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Irish Times Coverage of Louth Contemporary Music Society's Midsummer Festival

We've really been enjoying working on the Louth Contemporary Music Society's Midsummer Festival.

We were delighted to see this coverage of the event in The Irish Times.....

Composer Terry Riley

‘It’s totally out of the comfort zone for all of us’

At Folks’ Music, Zoë Conway will be leading Paddy Glackin, Dónal Lunny and others in the Louth festival’s trad take on Terry Riley’s mesmerising In C

Its sense of adventure has long set Louth Contemporary Music Society’s summer festival apart, and this year is no different: Folks’ Music is a two-day celebration of music by, for and about folk – some with dirt on their boots, as the programme declares.

What promises to be the jewel in its crown next week is a sold-out performance of the mesmerising In C, which the American composer Terry Riley wrote in 1964 and has since been performed by musicians from Steve Reich to the Malian ensemble Africa Express.

In C is scored in 53 musical cells, each containing a different musical pattern and each, as the name suggests, in the key of C. Its beauty lies in the mix of prescription and freedom that the composer gives the performers, who move in and out of the ultimately interlocking cells.

Folks’ Music has asked a group of traditional musicians to perform In C – and it’s a challenge that has been embraced with gusto.

“I thought it’d be a brilliant idea,” Zoë Conway, who will lead Paddy Glackin, Dónal Lunny, Máirtín O’Connor, Mick O’Brien and Louise and Michelle Mulcahy on Saturday, June 17th, says with an impish smile.

‘Spontaneous in a traditional way’

“I didn’t know whether the musicians he had in mind would go for it, because it’s totally out of the comfort zone for all of us. It’s quite complicated and totally different to the way we might have worked before.

“Each cell lasts for 45 seconds to a minute, and then you move on to the next one, but in a way you’re quite free to work around that. So the main thing for me was to make sure we know those different cells individually. I know that Terry Riley is open to the traditional element of it: being quite spontaneous in a traditional way, adding ornamentation and variation to it. I’m very excited about it, because we really don’t know what it’s going to sound like yet – but the possibilities are endless.”

Paddy Glackin is no stranger to collaboration with contemporary composers. In the late 1970s, the fiddler worked with John Cage on Roaratorio, inspired by Finnegans Wake, and more recently he has worked with the composer Úna Monaghan on her most recent album, Aonaracht.

He makes no secret of just how unfamiliar Riley’s musical terrain is for him.

“This is a different animal altogether to what we did with John Cage,” says Glackin. “It’s quite specific in what we’re being asked to do, whereas in the John Cage piece we had more freedom: we simply had to play for 20 minutes, and it didn’t matter how you put that 20 minutes together. Despite its free-flowing nature, there is a structure to this as well, and a lot of what’s being asked of us is completely outside of my comfort zone as a traditional fiddle player.

“The shapes, in terms of bowing, I’ve been finding very, very challenging, to be quite honest with you. I’m going to have to make some modifications, because it just wouldn’t be comfortable for me to play the shape that’s presented to me.”

But leaving his comfort zone clearly appeals to Glackin. “That’s the fun of music: doing things like that. It’s not asking you to compromise your own music. It’s just asking you to bring yourself to it. I’ve listened to different renditions of it, and it’s a massive piece when it gets going. There’s a very big sound there, and with the accommodations that we would have, it’s going to be very different again. I’m looking forward to it.”

Louth Contemporary Music Society has carved a unique position as a warm environment for musicians and audiences of all kinds. Éamonn Quinn, its founder – and the man whose idea it was to stage In C – has always sought to be welcoming and inclusive, Glackin says.

“Éamonn has created one of the most extraordinary musical spaces. The door is open and anyone can come in. I’ve been going to the Louth Contemporary Music Society’s concerts for 10 or 12 years. My first was a John Tavener concert, and sometimes I’d come out of a concert and I’d be asking myself, Well, what was that about? But it would make you think. And then you’d find it interesting when you’d think back on it. Éamonn believes in the whole breadth of music, and he doesn’t see barriers. That’s the beauty of it, and whenever I’ve been there I’ve always left a better person.”

It’s all in the serendipity of the musical encounter, says Conway. As a classically trained musician whose traditional fiddle playing has brought the instrument on journeys nobody else might have dreamed possible, she has forged a formidable reputation as an artist who combines a boldness of vision with a deep-seated desire to explore what the tradition has to offer.

“These things are nearly like conversations, aren’t they?” she says. “The more different people that you can have different conversations with, the richer your life is. It’s like that in music too. You’re just having the craic through the music.

“It’s lovely that Máirtin will be there, and Dónal, and Mick O’Brien and Louise and Michelle Mulcahy. Those musical conversations we’ll have will never have been had before, and that’s part of the reason why we all agreed to do it. It’s out of our comfort zone, but it’s another conversation.”

Terry Riley, who cut his teeth playing with Chet Baker, and whose father was Irish, is thrilled by the prospect of next week’s performance. “Ireland is home to great musical traditions and musical excellence. I am honoured to have them embrace In C,” he says.

“Back in the 1960s, when it was written, I had a vision as to how it should sound,” the 87-year-old, who now lives in Japan, adds, “but since then I have had many opportunities with wonderful ensembles to realise my ideas and shape my interpretations, so now I feel like the piece belongs to the world, in the sense that it can still keep its integrity while receiving input from the many brilliant musicians who have engaged with it. It has proven itself to be resilient and remains effective even as it is seen through the lens of other perspectives.”

Conway is likewise confident about Irish traditional music’s ability to cover new ground.

“The work that’s been done in Irish traditional music over the last 60 or 70 years has brought it to a point where there is a real pride in the music and the player, and a respect there for Irish music,” she says.

“Taking Irish music in other directions has never been so welcome as it is at the minute. I’m thinking of people like Cormac Begley, who’s bringing Irish music to other audiences.

“It shows me that Irish music is in such a safe place that people aren’t afraid to push the boundaries and see whether it will work on film, on radio or in other media, and I think that’s a brilliant place for our music to be in.”

Folks’ Music takes place in Dundalk, Co Louth, on Friday, June 16th, and Saturday, June 17th. As well as the sold-out performance of In C, the festival features London’s Explore Ensemble, Dublin’s Esposito Quartet, Chamber Choir Ireland and composers from Italy, Canada, the United States and England.

Siobhan Long, The Irish Times, Tuesday 6th June, 2023.

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