Review of Iarla Ó Lionáird’s Iomas/Intuition

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(Disclosure: The author knows Iarla personally.)

Some years back, Iarla explained why he had initially turned down various offers to record his work because he felt no one knew how to do justice to the style: “They wanted to treat it as folk music, but sean nós is darker, more passionate and ancient than that. It has an inner dialogue, and profound emotions about love and loss and death, and is often very allegorical. Sean nós has never been about strutting your stuff. You stand there and hold it and it is all about empathy. A lot of people seemed to have a problem with that.”

So many people with so many “problems”, and so few artists … willing to ignore them.

There was a sense of occasion about this concert. It was billed as “momentous”. Ellen Cranitch predicted “it’ll be one of those ‘I was there…..’ kinda concerts”. “Should be amazing!” was one of the tweets I saw about it on the day.

And no wonder, considering Iarla has been seen, down the years, by some, as a kind of custodian; “a singer whose startling interpretation of old songs is the ultimate elixir for sean nós,” as Siobhán Long put it in the Irish Times.

Then there was the media coverage. There were the arts pages and radio slots you’d expect for a special concert like this with a good ‘story’ behind it. But there was also news coverage. Morning Ireland did an item on the day of the concert, as did the six one news that evening just a few hours before Iarla went on stage. The fact that it was with an RTÉ orchestra helped with such publicity, but other aspects had strong appeal too: leading sean-nós singer, performing a selection from the “great Irish songbook”, accompanied by our national concert orchestra, in our national concert hall, with arrangements by celebrated composers including Micheal Ó Suilleabháin and Donnacha Dennehy.

And YET, despite the build up, and the ‘importance’ of the event, it wasn’t a sell-out: only about 700 souls in a 1,200-seater venue. I was surprised and disappointed and annoyed.

“Why should it be any other way,” I heard a voice in my head say. “Who the heck is Iarla O’Lionaird and what the hell is sean-nós? … You can’t force people to like this niche stuff so why bother raising the point of attendance? … Be thankful that the tax payer isn’t objecting to the public money being spent on putting such obscure stuff on a national stage.”

But a little analysis of the factors involved would show that the reasons it’s ‘obscure’ come down to powerful commercial interests and weak cultural reactions. I’m more inclined to argue that our education system has simply failed to introduce traditional music to young people before they’ve picked up the cynicism that so much of our post-colonial culture is damaged by. Shame on us, I say, for not presenting these art forms in such a way as more people could appreciate them. We talk about gender quotas, market regulation and corporate responsibility, yet we don’t seem to be able to apply that thinking to the enormous cultural bias the “free market” has created in the arts, hugely disadvantaging traditional forms. Personal taste should be the only factor at the end of the day that determines whether one listens or not. But it is not.

So, while everyone I know would have heard of Leonard Cohen – who, at the time, was across town strutting his stuff to over 7,000 fans – a lot of my friends would never have heard of Iarla or sean-nós. “At the Iarla Ó Lionaird concert in the NCH. Eat your heart out Leonard Cohen” was the best tweet I read on the night, because that’s how I felt we should be responding to yet another €100 gig by yet another hanging-in-there North American singer who “loves playing in Ireland” (I don’t wonder why) but who will be heading home across the Atlantic immediately after, his massive takings and all … thank you very much. Enough with the negativity, though.

Ironically, of all our traditional music artists, Iarla himself has been trying more than most to tear down the walls some others have built up around the music. Iarla has been taking this singing tradition into the studio and dedicated music venues for many years. In fact, he has been arranging many of these songs himself all that time, adding all kinds of sonic explorations and ambience to draw out their hidden treasures for untrained ears.

Here, yet again, he was trying to place the old songs into a different context: full orchestration. Typically, instead of just getting a reliable and appropriate and established native composer (Ó Suilleabháin, for instance) to do all the arranging, Iarla insisted on working with a range of other composers too, to push the envelope, as usual. (All male, unfortunately, and I wondered why not someone like Linda Buckley, for instance, who has form in this arena.) But an intriguing and challenging range nonetheless: three Americans, two contemporary classical Irish, one jazzy-tradster, and Ó Suilleabháin.

So how was it? Well, first up, it was a challenge. How big of a challenge only really occurred to me as I sat there looking at Iarla up on the huge stage with a very full-looking Concert Orchestra behind him, and then looked down at the “programme” and saw nine songs lined up …. before the interval … and seven after the interval! Holy God! He would usually sing maybe five in a performance, and here he was tackling SIXTEEN, some of them BIG, dark, brooding songs. I worried that if any of the composers went by Donnacha Dennehy’s Grá agus Bás work, surely Iarla’s voice wouldn’t survive the night. And then when he spoke at the start of the concert I thought I detected a slight rasp in the voice already, as if it had been over-worked. Thankfully, as soon as he started singing it was clear the singing voice was in perfect form. And it stayed that way all the way through the night.

It was a lot to take on, certainly, but very few of the arrangements actually pushed Iarla the way Dennehy did in Grá agus Bás, so he was well able. For many people, his voice alone is enough to carry these songs, so even the settings that were plain and safe and in the background, were enjoyable at that level (almost in spite of the arrangements), but were they disappointing in the sense of missed opportunity and unutilised resources?

Ó Suilleabháin’s lush setting of An Buachaill Caol Dubh, with its spacious minimalism, uplifting bridges of brasswind, and gentle harmonizing and offsetting, set the bar high as the opener. It pulled at the song just enough to take it somewhere new. It had sections of beautiful Sibelius-like radiance and epiphany. It also gave Iarla something he was used to: that mood-scape that his voice comes out of so stirringly. Later Ó Suilleabháin’s elaboration of Port na bPucaí showed a Mise Éire-like national pride urge. “We thought we would create something that wasn’t always known as a song but that was known as an idea (and as a slow tune),” and fittingly, Iarla began by reading Heaney’s poem about the tune, The Given Note, over a rumbling orchestral soundscape, before launching into wordless sean-nós singing, building with the orchestra to a climax which burst and calmed into another fragment of wordless singing and finally into the lyrics. The horn section with the sharp, pounding rhythm that followed didn’t really work well with the more gentle accompaniment parts of the arrangement for me, but it certainly created a powerful impression for this powerful “idea-song”.

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Iarla recorded his own near pop-like setting of O’Carolan’s Eleanor Plunkett on his recent Foxlight album, and Nico Muhly’s arrangement let that version through largely unchallenged, with very little teasing at it or testing it. I enjoyed it for the singing rather than for the music. The next one was also Muhly’s, a slightly more distinctive setting of An Chúil Daigh Réidh (which Iarla has been performing superbly with The Gloaming of late). Other than a pleasant shimmering of strings like a cushion for the head, it did very little for me as music.

Maybe because of my love of Niall Vallely’s own playing style, I clearly had misguided expectations for his arrangements, because I couldn’t help but feel disappointed with his response to Réidh Chnoc Mná Duibhe: I thought he’d be more adventurous with it. It was beautiful, no question, but again left the singing of the song as the main impression. The same was true for his setting of An Buachaillín Bán later: lush, mood-setting but gentle to the point of a whisper. Perhaps mistakenly, I was looking for something new and distinctive in the music.

Benedict Schlepper-Connolly took the bull by the horns, in that respect, and made the most of the opportunity afforded him in three songs: Cucúin, Samhradh Samhradh and Cucanandy. These ‘small songs’, as Iarla called them, playful little things, offered the most rhythmical scope of all the music, and Ben went for it, creating anything but ‘small arrangements’. There were intros, outros and linking passages. There was, maybe, more use of droning than with the other composers, but the drones didn’t sit still when they had a chance to shift about. The first was quite gentle but moody and at times eerie, and reminded me of Charles Ives’ Unanswered Question a little in places, but I’m probably just displaying my ignorance more than anything in saying that. Ben’s Samhradh  Samhradh challenged Iarla’s version brilliantly, tightening up the phrases with a taut modern pulse from the orchestra driving the song. Then the Cucanandy combined a pulse element with some gorgeous counter-melody lines and the freshness of it, the hard-won fun of it appealed hugely to musicians, conductor and audience alike.

If I was a little disappointed by Niall’s, I was quiet surprised at how tame Dennehy’s interpretations were. Táim Sínte ar do Thuama, Iarla described as a spectral song, and it didn’t take much effort from Dennehy to allow that quality to shine forth, but the music, while beautiful, was ghostly in how it disappeared behind the singing. Was it possible that the respect these guys had developed for the songs and for Iarla’s own versions of them were making them cautious, I wondered.

David Lang’s settings, like Muhly’s, seemed to me to be like off-the-shelf solutions and I wouldn’t have been surprised if it was revealed they were quite rushed or even done by students of theirs: “from the studio of”! Lang’s Amhrán na nGleann did have a cool bassy riff running underneath it, but it was far too little to impress. With Táimse im’ Choladh, Lang cuddled it in a distinct strings-only, off-beat lullaby, like a separate piece of music.

Thankfully, the next three songs were much more impressive. It was Dan Trueman’s music that really showed how much potential the songs have for elaboration, fodder for the imagination. Unlike the stubbornly metred dance tunes, the songs of Irish Traditional music give plenty of room for manoeuvre if you are looking for it, and Trueman jammed his foot on the lug of his spade and dug into it. Like Schlepper-Connolly did, he created new music, original elements introducing and linking verses, fresh harmonies and counter melodies, responding to what he heard in the songs and perhaps to what Iarla told him and showed him about them.

Did he stray too far from the original solo, unaccompanied, lightly self-ornamented songs with his sophisticated, elaborate and shifting music? Not if you were to judge by reactions on the night: through Loch Léin, Siúil a Rún and Táim Cortha ó Bheith im’ Aonar im’ Luí, the movements of conductor, David Brophy, revealed how much there was to lever up and scatter. You could tell he was loving it, as were the members of the orchestra. And when the audience responded you could read the power of the music in the volume of the applause.

The final programmed song was, as he said, “an unusual version of a song I sang many years ago, singing into a piano and the strings just resonated out into the event horizon … Without that song, I wouldn’t be at this event horizon.” And of course it was Aisling Geal, arranged (this time with more dissonant daringness) by Donnacha Dennehy. I remembered that Iarla had performed this song at the TG4 Gradam Ceoil ceremony in 2008, as recipient of the Traditional Singer of the Year award. Typical of this courageous and unique artist, in that most traditional of settings instead of singing the song solo or with simple accompaniment, he chose to perform it with Dennehy’s Crash Ensemble, including cello, double bass, clarinet and bowed xylophone!

So maybe some of the people who should have been there but weren’t stayed away because based on previous form they were afraid of what they might hear, afraid that damage would be done to their traditional songs, and they just didn’t want to know. Their loss, I say. Our gain that the Arts Council continue to support these ‘obscure’ projects. Hopefully, audiences overseas will appreciate the full significance of this one and eventually wake more of us up to what we have before it’s too late.

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Notes:

You can hear Dan Trueman’s setting of Siúil a Rún can be heard here on the archive of Peter Browne’s Rolling Wave programme from 13 October 2013 (alongside Elizabeth Cronin’s 1951 version as recorded by the BBC).

Iarla’s and Micheál’s version of Port na bPucaí will be performed on November 17 at ‘An Evening for Seamus Heaney’, the closing concert of Belfast Music Week.

Iarla’s group The Gloaming will release their debut album on 21 January next in time for four concerts they have lined up:

  • Celtic Connections at City Halls, Glasgow on 22 January
  • Sage Gateshead in Gateshead on 23 January
  • Union Chapel, London on 24 January
  • The National Concert Hall on 26 January
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