Review: The Road to Riverdance

Next is my review of Bill Whelan’s memoir, The Road to Riverdance. I wouldn’t exactly call myself a fan of Whelan, but I can’t deny the craft of his work, nor his sense of business:

It’s unclear from the book whether he knows it, but the text demonstrates Whelan’s skill for recognising opportunity, for knowing when to say yes; in short, for being an artist in business. It’s a skill he recognises in others too, acknowledging Kate Bush’s musicianship (‘She took our master piper, Liam O’Flynn, on a kaleidoscopic journey through the tune, adding a curl here, lengthening a phrase there, until they had crafted a superb performance’) as much as her business acumen (‘… she deftly navigated the notoriously choppy waters surrounding the James Joyce estate’ in securing rights to use words for her song ‘The Sensual World’).

The memoir is, well, a fairly typical memoir, but it’s interesting to see just how many prominent musicians’ orbits Whelan has floated through in his career.

Review: Who’d Ever Think It Would Come To This?

Posting a couple of links to some of my recent writing in the Journal of Music. First up, a review of “Who’d Ever Think It Would Come To This?”—an ambitious new cantata by harpist and composer Anne-Marie O’Farrell, with a libretto by war correspondent Ed Vulliamy drawn from real accounts of the Irish Civil War:

O’Farrell writes skilfully for the whole ensemble. Flourishes in percussion that enhance or unsettle a still chord; a ghostly tin whistle or uilleann pipe passage floating up from the centre of the orchestra. (It is a credit to the composer – and to the performer Mark Redmond – that these instruments, which often rub somewhat uncomfortably against the orchestra at large, felt utterly integrated.) The influence of film composers could be felt at times – bright brass chords in the vein of John Williams, or a motoric, almost jaunty passage for strings that evoked Bernard Herrmann. That latter passage is given a grim irony as the chorus sang of a brutal assault, ‘Tied him to the tail end of a motor car, / And pulled him behind for 3 miles.’

This was a very interesting work, and one that’s sat with me for some time now. You can still, as of my writing this, listen online.

Irish Opera 2: The Sleeping Queen

And in January, I saw a much more intimate staging of Michael William Balfe’s operetta, The Sleeping Queen, another Irish work. This one was a bit older and a bit less ambitious in scope than Eithne (though, I think, much more successful in execution).

During her introductory remarks, Hunt noted the strong possibility of influence from Balfe’s operetta on the later work by Gilbert and Sullivan. I’m convinced: the works share a playfulness and a strong sense of tonal melody; even the libretto shares lyrical characteristics with the later pair’s work (A neighbouring king ‘Proposes an alliance / Offensive and defensive / With treaties most extensive / Immense and comprehensive…’).

The work has some nice musical tricks, though it burns its best one very early on: the second song features a rapid-fire duet between Agnes and the Regent; a ‘Repeat-after-me’-style oath, broken down to the syllable and shot back and forth between the two characters without room for breath or break.

The Passing Sound of Forever

My July was so busy that parts of it are still leaking over now that we’re in the second week of August.

As a result, I never had a free moment to link to my latest piece for the Journal of Music. It’s a review of Jane O’Leary’s recent CD of chamber music, The Passing Sound of Forever.

O’Leary knows her musicians well, and writes to their strengths. A considerable part of the album is spent exploring tiny sounds – col legno bowing in the passing sound of forever…, or the alto flute’s echoing of the violin’s resonances in A Winter Sketchbook, or the impossibly distant cello harmonics at the opening of …from hand to hand.

In this way, texture and colour and sensation provide the interest for most of the album, and narrative, clearest in the first work and the last, often seems a secondary concern. So there’s a palpable sense of alarm when the passing sound of forever… develops, seemingly from nowhere, a propulsive, energetic beat. Content until now to be appreciated like a painting, the music suddenly grabs you by the scruff of the neck and pulls you away with it.

Gash Collective

Niall Byrne, in the Irish Times:

“People think that women don’t want or have no interest in music technology, even in terms of sound engineering, production or setting up their decks,” says Cork woman Ellen King.

King started Gash with some female friends (and makes music under the name ELLLL) and was inspired by similar collectives around the world, such as SIREN in London, Discwoman in New York and Apeiron Crew in Copenhagen, along with Female:Pressure, an international resource of talent and mailing list for multi-disciplinary women who share knowledge and advice.

Electronic music is a field that was largely pioneered by women, so it’s sad that something like this has to exist, but at least groups like Gash Collective are doing something to redress the issue.

“Mixing Up the Classical Concert”

Meurig Bowen:

Research about people who don’t engage with the genre – rather than people who do – is harder to achieve, but potentially far more illuminating. Over the years many classical promoters will have heard the following negative observations:

1) It’s too expensive – or at least too much money to risk if I don’t like it.

2) The pieces are too long – if I don’t like something, there’s a lot more of that to put up with before it stops.

3) I don’t like sitting down in one place for so long – I get twitchy, I want to move around, especially if …

4) … there’s not enough variety – it’s just a choir or orchestra or string quartet all evening.

5) I want to take a drink in with me.

6) Why can’t I keep my phone on?

Call me a cynic, but I don’t think this will work, at least not for the reasons the promoters hope. There’s that old Henry Ford quote, “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have said, ‘a faster horse.’”

I think that the ideal people to draw into classical music are those who are already obsessed with other kinds of music (and the fact that we’ve lost them is one of the great pities of the twentieth century), and people who are that obsessed aren’t tweeting while they listen.

That said, I like to see any attempt to push music in new ways, and I hope this goes well for them.

Standard Ebooks

Standard Ebooks is a volunteer driven, not-for-profit project that produces lovingly formatted, open source, and free public domain ebooks.

Ebook projects like Project Gutenberg transcribe ebooks and make them available for the widest number of reading devices. Standard Ebooks takes ebooks from sources like Project Gutenberg, formats and typesets them using a carefully designed and professional-grade style guide, lightly modernizes them, fully proofreads and corrects them, and then builds them to take advantage of state-of-the-art ereader and browser technology.

Standard Ebooks aren’t just a beautiful addition to your digital library—they’re a high quality standard to build your own ebooks on.

This is a great idea. One thing gives me pause, though, and that’s the idea of “lightly modernising” the books. I like “to-day” in old books, and I’m not sure whether books that are “lightly modernized” will have their spelling adjusted to American English.

OK Computer Vision

Radiohead’s second-best album turned twenty a few days ago. Pitchfork asked visual artists to interpret each of the songs on it.

I like some of the results more than others. Paranoid Android, Exit Music for a Film, and Climbing Up The Walls all, to my mind, capture the feeling of the music as well as the mood of the lyrics.

I also adore synesthete artist Melissa McCracken’s painting of what she sees when she hears Lucky.

“LCMS Is Just Me.”

Great profile of Eamonn Quinn, of the Louth Contemporary Music Society, in The Guardian. Quinn more or less is the society, and has hosted some extraordinary composers and performers.

Quinn makes decisions based purely on personal taste, and the punk premise that “all you need is a room and some cash”. “LCMS is just me,” he stresses. “Before the performance, I’m walking around with the Hoover, lighting the candles. If I don’t have the enthusiasm, I can’t promote it.”

I wrote a review of LCMS’ most recent première, James Dillon’s The Louth Work: Orphic Fragments, for the Journal of Music recently. I can’t wait for the Silenzio festival next weekend.


The Tarells of this world don’t start in Hollywood or the Royal Shakespeare Company. They start at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center, and that place has helped thousands of kids dream about something bigger than they knew – and what they knew was poverty in the inner city.

That’s Michael Spring, director of the Miami-Dade county department of cultural affairs, quoted by The Guardian’s Joanna Walters. He’s referring to Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the play on which the film Moonlight was based, in Walters’ examination of some of the consequences of cutting the National Endowment for the Arts.

Spring was blunt on the plans:

It’s diabolical.

The National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, though they seem to have survived this year’s budget, are very much in the crosshairs of the U.S. federal government. Arts are a public good, and state support, especially in disadvantaged areas, is essential.

But the appearance of saving money—though the money saved is minimal—is the only thing that matters to the Trump kakistocracy.