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Dublin: 15 °C Friday 31 October, 2014

Column: Music and austerity – how do we express the time we live in?

Toner Quinn examines Ireland’s musical response the economic crash and bank guarantee – an “act of betrayal so shocking … the country throbbed with pain”.

Toner Quinn

ON BBC RADIO 3’s CD Review, it seems that the greatest compliment a reviewer can give a conductor is that a passage is ‘beautifully understated’.

I was reminded of this a couple of months ago when the conductor David Brophy appeared on RTÉ Radio 1. He was leaving his role with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra after seven years and was asked to pick out three highlights. Alongside concerts with Lang Lang and Jon Lord, he picked the premiere of Dave Flynn’s Concerto for Traditional Irish Musician, Aontacht, performed by Martin Hayes.

“It had more of a punch to it … Only a few days before … the IMF arrived into Dublin … as a nation we were all feeling quite low.”

Beautifully understated.

The concert took place on 24 November 2010. Six days before, the International Monetary Fund had arrived to negotiate the country’s bailout. Two winters before, the government had committed the Irish people to paying the debts of collapsed banks. It was an act of betrayal so shocking that the country throbbed with pain. Families and communities were drawn into crises. Careers and businesses collapsed. Emigration and suicide rates spiralled. Blame and fear were everywhere.

On the very afternoon of the concert, the Government announced a four-year austerity plan of huge job losses, tax increases and pay cuts. In the radio interview, Brophy mentioned that he said a few words at the beginning of the concert, but he couldn’t recall exactly.

Even in the face of injustice, unity is the answer

I have not forgotten what he said. I was there with my son and nephew. As we waited for the performance to start, a Minister from that very same Government began moving to her seat and settled two rows directly in front of me. As the Minister passed, a woman pretended to look for something in her bag and exchanged an appalled look with her friend. A large man was caught unawares and offered the traditional response of shaking her hand, and then looked sad and confused.

Brophy took the microphone. It was a full house. Without smiling, he began, “Thank you everyone for coming out tonight … on a day when perhaps none of us feel like coming out.”

It reminded people of their situation. They shifted around in their seats. ‘Oh can’t we go anywhere to escape the gloom!’ the room seemed to say. Regardless, Brophy felt something had to be said and he was taking the opportunity. I looked at the Minister. She held on to her smile. I felt shame for sharing the same space with her without protest. Brophy started to introduce Hayes, making the point that, although we had lost our economic sovereignty, we still had our own music.

It was never going to be just another concert.

Aontacht means ‘unity’ – an irony for the day – but the unity was in the work. The precision of Flynn’s writing displayed years of studying the music of Hayes: his style, rhythm, technical ability and aesthetic. At the same time, the composer moved the fiddle-player into unfamiliar territory, compelling him to climb through shifting, plated orchestral accompaniment. Each time Hayes arrived at a plateau, Flynn had spun the map, but Hayes was undeterred, ascending and chasing even harder. It was thrilling, heady and explosive. Brophy danced on the podium. I moved to the edge of my seat. Like a fish fighting for breath in the net of our national betrayal, Aontacht carried everyone momentarily to the surface.

But that moment was pierced by the surreal sight of the Minister enjoying it too, her country frayed around her. Great music refuses no one; it expresses the idea that, even in the face of injustice, unity is the answer. Pete Seeger, who died in January, expressed this powerfully: ‘I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody,’ he said under questioning in 1955.

Endurance and stillness

Seven months before Aontacht, another musical event could not help but respond to the country’s crisis. The Ergodos Festival MMX consisted of two nights of works by composers Simon O’Connor, Jonathan Nangle, Benedict Schlepper-Connolly and Garrett Sholdice. The festival was “all about optimism,” wrote Schlepper-Connolly and Sholdice, its artistic directors. “We believe that, in spite of the hardships of our time, there is much to celebrate, much that is beautiful, much to give us hope, and much to be done.”

But the music said something more. It was music that was about endurance and stillness in the face of despair and humiliation, about waiting until the suffering passes, however long that takes. No answers were given, just perspective. As a generational response, it was extraordinary in its lack of anger, and there is indeed optimism in that.

A year later, an election had wiped out the previous regime and elected a new government that promised the fairness that had been so frighteningly absent, but the premiere of Andrew Hamilton’s Music for People Who Like Art marked our cards – there would be no justice, no easy recovery.

Crash Ensemble, featuring the singer Michelle O’Rourke, moved forward and back as if in stasis, stressing over the same material, almost paralysed, anxious, mistaken, hesitant – incorporating vomiting sounds, appearing to reject material only to suck it back in and fire it off in different directions, all interrupted in the middle by an interlude of sweeping calm, outrageous in its obliviousness to what had come before.

Musicians and composers don’t choose to express the time they live in. Concerts can take months to organise, and compositions can take years to write. A confluence of political, social and musical events is unpredictable. But as Ireland comes to terms with its betrayal, history can again judge us on our musical response, and we will not be wanting.

Toner Quinn is a musician, music writer, founder of The Journal of Music, and lecturer in NUI Galway. TonerQuinn.com

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