‘You’re talking away and then you think to yourself, Jesus, Christian Wolff is in my house and he’s talking to me about John Cage.
As the founder of Louth Contemporary Music Society, an ambitious attempt to present the best contemporary music in the less-than-familiar locations of Drogheda and Dundalk – two relatively small towns in the smallest county in Ireland – Eamonn Quinn has a few stories like this. A soft-spoken man in his early 50s with a full-time job and a family, organising and promoting concerts is mostly something that happens in the evenings after work, a fact that makes the consistently adventurous programming of LCMS even more remarkable.
Quinn and his wife, the musician Gemma Murray, moved out of Dublin during the Celtic Tiger years, unable to keep up with the ever-increasing cost of living in the capital. They landed in Dundalk, but found the cultural calendar a little too bare for their liking. ‘I said to Gemma, it’s a real pity that there aren’t similar events here as there are in Dublin’, recalls Quinn. ‘And she said, well, why don’t you organise one? I says, I don’t know anything about that. And I still don’t.’
Louth Contemporary Music Society began in 2006 with two concerts by renowned British concert pianist Joanna MacGregor, who blended classic Bach pieces with twentieth-century blues. Quinn says the openness and accessibility of the show was a huge help in attracting an audience less familiar with contemporary music, encouraging them to take a risk on something new. Seeing the audience’s positive response, Quinn knew he would have to do more shows.
I said to my wife Gemma, it’s a real pity that there aren’t similar events here as there are in Dublin. And she said, well, why don’t you organise one? I says, I don’t know anything about that. And I still don’t.
‘I suppose I got a bit of a buzz out of it and I thought, let’s do another one’, he says. ‘I contacted Terry Riley and asked him if he’d be interested in coming to Ireland to play, or for a composer concert, and he said yes. He says, I’ve waited 72 years for somebody to ask me.’
After Riley’s visit, Quinn became even more ambitious. He commissioned a new work, The Deer’s Cry from revered Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, despite people telling him that it would be impossible to do so. ‘People were saying, oh, you can’t do that. I didn’t really know anything about it. I just ask people and if they do, great, if they don’t, that’s OK as well.’
Pärt was soon followed by the likes of John Tavener, Philip Glass, Sofia Gubaidulina and the Kronos Quartet. Previous LCMS events read like a litany of the biggest names in contemporary music, but Quinn says it was simply a case of moving from one idea to the next, attributing any success purely to luck. In some cases, like those of Pärt and Glass, the composer was joined by Irish performers such as pianist Michael McHale or the Dublin Guitar Orchestra, highlighting the ability of local musicians to perform at the highest level.
This is a tradition that continued this year, with the Crash Ensemble performing a new work by British composer James Dillon, The Louth Work: Orphic Fragments, as part of the Drogheda Arts Festival in April. The idea was flipped around in 2012, when Uzbekistani composer Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky re-imagined the music of the late Irish traditional musician Seán Ó Riada for a one-off performance in Belfast. This positioning of Irish music and Irish musicians in a global, often avant-garde, context has been a subtle but persistent undercurrent of Quinn’s project.
Quinn grew up in South Armagh, just on the northern side of the border during the Troubles of the 1970s and 1980s, and he describes living with a ‘real fear’ and a ‘palpable sense of heaviness and pressure’. His mother was from the Republic, which meant regular trips to the south and exposure to a very different political and social climate.
‘We used to drive over the border, and you’d get to Dundalk and it would just be like, this is great’, he says. ‘This is so very different, so normal. What’s that about? I never really wanted to go back, so I wonder if all that had something to do with it as well. I associated that place with something in my mind about a place of sanctuary, goodness and calm. Maybe that’s reflected in doing this music there. I probably need a year of therapy just to work that one out!’
Even though Dundalk is barely an hour from Dublin, it remains well off the beaten track for music fans who are used to everything being centred on the capital. When I attended the LCMS’s Music Books festival in June last year, it was my first time in the town. Quinn says this is quite common. The festival takes place in venues all across the town – including the Old Gaol – and provides an opportunity to experience the place as well as the music. Despite Dundalk’s beautiful venues, there was no mistaking how unusual and ambitious it was to hold an event of that scale and variety in the town. ‘It’s kind of similar when you think of Huddersfield in England’, says Quinn. ‘Huddersfield is really important in contemporary music, but whoever started that, if they were saying we’re going to hold a contemporary music festival there, you’d say they’re probably nuts.’
The positioning of Irish music and Irish musicians in a global, often avant-garde, context has been a subtle but persistent undercurrent of Quinn’s project.
Huddersfield is an interesting parallel, and certainly an inspiration for what Quinn has done in Louth. He also mentions Peter Yates, who started the long-running ‘Evenings on the Roof’ concert series in Los Angeles back in the 1930s. Yates brought the cutting edge of then-contemporary music to an intimate space in a city that was far more focused on the professional but limited world of Hollywood soundtracks.
But there are key differences between Louth and both Huddersfield and Los Angeles. Huddersfield has close and mutually beneficial ties with the local university, which provides not just an engaged audience but also performers, composers and a year-round forum for ideas and experiments. Los Angeles, particularly in the 1930s, was home to some of the very finest musicians, many of whom were desperate to sink their teeth into more interesting work. Dundalk is not a bristling metropole with dozens of bored musicians on hand, and Quinn says that links with the local college – which does boast a relatively new and well-equipped music department – are essentially non-existent.
The unusual location has its benefits, however. The most important is Quinn’s in-depth knowledge of the venues, and his appreciation for how a piece might work in any particular space. Beyond that, there is the attraction for composers and performers of bringing their work to a new and often more intimate space. Hearing Jakob Ullmann’s Müntzers Stern performed by Dafne Vicente-Sandoval in the cellars of the local arts centre last year, it was easy to appreciate the rare delicacy and vulnerability of such intensely quiet music. The room, the music and the atmosphere all combined to create a remarkable musical experience. Quinn is the first to admit that it doesn’t always come off, but the unpredictability of the whole thing is what makes it so special. ‘It’s that slightly mystical side of the whole equation’, he explains. ‘There’s so much that goes in to create a bit of magic that you don’t know what it is sometimes.’
That magic, derived from direct contact between the music, the space and the audience, is an attraction for well-known composers too. What happens in Dundalk is a world away from the big concert halls of Europe, and Quinn is a very different kind of promoter.
‘Alexander Raskatov saw me with a brush, brushing around the church beforehand and lighting the candles’, recalls Quinn. ‘He said most promoters don’t do things like that. But we’re not like most promoters, we have to do it. I know Salvatore Sciarrino’s next opera is in La Scala in Milan in November, so for him to come to a little small town like Dundalk must be quite weird. But again, it allows his music into a totally different sphere.’
LCMS has been involved in some big shows, not least Philip Glass in St Peter’s Church in Drogheda, but Quinn remains committed to the bleeding edge, eschewing the kind of broad-base crossover appeal pursued by the National Concert Hall in recent years. He feels there are plenty of talented composers from around the world who have been unfairly ignored in Ireland. The upcoming visit of the Italian Sciarrino in June (alongside Jürg Frey, the Swiss composer who first came last year) proves his point. Although Sciarrino has long been lauded throughout the continent, this will be his first visit to Ireland.
This support for new and under-heard music recently earned Quinn the sole nomination for the 2018 Belmont Prize, a bi-annual award given by the Forberg Schneider Foundation to honour ‘innovation, daring, and courage’ in the area of contemporary music. Terry Riley has also been vocal in his appreciation for this approach, saying in 2010 that it was ‘these kind of risks that keep music alive’. Quinn is confident that the other composers and musicians he has worked with share that view.
‘I think they all know that this is a special thing done for the love of it. It’s not done for any other reason’, says Quinn. ‘The music is the thing that drives me. I can’t programme something which I’m not interested in, I’ve got to get that buzz myself. For me, that’s the juice. When the audience thinks, this is fantastic – that’s all you want.’