The fiddler and pianist Charlie Lennon, a celebrated musician and innovator in the Irish tradition, is known for composing numerous tunes that have become part of Irish music repertoires everywhere. He has also integrated the Irish traditional form into modern classical music through extended works like “A Terrible Beauty,” which he wrote in commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising centenary. In 2006, he was honored by TG4 as Composer of the Year.
Earlier this year, Lennon came to Boston for the premiere of his suite, “Seeking Sanctuary,” a performance organized by Palaver Strings, a local musician-led string orchestra and nonprofit organization. “Seeking Sanctuary” was part of a larger event of the same name that, through a combination of music, spoken word, and art installation, evoked the journeys and experiences of three of Boston’s largest immigrant communities, Irish, Chinese, and Cape Verdean.
Lennon’s piece accompanied a narrative that told the stories of Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, the son of Irish immigrants, and Irish musician Tommy McCarthy, owner of the popular Davis Square music venue The Burren. Boston-area uilleann piper and whistle player Joey Abarta was the featured soloist. [Read more about the event at https://bit.ly/2vA9ATd]
On the day of the final performance of “Seeking Sanctuary,” Lennon chatted with Boston Irish Reporter writer Sean Smith.
Q. When the concept behind “Seeking Sanctuary” was pitched to you, what made you want to work on it?
A. The subject is one that’s dear to my heart. Immigration and migration were always a part of the culture in Ireland when I was growing up. One by one, my family – my brothers – immigrated, and it was heartbreaking for my parents. Even though they were only going to London, it was a 24-hour journey there back in those days, the 1940s and ’50s, so it seemed like the other side of the moon. There was no communication, so you were depending on a letter each week. If the letter didn’t come, my parents would begin to fret and worry.
I went to England later on for about nine or 10 years, mainly Liverpool and then London, so I got to know what it was like to be an immigrant. And when the immigrant population unites and come together, suddenly your identity and your culture become very important. For the first time, I realized how important they were, because when you’re at home it’s all around you, so you don’t think about it so much.
When I started writing, I composed “The Emigrant Suite,” with some string sounds and pipes. That prompted me then to develop my music further, into a full orchestra, and that was “Island Wedding.” Those were pieces that had migration as a major theme or component. So the whole subject is one I’m familiar with, and I’ve been attracted to it as something to write about.
Q. Do you have a “process” for writing your pieces?
A. Yes, I sit down at the piano and I wait. [laughs] I don’t take pressure very well. I like having the space and time to let thoughts come to me. I had about a year to write “Seeking Sanctuary,” so I was confident that inspiration would come in its own time. I would work for a week or two on it, then leave it for a few weeks and get onto something else. And by then, you’ve forgotten what it was, so you can listen with fresh ears – then I could decide if it might need adjustments, or not.
Q. Give us a sense as to how you approached “Seeking Sanctuary.”
A. It’s an Irish story, a migration story. I wanted to have an Irish flavor in it, but I also wanted an American flavor. So I was looking for opportunities where you could identify with the music whether you were in Ireland or America, and it would reflect some of the music that evolved when Irish musicians came here.
For example, one of the movements is called “Polka Talk,” which is when different members of the orchestra are talking musically. But it represents something that emerged here during the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, an approach to polkas that hadn’t been in Ireland, and had come from popular music. So it was a particular way of framing polkas that I homed in on, and I used it for the part where the wedding of Marty Walsh’s parents takes place, which happened over here. We wanted to finish on a high, so the piece, “Charles River,” which is played in the style of an American square dance, describes how the two families bind together.
There were some very strong emotional moments in the story, too, that are expressed in the music: Marty getting cancer at seven years old, and his grandmother coming over from Ireland, thinking that she would be at his funeral; and Tommy getting word of his father’s cancer. For me, there was a personal connection with the McCarthy family: I knew Tommy Sr. very well, and played at the opening of The Burren – I happened to be at the Gaelic Roots summer festival at Boston College when it opened.
I think it works well, with the pipes and orchestra. And it’s been a pleasure to work with Palaver, because they’re so dedicated to getting everything right. I’ve played with Joey [Abarta] before, so I was very happy he could get involved.
The way “Seeking Sanctuary” grew over 2017 was brilliant for me. I had been ill for a few years, and then in 2015 I got a commission to write something for the 1916 commemoration. And then that was done, and I sat back and said, “Well, I can relax now.” So instead, of course, 2017 was devoted to composing this suite, but it was really a pleasure when all was said and done.
Q. How did you arrive at this intersection of traditional Irish and classical, and other kinds of music?
A. I was exposed to a range of music growing up. My brother Ben played fiddle, and there were always lots of fiddlers coming to the house. I was greatly influenced by that and wanted to learn the music, but my mother was a pianist and she thought I should learn piano. But I did both. I learned the fiddle through listening, by ear. And I studied piano beginning at age seven – I managed to struggle through until I was about 13, and then I gave it up.
I played fiddle professionally, with a touring band, all through my teens. There was a brilliant pianist in the band, Noel Scott, and he really switched me onto the piano again. He was a good reader, he could do the classics – Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and so on. And he could do jazz, some American blues, whatever. He inspired me to learn piano properly. I studied a couple of years, every night – what did Bach do there, what did Chopin do there, that kind of thing – and I got good at sight-reading. You have to train your ear, but I didn’t do that at the school of music, I did it through listening and exploring, like with jazz of the ’20s and ’30s.
When I was a student I made my living during the summer playing at piano bars; you had to learn to be flexible, because singers have their own keys. So that was another part of my development.
Later on, when I did “The Emigrant Suite,” I began to think about the orchestra, and I felt that – particularly with the slow pieces – surely we could get them to do something that would retain of the flavor of traditional music – something I would write, in the form of a traditional tune or song. So that was my starting point.
It’s quite difficult, actually, to fuse the two [traditional and classical]. There are strengths and weaknesses on both sides, so you play to the strengths. You seek an accommodation of sorts, and you hope that what comes out will be of interest, if not enjoyment, to the listeners.
Q. When you look back at the last few decades, from the revival of the late 1960s and 1970s through “Riverdance” and so on, what strikes you about the way Irish music has grown and changed?
A. Well, certainly back when I was growing up there was a great worry that the treasury of Irish music would be lost. The old musicians were dying out, and there seemed to be no replacements for them. Then in the 1950s you had the growth of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, the start of the Fleadh Cheoil – the big music festivals. And radio was opening up to Irish music as well. The whole idea of putting on the radio something that had been happening in someone’s kitchen became acceptable, and so the value of the music became more apparent to the ordinary person. You also had Sean O’Riada, who did very interesting things with the old music, and of course The Chieftains came out of that – they were solidly traditional, but it was a more polished version of the tradition.
I think that in the mid-1960s, and with the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising, Ireland really became a proud nation. I remember coming to Dublin that year, 1966. There seemed to be a new spirit in the Irish people, they had found their identity, after years of still feeling the influence of British rule. And the economy was stronger, and people weren’t leaving so much as before. So all that was another important stage in how the music developed.
And then in the 1970s, the music was moving in various directions, because it became a livelihood, something that could be merchandised at a time when radio and TV were really making an impact on Ireland. You had the different groups or the solo artists touring around and making albums, and they were trying to find new directions in the music, and moving away from the old traditions – it became a kind of semi-pop music, in a way.
Now, I thought it was interesting that, as this was going on, American traditional musicians were retaining the old style and preserving it as an entity. I love both places. I really love the old style but I feel one has to move to keep things alive – I could probably be accused of having done my share of wandering.
I suppose it’s settling down again now. There was the role of business in that big surge, where you had music in every pub, but it’s waned a bit. And in Ireland, some people for whom music was the livelihood, they are teaching more and touring less.
Q. Do you feel positive about the immediate future of Irish music?
A. I’m pleased to see a lot of young people coming up who are very good, and they play the old tunes in the old style – that’s very heartening. It’s quite miraculous in the way it’s turned the corner and come back, and blossomed – it’s become the “in thing” for young kids. And that’s such a pleasure to see.
The music is still done by ear, and it’s done that way simply because you can’t notate it with all that’s going on; you’d go blind taking instructions from a book. Traditional music is free, and freemoving in a way that other kinds of music aren’t. The barriers are down, the restraints are removed – they were never there in the first place if you didn’t go near classical music.
You also have to look at how technology has changed things. When recording came along, especially tape players, it opened a whole new door, and allowed us to capture and to hold the music.
In my father’s time, they were really concerned about preserving tunes, because any alteration and you’d lose the tune; there was no way to record it. So there was a big emphasis on playing the tune in the local style and local setting of the tune. Maybe you’d hear a tune somewhere, and you’d go home and try to play it, but you didn’t have the whole thing, just bits of it. And perhaps you had a friend who knew other parts of the tune – you knew the “A,” he knew the “B.” Between the two of us, we’d try to put it together, and it wasn’t right. And then you could wait six months before you’d hear it again, and you wouldn’t play it because it wasn’t right.
So, yes, it’s quite different now in that respect, and as with anything that changes you can lament about what’s been lost. But I think there are many reasons to feel good about the music.