Iarla on Morning Ireland: restoring Irishness? challenging purists?

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Iarla Ó Lionaird’s Arts Council funded Iomas/Intuition project was an item on Morning Ireland this morning in a report by Aisling Kenny of RTÉ.

In it Iarla referred to it as “a challenge”:

two different worlds, two different languages meeting each other, two different contexts, sean-nós is by definition meant to be sung on its own, it means singing into myself, being quite at one with the melody. In this project I’m sharing that experience with the orchestra.

He explained how free the composers were:

Write the kind of music you like, we said to them … but I have to be able to sing the song. There is a ‘conversation’ going on between the composers and the song, between them, the song and me. I’m pleased they have engaged with the material and dreamt up all these new sonic worlds.

Dan Trueman, one of the seven commissioned composers, described the challenge further:

On the one hand there’s this gift of this song to work with, making the job easier than if it was a blank slate, but on the other hand they are such beautiful songs, they work so well just by themselves, there’s this sense that we’re likely to do more harm than good. Trying to find a way to bring something to the song that makes it better, that brings out things that we don’t hear otherwise is really a challenge, but a fascinating one.

Restoring a sense of Irishness?

David Brophy, the Principal Conductor of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, added a very personal perspective to the musical challenge:

The biggest challenge for myself and the orchestra is that the music is so fluid. It’s very hard to write down what Iarla sings. What Iarla does is like singing and talking at the same time, he’s following the inflections of the speech and the language. It’s just gorgeous to listen to. I’ve had to stop myself today from just switching off, moving my arms and just listening to Iarla’s great singing, to actually get on and keep things together.

I think over the past few decades we’ve lost a little bit of sense of who the Irish are, maybe. And I think I felt in rehearsal today more Irish than I have in a long time. And I think for an Irish orchestra to work with the Irish language and with Iarla Ó Lionard and to feel acutely Irish in a way that I haven’t felt in a while is something to savour.

Challenging ‘purists’?

In a noteworthy editorial intervention, Cathal Mac Coile commented after the report:

Some people, the purists, might think when they heard the words Iarla Ó Lionaird, sean-nós singing and an orchestra, probably went ‘O, this is going to be …’ when in fact it sounds wonderful.

By way of a reply to these imagined ‘purists’ (come out whoever you are!), I’ll leave the last words to Iarla from an interview I did with him last year for the Journal of Music:

People I listen to in traditional music preceded the terminology of tradition and sean-nós and they were noteworthy because they were iconoclastic. Even the better sean-nós singers were quite different from what people imagine sean-nós singers sound like. The three or four that I would say are brilliant are not like what you would hear today. They were quite inventive, similar to say, Tommy Potts on the fiddle, quite outside what has become the accepted field. They wanted to amuse themselves, which is what all art stems from.

Iarla Ó Lionard and David Brophy with RTÉ National Concert Orchestra

Iarla Ó Lionard and David Brophy with RTÉ National Concert Orchestra

Click here to listen to the report itself:



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