Irish Composers and the Media

Does the media under-represent Irish composers? Is new music too difficult, too abstract for the media and their audiences? These and other questions were explored at a seminar held at the Contemporary Music Centre on 28 January. John McLachlan reports.

This article was originally published in New Music News, February 2004.

Opening the seminar, Raymond Deane spoke with the widest overview and also presented some broad points about the general perception -- or lack of it -- of composers in society. His notorious phrase, ‘the honour of non-existence’, coined in an article he wrote some years ago on the place of the composers in Ireland, made a return.

Beginning with a promise not to indulge in any settling of scores, Deane launched into a list of the major faults in newspaper critiques of music premieres, highlighting what he called ‘irrelevant and superficial comparisons with other composers’, the ‘lazy practice’ of quoting, unacknowledged, the composer's own programme notes in order to sound informed, and the fact that critics rarely mention what may have been a warm audience response to a work they are busy slating.

Deane also spoke about editorial policy regarding space allotted to major new works across the art forms. In this regard contemporary art music is always, he maintained, the poor relation. A major new musical work may be neither previewed nor reviewed: unthinkable if it were literature.

He pinpointed quickly (and with irony) the probable background reasons for this, invoking the mentality of the colonist who conveniently regards a new continent as virgin territory even though thousands of people are already living there. Another factor is the lack of a general music education in our school system: an arts editor may have a feel for the work of Beuys, have read Kundera, but may be utterly oblivious to the existence of Ligeti.


‘Contemporary art music is always the poor relation. A major new musical work may be neither previewed nor reviewed: unthinkable if it were literature.’


Looking beyond the media for a moment, Raymond Deane referred to a number of Irish cultural events abroad, such as the ‘Re-imagining Ireland’ conference held in the USA in May 2003, which included a session on ‘Celtic Music and Dance’ but omitted any reference to contemporary Irish art music. Deane’s explanation for this is his belief that the non-commercial world of contemporary composition is incompatible with the increasingly market-driven thinking of our cultural czars.

Summing up, he listed the areas of concern for the coverage of new music in the media as appreciation, information, access and education.

A seminar such as this might easily have produced a lively discussion between composers and media representatives without once taking cognisance of the ultimate consumer for both groups: the audience. Panel-member Agnes Cogan made a convincing and entertaining sketch of what it is to be a member of the contemporary concert-going public. Laying down British composer Michael Berkeley's view that ‘the exclusive presentation of the raw and unfamiliar is impossible’, she counterbalanced this with the point that putting a challenging new piece ‘in a Beethoven and Brahms sandwich’ is as bad or even worse.

She compared the ordinary concert-goer to a wild creature such as a pine marten whose attitude, when approached by humans, is instinctively curious but equally suspicious. So it is for the audience with unfamiliar music. She zoned in on the one thing that the audience must not be made feel: the suspicion that an artist, in cahoots with an in-crowd, is mocking them. What the audience really want, she said, is to go to a performance in the expectation that they will be stimulated and taken out of themselves; not just entertained, and certainly never bored.

As far as the media are concerned, Cogan said, a potential audience-member needs simple information (i.e. what's on) but also something more educational and helpful to contextualise the event. In other words, a friendly approach to that suspicious feral mammal already referred to.

Presenting the journalist’s perspective, Hugh Linehan of The Irish Times then spoke. Responding to points raised by Raymond Deane, he referred (repeatedly) to what he termed the harsh realities of the media market. Rebutting a comparison Deane had made between newspaper coverage in Ireland and that in Britain, he insisted the newspaper market here is simply too small to allow the richness of content across all subjects that is possible in Britain. He characterised The Irish Times (Ireland’s leading broadsheet) as having an ethos that is closer to the national broadcaster, RTÉ, than to rival newspapers. It positions itself as ‘a private company with a public sector ethos’ but must exist in the marketplace. He referred to a shift in focus towards popular culture and a move away from ‘in-depth considered pieces’, since in his view this is a correct direction for a popular newspaper. There was also, he felt, an opportunity for composers to blur the boundaries and cross genres a little, since the term 'contemporary music' generally includes rock, jazz, world and traditional musics (but would he expect writers like John Banville, say, or Brian Friel to start writing in a ‘crossover’ style?).


‘What the audience really want is to go to a performance in the expectation that they will be stimulated and taken out of themselves; not just entertained, and certainly never bored.’


Although seeming ambiguous about the merit of ‘the marketplace -- a virulent state of mind’ (quoting John Adams in a recent Irish Times interview), Hugh Linehan did provide some pointers for a more positive future. There are highly relevant models of advocacy in this country: where was contemporary visual art before the international ROSC exhibitions were held in the 1960s and 1970s? Or film before the formation of the Irish Film Board? Surely these examples show, he said, that it is possible to turn things around -- contemporary music must not fall further behind (and indeed one hopes that his and other journalists’ awareness of the work of the Contemporary Music Centre is just this regard will now be raised).

A lively exchange of views from the floor followed, with excellent steering and timekeeping from Doireann Ní Bhriain. Topics that arose or were developed included RTÉ's presentation of Irish composers through its performing groups, as well as TV and radio broadcasts. Composer James Wilson spoke of a ‘dreadful, lamentable decline’ in this regard which was refuted by Kevin Brew of RTÉ Lyric fm who gave a spirited contribution about his personal regard for and commitment to composers.

Other broadcasters also expressed support for contemporary music but with caveats: the audience must be drawn in, not repulsed, and market-oriented thinking cannot be ignored. The work of RTÉ’s orchestras and other performing groups in programming new music was praised.

Dermot McLaughlin of Temple Bar Properties (and a former music officer of the Arts Council) revisited a point that had arisen earlier: to attract the media’s attention the music or the composer must provide ‘an angle’ and an identity, a ‘presence’ on the scene such as many rock bands have, and indeed carefully cultivate. David McKenna, Executive Producer, RTÉ Music and Arts TV, enlarged on this by stressing that TV and the press are narrative media: there must always be a story. The print journalist just as much as the TV presenter needs a verbal angle, so it's not enough just to play the music, composers need to ‘get out there and be seen’.

Composer Roger Doyle raised some laughs when he pointed out that he does ‘get out there’ and has indeed been reported doing so in the gossip columns. He spends considerable time and energy each day marketing his music, he said, yet ‘remains untried on TV’.

My impression following the discussion was that there was plenty of reaching out to one another in the communication triangle (composer, audience, and media), but little real ongoing contact. My own analysis is that composers, as the ones with the most to lose, must effect certain changes in their approach to the media. This, however, should not include compromising their style of writing. If you write solely to please, as James Wilson stated with passion, ‘you write junk’. Nevertheless composers who become more ‘media savvy’ can probably break through the media’s blindness, but only by force of numbers.


‘TV and the press are narrative media: there must always be a story.’


If the media were to take something from the seminar it should be that composers do not want to be treated as ‘marketable’ with a capital ‘M’. There is a demonstrable audience out there for whatever is ‘new’ in the arts, and while the contemporary music audience may be a niche one rather than a mass market, it should not be ignored. It is not the only niche audience within music after all -- electronica, some kinds of world music and the farther reaches of jazz are covered routinely.

It might indeed be suggested to the media that they are repeating, in a different field, the errors that led to the exile of writers like James Joyce and Samuel Beckett; to the impoverishment of the poet Patrick Kavanagh, and the belated recognition of painters like Louis LeBrocquy and Patrick Scott.

We must hope that this occasion was a new beginning.