Monday, 3 October 2011

Why Seán Ó Riada is Irish music's pop icon

The composer’s groundbreaking arrangements of traditional music had a formative influence on an entire generation, writes SIOBHÁN LONG

FISHERMAN, PHILOSOPHER and polyglot; broadcaster, composer and arranger: Seán Ó Riada occupies a place somewhere between that of a tortured genius and what you could term an iconoclassicist. This year, the 40th anniversary of his death and the 80th anniversary of his birth, offers a timely opportunity to delve beneath the surface of this maestro whose legacy is still debated in both traditional and classical music circles.
Those who have made Ó Riada’s acquaintance second-hand through his music might struggle to understand what all the fuss was about. Who was this man who cut a swathe through our characterisation of Irish cultural identity from the early 1950s to the late 1960s? Was he truly the white knight who rescued traditional music from the lower caste to which it had been consigned? Did Ó Riada’s film scores (in particular, that for Mise Éire ) act as a lightning rod, connecting us emotionally with the story of our own genesis as a nation, or did they exploit a weakness for sentimentality at play beneath the hard-worn veneer of Irish life?

And what of his liturgical works? Hell-bent on writing music for 40 Masses, Ó Riada died after composing the music for two, with his setting for Ag Chríost An Síol embedding itself deep within the psyche of almost anyone who set foot inside a Catholic church over the past five decades.

Ó Riada died at the age of 40, having shaken the foundations of traditional music. In his film scores he unearthed a stateliness in Irish music that had hitherto been untapped. In his use of the harpsichord, he doffed a cap to the musical inheritance bequeathed by Turlough O’Carolan, among others. With Seán Ó Sé and Ceoltóirí Chualann, he gave traditional music its first “pop” hit with their muscular rendition of An Puc Ar Buile . Without Ó Riada’s influence, it’s worth asking, would we be experiencing today the bold inventiveness of The Gloaming, the ambitious compositions of Dave Flynn or the inquisitiveness of the sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird? One of his students, the pianist and composer Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, recalls Ó Riada’s charisma, a “numinousity or psychic presence” that filled a room.

“I came to traditional music through him,” Ó Súilleabháin says, “and, in so doing, found it already residing inside myself, tucked away securely in some postcolonial cultural mess that so many of us inherited. He was the first public figure with the necessary panache and courage to break through old modes of cultural thought in the Irish situation. He brought both clarity and vision into play.”

Seán’s son, Peadar Ó Riada, remembers his father as a man with a hunger, an inquisitiveness about the world, which extended to his attempts to teach Peadar, at various intervals, Arabic, Urdu and Mandarin. “It was his love of a nation, that emotion, that’s what meant most to him,” Peadar says. “There’s a word in Irish, ‘tír grá’, which is a translation of patriotism, but it’s different in Irish, because we’re of the land. In our culture, we didn’t own the land. It owned you. That was Seán’s guiding force, and the language that he used to express it was music, because it had no borders and no limits. What he wanted was for us to get our independence culturally. He saw that our culture was as good as anyone else’s.” Ó Riada’s real genius, according to Peadar, was that he didn’t get bogged down in the intellectualisation of music.

“Seán was fearless,” Peadar says. “He didn’t care what others thought about what he did, because you don’t when you’re riding that horse. You don’t worry about falling off. The exhilaration and emotion of the act demand all your attention.”

Garech a Brún, founder of Claddagh Records, was a close friend of Ó Riada’s, and it was in Luggala, a Brún’s Wicklow estate, that his final recording, Ó Riada’s Farewell , was made. “Seán was the most delightful, charming, knowledgeable man that I’ve ever met,” says a Brún. “He had a huge interest in what is now called world music, and he wanted to see a fusion of the arts and, in particular, of music and poetry.” Ó Riada’s film score for George Morrison’s Mise Éire , a film about the 1916 Rising and the War Of Independence, had a formative influence on a generation, a Brún suggests. “At that time, Seán was breaking new ground. Everyone in Ireland was ashamed of traditional music, yet everyone reacted positively to his score. At that time it was so ingrained in Irish people that fiddle players, for example, were old-fashioned people with string tying up their trousers. They couldn’t see it as part of a modern Ireland. “Back then, there was one pipemaker, Leo Rowsome, and four pipers. How many are there now? Really, his influence was enormous.”

At the time, there were musicians who declared that Seán Ó Riada did composing in Ireland a great disservice, because he chose to bring classical forms to bear on traditional music. Yet was this not what Grieg had done a century before with Norwegian music and Dvorak with the music of Moravia?

Ó Riada suffered from what his friend the poet John Montague calls a double muse. Montague has written extensively of the composer in his memoir The Pear Is Ripe , and in the poem The Lure . “With Mise Éire ,” says Montague, “Seán transformed the whole Irish music scene. But I think the impossibility of reconciling his two gifts, as a composer in a classical vein and as an arranger of traditional music, was an enormous challenge, much as [the poet] Michael Hartnett struggled between writing in English and in Irish.”

Paddy Moloney of The Chieftains was a member of Ceoltóirí Chualann, the group formed by Ó Riada in 1960 that dramatically reinterpreted Irish music, with its orchestrated arrangements and its insistence on affording each player space within the arrangements. This was in stark contrast to the céilí bands of the day, where musicians were in competition with each other.

‘He was a genius, a fantastic brain and a bit of a show-off,” Moloney says with a laugh. “He was so colourful and charismatic. What turned me on to him was Mise Éire and his brilliant arrangement of tunes such as Róisín Dubh . I just loved the way he treated them. I wasn’t satisfied with the céilí band thing either, but maybe he was a little too hard on them. I did disagree with the use of accordions, though. I thought they were too brash, and always out of tune with themselves. Seán was a true traditionalist at heart, and he made a great contribution to the revival of traditional music. He’s been criticised for paying such attention to arranging tunes and putting them into harmonies, but I never disagreed with what he was at.”

For Ó Súilleabháin, the Ó Riada legacy is tangible throughout traditional music today. “In his work with traditional musicians – the actual embodied tradition where the musician came with the music – he was, in my opinion, post-modern in his approach and thinking,” Ó Súilleabháin says. “He was part of a rebalancing of the creative process which had increasingly viewed the performer – musician, actor, dancer, builder, etc – as a craftsperson, as against the creative high ground of the literate artist: composer, playwright, choreographer, architect. The subversive impact of this turn-about is still working itself through the system on all sorts of levels, largely with a refreshing impact. His legacy, to my mind, is one of a wind of inspiration rather than any one identifiable rock of achievement.

“This is why it is so difficult for people who existed or exist outside his psychic domain to understand what all the fuss was about. The best way into Ó Riada remains the poems written about him: Heaney’s In Memoriam Seán Ó Riada , Kinsella’s A Selected Life and Vertical Man, Montague’s Ó Riada’s Farewell, among others.”

Antoine Ó Coileáin of Gael Linn, on whose label most of Ó Riada’s traditional-music recordings were released, is unequivocal in his belief that his legacy is secure. “I really think he saw into the soul of what the Irish psyche is,” says Ó Coileáin. “His concept of the Irish nation is one that I can relate to, very much. In particular, the historical film scores, Mise Éire and Saoirse , are deeply moving, and capture the quintessential spirit of Ireland.

“And I think that’s why he left an enduring legacy. He also had a kinetic energy that set something in motion that has rolled on through the generations. We can follow the thread through so many groups from the 1970s onwards: from The Bothy Band and Horslips to Relativity. I believe that he was the guiding force, the unseen hand on the shoulder for a lot of those people, so that in a way what we witness today as the thriving state of Irish music is due in very large part to the influence of Ó Riada. He dug deep into the roots of what makes us Irish and inspired tremendous confidence in ourselves. He achieved so much in his short life. He was very much ahead of his time.”

Féile na Laoch/The Festival of Heroes, a celebration of Ó Riada’s legacy, runs in Cúil Aodha, Co Cork, until Monday; feilenalaoch.com

Essential listening: Ó Riada recordings

Mise Éire (Gael Linn)

Ó Riada sa Gaiety (Gael Linn)

Ceol An Aifrinn 1 Aifreann 2 (Gael Linn)


Vertical Man (Claddagh Records)

Seoda an Riadaigh: The Essential Collection (Gael Linn)

Why Seán Ó Riada is Irish music's pop icon - The Irish Times - Sat, Oct 01, 2011

No comments:

Labels

accordion achill activities Affiliate Program Alan Kelly Alan Shatter Alasdair Roberts Alison Krauss All Ireland Fleadh Altan Andy Irvine antrim archive armagh Arthur McBride Arts Arts and Entertainment Arts Council Arty McGlynn Athlone Baltimore band banjo Bantry Barney McKenna Baroque music Bill Whelan Bluegrass music bodhran Bodhrán bouzouki brendan begley Brendan Dolan brian boru Brian Conway Brian Cunningham Brock McGuire Band bunsatty Caoimhin O Raghallaigh Cape Breton Castlebar Cathy Davey Cavan cd ceili Céilí Band Céilidh celtic Celtic music Celtic rock ceol charlie lennon Chicago chieftains christmas Christmas music Christy Moore ciorras clancy Clancy Brothers classes classical music comhaltas Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann Compact Disc Compass Records concert concertina Concerts and Events Connemara Conradh na Gaeilge Cootehill cork Cork County Council Cork University Press Cormac De Barra County Clare County Leitrim Dáithí Sproule Damien Dempsey Dán Dance Dancing at Lughnasa Danny Boy danu Dave Swarbrick De Dannan Declan Sinnott Deezer Derry dervish dkit Dolores Keane Dónal Lunny Donegal Donegal Fiddle Tradition Donnacha Dennehy doolin drisheen Drogheda Drumkeeran drums Drumshanbo dublin Dubliners dun uladh Dundalk early music East Clare Ed Reavy Education Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin Eileen Ivers Eleanor McEvoy Electric Picnic emer mayock ennis European Union Fairytale of New York Feakle feis Feis Ceoil felix dolan festival Festivals fidde fiddle Fiddling Film festival Fleadh Fleadh Cheoil Fleadh Cheoil Competition Céilí Band Jig Comhaltas Fleadh Cheoil fleadh nua flute Folk music Folk music of Ireland folklore france outdoors Francis O'Neill Frank Harte Frankie Gavin frankie kennedy free download Gaeilge gael-linn Gaelic galway Galway Arts Festival galway bay George Bernard Shaw gig glor goodman manuscripts Grammy Award Green Linnet Records group Grouse Lodge Guinness guitar harp hinse history holidays hornpipe Iarla Ó Lionáird iPhone Ireland irish Irish American irish arts centre irish dance irish flute Irish language irish music Irish people Irish Recorded Music Association irish times irish traditional music Irish Traditional Music Archive irish whistle IrishCentral IrishTimes irishtune.info Israel itma Ivan Goff jack coen JAMES JOYCE James Joyce Centre Jig jigs Joanie Madden Joe Derrane John Carty John Doyle John McCusker John McKenna John McSherry john spillane John Wynne Julie Fowlis Junior Crehan Karan Casey Karen Matheson Kathleen MacInnes Kevin Crawford Kilfenora Kilfenora Céilí Band Latin America Le Vent du Nord learn Len Graham Leopold Bloom Lieutenant of Inishmore Literature Liz Carroll London London Irish Centre Lord of the Dance louisburgh lunasa Lúnasa MacTalla Mor Maggie MacInnes Máirtín Ó Direáin mairtin o'connor Máirtín O'Connor Malawi Mandolin Margaret Bennett Martin Carthy martin fay Martin Hayes Martin McDonagh Martin Quinn Mary Bergin Mary Black Maryland Massachusetts Matt Molloy mayo McMahon Merry Sisters of Fate Michael Flatley Michael Rooney Michael Tubridy Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin Micho Russell Mick Moloney mick o'brien milwaukee Monaghan Moya Brennan mp3 Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh music Music festival Music of Ireland Musical composition Natasha McShane Neil Young New York Noel Hill Northern Ireland npu NUIG o'carolan omagh Orkney Paddy Fahey paddy keenan paddy moloney paddy o'brien Padraig Rynne passionfruit theatre Paul Brady penny whistle pennywhistle Peter Horan Philadelphia Philip Duffy piano pipes Planxty podcast Poetry Pogues Quebec radio radisson Raidió Teilifís Éireann recording reel reels riverdance Robert Downey Jr Ronan Browne Ronnie Drew Roscommon rose of tralee rowsome Royal Irish Academy of Music RTÉ Concert Orchestra Ryan Molloy Saint Patrick's Day school scoil acla Scoil Éigse scotland Seachtain na Gaeilge Sean Nós Seán Ó Ríordáin Séan O'Riada séan potts sean tyrell Sean-nós song session Set dancing Shanachie Records shannon shannonside Sharon Shannon shetland show singer Singing Skara Brae Sliabh Luachra sligo solas Sorley MacLean st.patrick stephen ducke Streaming media Stuart MacRae summer school teada teetotallers tg4 the forge theatre Tin whistle Tommy McCarthy Tommy Peoples Tommy Sands Toner Quinn Town Hall Theatre trad trad music traditional Traditional Folk and Celtic Traditional music tradmusiconline.com tradschool trocaire Tulla Tulla Céilí Band tune makers tunepal tutorial tv uilleann pipes Ulysses University of Limerick vallely Van Morrison venue Vermont video Violin W. B. Yeats Waterford westmeath whistle willie Willie Clancy Willie Walsh workshop workshops world fleadh