James Joyce set to music: ‘He might turn in his grave when he hears one or two’

Navan’s Brian Byrne has taken a break from scoring Hollywood films to set a James Joyce poetry collection to music

Brian Byrne: ‘I wanted to go to college, learn to be a good piano player and maybe get a job in Billy Joel’s band’

Brian Byrne: ‘I wanted to go to college, learn to be a good piano player and maybe get a job in Billy Joel’s band’

 

It was obvious that music would always play a part in Navan-born film composer Brian Byrne’s life. The Navan-born film composer has been lauded for his work, among them scores for Jenny’s Wedding, starring Katherine Heigl; Boychoir, with Dustin Hoffman; and Albert Nobbs, starring Glenn Close and including the Golden Globe-nominated song Lay Your Head Down, which was performed by Sinéad O’Connor.

Now, after years of indulging the vision of others, Byrne (39) is making his own mark. His “pet project” is composing songs from James Joyce’s Chamber Music poetry collection. He will record the musically eclectic album with longtime collaborators the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, along with vocalists including jazzman Kurt Elling, Andrew Strong, Kristina Train and Cara O’Sullivan. The world premiere is set for Dublin on September 10th.

“I’ve found when you’re working on a movie or working on someone else’s project, you’re kind of an entity for hire,” Byrne says. “You have to toe the line and collaborate and be part of a team, and there’s certain restrictions with that. I had just finished a movie and I was ready to just write something for myself. I’d been scouring the internet looking for old Irish poetry – something in the public domain – that I could maybe write something classical.

“Then I came across Chamber Music. There are some amazing love poems in there; some beautiful, tender stuff that Joyce kind of shied away from later on.”

 

The barber’s boy

Byrne, who has been based in Los Angeles since 2003, comes from a long line of music-loving barbers. His late father, Jim, was well-known in Meath for playing in The Topic Showband as a young man. He organised music societies, brass bands and playing in wedding and pub bands as his family grew.

Jim Byrne also provided his children with a proper musical education. He packed young Brian and his siblings off to the Royal Irish Academy of Music for classical training.

Although the barber’s on Watergate Street has been in the family for more than 100 years, Byrne was never going to be satisfied with being heir to a hair business. “I tried,” he insists, laughing, “but I hated hair. I used to have to sweep up hair, and it stuck to my clothes and I despised it.

“I never thought I’d be a film composer, though; that was never a path I imagined when I was 15 or 16. I wanted to go to college, learn to be a good piano player and maybe get a job in Billy Joel’s band. That’s how naive I was.”

After studying classical piano at the Royal Scottish Academy in Glasgow and later completing a post-grad in film composition at London’s Royal College of Music, Byrne returned to Ireland, but couldn’t get work. Here things take an unexpected swerve: in his early 20s, he spent a short time playing keyboards with both Linda Martin and Dickie Rock.

“I played with Linda Martin, driving across Ireland for not very much money. And then Dickie poached me for an extra 10 bucks. I’m glad I did it, but I just got so sick of playing the same music. I’d been away studying for five years, then came home and was stuck in a showband.”

Gigs arranging for films began to trickle in, including John Carney’s On the Edge and Kirsten Sheridan’s Disco Pigs. But eventually Byrne decided that a move to the US was necessary if he wanted to break into composition.

Despite having to turn down a job as Van Morrison’s musical director not long after he emigrated, Byrne’s 30s have been eventful and hugely successful: he has worked with everyone from Katy Perry to Alanis Morrisette, and has co-written for Barbra Streisand.

Byrne recently co-wrote, with Josh Groban, the song The Mystery of Your Gift for Boychoir, and it is already being tipped for a possible Oscar nomination. His sojourn in Dublin will also involve work on the score for Jim Sheridan’s forthcoming The Secret Scripture.

 

Joyce the lyricist

Although it was sidelined for six years as other work came in, the Joyce project holds a special place in Byrne’s heart.

“I read a little paragraph that Joyce had written to Nora Barnacle, saying that he’d written this book of poems with the hope that some day a composer would set them to music. Various composers have, in fact, including John Cage. So I thought I’d give it a go.

“I wrote it very much with singers in mind; voices like Norah Jones and Tom Waits, or even country artists like Vince Gill. I wanted to try and make it contemporary, as if James Joyce were writing now. The songs are very accessible and simple; I wrote the melodies hoping that, after you hear the first verse or chorus, you might already know the melody by the time you get to the next chorus.”

Byrne took his cue from Joyce in other ways as well. “He wrote one song called Bid Adieu to Girlish Days – his only known composition – and it’s from Chamber Music. I wanted to see if he repeated lyrics, if he wanted a hook for a chorus; would he use a line twice? And he did do that, so that gave me licence to do that in the other poems.”

Most importantly, what does Byrne think one of Ireland’s greatest literary heroes would make of his interpretations?

“I think he’d love Kurt Elling, because Joyce himself was a tenor who famously threw his bronze medal from the Feis Ceoil into the Liffey after losing. I don’t know. I’d hope he’d like it, but maybe he’ll turn in his grave when he hears one or two of them.

“But I’ve certainly come at them with a lot of respect. It’s been a learning curve and an amazing door-opener for me.”

  • The Music of Brian Byrne, including the world premiere of The Chamber Music Project, takes place at the National Concert Hall, Dublin, tonight
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