RTÉ Celebrates Heaney’s 70th Birthday

Interview with Kevin O'Connell

In celebration of Seamus Heaney’s 70th birthday, RTÉ has commissioned Rachel HolsteadKevin O’Connell and Ian Wilson to write for the RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet.

The three short pieces, written as responses to the poetry and prose of Seamus Heaney, will receive their world premiere broadcast-performances on RTÉ lyric fm on Easter Monday, 13 April, Heaney’s actual birthday.

Kevin O’Connell cites Heaney’s remark about waiting until he was 50 to credit marvels, saying that it ‘divides his output (too neatly, of course) into two categories, as an early bogginess looks up to notice the ethereal’. This prompted Kevin to think about two kinds of material: a flighty, high, fast music and a more rustic dance element, including an Irish jig and bag-pipe drones.

The title, Where should this music be? is drawn from The Tempest and Kevin continues: ‘It is as if Ariel were whistling one kind of music while Caliban and his cronies cavort to another. In Shakespeare’s play, Ferdinand hears Ariel’s sweet airs coming from he knows not where and asks, “Where should this music be, i’ th’ air or th’ earth?” This question might be a different way of posing the Heaney conundrum.’

Kevin describes Heaney as a beacon especially for anyone who, like him, grew up in Derry: ‘He is a challenging presence but also a reassuring one. An artist now must negotiate a tricky path between the claims of art and those of the world; the ivory tower is derelict. Heaney in this respect has been exemplary.’

Ian Wilson’s Across a clear blue sky is inspired by Heaney’s Horace and the Thunder and the 9/11 attacks that prompted it. Wilson has ‘tried to respond to that event with the same kind of dignity that Heaney has done in his poem’. Having previously set some of Heaney’s work to music for singers, he found this purely instrumental response brought a sense of liberation and adventure.

Admiring Heaney’s ability to respond to diverse aspects of the human experience with insight and dignity, he has tried to underpin the dark and aggressive elements in his piece with a sanguinity that he hopes will acknowledge the poet’s influence on it.

Heaney’s poem The Given Note – about the Blasket fiddler who retrieves the mysterious Port na bPucaí (The Fairies’ Tune) from Inisvicillaune – is the conceptual touchstone or fulcrum for Rachel Holstead’s piece of the same name. As she writes: ‘The poem’s fiddler becomes a metaphor for the poet himself, for his seeing and hearing of the beauties, ordinary and extraordinary mysteries of the world. The fiddler’s grave rephrasing of the tune becomes Heaney’s translation into poetry of the “loud weather” of this world and human nature. The music moves between the seen and the translated, offering a homage to the beauties of each and to the fiddler who moves between them.