November 2005 Reflection

Culture is the fountainhead. It is civiliation’s water table. We choose either to follow it or react against it — so long as we are part of a society, there is no third choice. I am here in Belfast to study culture and have chosen to represent my studies through music. An artform with enough expressive capacity to capture the ephemeral ebb and flow of culture. This is my charge, and there is no other place in the world where such a goal is as exciting or problematic.

Belfast, like all of Northern Ireland, is a culture in flux. It is neither part of the UK or part of Ireland, though it desperately wants to be part of something. Never has a place with such a strong identity had such a profound identity crisis. There is an unmistakable rhythm of Belfast that grows louder the farther one gets from its city centre, which is (as most city centres are) struggling to look like every other city centre and succeeding (which, of course, means failing) to various degrees. This rhythm is fierce and loud in public — it is an assertive alpha male that refuses to be ignored. Manic laughter, abrasive invectives, and tenuous silences. It is a Jackson Pollack painting, unintelligibly scattered yet unified in its stochastic transience. But in private it is a different person –desperately alone and wishing to be heard, validated, and challenged. Both of these souls are fed by the rain and nurtured by the hum of pubs and pitter-patter on increasingly urban sidewalks. Two children of the same parent stream. Two ideas. Two themes. Two melodies. Two motifs. Two timbres. Two movements. This will be the lifeblood of my work.

And if this were not enough, Belfast is now thrust into the mainstream of European modernism. As Queen’s continues to attract scholars and artists from the world over with its Belfast Festival and generous university stipends, it becomes a centre of contemporary aesthetic thought. It raises questions: What does it mean to be a Northern Irish composer? Is regionalism parochial? Is adaptation selling-out? I am reminded of a quote by James Joyce describing a similar process in what is now the Republic almost 100 years ago:

“I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile and cunning.”

I am not willing to concede that Northern Ireland is ready for such a mandate. Self-sufficiency is predicated on a strong sense of self. As the North continues to develop a cultural self, its art will be embedded in struggle and enquiry. Perhaps only through this — through a rigorous analysis of the profound dualism on which this country is predicated, will a sense of identity develop that will function as a basalt. If culture is truly the fountainhead, then there can be no other way. I hope to aid in that process. As an outsider looking in, I will do my best to contribute my own commentary to the dialectic. I eagerly wait to hear what Ulster has to say.

Out of the abstract and into the concrete. Packed pub, Gaelic football. Concertino for clarinet, viola, and tape. Sound laboratory. Thinking along the Liffey (riverun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay). Halloween. Irish hospitality. Friends — expat exiles of the world searching for a new life in Belfast. Empty pub, man with guitar. Cue = line, left =right. Guinness. String quartet. National symphony. John Field. George Mitchell. Quarter-life crisis. One month. One month? Crotchet = speed of life.

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