s accession to the European Economic Community in 1973, which freed access to Europe’s music schools and conservatories for young Irish composers and musicians.

The rich picture presented by Composing the Island was not, and probably could not have been, comprehensive. Nor does it seem to have set out to be either even-handedly representative or anything on the lines of a best-of compilation. There was, for instance, no attempt to represent the recent wave of interest Irish composers have been showing in opera, nor was there anything from the notable operatic endeavours of the early decades of the 20th century. Also missing was a focus on electronic music and a platform for the repertoire of amateur choirs.


The bias may be institutional. Electronic music stands well apart from RTÉ and the NCH. RTÉ’s large amateur chorus, the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir, performs mostly in tandem with the orchestra, as it did during the festival. The station’s children’s choir, RTÉ Cór na nÓg, got a concert to itself, as did Chamber Choir Ireland, a professional group that is a resident ensemble at the NCH.

The disproportionate attention to the organ – more than 10 per cent of the events – may be due to the NCH having the suitable instrument. And Taylor openly professed a bias towards the guitar, his own instrument, when introducing a concert by John Feeley. Internationally, Irish composers have made a far greater mark in the world of electronics – with prizes to prove it – than in the world of the guitar.

One of the stranger biases concerned composers under 30, of whom more than 40 were featured. But of that number, only four were living composers under 30. To be sure, sifting the wheat from the chaff in the outputs of composers in their teens and 20s would be anything but straightforward. But a key opportunity for a vote of confidence in the younger generation seems to have been lost.

The announcement of the festival mentioned supporting talks and related events, none of which materialised. Unlike most other European countries, large and small, Ireland has not yet found a clear place in national intellectual discourse for composers, unless that place is outside the door.

Composing the Island seemed like an ideal context for talks and discussions that might help turn that situation around. And in the context of a festival focusing on composers in a unique way, it was disappointing to find the printed programmes all placing biographical material about the performers in front of the writing about the composers and their music. In such unsubtle ways are existing pecking orders perpetuated.

The most important thing about Composing the Island is that it has happened, that a long overdue reassessment of neglected repertoire has begun, and that the people who went to the concerts seemed to enjoy the challenge. Most of those I spoke to – sometimes to their own surprise – said they would like to have more.

My vote would be for an annual Composing the Island-style week, with a freedom to focus much more closely on key individuals, narrower time-frames, or particular strands of development. Here's hoping that, one way or another, Composing the Island will turn out to be one of those landmarks from which there will be no going back.