How much of a role does classical music play in your life? For anyone who considers music a part of their life, classical music is there. For those of you who think it isn’t, I could play you a piece that will evoke memories of school music lessons, of sporting events, of favourite films or even TV adverts. Having attended classes of the trusty tin whistle for years alongside the Royal Irish Academy piano lessons, I always cherished and respected those that could play much more effortlessly and with a greater deal of elegance than I. I fondly remember lazy summer days in Hunters Caravan Park in Galway where I holidayed with my Grandma and where Lyric FM was as central as the waves in the soundscape. After living the life of an aspiring musical 90s kid, I have always longed to be more musical, I’d give my right arm to be more so… only for the fact I may then need my right arm to play the music…
So what place does classical have in our modern world? Somebody who knows all there is to know about classical music in contemporary Ireland, who has studied it, works in the field and lives through it, and who has answered this and many other questions for Fusion Magazine, is Peter Joyce.
Tell us how you were introduced to music and how you became immersed in that world?
I’m primarily a saxophone player but also have played the clarinet for a long time and more recently, the flute. Like almost every Irish child I learned the recorder in school – that left me fairly uninspired. I did piano lessons for about a week, which is a life long regret as I play a lot now. It was an unusual music upbringing really as I was very involved with saxophone from a young age. Being from Galway my saxophone teacher was involved with the Black Magic Band (all jazz music) and got me involved with their youth project at eleven, at an amateur level. That alone was a spectacular experience; while I was the youngest some others were in their seventies! By the time I was fifteen/sixteen I was playing with their professional band, and I still play with them. Most other children would just have done their lessons and exams.
Galway Contempo Quartet, a string quartet, ran a classical summer school where I played clarinet. This was another great way to mix with young musicians who had the same interests as I had, as well as developing my skills. They had fantastic guest teachers, one of who was working with the Irish Youth Wind Ensemble at the time, and asked if I would join. That became my first true introduction to good quality classical music in a performance sphere. The ensemble had a particularly good reputation and I started travelling from Galway to Dublin for lessons.
After these experiences you decided to study music in college, how did your path develop once there?
That’s it. I studied music in Trinity College, that’s when classical music really took over for me, in my head anyway. It is a completely different world to that of jazz. The classical world is a difficult world, but at least it has an established approach to getting funding and work in it, whereas jazz is even more topsy-turvy. Training in the jazz world is very informal and experimental, and I have played in all types of jazz and funk bands – it’s the easiest way to crack (or make money in) the industry, playing in ‘The Wedding Band Scene’. I became chairperson of Trinity Orchestra – that was certainly a baptism of fire! It was my first time to conduct, compose and arrange music so I learned a lot and loved it all. Conducting certainly caught my attention and I gained a lot of administrative experience in that role too, which has helped with more recent projects I have undertaken. The Trinity Orchestra did a lot of covers of modern artists and we put great effort into the performances, in hindsight maybe too much into the performance and not enough into the quality of the music but that is something you learn as you go.
After college, I was lucky to have time to reflect on what my next step would be. There was a huge lack of support and infrastructure for qualified musicians to transition into employment. I came back to Galway; I had time to decide what to choose. When I had time I always found myself going back to conducting, not to teaching and not to wedding gigs but to conducting; that’s what I wanted to foster. I moved to Germany, as there was nothing for me here, which is shameful. I was based in Berlin for a while which was such an eye opener in regard to the audiences, the music, the funding, the age demographic and the sheer multitude of people involved on the scene in many perspectives. Bearing in mind that Berlin has the same number of people in the city as in the whole of the Irish Republic, and it has about three times as many musicians per capita as we have here. I’m back for a short while though working on different things – all music related of course.
With pop culture so brazenly in our faces, some would consider classical music to have slumbered into non-existence as a contemporary art form, what is your thought on this?
First of all, I’d say it is a lot more prevalent than people realise. The roots of classical music seep so deep we are very much completely surrounded in it: you can’t think of history in certain ways without considering the influences of music, classical music at that. We do misname classical music, which to be precise only existed in a short time period from about 1750 to the early 1800s. The sound of classical music is everywhere, particularly in movie scores and in computer gaming. Everybody goes crazy about film scores but they divide them from classical music. Think of the Star Wars movie score; it is spectacular. Birdman, which was nominated and won Oscars last year, uses classical music scores and not film scores. What people need to do (musicians and audience members) is to bridge the gap between that disconnect. Many orchestras however try to bridge the gap by putting on performances of movie scores and then hoping the audience will return for a full orchestral score of something alien to them.
The RTÉ Orchestra play a movie score live with the movie a lot – it is great, but I think it is problematic. My approach would be to mix them both to show their similarities and be very explicit in presenting them as so; first perform the movie score and then perform its similar counterpart. If you know classical music well and listen to movie scores you will soon cop that many film composers are quick to steal and recycle music from classical scores to claim as their own for films; it’s often more than a similarity. It (classical music) is there – it absolutely is there.
How can music be made accessible to people to incorporate into their everyday life?
A good question! Making orchestral music accessible is so intrinsic to its success yet is so problematic here in Ireland. To make things accessible there are three main elements…
Firstly, it must be affordable – more affordable to attend and more affordable to learn at a junior level and with a structured support for graduates. Such a large influx of Irish musicians, conductors and young composers leave Ireland to achieve success and recognition, which is so ironic as Ireland prides itself so greatly on its culture. In Berlin I was exposed to a completely different scene, you can choose between at least five concerts any night for E8/E10. The audience was made up of mostly young people who were engaged with the performances. Here, it is so expensive.
Secondly – education. Do you need an education to enjoy music? No. But it is an art form, standards need to be upheld and attained. It is not created passively nor consumed passively. Education, like in anything, is key to its success and the earlier the exposure the better.
Thirdly – location. There is a severe lack of specifically designed venues in Ireland; we actually have far less than any other country, leading orchestras to perform in churches and Cathedrals a lot. The demand for alternative venues such as warehouses exists. Alternate venues would have a less austere welcome. There is a great misconception in Ireland that anything linked to an orchestra requires formal dress, the image of a tux wearing man and a glass of champagne. Last year I worked on a performance, which you could call a triple threat and it was very successful. As a promotion for upcoming performances I conducted an orchestra in a free, outdoor concert of film scores.
Would these three elements alone remedy accessibility and engagement to classical music?
I believe so. In addition to the quality – it must be good to be engaging. Unfortunately, what people hear mostly is just badly played and badly rehearsed music, not because people are bad but because they can’t afford to put the time into it; it is done after work, or alongside other projects. The quality completely depends on the support for the musicians. For people to engage with it, it must be good, for it to be good opportunity must be provided.
How would you argue that there is a place for classical music in contemporary society?
This reminds me of a question I am often asked, ‘Is classical music relevant?’ What does that even mean? Of course it is relevant. Why would it not be relevant? It may not be exactly relevant to something happening right now, merely because of the time it takes to produce a new work. Pop music is quick, it is fast and can be doctored up in a very short period of time – you can tackle an issue quickly, you know? The same can be said for rock, but not theatre, literature or poetry, not orchestral music; it takes months to arrange the scores and then a lot of time to perfect the performance. In turn, it provides a chance to raise philosophical/psychological questions, but it may not be relevant now – that is not to say it is not relevant. If anybody is watching or listening to something, it is relevant to them. It just tackles different issues than music of popular culture, they are both valid.
How can a young musician tap into the classical music scene here in Ireland, and is it more difficult here than in other countries?
It is easier in a sense here in Ireland, because it is smaller. Within a very short period of going to Dublin for lessons and college, I was in the scene. It is very different in London or Berlin or anywhere more developed, it is difficult to know who to talk to or where to go. The flip side of that is that opportunities here are very limited, which is unfortunate. In other countries and indeed cities, there are established opportunities and pathways to follow. There is such a stigma attached to cultural work in Ireland. The Irish Arts Council receives an average of E3 million a year, while Germany spends over a billion. It is immediately obvious when you go there; every town has a professional performance venue. The age demographic attending performances there is much younger; it is more acceptable, there are more young people living in the country and the music is good. There are a lot more established opportunities in other countries, again returning to funding; in order to get a very high quality experience in classical, in theatre, in jazz, you have to go abroad. That is really horrific and shocking, that people find it so difficult to find opportunities living here. It makes it very difficult, they frequently need to leave and get further education and then come back to be taken seriously. That’s a big thing. There is an awful stigma across the arts fields, that if you study in Ireland it is not as good as if you study abroad. It’s mostly because the majority of educators have studied abroad – hat needs to change.
Should things change, what can be said about governmental funding for younger generations at an early school age?
The Arts Council are fabulous, with such a limited budget they really do work hard to support people whenever possible. They do great work, particularly with youth music education. We’re very lucky with the Esker Festival Orchestra to be awarded funding through a young ensemble scheme. We couldn’t run the project without it but we are pushing the boundaries, as our orchestra is 18+ and the funding is for 12-23 year olds. It is there but there just isn’t governmental recognition.
What’s the national symbol of Ireland? A harp. It sums up the irony of where our pride sits and what we’re willing to invest in. It is tragic when you consider Irelands’ history and how its greatest artists in cultural fields emigrate. Think of James Joyce, he wrote his major works abroad because he couldn’t get support or funding in Ireland and when he died the government wouldn’t even pay for his body to be shipped home. Now they want to name a bridge after him. Samuel Beckett, has a bridge named after him; lived his whole life in Paris. So many Irish artists/musicians have to travel abroad to simply be recognised. The Arts Council has the best intentions but the resources provided to them are lacking. There is something missing in Irish society… it’s a respect for the arts, that’s what’s missing. What’s more, Germany, per capita is still way more supportive for the arts, it doesn’t simply reflect the number of citizens and money they have. Artists themselves have a role in reminding society that artistic culture is an important part of who we are, and it is worth something; I don’t mean to sound bitter but the situation is plain to see. There are a lot of people working very hard but it has to come from across the board and from the public, but they don’t get to see how important it is as it’s a systemic problem. They don’t know what they’re missing out on and what they’re missing out on is invaluable.
How much of popular music is based on the foundations of classical music?
Well it depends how far you’re willing to go back. Jazz and Blues probably have more of an influence than classical music – think R&B, any kind of Rock comes from Blues. It’s hard: in one sense the influences are so intrinsically linked that you don’t see them anymore, like the whole idea of a song was invented in the classical music word… so theoretically, with Blues, yes 100% that correlation is there but aesthetically, not any more I guess.
Classical music is often noted as ‘brain music’, do you agree with its link to stimulating thought and enhancing concentration?
The acclaimed ‘Mozart effect’: There is an intrinsic link in music education and intelligence that has always been prevalent; the reason behind that, is that music uses every part of the human brain and body for a musician. That is not to say having a young child listen to classical music will make them more intelligent. I also don’t believe that you will do better in exams if listening to classical music while studying. For me it just heightens whatever emotion I currently hold, of course the mood and tone of the piece have an influence too. If I am feeling relaxed, it may make me relax more, anxious, more anxious, excited, more excited. I don’t consider it a passive experience. If you study music yes, you will become more intelligent, same as if you read Ulysses you will become more accustomed and practiced in the vernacular of the product. Classical music has the ability to allow you to explore more than popular music would. The idea of considering classical music simply as background music certainly won’t help its development either!
You have spoken at length about accessibility already, but for the average person who may find the classical music world daunting to enter considering its history and prestige, how would you encourage them to do so?
The onus is on both musician and audience. As you say, it has to be accessible. If it is affordable and less imposing the age demographic will come right down. We need to show people the link between music they listen to all the time. What helps a lot is program music; produced to draw an audience, think of the William Tell overture. Leaving Cert students study the wonderful Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz every other year, this is one of the first program scores. That means that the piece was written with a story in mind, which is conveyed to the audience through title or text. We link sounds to images – again think of Star Wars. I have a lofty problem with this as audience members are over prescribed in what they should think. Music essentially affords a personal experience. What I do take issue with is classical scores that are not originally produced as program music being advertised or forced as so, where the title of the performance indicates to the audience to ‘think about birds here, or a forest’. By giving it a theme to make it accessible does not necessarily work. My ultimate goal, and that of many others, is to make classical music accessible and engaging for everyone, without a prescribed notion or cause. Listening to a non-prescribed bit of classical music can be daunting because it means nothing. Music means nothing and therefore can mean anything or everything. When given the opportunity to engage with classical music on a personal level, it can mean everything; it heightens their own emotions, it doesn’t prescribe them. I really want to help people engage at that personal level.
You have touched on your work with the Esker Festival Orchestra (EFO), supporting young musicians, what exactly is the project and how did it come about?
I am currently the festival director and conductor; it is an orchestra for young professionals and advanced students over the age of eighteen. It became quite apparent for me and a lot of my friends, that after we finished college there was nothing for us to do. There was no obvious path for us to become professional orchestral musicians. The reason EFO came about was because there was formally two National Youth Orchestras, an over and under eighteens. With funding constantly being stripped, members of the 18+ had to pay a lot of money to take part. With further cutbacks it was completely disbanded by 2010 and there was no national platform for musicians. This was Irelands National flagship; we travelled around Europe to promote our country. It was a great way to connect, learn from and develop relations and music with like-minded people that simply ceased to exist. It created many problems musically and socially – the essence of a good career is knowing people and connecting with people in your field. I knew musicians from Belfast, Cork, Dublin – all over, then three years on I found I knew none of these people anymore. While some smaller, orchestras tried to fill that void, there was no national platform. My friends and I wanted to rectify this, to provide an all-inclusive platform. We based ourselves in Galway, as it was neutral ground and everything in classical music in Ireland is in Dublin or Cork, there is no infrastructure in Galway and that’s something, being from Galway, I want to develop. We showcase original scores each year and provide about a weeks practice and then perform, and it is free to musicians. We crowd fund, which is difficult but we are eternally grateful to our supporters, and we are blessed with Arts Council funding.
What are your aims with the project?
The main aim is to have a National Ensemble, to enable young musicians to develop and to inspire one another and equally so, the audiences that come and listen. In the National Youth Orchestra, we were led by senior figures of the music world, which left an impression that there was no faith in us, the young musicians – additionally, it cost a lot to hire these figure heads. For that reason, Esker Festival Orchestra is peer led. It affords us the opportunity to arrange music, to conduct, to write original works and to have more input generally. By organising it ourselves we have a double benefit of being in control and of lowering costs. We aim to provide this experience for budding and newly graduated musicians for free. Ultimately, the intention is that it will become a weeklong music festival; hence the title. The orchestra will be made up of 65 musicians all 18+. In our main program we do a concerto, a solo piece performed by a budding musician, which is a very rare opportunity for young musicians to have the backing of a full orchestra. That’s an important part of our program. We have also done a premiere of a new piece, which has been written in the past few years, making it relevant. They’re the main artistic goals.
What is the plan for this year?
This is our third year now and our second year to tour nationally. Growing on last year we are performing three concerts in Galway – one film music concert and one chamber music concert (in collaboration with the Galway Music Residency and the Galway Contempo Quartet – which is nice because that’s where I started in music) and then our main classical program, then to Belfast, Dublin and Cork, all over 8 days. We really want to keep going and keep growing and hope that this will act as a movement or indication for what is possible when time and support is given to the arts. We’re learning more each year too so hope to continue to grow our audience and to inspire more people. We keep the ticket cost very low and use alternate venues to achieve that accessibility too.
What parting words would you like to share with our readers or other musicians?
For non-musicians, I guess… just go! Get involved in culture more and open your ears to what is around you. Be mindful of the work and effort that goes into organising cultural events. You can’t build a city in a day; these things take time, so be trustful of what is possible. The rewards are so much greater than the costs. To musicians, you have to work all the time, you really have to perfect your art. In Ireland particularly, you also have to be entrepreneurial where established opportunities aren’t there. Finally, and importantly, don’t ever forget the quality of your work because it can be forgotten and that is not right either.
Words -Rebecca Egan
Images – Tarmo Tulit