Irish language project commissions 50 songs from composers at home and abroad
Michael Dervan speaks to six composers about themes of grief, nature and lamentation
Tionscadal na nAmhrán Ealaíne Gaeilge (the Irish Language Art Song Project), devised by Dáirine Ní Mheadhra and John Hess, commissioned 50 songs in Irish from 17 composers at home and abroad. Recordings of the songs are already available for free online, with scores and readings of the texts. A series of concert performances starts today at the National Concert Hall.
Michael Dervan spoke to six of the composers.
What was your pre-project awareness of the Irish language? Very little. Growing up in Northern Ireland I wasn’t really taught Irish at school. The professional help this project offered to the composers involved was in my case indispensable.
What were your initial responses to exploring the language and its literature? Very positive. Because, naturally, I’ve read a fair amount of Irish literature in translation. I’ve got a certain awareness of the poetry and some of the prose. In principle I think that Irish composers should attempt to set the Irish language, and this project is filling a rather large hole where Irish art song is concerned.
Were you looking for particular themes or topics in the texts? No. I didn’t begin with any pre-conceived notions about ancient or modern, anonymous or named, male or female, themes of that kind.
How did you find the actual texts that you set? The first thing I did was go to my local library and raid the Irish poetry shelf. There’s a large Bloodaxe anthology, Poems of Repossession, the idea being taking back the language. I read my way through it. Very interesting poems from the last century, but not very song-like for me. So I ended up going the other way and picking old, medieval texts with a kind of melody inside them.
Were there any near misses, texts that you you nearly chose? There were other texts that appealed, but I narrowed it down to three, trying to balance long against short, deep against light, dark against bright. All that kind of thing.
Did the language constrain you in any way? The orthography problem has to be faced immediately. You can’t put it off. You just constantly feel you’re not really seeing what you’re hearing.
Your experience of the project as a whole? The support we were given was indispensable. We had sound recordings with phonetic transcription, the whole works. Without that backup, frankly, I wouldn’t have been able to do this. It was one of the best organised projects I have ever taken part in.
Serbian, lives in Canada
Pre-project awareness of Irish? Dáirine Ní Mheadhra ran the Queen of Puddings Music Theatre in Toronto and commissioned four pieces from me. I have a friend who’s half-Serbian, half-Irish, so since childhood I’ve been fascinated with Ireland and its strange language. My first opera was on an Irish text, an English translation of The Midnight Court, but we kept some of it in Irish. My second opera, for solo voice, used many languages, including Michael Hartnett’s Dán do Lara, one of the most beautiful texts expressing love for a child. I’ve even thought about an opera on Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Cré na Cille.
Initial responses? It was a natural continuation of my interest in the language.
Particular themes? I chose Dínit an Bhróin (The Dignity of Grief) by Máirtín Ó Direáin and two folk songs, folk poetry, which I am interested in in general.
Finding the texts? Dáirine read a lot of texts for me, and I recorded her, to get me started.
Near misses? Too many to mention.
Constraints? Of course. Composers need constraints.
Experience as a whole? I’ve worked on much bigger projects with Dáirine, so this was very easy for us to deal with.
Argentinian, lives in Berlin
Pre-project awareness of Irish? I knew of the existence of the language. I lived in France for many years, and the connection with Breton. I come from a family whose language was also very, very small, and now a little bit forgotten, Yiddish. So I’m quite sensitive to languages which are in danger.
Initial responses? Curiosity. I thought it was risky, but that’s not necessarily bad. It wasn’t the first time for me to do something in a language I don’t know. Funnily enough, new music is a little bit like a foreign language for everybody - including the composer. You are discovering a language while inventing it.
Particular themes? I started with the only text I vaguely knew, a very old text about nature, so I thought it would be interesting to have three different texts on the topic of nature. I remember the wind and the sea from visits to Ireland.
Finding the texts? I was helped by Alan Titley. We talked on the phone, he sent me texts in his own translations. Without his help it would have been impossible.
Near misses? Yes, just five that had to become three.
Constraints? Yes. But in a positive way. The more limits you have the more free for composing and writing you are. Without limits it’s impossible to write. The language has some very earthy sounds and that probably influenced my thinking in the music. The recordings of the texts that I was given helped with the rhythm and accentuation.
Experience as a whole? Enriching. I started knowing nothing, and ended up having three songs in a language new to me in which I still can’t speak a word.
Ukrainian born, Canadian raised
Pre-project awareness of Irish? It’s a funny co-incidence. I have been doing my PhD at Princeton. We have quite a big Irish presence here. Composer Donnacha Dennehy, some Irish students, and sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird has been a visiting scholar for a few years. I was already taking seminars on Irish culture, orality, and coming in contact with Irish folk-singing.
Initial responses? I really enjoy working with languages in general, and Irish is so different. Even learning how to pronounce it was really fascinating. I knew the meaning of the poetry, but I could still compose using the words more as sounds.
Particular themes? Yes. I work quite a bit with Ukrainian folk music. One of the traditions I’ve been fascinated with is the lamentation tradition. I discovered through the Irish contingent at Princeton that Ireland used to have a really rich lamentation tradition and found connections between Ireland and Ukraine.
Finding the texts? I started with Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s Caoineadh Eibhlín, which I knew from a seminar, and then got my hands on the enormous Field Day anthology. I was interested in the idea that lamentation, being a particularly female practice, allowed women in a patriarchal society to express themselves in a way that they couldn’t through other mediums.
Near misses? Yeah. I intend to set more texts for a future project.
Constraints? No. I compose a lot through singing. I like feeling the words in my mouth and creating a setting for the words that actually feels pleasurable in my mouth. It was like tasting food from another country.
Experience as a whole? Really wonderful. It was so well organised, even down to editing, after we submitted the scores. I wish every project I did had that kind of editorial support.
Pre-project awareness of Irish? I did Irish in school. My own Irish is weak. I was never strong at languages. I have some rudimentary Irish, but I couldn’t have a conversation in it.
Initial responses? Irish is becoming a lot more visible. I was excited about looking into it, and relished the opportunity.
Particular themes? Yes. Alan Titley was on board and I asked him to help me find poems on the idea of the sea and our connection with it. His suggestions didn’t resonate with me, and my own research turned up a Nuala Ní Chonchúir poem, Snáth, which deals with the notion of thread, Ariadne, and the labyrinth. That then became my theme. And I wanted to set contemporary poems.
Finding the texts? I stood in Hodges Figgis Irish language section and went through every book that had English translations in it. And then I took Alan’s extensive reading list to The Lexicon and read every book on his list that was in the library.
Near misses? I had to whittle the list down from 60 poems.
Constraints? As a student I wrote music to Sophocles Elektra in Greek. THAT was constraining.
Experience as a whole? One of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had. I hadn’t written for voice and piano before. So that was a nice challenge.
Pre-project awareness of Irish? My mother is a very good Irish speaker, so there was a positive influence there. I enjoyed it at school, and took it as a minor in my arts degree with music, though I’d be very rusty at it now.
Initial responses? The Irish language didn’t worry me that much. The area of concern was more using texts at all. At the time I first spoke to Dáirine I hadn’t really used much text, or written pieces that even used voice. My concern was having a singer and what that would do to my music!
Particular themes? I wanted to use old Irish and newer Irish and have a combination of both, with the texts looking at the same kind of issue so that there would be an interesting comparison between the different times. But I couldn’t find that. It was stifling the sense of how small the world was to people in the old texts. And there were also things, old and new, that interested me but didn’t fit this particular project.
Finding the texts? Alan Titley provided a long list, so I started there. It was a good point of exploration. And Dáirine sent me a few other suggestions, one of which was Caitríona Ní Chléirchín’s poetry, which I hadn’t found on my own. It was ideal.
Near misses? I tried some translations of my own, but I wasn’t good enough at it.
Constraints? No. In fact, the natural imagery, and how it’s personified, worked for me in terms of sonic images. And working with Caitríona’s texts did bring out something new in my work. I’m happy to see that happen.
Experience as a whole? Dáirine’s team was just superb, so many editors, advisors. And I’ve listened to nearly all the songs online. It’s such a huge contribution to the Irish language in art music.
Tionscadal na nAmhrán Ealaíne Gaeilge is at the NCH Kevin Barry Recital Room on Saturday, February 15th, Wednesday 19th, and Thursday, March 20th.