Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin: "I don’t always fit into the necessary boxes”

Concerts in Bantry and the NCH will celebrate Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin’s contribution to music in Ireland, writes Marjorie Brennan

Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin is not an easy man to define.

Pianist, academic, composer, arranger, champion of traditional and classical music, pioneer — any of these and more could be applied to the musician. But he is happy not to be pigeon-holed, free to explore and experiment.

“I am anything but a mainstream, identifiable composer so therefore I don’t always fit into the necessary boxes,” he says. “There is a natural default position in systems — I spent my life in universities so I know all about them — whereby everybody wants to tidy up everything, it is easier to have everyone in their own box.”

Ó Súilleabháin retired from his position as the inaugural Chair of Music at the University of Limerick last year but he is busier than ever, with upcoming performances at the Valentia Island Chamber Music festival, Masters of Tradition in Bantry and his debut performance with the National Symphony Orchestra. Many people are surprised that he has never performed with the orchestra in his long and illustrious career.

“Yes, people are surprised, but I was particularly delighted to get the invitation. In recent years, I have been performing a lot with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, which is one of the best in the world.

“The invitation to perform with the National Symphony Orchestra is significant in that the music I have done throughout my career has spread across performance,
composition and improvisation. I am honoured really by the invitation to bring my music into that wonderful community of players.”

Ó Súilleabháin will be joined by a number of guest musicians for the concert, entitled Elver Gleams, including sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird, saxophonist Kenneth Edge, traditional percussionist Mel Mercier; and uilleann piper and Young Musician of the Year, Pádraic Keane.

New pieces

The programme includes two new orchestral pieces with Ó Lionáird and full orchestra (Port na bPúcaí and An Buachaill Caol Dubh), and a re-imagining of his work for
traditional flute and strings, Oileán/ Island, about which he is particularly excited.

“I have blown it out into a full orchestral version and replaced the flute with the harmonica, which will be performed by the extraordinary Brendan Power, who is from New Zealand and based in the UK. He is very well-known as a studio musician — you can hear his harmonica on a lot of film scores. He is much sought after and was a bit reluctant at first to take on the piece because it is not something he would normally do. Eventually, he decided he would do it because he is the kind of guy who loves a challenge.

“The sound of the harmonica can be incredibly plaintive — to bend a note on it is incredibly emotive. I have heard some of the practice tapes he has done so far and I think it is going to be very special.”

Ó Súilleabháin is also keen to promote new talent and to this end has brought up-and-coming conductor Sinéad Hayes on board.

“There are few enough female conductors globally, but it is on the rise. Sinéad will be a young, energetic presence on the podium. What is also interesting about her, apart from the excellence of her classical conducting, is that she is also a traditional fiddler, which is very unusual. I would say she is the only orchestral conductor in the world who is also an Irish traditional performer.”

Bantry bound

Ó Súilleabháin is also looking forward to performing at the Masters of Tradition festival in Bantry, Co Cork, an event whose continued success he puts down to the renowned fiddler Martin Hayes.

“Whatever it is in Martin’s east Clare playing, there is something in there that creates a bridge and appeals to the classical ear. There is a natural appreciation there; people who have been listening to string quartets by Beethoven or whatever, suddenly they are struck by this solo, unaccompanied Clare fiddle.”

Fiddler Martin Hayes
Fiddler Martin Hayes

In terms of preparation, how does his approach to a traditional programme differ to that for an orchestral performance?

“When you are dealing with a classical orchestra; of course they are playing with their ears but they are also playing with their eyes. The literate symbol is vital to the production of the sound; what that means is that a composer/arranger has to have everything written out beforehand; all the parts have to be written out in great detail.

“There’s a good three months preparation for that two-hour concert. The kind of concerts I do are rarely, if ever, off the shelf, they are all bespoke and separate, this is no exception. I have been able to pull out one or two scores I have done before but they all need to be redone, revisited, reprinted.”

Ó Súilleabháin has played a key role in promoting the integration of the traditional and classical genres in music teaching in Ireland, both at UL and in his previous post in UCC.

“The movement at third level to provide a voice for traditional music is thriving. Universities are big beasts so it ultimately depends on how intelligent, sensitive and visionary the people at the top are in terms of how delicate flowers, like music genres, in this case Irish traditional music, are handled.
Because the machine is so big, it means it can drive these things
forward really brilliantly and bring them out but also roll over on them and kill them, literally. It behoves UCC and UL to continue the work they have already done and
recognise the international acclaim both of those campuses have gained through the innovative work they have done in integrating Irish traditional performing arts into their curriculum.”

Work to be done

After many decades as a professional musician, how does he stay passionate about his work?

“There is never a feeling of having completed something, having arrived somewhere. I don’t think that ever happens, which can be painful to some degree. There is part of all of us that wants to shut the book and take a permanent holiday. I am doing things now that I couldn’t have done 30 or 40 years ago. It’s about experience — all of those years trying new things, some of which have worked, some of which haven’t. Given good health, with age, you are positioned to see and sense things in a way you wouldn’t have when younger.”

Ó Súilleabháin’s advice to aspiring professional musicians derives from his own experience.

“If you look into your heart and body and you find you are carrying this talent and you have the passion to go with it, you have to follow your heart, your instinct.

“Yes, it is difficult, but to some degree, it always has been. There are huge advantages to technology — there is a democratisation through the web. On one hand you have the collapse of the multinational record companies and people using music without paying for it; on the other, it means you can get your music out there on YouTube or whatever. It’s like
anything, digital technology is neither good nor bad in itself, it is what you do with it, how you use it.

Being strong in yourself in terms of your own personal vision is probably the most important thing.”

  • Michael Ó Súilleabháin appears at Masters of Tradition in Bantry, Co Cork, running from August 23 to 27.
  • Elver Gleams: A Celebration of the Music of Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin;
    September 8, National Concert Hall, Dublin.


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