5 LPs for St. Patrick’s Day

A weird melancholy is in the air, on the eve of a particular day, and five LPs are calling to me to be heard. So, in honour of St. Patrick’s Day, here is an honorary mention of five LPs that echo something that can sometimes seem to me to be more Eriu than Eriu.

1. Ceoltoiri Chulann, “Playboy of the Western World” (Gael Linn, 1963)

Irish folk music is usually heard only as dance music. But in this film soundtrack, Sean O Riada arranged airs to be played by a traditional group with a sense of dynamics akin to a chamber music ensemble. Thought provoking. Haunting. Still impressive. A “one off”, even if a later group (including some of the players on this record) occasionally attempted (I think unsuccessfully) to capture something similar without the actual chief who arranged this record. It is all about the dynamics.

2. Alan Stivell, “Renaissance” (Dreyfus, 1972) / ”Beyond Words” (Dreyfus, 2002).

The first, with Irish airs, is the famous one (of these two instrumental solo albums) but I’ll pick the second one. Stivell, a Breton, maybe overplays the idea of being the high priest/druid of all things Celtic (possibly the result of flirting with rock occasionally), but on “Beyond Words” he gets sonorities on the wire-strung harp that could well be the DNA of everything Eriu-ish. If you ever get bitten by the wire-strung harp bug, other players out there include Rudiger Oppermann (Germany), who is almost as “out there” as Stivell (or perhaps even more so without being Celtic-inspired), and then there’s the strictly trad. heads: Ann Heymann and Patrick Ball (USA) and Siobhan Armstrong and Paul Dooley (Ireland). The late Derek Bell may have been the first in Ireland (in recent times) to look back to “the” truly Irish harp, although Stivell was there before him, thanks to his dad having built him a wire-strung harp in the 1950s. Janet Harbison’s charity album “Prayer” is one where “the (modern) Irish harp” almost sounds like “the” (wire-strung) Irish harp. Hmm….and yet it was hymnal music rather than insane banshee music. How is this possible? Electricity and recording studios can do wonders, as Andreas Vollenweider might say.

3. Moving Hearts, “The Storm” (Tara, 1985).

Asking if this record is truly Irish (folk) music is a bit like asking if Dave Gruisin’s GRP Record Label was truly a jazz label. Maybe not. To me, this seems to be the quintessential Donal Lunny recording, rather than what the recording artists were known for, but it is another “one off” type of record. An independently produced Irish “traditional” record that sounds like the “smoother” end of 1980s jazz fusion. Bizarre, but noteworthy. Not all pop-Irish music of the period was inspired by Clannad’s soundtrack to Robin of Sherwood.

4. John Feeley, “E-Motion” (Black Box, 1997).

In the 1980s, Feeley arranged and recorded Irish traditional airs for classical guitar, often well. This record is eight world premieres of Irish classical guitar compositions and, if I remember right, the Voyage of Maeldun and the Shannon Suite were the standout ones. There’s no Celtic DNA playing on the nervous system on this record, but it is Irish and I have a fondness for classical guitar, which can also serve as the easiest introduction to classical music of every era and style because if you like the sound of a guitar a guitar can still only ever be a guitar.

5. Catriona McKay, “Catriona McKay” (Glimster, 2002).

Ok, so she’s Scottish, not Irish, but there’s Irish tunes here and this, her first, self-produced, recording haunts me just a little, not so much for the harp-fiddle duos (her claim to fame with Chris Stout) or for having the first recording of her most popular tune (The Swan), but because this was the first record I heard that featured a “new” style of doing Irish/Scottish airs that I found ear-catching: using a double-bass for comping and soloing with the traditional performers. It fills the music out well. Recently deceased jazzman Chick Corea once did a duet with bassist Stanley Clarke called “The Hilltop” that inexplicably sounded Irish to me (on a record called “My Spanish Heart”: was it Gayle Moran’s influence?). McKay’s record here is “hilltop” territory, not just because the first tune is called the Hill of Tara and the last is named after an Irish castle that does not exist, except perhaps in some Uladh dreams.

Additional note: having mentioned a few great harpists, I’ll add that Vincenzo Zitello’s album “Metamorphose” is a recent great discovery: an hour of music with the great tone of the old Irish harp. All original music and all good. Not being a creature of i-tunes, it is such a pity to me that it is available only as a digital download.

Reflections On Power

Last month, I was re-listening to an old synthesiser pop suite called “1984” around the same time as I was seeing many references online to both George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, so I decided to re-read those long-forgotten novels, which I temporarily christened (for my own entertainment) “the dirty duo”. Whatever impression I had of them in the past did not return. Instead, I was struck by how both authors seemed preoccupied with reflecting on the nature of power. Then, afterwards, I noticed a mention (yes, on Wikipedia) that both men corresponded briefly on the same theme as part of a mutual reflection upon the idea that societies necessarily are always organised, one way or another. “Curious” behaviour indeed…and it’s the premise for this month’s improvised blog.

I had quite forgotten that the “1984” novel ends with a long torture scene of someone with the typical English name of “Smith” by someone with the typical Irish name of “O’Brien” (was that a “doublespeak” reversal?), which is justified in the novel according to an expressed idea: power means an ability to inflict pain and suffering on another through a process of mentally dominating them. “Break them to make them” is an old army saying and it is a very definition of queer. Huxley’s novel ends with (a perhaps unintended) stripping of a person’s dignity, through the deprivation of privacy, and a resulting suicide. In short, both novels were horrible stuff.

Orwell’s preoccupation with the theme of power evidently stemmed from his background as an imperialist. By contrast, Huxley, whose family had known Charles Darwin, entertained the idea of picking orders in the animal kingdom being ascribed to people, who were programmed to be “alphas” down to “deltas”, but he did not entertain the folly of ascribing that idea of the purely physical to mentalities or, at least, if he did, it was not very much. This, after all, was the same author who later compiled his “Perennial Philosophy”.

And then…to top it all off…what happened next but that I tuned into an online conference, chaired by Michael D. Higgins (President of Ireland) in which (to my surprise) he decided to draw on Edward Said’s ideas on imperialism & culture in an intentionally provocative and interesting speech. Said, to my mind, had an interesting idea that he effectively ruined through overstating his case. But here, in an online lecture, were more references to that idea in Orwell’s novel: the exercise of power through an intention to humiliate. Should one be shocked by the idea? Is it acceptable to more people than one might imagine precisely because this is a way that societies have been purposively “organised” in the past? And are they still, unbeknownst to whom?

Such questions reminded me of two thoughts that I entertained early in my undergraduate days, in a long-forgotten youth, one being worthy of a mystic and the other being perhaps worthy of an Uncle Sam cartoon.

The first happened this way: desperately looking for an additional source to use for a medieval history essay on “is there such thing as a just war?” (we were supposed to have at least five sources and I think I only had four) I saw a copy of Huxley’s “Ends & Means” lying about at home and I noticed a sentence in which he claimed that the only two peoples in the history of the world that did not seem to have wars were Eskimos and Buddhists. I quoted that in my essay (proof of a “fifth source”) and the old Welsh gent who corrected my essay inserted the comment in the margins: “yes, but they also had wars”. Instead of making me reflect on my ignorance of Chinese history that comment made me think more of Huxley’s Californian sojourn as a sort of prelude to “hippie escapism”. Is that really past? Look around, be it in advertising or storytelling, and you will see many images denoting the idea of a place of sanctuary. But where does it exist if it does exist? Perhaps not amongst Eskimos (there goes that holiday intention). Not either in the (not) yoga holiday in “Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring” or in the Christian chapel in “Andrei Rublev”, to cite two cinematic images that suddenly spring to my mind. Is music (art) really “the” only real sanctuary?

The second thought entertained as an undergraduate about the way societies have been purposively organised (be that only in the past or else…) stemmed from reading some material about the United States and, in particular, a suggestion (by a perhaps not very authoritative American) on just “why” Americans do not necessarily pay attention to what is going on other parts of the world. The answer given was this: there is nothing worthy to emulate in the way societies have been purposively organised elsewhere, in the past or in the present, so why pay any attention to them: just trust in old Uncle Sam instead. Is that a purposeful American expression of belief in the need for a perennially “new world”, more given to futurology than history as a mode of thought as a means of “cleansing the world of ancient evils”? The interesting thing about that idea to me is not whether or not it is “true” in any sense. It is simply the fact that the idea seems (or seemed) to exist, not as a liberal mindset per se but as a set moral resolution. The conclusion one might draw from that premise, which I’ll make the conclusion of this pointless blog, is not the need for (alternative) reflections on the nature of power in society but that one must simply be on guard against the potential causes of abusive behaviour or personalities of any kind. Why? Because there is much in history, perhaps in the case of that of every society, that is little more than a tale, or cycle, of shame.