he level of interest in traditional Irish

music has grown phenomenally over the

past decade, fuelled by the initial

reviving effect of The Clancy Brothers

and Tommy Makem in the 19605, then

The Chieftains and, in their wake, the more modern adaptations of the music from groups like Planxty and Moving Hearts, not to mention Van Morrison and The Waterboys.

In Ireland, other musicians have

been looking at ways of developing Irish music in rather different directions. The Cork-based pianist Michael O Suilleabhain, a former pupil of ex-Chieftain Sean 0 Raida and now an influential teacher himself, released two brilliant records on the eclectic Venture label which succeeded in being simultaneously fresh, radical and hugely enjoyable.

The second of these, Oilean/lsland ( 1989), brought together traditional musicians with the Irish Chamber Orchestra, a field which the Belfast-born, Dublin-based composer Shaun Davey has largely made his own. Davey’s epic The Pilgrim, first written for the Lorient Inter-Celtic Festival in Brittany in 1983, but now presented in a much revised version, will close Glasgow’s reign as European City of Culture at the Royal Concert Hall on Hogmanay.

Both men made their initial forays into the field at roughly the same time, with O Suilleabhain’s Concerto for Traditional Musician and String Orchestra and Davey’s epic The Brendan Voyage both being premiered in 1979. Davey has gone on to work more consistently in the medium, but both have found different solutions to the problems posed by the combination. While Davey brings together the traditional and classical elements in a single piece, and draws on the strengths of both to create artistic tension and release, 0 Suilleabhain tends to integrate them in what verges on a new but less consciously composed musical idiom.

‘I scored the classical strings entirely in relation to what I was doing on the piano,’ 0 Suilleabhain says, ‘then brought the traditional musicians in. 1 think my interest in that combination has something to do with bringing together the rational and the intuitive, and trying to find a balance between the two at some kind of interface.

Shaun Davey’s concentration on the combination of these factors has been more sustained and highly developed than that of any other composer and musician. The Pilgrim will make an appropriate handover concert to Dublin,



Irish traditional music is more usually associated with roaring pub sessions than Symphony Orchestras, but composer SHAUN DAVEY is out to reverse that perception. Kenny Mathieson looks across the water at the state of play.


next year’s Culture City, but is only one ofseveral large-scale works from the composer, including The Brendan Voyage, Granuaile. and this year’s massive The Relief of Derry Symphony (all on Tara Records).

‘When I started to write in 1979,’ says Davey, ‘I came to it from the position of someone who had not been brought up in traditional music, but who had developed a love and respect for it. I was quite sure that certain traditional styles would blend with certain orchestral styles. .

‘Once the first piece was performed. people tended to mention Sean 0 Raida‘s work, which I hadn’t studied beforehand, and in any case don’t feel is particularly apposite, because he took existing traditional tunes and orchestrated them, in much the same way as. for example, Rimsky-Korsakov might have done. He did them very well, and I think that awoke a lot ofpeople’s pride in their native music, but at the same time, he threw away the traditional musicians who had originally created the tunes.

‘Although he had formed The Chieftains, he didn’t use them with an orchestra.

I put Liam O’Flynn and Rita Connolly up there beside classical musicians because I felt they were entitled to be there.’

Both Uillean piper O’Flynn and singer Connolly will be performing in The Pilgrim, which requires around 250 performers in all. Despite its composer’s lack of religious conviction, it is a loosely connected work about the historical inter-relatedness of the Celtic peoples in the Medieval period, the age ofthe Missionary Bishops and the spread of Christianity.

‘The Lorient Festival wanted a piece which would include a whole range of Celtic instruments, as it does, but the time involved, which was seven months, was really too short. The Glasgow invitation has given me the chance to make it a more coherent piece, and among the changes I will make will be the addition ofa narrator, who will link the sections by reading some very fresh and beautiful medieval poems which I found.’

Scored for symphony orchestra, pipe band, a large choir and a number ofsolo instrumentalists and singers, The Pilgrim should make a highly impressive finale to Glasgow’s cultural


The Pilgrim is at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Mon 31. Shaun Davey will be talking about The Pilgrim to Archie Fisher on BBC Radio Scotland at 8pm on Mon 24.

10 The List 21 December 1990 - 10 January 1991