May you all be well as another year closes. I enjoy reflecting on the previous twelve months at this stage – a reminder, a breather. 2018 has been a year of extremes – of great rewards and great loss. It started with the RTE commission to set Seamus Heaney’s “Sweeney Astray” for singer Iarla Ó Lionáird, actor Stephen Rea & the RTÉ Concert Orchestra under conductor David Brophy. Almost six months in the writing, Sweeney got its world premiere on St Patrick’s Day to a full house in Dublin’s National Concert Hall. My choral symphony Ossa, composed in 2007, also got an outing that same evening. You couldn’t ask for more – a whole evening of one’s orchestral writing being performed in the concert hall of the nation on the feast day of the country’s patron saint with the finest talents the country has to offer.
In shocking contrast, the day previous saw the funeral of Liam O’Flynn, a giant of a musician. My hero from the day I first ever heard his piping, we initially met in 1976, Liam teaching me pipes on a course in Donegal. We began working professionally together in 1988 & that continued until he became ill. A dear & trusted friend of three decades, I gleaned a huge amount from that man over the years, musically & in many other ways too. His not being around is a huge loss to the world.
In late March I travelled to Paris for the first of a few outings this year with poet Frank Ormsby & singer-songwriter Anthony Toner. Utter pleasure to share a stage with these men. It always feels effortless, fun & worthwhile. Then from April onwards I was consumed with three main writing projects – firstly, writing a score for pianist Brian Connor to play alongside Stephen Rea reading Derek Mahon’s “New York Time” for Kilkenny Arts Festival in August. This was the third consecutive collaboration between KAF and Stephen & myself. We’re planning on more performances of all three (the other two being Seamus Heaney’s Aeneid & Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis) over the next few years.
September saw the second of the writing projects – the premiere of Ceol sa Chroí, a suite of music that I arranged & orchestrated, composed by Tom Hanafin for various Siamsa Tíre productions. Scored for traditional ensemble, string orchestra, horns & choir, it was a huge pleasure to collaborate with so many fine musicians & singers.
The third main project was scoring a 90-minute feature-documentary, Lost Lives, to be broadcast next autumn on network BBC. Produced by Doubleband Films in Belfast, we recorded the score with the Ulster Orchestra & the Derry-based choir, Codetta. This is same production company with which I collaborated on Duais an Dorais, the documentary on the late David Hammond (another much missed friend) that was broadcast at the end of August.
This was a sore year indeed for traditional music. The extraordinary Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin died last month and like Liam, he too had a huge bearing on my life over three decades. A generous & encouraging soul, Paddy Glackin & I enjoyed making music with himself & Liam until they both got sick. “Half of our quartet died this year” said Paddy to me on hearing of Mícheál’s death. Shattering. Amongst other extraordinary musicians who died this year were Tommy Peoples, Alec Finn & Vincent Campbell.
A few dates in Oslo in October to launch Norwegian singer Helena Boksle’s album The Blue Wave proved to be amongst the most energising in a long while. Collaborating alongside Tove Kragset, Torbjorn Okland & Denis Carey inter alia, it was a great delight and a treat to share a stage with these exceptional musicians.
And so the year finished with a trio of most rewarding events…firstly, contributing to a charity single, Switzer’s Window, composed by Brendan Graham & featuring Patrick Bergin, John Sheahan, Paul Harrington & myself – we were #1 in iTunes Ireland Charts at a stage, with Mariah Carey #2. Not so shabby. Then last weekend, performing an evening of words & music for Christmas with three beautiful artists – Anthony Toner, Glenn Patterson & John McCullough – in the Homeplace, Bellaghy; and finally on Sunday past, I had the privilege of guesting on uilleann pipes with Josh Groban to a capacity audience of 10,000 in the 3Arena, Dublin. A wonderful way to round off an extraordinary year. And as always, lots in the planning for the year and years ahead….