“Music is a gift that we all get to share”: Louth CMS feature, State, 2010

This is a piece I wrote for State in 2010 on the Louth Contemporary Music Society. In 2010, I loved their first record called A Place Between but other than the existence of that record I knew nothing about them. So on the release of their second album Path I interviewed Eamonn Quinn, who founded the Louth CMS with his wife Gemma Murray, and I was delighted to be able to get a quote from Terry Riley. The Louth CMS have since amassed an immense catalogue of recordings and their festivals and live performances are being recognised by the likes of the Financial Times and the Guardian. A decade ago I thought the Louth CMS story was an astonishing one and they’ve only gone from strength to strength since then, and at every step it’s all been done for the sake of the music.

In 2006, one of the more remarkable stories in Irish music began when Dundalk residents Eamonn Quinn and his wife Gemma Murray had a baby and found that they couldn’t get up to the city for concerts as often as before. Rather than do what a couple in that situation might reasonably do – stay in and stock up on box sets – they decided that no-one was better qualified than they were to bring the world’s leading contemporary composers to their home town. (“I had no idea what I was doing,” says Eamonn.) Thus, with a DIY ethic fit for a punk movement or an Elvis movie, the Louth Contemporary Music Society, or LCMS, came into being.

You could say it snowballed from there. The last five years have seen a remarkable array of composers and musicians visiting Dundalk, writing new work for the LCMS, and contributing to two extraordinary albums. To say that it snowballed, though, implies that it sort of happened by itself; it vastly underestimates the work, force of will, and guts that it took to establish Dundalk as a world centre for contemporary music. Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt are probably the two most acclaimed living classical composers, and they are just two who have visited Dundalk, and would not have done but for Quinn and Murray’s vision, tenacity and willingness to take significant financial risk without prospect of financial gain.

The LCMS went within a couple of years from promoting to producing brand new music, commissioning work by Arvo Pärt (‘The Deer’s Cry’), John Tavener (‘O My People’), Valentin Silvestrov (‘5 Sacred Songs’), and the legendary Terry Riley (‘Loops for Ancient Giant Nude Hairy Warriors Racing Down the Slopes of Battle’). Terry Riley (maybe best known for In C and his collaboration with John Cale, Church of Anthrax) celebrates his 75th birthday in Dundalk at the end of this week.

In 2009, Eamonn Quinn produced the Louth CMS’s first album, A Place Between. From John Tavener’s aching ‘Ikon of Joy/Sorrow’ to Michael McHale’s gorgeous take on John Cage’s ‘In a Landscape’, A Place Between is a meditative, accessible and stunningly beautiful piece of work. The second album, Path, which comes out on November 1st, is probably more adventurous in its programming. Alongside well known and hardly known pieces by Arvo Pärt (‘Summa’ and ‘Von Angesicht zu Angesicht’, respectively) and a brace by Tavener (‘Epistle of Love’ and ‘Sāmaveda’), there are works by young Eastern artists (Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky, Aleksandra Vrebalov, Zurab Nadarejshvili) who hardly anyone in Ireland and beyond will have heard of. Path is diverse, brave, and remarkably moving. Eamonn Quinn is at pains throughout our interview not to make value judgments about music but I will: Path and A Place Between are nourishing and nurturing records to put on when the phoniness and irony that passes for most 21st century art is wearing you down. This is music that is not afraid to be serious and (whisper it) sacred.

This week, I asked Terry Riley for a comment on the LCMS. I asked him whether, in his experience, the LCMS was as singular an organisation as it appeared to be, or if there was a network of similarly productive and driven organisations out there, worldwide, under the radar. He replied: “I would say the Louth CMS is particularly significant because of the dedication, love and devotion that drives Eamonn Quinn to seek out special musicians to bring to his corner of the world. These choices are made on musical worth regardless of their commercial potential. It is these kind of risks that keep music alive.”

State: I wondered if you could start by giving us a bit of background. The LCMS seems to have come out of nowhere but I assume you and Gemma both have a pedigree in contemporary classical music, to instigate an organisation like this. Can you fill me in a little on that pedigree?

Eamonn Quinn: We established LCMS to bring world class musicians and composers to perform and educate in Louth. We have never swayed from that aim. And it has been great. A small revolution in a place never exposed to this music; having Terry Riley here, commissioning Arvo Pärt, recording CDs, Kronos Quartet and Ghost Opera, Philip Glass in Dundalk. Mad when you think about it. In terms of pedigree, I have none and there was never any contemporary music on the scale that we have been doing in Louth before LCMS. I’m still not sure how it all happened though I feel blessed.

I have always been interested in music. I have four brothers and four sisters. I am the youngest so all this music just permeated the house. Most of the boys had their own huge music collections: the Beatles (The White Album and Abbey Road), The Stones, Lou Reed, Dylan, Velvets, Love’s Forever Changes, Pink Floyd, from Syd Barrett to obscure things like Bo Henson’s original Lord of the Rings. I absorbed all that, moving to old soul records, jazz and then contemporary music. Gemma and some friends introduced me to John Adams’s Shaker Loops, Kronos playing Kevin Volans, Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, and then on to other things. We moved to Dublin and encountered The Crash Ensemble, who were amazing and still are. So it is an ongoing voyage of discovery. I just found contemporary music fascinating and still do. But nobody needs any pedigree. Music is a gift that we all get to share in either making the gift or receiving it.

Can you talk a little about how you got started? The original seed of an idea – and the nuts and bolts of doing it. The entrepreneurship of the LCMS.

Our first gig was Joanna MacGregor in 2006. I found it difficult to travel to Dublin or Belfast as my wife had our first baby and we wanted the same cultural experiences here in Louth. My wife suggested I organise something – so I did. I had no idea what I was doing: booking artists or selling tickets. But with help from the Drogheda and Dundalk Arts Office, we pulled it off.

Then I decided our next performance would be Terry Riley’s first concert in Ireland. I contacted Terry in San Francisco and he agreed to come to Ireland the following year. Terry also wrote a work for LCMS. I didn’t know this was a “commission” and that normally commissions cost money. But being a kind hearted soul, Terry give it to us for free. I then decided to commission Arvo Pärt. He agreed to write ‘The Deer’s Cry’ for us and come to Ireland in 2008 for the performance. I applied to the Arts Council for funding for the above and the Louth Arts Offices also helped.

Following this, I wanted Philip Glass to perform in Dundalk. This was a lot different from previous projects as we had no Arts Council funds for the performance. We had some funds from the local arts office but the financial risk with Glass was huge. I had just lost my job as well but we still needed to sell something like over 700 tickets to break even. Yet we still kept the ticket price low, 30 euros, to enable people to attend. Also, I programmed the Glass performance to allow Irish performers like Ioana Petcu Colan, Gerard McChrystal and the Dublin Guitar Quartet the opportunity to perform with Philip Glass. That was very important.

By the way, he is a lovely man Philip Glass, very gentle and great company. I collected him from Galway and we took the train to Dublin so we had a great chat.

It must have been some feeling when you realised you’d brought these huge figures to your home town – done something extraordinary.

It felt great. But I also felt great for the area and the people of Louth that we had done it. I was the first person to invite Terry Riley to Ireland. He told me he had waited 70 years to receive this invitation. I commissioned probably one of the most important and popular composers in the world: Arvo Pärt. That performance and commission was very important to me personally and professionally. I know when we were told that he accepted the commission, Gemma and I burst into tears, not just out of joy that he had accepted but also as we wondered how much would this cost and how could we pay for it?

Some of the works on A Place Between and Path are well known and established, some hardly known at all. Two composers on Path (Aleksandra Vrebalov and Polina Medyulyanova) are under forty. Where do you find the works?

It’s a long story. Aleksandra Vrebalov I heard through her recordings on two Kronos CDs. I just got in touch, we chatted and she sent some scores and audio and I knew I wanted to record her (Track 6: ‘The Spell III for Violin and Live Electronics’). Great composer and quite young. Polina Medyulyanova (‘Ewige Ruhe’) I heard by accident on Myspace. Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky: I heard his piece ‘Chang Music III’ on the Xenia Ensemble CD (2008’s Eastern Approaches–Music from Former Soviet Republics). I contacted his publisher in Paris and started to study his scores and listen to audio, realizing that he is one of the most important living composers. Amazing.

It’s striking, as Michael Dervan noted in a glowing review in the Irish Times, the extent to which the music on Path comes out of the East.

I thought about this before when I discovered that I had an affinity with music of the former Soviet countries. I know I am more interested in the music from the east than say the US: Arvo Pärt, Sofia Gubaidulina, Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky and Valya Silvestrov are among my favourite composers. Maybe it is the hardship that comes through in the music, there is a lot of sadness and suffering. For me the music has so much emotional depth it never fails to move me. Shostakovich’s Songs from Jewish Poetry or Silvestrov’s Silent Songs are incredibly powerful works.

Plus, the vastness of the geographical space is so unknowable and the diverse nature of each culture is very appealing. Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky is very much a case in point. His music is equally at ease with eastern forms yet he still uses western techniques, creating a unique sound world.

Some of the composers that you have on your albums – like Arvo Pärt and John Tavener – make work that is explicitly religious. I always think of Henryk Gorecki alongside those two. Sacred does not necessarily mean religious and it is possible to be profoundly moved by this music without belonging to a church, but: do you think that people who listen to this music from a secular perspective get the full meaning or beauty? Are we missing something?

It is a good question. I have some friends who are non-believers who love Arvo Pärt’s music so being religious isn’t a prerequisite. To people who are religious, the music can be a reassurance for their faith and possibly even act as an awakening of something dormant.

Most people’s lives are difficult with ongoing concerns about work, money, relationships, family, illness. So how an individual responds to a particular piece of music at that time has to taken into account a myriad set of factors. For example, a person can simply switch off for that seventy minutes of a concert. That is all OK. It doesn’t have to have transform a person, it can simply let them be.

The composers you mentioned are well known to be religious: Arvo is Orthodox, John Tavener converted to the Orthodox though he now seems to embrace perennialist philosophy. Gorecki is Catholic. However, they all write music that is very accessible. And there is a gentleness to their nature which is very comforting and is reflected in their work.

For me personally, music is a sacred art, it is a blessing and a gift.

The Louth Contemporary Music Society’s online festival We Sing for the Future is on April 14-18 2021 and information is on their site here. Their Bandcamp is here.

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