Musical Tales 2012

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Composer Benjamin Dwyer writes about the Contemporary Music Centre’s project, Musical Tales, a series of four concerts of live music with short films which he curated in Dublin City Libraries in association with the Royal Irish Academy of Music. The concerts took place between 16–19 April 2012 in Dublin City Libraries.

Following the success of the Contemporary Music Centre’s first Musical Tales project last year that surveyed the connection between Irish composers and Irish writers, I was delighted to be called upon again to curate and present a second phase based on the connection between Irish composers and perhaps Ireland’s greatest writer, James Joyce. This idea tied in with the selection of Joyce’s Dubliners as Dublin City Council’s Dublin: One City One Book, itself a project that emerged from the selection of Dublin as UNESCO’s City of Literature.

My job as curator was to search through the CMC’s archives to discover works, from about the last fifty years or so, that were inspired by the literature of James Joyce, and present these works at live concerts in a selection of Dublin libraries. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that there was a tremendous amount of music to wade through. After all, Joyce was himself a musician (he won the bronze medal at the Feis Ceoil in 1904) and there are endless references to music in his work, ranging from quotes from operatic arias to Irish pub songs! He is the writer who more than most pushed language from the mere factual, communicative and denotational towards the abstract and purely ‘musical’ – where language can also be experienced as mere sound and rhythm.

Once the long list was made, finding those scores that suited the lineup of musicians we had was easy. This is one of the great pleasures of this project. For Musical Tales, the CMC hooked up with the finest musicians studying at the Royal Irish Academy of Music – that’s the RIAM Milesian Quartet: Colm Ó Braoin (violin), Denice Doyle (violin), Sebastian Adams (viola), David Doyle (cello) and soprano Rachel Croash. It was great to also to have legendary Irish jazz flautist, Brian Dunning on the project.

I was also lucky in that I could rely on a series of film shorts that were commissioned by the CMC in 2004 to celebrate the centenary of Bloomsday. So the final programme turned out to be a mixture of these movies (significantly, inspired by the music, which was written first) and live performances. I tried to get a broad balance between musical styles that ranged from an austere modernism typical of the 1970s to more tonally-based montages that sought to reflect Joyce’s own literary mosaics. The composers featured included Eric Sweeney (b. 1948), Michael Holohan (b. 1956), Trevor Knight (b. 1954), Vincent Kennedy (b. 1962), myself (b. 1965) and Rob Canning (b. 1974).

As well as curation, it was my job to present and contextualize the programmes for our audiences in the Dublin City Libraries where we performed. I was struck by the tremendous interest they displayed in the music, which they clearly enjoyed. Many would never otherwise have heard this music, so CMC, Dublin City Council and the Royal Irish Academy of Music deserve great credit for creating an imaginative way of presenting contemporary Irish music to Irish audiences. I look forward with curiosity for Musical Tales 3!

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