Máirtín O’Connor: ‘The Earth still turns and we’re treating it so badly’
Energetic musician on being commissioned to write The Mighty Ocean on climate change
Máirtín O’Connor: “The piece is as much, if not more about optimism: the beauty of what we have and our need to remain optimistic for the human spirit in the face of adversity.”
There are no small ideas any more. Pandemics. Vaccines. The climate crisis. Oh for the days when we could just bask in the glories of traditional tunes with titles like The Pigeon at the Gate or The Hare in the Corn. Or Banish Misfortune.
But seriously, when a musician is commissioned to write about climate change, and specifically, the ecological threat to our seas, it’s a call that demands a substantial response. Máirtín O’Connor is long known for his calculus-like tunesmithery, and his effervescent playing style. Listening to his album The Road West, whose eponymous tune catalogues a rambunctious drive across Connemara, you can’t but be caught up in the tune’s tumultuous, careening trajectory. He is a musician who has a long track record of composing tunes and suites that reference the natural world, so when Leo Hallissey, whom Máirtín describes as an “inspired educationalist”, commissioned him to write music for a cetaceans (marine mammals) conference in Galway, he jumped at the challenge.
“I called it The Mighty Ocean Suite”, O’Connor explains, “‘mighty’ being a real Galway word.”
Last year, the suite was slated for the Galway 2020 Capital of Culture programme. With the small matter of a pandemic intervening, The Mighty Ocean is finally seeing the light of day in a televised performance recorded in St Nicholas’s Church in Galway on TG4, supported by the Galway Music Residency.
Long-time collaborators, ConTempo Quartet came on board, with Garry Ó Briain arranging Máirtín’s music. Traditional musicians Seamie O’Dowd, Cathal Hayden and Jimmy Higgins joined the fray on guitar, fiddle and percussion, along with Matthew Berrill on clarinet. Máirtín’s daughters, Sinéad and Ciara, completed the ensemble on cello and fiddle.
O’Connor’s indefatigable energy is at the heart of this latest project.
“I read a good bit about the environment and climate change”, Máirtín explains, “but the piece is as much, if not more about optimism: the beauty of what we have and our need to remain optimistic for the human spirit in the face of adversity.”
Máirtín paints a vivid picture of the different elements of the suite.
“It starts with a waltz called And the Earth Still Turns. There are lots of ideas in there. One is the idea of being out in space and looking at the beauty and uniqueness of the Earth turning. Our disconnectedness with the environment is represented by the disconnectedness of the waltz from the rest of the suite. There are jazz and classical elements too, and really, it’s amazing how the Earth still turns and we’re treating it so badly.”
Echoes of the Great Blasket Island air Port na bPúcaí come to mind as Máirtín describes the manner in which the suite then diverges in many different directions.
“From the waltz, the music breaks into a huge chord which is like a cry from the ocean,” he says. “It’s as if the ocean is keening, and it’s as if that cry is coming through two slip jigs. Then on to an air that represents our various dialogues and climate conferences. It has singular lines representing the voices of different countries at a conference, and a refrain that’s unresolved, because there’s this inevitable question: will we be able to solve this? And then into the Angry Ocean jig. The second jig is our noble intentions: our resolve to live in harmony and make the world a better place.”
Life experience inevitably colours how and what O’Connor writes.
“There’s a prayerful, peaceful air: a prayer for future generations,” he continues. “And there’s nothing like becoming a grandparent to sharpen your awareness of what we’re leaving behind. As musicians, we’ve spent our lives travelling the world and not really thinking too much about our carbon footprint.”
Once the tunes were composed, he entrusted them to his long-time collaborator, Garry Ó Briain, who arranged the entire suite for classical and traditional musicians.
“Máirtín played all the separate tunes and I recorded and transcribed them,” Garry recounts, smiling as he recalls the pleasurable nature of the process. “I had the melody at the top line and I worked from that. These are very discrete sections, although they segue. So I would simply sit at the piano, play the piece and find out what’s in it, harmonically. Then I translate that to a string quartet score.”
Garry’s familiarity with the ConTempo Quartet musicians greatly influenced his arrangements.
“They have a very particular sound and approach”, he says. “And a philosophy and joie de vivre, so as I was arranging, I have each member in mind. It’s like a handmade instrument: you’re thinking of the person who’s playing it. And we know them all really well. We’ve been working together for 15 years.”
The Galway Music Residency’s curator, and member of the Clare Memory Orchestra and of the ground-breaking Ensemble Ériú, Matthew Berrill wrote most of his own parts for clarinet.
“I’ve grown up listening to Máirtín’s music,” Berrill offers with a smile. “So it’s a dream for me to be part of this ensemble, and it’s lovely to just sit in with this musical partnership that’s been there for so long. It’s like lots of different jigsaw pieces fitting together. I came in from a jazz perspective but I love the trad world as well and those two worlds complement each other a lot of the time.”
When he was originally commissioned, Máirtín had plans for a larger piece, including vocals. His vision was that singer Mary McPartlan would join them but, sadly, Mary passed away in April 2020.
“I intended it to be a larger night’s music and song and God rest Mary: she was due to be there as part of that. So there’s a kind of sadness there too.”
It seems fitting that this quintessentially west of Ireland musician has undertaken this paean to the natural world. O’Connor’s sense of place, and of the infinite power of the sea suggests that this suite might not have been as readily evoked from the confines of an urban setting.
Máirtín laughs at the serendipity of the whole project.
“A windy day in Annaghdown [a village on Lough Corrib] would be like a Category-5 hurricane in other parts of the world!” he laughs. “It’s a bit like that! You don’t take too much notice of the elements after a while.”
After a whole year of pandemic living, with live performance limited largely to online, A Mighty Ocean’s recording offered these musicians a reminder of the power of live performance, albeit with an audience limited to the technical crew. O’Connor experienced a maelstrom of emotions during the performance.
Power of the ocean
“I think there was more pressure on me than I revealed,” he admits. “The ConTempos are very animated people so when they play, they’re fantastically melodramatic in their expressions. There was a lot of fun. Afterwards, I was exhausted, but it was a nice kind of exhaustion, to have that coterie of people come together was such good friendships and a lovely atmosphere. I have a very warm glow of a memory of the whole experience.”
Máirtín feels that there are parallels with Covid-19 too, in this suite that doffs its cap to the power of the ocean.
“I see the Mighty Ocean as a musical statement that has a huge resonance for the whole of Covid: not to lose hope and to remain optimistic. There’s an uncertainty there, but we can’t let hope die.”
Máirtín is also sanguine about the question of how the arts might reshape itself post-pandemic, and characteristically witty in his observations of playing on stage to empty theatres during his online performances: adapting to the needs of the film crew, rather than a live audience.
“Do you remember how Paganini used to play?” he asks impishly. “He’d turn his back to the audience, which added to the whole mystique. We never sat with our back to the audience, but now we’re sitting with our back to no audience, because we were looking to the back of the stage. It was strange and surreal.
“It’s the sound of the one hand clapping. It’s very stark. It’s great to sit down with your fellow musicians and to reconnect with that musical energy. But there’s nothing like a live audience, ever. We’re lucky to have online, but it’s a poor substitute.”
The Mighty Ocean will be broadcast on Sunday, April 25th, at 9.30pm, as part of the Galway 2020 programme