Music Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin

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Photography by: Eoghan Lyons

Internationally acclaimed composer and performer Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin is retiring this year from his post at UL.

He is acknowledged as having developed a unique Irish piano style exploring the sounds of traditional and classical music with occasional incursions into jazz and other world music forms. In 1994 he was appointment as the first Chair of Music at the University of Limerick, where he founded the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance. We were privileged to get the chance to sit down with Mícheál to discuss his esteemed career so far, and what his retirement means for him going forward.

On your retirement year, have you been taking time for reflection on your life in music or focusing on the future?
I’m very focused on what’s coming in the future. I’ve spent my life in higher education in Ireland and abroad, always in the arena of the arts. I’ve kept up a twin track action as a composer, performer, recording artist, etc. They’ve been separate but of course they would overlap. The first half of my adult life was based in UCC in the music department there. Then it all happened again a second time in UL, it was like having a second go at something. Now with the higher education falling away like a booster rocket, the rest of what I do is just coming up very naturally. I have free time to be able to plan concerts and do them in a more detailed way, things like that, to the extent that I wonder how I ever managed to perform concerts when I was at it full time, because there’s a lot of staying up till 4am writing! So a good deal of what I’m doing at the moment is actually going back on music I’ve written in the past 10 years, taking it out again and polishing it up, reimagining it, maybe fusing things together. There’s a lot of material there that I didn’t give myself the time to actually address in detail.

Do you think there’s scope for you to bring out another album?
Yes I have a number of irons in the fire for recordings. Of course, the whole industry has changed with the collapse of the big record labels and the closing of the shop and you have this massive problem with Spotify and iTunes where there’s virtually no financial kickback – all the royalty thing is just gone down the tubes. So the day is gone where a record company puts up a sum of money, hires an orchestra, you go in for a week, you record, it comes out, there’s a big number of meetings about graphics and then suddenly there’s an album. That’s all different now. But on the other hand it’s so much easier now to put stuff up on the web and you just need to put it up free of charge and get your stuff out there.

What I’m really interested in, now I have the time to do it, is working with classical orchestras. It’s incredibly time consuming: it could take three months hard work to prepare for a two hour concert. But once you’ve done that you can do the concert again infinite times more or less. You can also do it with different orchestras because that’s the way the scene is set and everything is already written out.

How did you develop your unique piano style and compositions?
I grew up in Clonmel, Tipperary, not too far from here and there was a small amount of traditional music in my background. I was a 1960s adolescent and formed a rock group. It’s a strange mixture; I could have gone in any direction. Some artists, me included, seem to be physiologically set up not to make choices because you want everything and don’t want to leave anything go – maybe it’s a greed thing? Some people make the choice and some people live at the cultural crossroads. So instead of being sensible and heading in one direction and actually getting somewhere I would feel obliged to sit down.

I feel like a Burren flower. You know these unique flowers growing in between the rocks that we’re not allowed to pick, they’re odd and eccentric but they have the beauty of eccentricity and the beauty of difference about them.

Before there was no way of playing traditional music on the piano. I came under the influence of Sean Ó Riarda, a teacher who taught me in Cork. I wanted to play traditional music, I found there was a lot of it inside me already so there was a sense that I didn’t really have to learn it, but discover it inside myself. But there was a mismatch between the music and the instrument. It came out of that conflict; I had to make the piano sound Irish. When you think a bout it there’s jazz piano, early romantic piano, blues piano and it’s exactly the same instrument but there are different ways of extracting sounds. The fiddle is another great example of an instrument the travels like a spaceship across cultures.
Someone once reviewed a concert I did in Glasgow and said I played the piano like a glass of Guiness had fallen into it. It was very clever and it was a good review, it could have been a bad one obviously. The style is slightly tipsy because traditional music has a lift, it’s has what jazz musicians call swing. It’s the quality in the music that makes you want to dance. It’s the basis for the Brian Friel’s play Dancing at Lughnasa.

Tell us a bit about your time at UL?
A particular point came 22 years ago when I had to make the choice of heading up the music situation at UCC or UL. I surprised a lot of people by picking Limerick because of course it was the younger university. But what I found was that it was a complete start up situation in Limerick and music was new, UCC had been founded in the middle of the 19th Century and it had a very proud tradition in terms of music education. But with an older university you have to dismantle things if you want to change.

American culture thrives on that. Americans look at a one-street village and what they see is Chicago and within two generations you have Chicago. Europe can sometimes be too weighed down by its history. I found UL to be a very American place to work – in fact it was modelled on MIT, Massachusetts.

It just took off from there really, some amazing Presidents and Vice Presidents and people were receptive to new ideas. I was famous for looking for something an awful lot and I’d get half of it and then apparently I’d go away with the half and about six months later I’d be back myself looking for the other half. I wouldn’t realise this myself but one of the Vice Presidents, John O’Connor, said that to me, he said that’s what you do all the time. I think tenacity is the word.

What has been the highlight of your career or what you consider to be your greatest achievement?
When I started teaching in UCC in my early 20s there wasn’t really any entry point for traditional musicians, certainly dancers. There was no higher-level education for dancers on the whole island. So by changing in the entrance procedures, which sounds like a really boring bureaucratic thing to do, and on paper it is, that changed people’s lives. Rules change people’s lives. Once that started to happen I can remember a moment where it felt like pushing a rock up a hill, and you got so used to it you stopped seeing if you were anywhere near the top. Suddenly you realise you’ve passed the top and now the stone is rolling down the other side. We’ve been running after it since and you think it can’t go on. But in 2016, there it is, still rolling.

What will retirement look like for you?
I don’t understand the word; all I’m doing is shifting jobs. Within European civil service culture you get thrown out when you’re 65. But they start hiring you now at this stage in America, it’s exactly the opposite – they hire you because they say look this guy has 65 years experience. I’ve been involved with several American universities but don’t intend to get fully involved in the same thing again. I’m very fortunate that there is all the music to fill up any vacuum that might have been left from leaving UL.

What’s next for you?
Next year I’m doing a tour with the National Youth Orchestra of Ireland, who are amazing young classical musicians. There’s a significant minority of them who play traditional music very well like they’re bilingual, they’re bimusical. There’s something quite Irish about that being an option depending on your family background: you might come from a traditional family but study classical and play the two of the equally well. There are few players actually like that so it’s very valuable.
I’m also quite excited about touring with the Irish Baroque Orchestra, IBO. They’re based out of Dublin and they have an international reputation. I’ve always been a big fan of their music. They’re touring a piece of mine in the States, staring with Carnegie Hall in New York, probably in the autumn of 2017.

Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming retirement concert at the UCH?
To have the opportunity of working with the RTE Orchestra, 50 musicians of that calibre is quite extraordinary. I’ve called the concert Elver Gleams which is the title of my most recent CD; it’s a quote from Seamus Heaney. I’ve drawn together a programme of different pieces of mine. There is several of the shorter 3-5 minute trad piano pieces that I do but they’re scored for the full orchestra as well so there’s a big whack off them, a massive bang. It’s very detailed work to be preparing for, it’s a bit nervewracking. The brilliant Kathleen Turner is going to bring along her gospel choir, it’s a quite extraordinary international standard. My two sons, who are both singer/songwriters, are coming back to sing in it. So I’m going to end with two pieces with them and I’m scoring them into the orchestra. They’re completely mad, the two of them.

Article by: Sarah Talty and Kayleigh Ziolo
Photography by: Eoghan Lyons

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