On the 20th anniversary of Riverdance, composer Bill Whelan looks back at the phenomenon he gave birth to, recalls the fateful decision to sack Michael Flatley, discusses the Limerick City Of Culture controversy and shares his thoughts on the future of music in an era when fewer and fewer people pay for records.
Bill Whelan sits across the table in the conservatory of his Rathgar home. He’ll be saying goodbye to the house shortly. “It’s too big for us now,” he says. “All the kids have grown up and moved out. There’s just the two of us. So we're moving back to a smaller place.”
It’ll be a wrench: the house is a beautiful one, which the composer and his wife Denise Quinn transformed after he moved in, a decade and a half ago. But without the family bustling around the place, the scale of it seems too much. It is time to move on.
Not that he’ll be moving far. The huge success of Riverdance meant that Whelan could afford to keep the house in which he and Denise had lived in Ranelagh, just a short hop and a skip away from where we now sit. His original Dublin married abode is beside the Luas line, which will make getting into town easy: he plans to organise a space in the city to work. There won’t be room for a studio in the new, old house.
That’s where Whelan spends most of his working day now, beavering away in the impossible to nail exactly task of chasing ideas till they emerge, following only the logic of the alchemist, as music: hopefully great music.
Bill began his career in rock bands, before graduating to the role of producer and arranger, working with seminal outfits like Minor Detail and Those Nervous Animals. He got into jazz, formed Stacc and became part of what was Ireland’s improvisational elite of the 1970s, alongside the likes of Des Moore, Jim Doherty and Desi Reynolds. He also produced and arranged a number of Eurovision winning songs, including Shay Healy’s ‘What’s Another Year’, sung by Johnny Logan, and Johnny Logan’s own ‘Hold Me Now’.
Recognised as one of Ireland’s most accomplished musical directors, he worked with U2, producing ‘Refugee’, a track for their War album, as well as with Kate Bush, Van Morrison, Shaun Davey and, most notably, Elmer Bernstein, who brought numerous movie projects to Ireland, to record with Whelan’s Irish Film Orchestra project. He also wrote a number of film soundtracks, including for Lamb (with Van Morrison), Dancing At Lúghnasa and Terry George’s Some Mother’s Son. In terms of his career trajectory, the first crucial moment was probably when he joined Planxty, connecting with Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny.
Having toured with the band, and worked on a variety of other gigs with these two hugely influential figures, he was inspired by the potential of placing traditional and folk music in an orchestral setting. He wrote The Seville Suite in 1992 and The Spirit of Mayo in 1993 – ambitious works both, which involved the integration of flamenco and Irish dancing into a large-scale theatrical presentation.
In 1994, Moya Doherty – who had seen Spirit of Mayo – approached Bill to write a seven-minute interval piece for the broadcast of the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest from The Point Theatre in Dublin. Having worked with Michael Flatley and Jean Butler on The Spirit of Mayo, he had already established the blueprint. The question was: could he take it on to a new level?
The rest, as they say, is history. Except that, as we will see, history is not quite as straightforward as it might now seem. Bill Whelan has never spoken in such depth and with such candour, about his Riverdance experience. But first, there is a new work to unveil: a concerto for flute, written for the great and hugely popular East Belfast soloist, James Galway.
That’s where the conversation begins, with Whelan explaining the genesis of this extraordinary new piece. It ends almost three hours later. “Come here,” he says, as I pick up the voice recorder, “I want you to hear this.” Bill leads me to his studio workspace and sits down in front of the computer screen. He shows me the sheet music for 'Linen and Lace' onscreen – the wonders of technology writ small! – and then locates the sound file he is looking for.
He has been working on a project with the Berklee School of Music in Boston. “There are some things that language can’t express,” he says. “There are things for which we don’t have words. And that is the starting point for this project. It will combine different forms of 'mouth music' from all over the world, sung by a choral group, with singers of all sorts of different nationalities. It is about things that can only be expressed through music, things that don’t accommodate to normal, rational, verbal explication.”
He clicks the mouse. The music pours from the speakers, the waves of sound rolling over us in a torrent. Crash of cymbal. Surge of saxophone. Voices humming and hymning, hawing, sawing, sweeping and soaring. Intricacies interweaving. The void filled with a beautiful noise and the spirit rising. This is what it is all about. Music to stir the soul...
Let’s talk about 'Linen and Lace'.
“About three years ago, I got a phone call from James Galway,” Bill Whelan recalls, “and we had a chat, and he asked, ‘Would you ever consider doing an orchestral concerto for flute?’ We talked about it and the idea emerged that we would do something that would be about Limerick and about Belfast. But it was kind of hard to get going because he was travelling all over the world.”
An idea for a TV programme on the birth of a concerto was mooted – but that proved to be a distraction.
“Then Lyric FM got involved. They had heard about it and wanted to commission a piece. A commission is very important in that it gives people a focus. So we had a performance date, we had an orchestra and we had the necessary commission to support it. And so I got down to it and started writing.”
Finding a link between the two cities was vital. These are the hard yards: the moments of solitary imagining, conjuring melodies out of nothing, feeling the rhythms surge through your bones, that are an essential part of the creative process.
“I’m a big believer, as is James, that even though music is often used to be divisive, through history, it’s capacity for reaching over borders is even stronger. I remember he rang me one day, and he asked how I was doing, and I said I had started, and he asked, have you done the Protestant bit yet? And I said, I think I’m getting to the middle of it, and he asked 'are there drums in it?' He has a great sense of humour.”
The connection that gnawed its way into the piece centred on the industrial work that was so important to both cities – work of a kind that is now largely gone.
“It’s basically a two-movement piece, the first being Belfast, and the second being Limerick,” he explains. “I decided that there was plenty to celebrate in the working people in both places. So both pieces start off with little quotes of well-known pieces to do with the cities: Belfast starts off with ‘My Lagan Love’, and Limerick begins with ‘There Is an Isle’, both of which are strongly associated with the culture of the cities.”
Whelan lights up describing the concerto, which he has called ‘Linen and Lace’. It draws on these inter-related industrial activities, which were so central to the economy, and also to the working life, of Belfast and Limerick respectively. The imaginative arc sweeps across shipbuilding in Belfast, the harp tradition there, marching bands, industrialisation, the humours of Limerick and the importance of knowing that you are part of a community. “There was a great kind of humour in the working people in Limerick,” he reflects. “There was also a great sense of pride in what they did, and there was nobility.”
For a composer, the creative process is an especially mercurial one: at any time, a piece can go in a thousand different directions, but ultimately the finished work reflects the sensibility, the energy, the resourcefulness and the organisational nous of its creator, who has to chase shadows till they somehow become real, and meaningful, on the page of a score. Memory, and how we interpret the past, play a huge part in it all...
“When I was a child growing up in Limerick, there was a lot of excitement going on with horses,” Bill elaborates. “They were always in the streets: they delivered the milk; they were used in funerals – and so on. So in the Limerick movement, I wrote a kind of a horse-trotting theme, and then I went into lace making. Limerick lace was a big thing.
“So taking the flute as the leader, the piece is all about the melodies interweaving against each other. The piece ends on a flute cadenza, which James Galway plays just wonderfully.”
Was the fact that James would be playing the piece important when Bill was writing it? Does the musician it is intended for become a kind of surrogate muse?
“Oh yes, I totally think of the player,” he says. “One of the amazing things about meeting him is, as I said, that there’s such humour in James Galway. He has tremendous technique – that he has in the bag, it’s a given – but what he brings extra is that he’s very much about making the pieces accessible. He did a whole bunch of classical pieces when I saw him live, but, before he plays them, he gives a little speech about the pieces, and it’s very personal and it makes the audience very relaxed. And also, it connects them to the music in a way that most classical concerts don’t. And so, when I was writing, there was a couple things that were humorous in the score that I wouldn’t have done if I had been writing for somebody else. I knew he had the touch to carry those off.”
Writing about Limerick was a sort of homecoming for Bill Whelan. The concerto coincides with the anointment of Limerick as Ireland’s City of Culture, an initiative of the Minister for the Arts, Jimmy Deenihan, which has been the subject of considerable controversy. Bill was invited to sit on the board that was set up to organise the City of Culture celebrations – a call which he answered without hesitation. So how important is the city to him?
“It is important. I think Limerick has suffered a lot of bad press. There’s no denying what has happened: there was bad city planning, and a lot of negative things arose out of that. But there is a spirit to Limerick, which is really worth celebrating. As a city, it has a personality and a certain way of looking at things, which I still relate to.
“Even though my parents were from Dublin, I was born there. I grew up right in the heart of the city, just off O’Connell Street. So I was very much a city boy. I lived near my school: I could get up at 5 to 9 and be in class at 9. And in those days, the famous lanes of Limerick still existed. I didn’t live in a lane, but the lane behind us was the lane where the McCourts grew up. So I knew all the people in the lane. I hung out with the kids.
“So growing up in Limerick was formative. It’s also where I did all my early music. A lot of us had bands, and Grannies Intentions were happening at that time – so Limerick was very active musically. When I go to Limerick, there’s still a great attitude to life there. So I think the City of Culture is a very good opportunity for the city to feel better about itself.”
He is circumspect about the controversies that erupted – though as a member of the board he clearly feels aggrieved at the coverage of the whole affair in the media.
“The city manager Conn Murray appointed the original CEO, Patricia Ryan, because there was a certain sense of panic that a strong administrative hand was required to move the thing forward,” he says. “To those of us on the board, it had seemed a bit sluggish. So it was in that spirit that she was appointed. To my knowledge, and to my belief, I think it is wrong to say that was done cynically, as a political appointment. I don’t think that’s true.”
It is not something that he wants to dwell on.
“What it says to me is that, sometimes when politics and the arts come together, there isn’t a lot of understanding, at official level, of what it takes to actually mount even a small artistic project. And I think there was a certain haste about this. Everyone knows it was done in a hurry – and it shouldn’t have been. It’s difficult to be critical of Jimmy Deenihan – because there’s the human aspect of this... you look at someone like him and you know this was coming from the right place emotionally.
“As it turns out, the energy that it stimulated has been very good. And it has created – I know from going down to the city as much as I do now – a tremendous atmosphere on the ground, of determination to make it work. It will be brilliant, despite the fact that it was so hurriedly organised. Luckily Limerick IT stepped into the breach, and offered the services of Mike Fitzpatrick, in an interim position, to run the artistic end of it. And as it turns out, he has done a very good job and has since been appointed to the actual position of Chief Executive and Artistic Director.”
Some things that appeared in the media still rankle.
“You have people like Fintan O’Toole writing these articles about the board of Limerick City of Culture and that the members of the board should read more books – and that many of the artists needed to be entrepreneurs. I mean, Yeats was an entrepreneur – but many artists aren’t entrepreneurs and they need the help of managers, or administrators, to move things forward. I think there was a bit of a Limerick bashing thing in the coverage. The narrative in the media was that the original artistic director, who resigned, had stood behind the artists in Limerick against the sort of mindless structure that was in place. That was what was being said. And that was simply not the case.”
Bill Whelan is well aware of how important it is to create the setting for Irish artists to feel confident enough to flourish. A founding member of the Irish Music Rights Organisation, he lived through the era when it was impossible to get a UK-based A&R scout onto a plane to come to Dublin. In many ways we now take the respect of the international music community as a given. But it isn’t.
“U2 staying in Ireland reversed the tide of whatwas going on at the time,” he recollects. “Everyone who had a bit of success before that, they went abroad. You would sign to an English record company or an American record company, and you were gone. And with U2, suddenly: they were here, and they were staying here. And there was a recording studio built around them. And there was a whole management structure, and there were guys from Cork and from Mayo working on their team.”
He believes that the Artist’s Exemption, put in place originally by Charlie Haughey, was important to this.
“The whole thing was an Irish thing, and we all felt really proud about it. And not only felt proud, but we felt actually: we are swans. We can do it. Then it was like, Steve Winwood is coming in to Cork. And Kate Bush is coming in to Dublin to record. Suddenly it’s a cool place to be because we have the gear. We have spent money. We have made money. Money has come back into the country. That was all positive.
“I couldn’t say for certain if that would have happened had the artists tax relief not been there. But I think it was a catalyst. Being based in Ireland made sense for artists. So taking the long view, things like that are very, very important. They can have a very positive outcome, which is often forgotten.”
Bill Whelan’s career had been going well. He was up there among the go-to guys in Ireland, composing and arranging for theatre, film, TV, radio and orchestra, as well as working as a record producer. As far back as 1981, he had written ‘Timedance’ with Donal Lunny for the Eurovision interval. Now, another Eurovision-related opportunity presented itself.
“The idea to do something as the centrepiece of Eurovision was Moya Doherty’s,” he says. “Her job was to deliver the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest and she needed a piece for the interval. She had seen a number of things that I had done previously like The Seville Suite and particularly The Spirit of Mayo, which was done in 1993. Both Michael Flatley and Jean Butler had been in the Spirit of Mayo concert, and she had seen both of them and she said they looked amazing and the way Michael was presenting his Irish dance looked like something we could tap into. And Jean Butler was so beautiful and such a beautiful Irish dancer. And so Moya said she wanted to do something that would really present Irish dance in a theatrical way that hadn’t been done before.
“We had a very memorable meeting in a small café on Baggot Street. She said look, I’d use a lots of drummers as in the Spirit of Mayo – something with that power of drummers. And we are using the motif of the Liffey – because the Eurovision was taking place on the Liffey. So she said: think about it and see what you come up with.
“I went away to think about what could be written in that vein and that started the process. Then she brought in Michael Flatley and Jean Butler, and I began to play them what I had written for them, and we talked about how we would structure it. I basically took the life of the river as the motif and started it with Anúna, who I had worked with in the Spirit of Mayo, and I wrote the lyrics for their piece, and then Jean Butler’s piece and then the two of them coming together – and then the big finale. And the structure was to have the shape of a river: it starts small, and then it builds and builds, and then goes and rushes out to the sea.
“That’s what was driving the original conception I had – and that’s what it became. Mavis Ascott did the choreography: she’s a very good stage choreographer who is often not spoken of and who would have been responsible for the big line of dancers. Michael Flatley created the steps for himself, and Jean and himself did their pieces together. So that’s how the original seven-minute piece evolved.”
The story of what happened next is fascinating: the truth is that it all could so easily have run aground, had it not been for Bill Whelan’s persistence.
“I felt that we had really something, and I didn’t know what it was. In our business, you just don’t know if something is going to take off. But I did feel there was something special about this, and so I went around the record industry. And I said I’m doing this piece of music for the Eurovision,and I’d like to make a record of it, but I have no money. Well, I couldn’t get the money to do it from record companies. RTÉ weren’t interested in being involved either.
“So I eventually went to the Church and General, and I spoke to them, and I found myself in this extraordinary situation of sending my demo over to an insurance company. And I got a call in the afternoon. It was this guy Damian O’Neill. He said ‘yeah, we had a listen to that, it’s pretty good’. He asked what do you need to do this? I said I need ten thousand pounds, which at the time was a lot of money, to pay for the orchestra, the recording, the pressing. He said ‘we’ll give you that’.
“I suddenly had the capacity to make the record. And we went into the studio, and we recorded the track. I eventually went to Paul McGuinness, and we got Son Records, which was part of Mother, which was U2’s label, to release it. So it came out on U2’s label, and it was ready and in the shops the day after Eurovision. And a week or so later, it was No.1.
“So through a mixture of the creative work and a little bit of entrepreneurial spirit, we had a record – and now we had continuity. It wasn’t just something happening on the night of Eurovision and everyone thinking, ‘What was that?’ Now we had a record – and it was played everywhere: first in Ireland, then the UK – and then everywhere else.”
The euphoria after the Eurovision was extraordinary. Almost everyone in Ireland seemed to sense that this was a unique moment. All the old inhibitions surrounding Irish dancing – and Irish culture – had been swept away. A triumphant piece of orchestral music that was based on the tradition had created a context that made Irish dancing sexy. The music shot to the top of the charts. The question now was: where to from here?
“We were very excited by what had happened. Moya, and I sat down and talked about doing a show – that there was obviously an audience for this and a demand for more. And we talked about what it would be and I said I was very comfortable working within the some of the genres I had already approached: eastern European music, that I had done on East Wind with Andy Irvine; Spanish music, which I had done in The Seville Suite; and of course Irish music.
“If we could stay within that, then we could do Riverdance – and turn the river’s story into the circular journey of a nation: the river going out to the sea and coming back as rain and nourishing the river again would symbolise the nation going out to foreign parts and coming back and nourishing the homeland again. And I said: we could make a show about that.
“That became the template. And then I sat down and wrote four pages of A4 on what each dance piece in the show would be about. And then, at the end of October of 1994, after Eurovision, I sat down to write those pieces to the template that I had created. And that became Riverdance, the show.
“All of that music, in both cases, was down on paper, before a foot was put on the floor of dance – and everything that was done eventually and spectacularly in the dance was informed by what had happened in the music. So for me, Riverdance was a very personal creation. There were involvements with the director John McColgan and obviously Michael Flatley wanted to do a piece of just solo dancing, which he did. But Riverdance was on those four pages of A4 – and that was it. We might have changed it a bit over the years – pulled a piece out, put in another piece. But broadly that’s still the shape of the show twenty years later.
“So that’s how it came about. They say success has many fathers and failure is an orphan – well, sometimes fathers appear that surprise me,” he adds. “I saw Michael Flatley being interviewed on television recently. The interviewer was obviously a fan: she kept touching his leg and so on. He was talking about Riverdance. He said, ‘I created the first Riverdance and then I convinced the producer to do a two-hour show. And I created that... and then I got fired’. And she goes, ‘Oh my God’. Then at the end, he said, ‘But you know for me, Riverdance... no matter what has happened, I wish those people the best, but Riverdance will always be me’. And I thought, God: is there no end to them, you know?
“I’m sorry, but Riverdance is not going to always be him. Riverdance, to me, will be what it was when it was created as a piece of music, like a ballet – except in Irish terms. And that’s what it was – and on the original tickets for the show at The Point it said Bill Whelan’s Riverdance.
“The way Broadway or musical theatre works, the creative force that writes the thing is definitely there no matter what happens, whether it’s Rodgers and Hammerstein or Leonard Bernstein. That’s the way it evolved in the music and in the theatre business. But sometimes, with Riverdance, that got muddy.
“It’s very difficult for me to talk about this without being hurtful to people, which I don’t want to be. My relationship with Moya has always been very cordial. And so I know this might sound really shitty – but I had sole credit on the marquee of Radio City for the first production there of Riverdance. And over the years that became not acceptable – and we had to have everyone’s name up.
“That was a demand that, personally, I had no problem with. But then it got to the stage where, if there wasn’t room for everybody, then my name wouldn’t be up there. That was a production decision. And if I’m uncomfortable about any part of it, the artist in me who created the thing finds himself uncomfortable with that.
“For instance, a recent statement, on the website of Riverdance – the organization that I had given the name to: it was my name – and it says, ‘Riverdance was created by Moya Doherty with music by Bill Whelan, choreographed by...’ This is issued by the office. Now, that’s not a proper reflection of what went on. It’s not. And those kind of things annoy me – and understandably so. And it’s just been going on for years, and I lived with it, to be cordial and carry on our business. It’s not something that...
He trails off.
“I’m not sure where it comes from, that culture of undervaluing what the musician does. It’s because, in some ways, it’s not understood. The moment of composition of a piece of music, or even an idea, an extended idea, a musical idea, is a bit mysterious. So, it would have been interesting if we could have a parallel universe and we could see what would have happened if anybody else had been asked to write Riverdance other than me. That would have been interesting.”
What did he feel when the decision was taken, early on in the life of the show, to drop Michael Flatley?
“I thought Moya Doherty made absolutely the right decision. He was one of the team. Very good and glad to have him, but let’s be measured here. Michael, of course, was disappearing off to get a tan while I was working every hour – I worked easily 14 hours to 16 hours a day from the end of October to February that year, some nights going to bed for two hours.
“And then Michael had cars being sent to here and there and you think: ‘oh for fuck’s sake’. And it’s not that you don’t think he’s good. He’s fucking great. But let’s get a bit of balance here about what we do. And that’s really where it blew up first and I saw the potential of Michael to be out of control. And eventually he ended up pulling that elastic band to where Moya said ‘okay, that’s it’. And that’s where she really was a good producer. She called me on the day she made the decision and said ‘look I’m going to do this, what do you think?’ And I said ‘yeah I think you’re right. I think we have a show. I think we have a show without him’. But everybody else, all of the promoters, after the announcement, were going, ‘Jesus Christ, you’re going to fire the star?’ And she did.”
There is no question, however, of wanting to deny Michael Flatley the credit that he is entitled to.
“Michael, to give him his due, was an essential part of what happened at Riverdance. It’s like me saying, if I hadn’t written the music and somebody else had written the score: if he hadn’t come out and danced as he did on Eurovision, it wouldn’t have been the same. And it was a massively lucky thing, the coming together of talented people to do something. And it stuck the right chord. All the planets lined up and it was – it was a moment. We knew it was.
“It was such a unique item. That’s why I would never try to write Riverdance 2,. If I had another successful show like Riverdance, I wouldn’t object – but I just know that it’s not possible, that the energy that was behind the creation of Riverdance cannot be replicated. It just cannot. It was like, you know, The Beatles. It just happened: the right people were there and that’s the way it was.”
Was he never tempted to do a follow-up – which is essentially what Moya’s latest production, Heartbeat of Home, represents?
“The engine that drove Riverdance was not about money. And almost any other attempt to repeat it, almost de facto, has to be about money. So you can’t go there. Cause that’s going to defeat you right at the very start. You do it because it feels good musically or emotionally or whateverit is. Creatively, it makes sense. And just doing Riverdance 2 or something that has a lot of the characteristics of it, just because you think there is an audience out there, is not the reason to do it. Because that’s not why you did it in the first place.
“Can you image if we were all sitting around the table in RTÉ, before the Eurovision and Moya said ‘Now listen, Bill. This is going to make loads of money. You get out and write a piece’. That was nowhere near anybody’s mind. This was all about putting out something on the Eurovision stage that reflected well on Irish music and on Irish dance. And a lot of what I had done over the years, the work that influenced me and the work that I influenced – like everything I did with Planxty and separately with Andy Irvine – and the rock stuff that I did, and the jazz stuff, all of what goes into making me who I am as a musician – all of that came together in Riverdance.”
Bill wasn’t involved at all in The Pirate Queen, the Broadway production that saw John McColgan and Moya Doherty linking up with Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, composers who had been hugely successful with their adaptation of Les Miserables. The show spectacularly failed to ignite.
“I wasn’t asked, but it wasn’t something I would have done,” he says. “There were other things that I wanted to do within the context of the Riverdance, if you like, family – I wanted to do a musical based in South America. And I travelled to Brazil to research it – and I’ve been three times to Brazil and I brought Colin Dunne and another dancer out with me – and I was developing a script. Something like that, I could have followed Riverdance with.”
I ask what of his other many musical adventures stand out? His first answer might surprise some people.
“Danny Doyle asked me to produce an album for him, which was a wonderful experience,” he recalls. “And that got me connected into the Irish tradition. This touches on the question of liminality – the whole question of being slightly apart, slightly separate. You couldn’t say that traditional music is me. You couldn’t really say that classical music – and I work with orchestras and I write for orchestras all the time – but there’s a whole world of classical music that I have nothing to do with, so that’s not me either.
“As a writer I feel that sort of instinct to work on my own and find my own way through things. I think Irish music has to move on, and so I’ve no problems dipping into jazz and dipping into working with the orchestra. I’m slightly apart: I feel connected to them but at a slight remove. It’s a curious feeling. And sometimes, it’s a lonely feeling.
“But Danny Doyle connected me to trad music – and then I started to meet and work with Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny – and they were very important to me. I just loved Andy’s musical adventurism. And I loved the way he dealt with even the political subjects that he liked to sing about. He had the troubadour angle on it.
“Donal is just pure music. I don’t see him as much as I used to, and I miss him. I loved being in Planxty. I loved all of that – and it opened up my own self-confidence enormously, in dealing with what is essentially our own music. So they were very important. I remember very well sitting with Donal Lunny, Des Moore, Steve Cooney, playing on Danny Doyle’s ‘The Highway Man’. It was one of those moments in the studio. If you ever get a chance to hear that track, ‘The Highway Man’, it’s full of dynamics and Donal is playing the bouzouki. Brilliant.”
Bill also worked with Kate Bush.
“I loved the experience of working with her, and her total focus on the music. Some people it’s about ego, and it’s about: how does my voice sound here and here? Or whatever. But with her, it was always about music.
“Elmer Bernstein, the conductor, again, was a person who had a big love of Ireland. He was very helpful when I set up the Irish Film Orchestra. He was very helpful in bringing that to America. I remember the first time I went out to promote Irish Film Orchestra in Los Angeles, and he had said the whole thing up, and Henry Mancini turned up, and John Williams, and all these really high-powered people. And he was a great musician, did loads of films with them for us. So he was important.
“And then there are the young artists I have been associated with, like Julie Feeney and Zoe Conway. It’s been a very interesting and for me, because I never really pitched my tent in any one genre – essentially because of my instinct that music does not pitch her tent in any one genre. She’s everywhere. And therefore you can move freely. The old ‘oh if you are not playing bebop jazz, everything else is rubbish’ or if you are not doing contemporary, classical music than everything else is somehow beneath you – all that thinking has to go.
“In anything I’ve done, I’ve tried to take the feeling of the music – and even though I pushed it around a little bit, particularly in the dance music and in this new piece ‘Linen and Lace’ – a lot of it is based on traditional music. James Galway was asked why he was working with me and he said, ‘because I think he will write Irish music’. And I hope I’m writing Irish music. I am because I’m Irish and I live here – it may not be what some people regard as in the tradition of classical composition, or in the tradition of trad music, or in the tradition of jazz. But it is Irish music.”
Who is the greatest Irish musician of the past 50 years?
“Donal Lunny has been an extraordinary influence: in his sensitivity and his great musicianship and his harmonic sense and his massive ability to present Irish music in the way that musically, emotionally and creatively, never fails really. There are so many people out there who wouldn’t play like they do, or do what they do, and their music wouldn’t have been shaped like it is shaped, if it weren’t for Donal.”
And who are the outstanding songwriters, whose songs will still be sung in fifty or a hundred years time?
“Jimmy McCarthy has written some classics. And Pete St. John has written classics in that sort of folk ballad tradition. I think in the rock and pop end, you can’t deny Bono and Edge and the boys the number of pop/ rock anthems that they have written: they are extraordinary. I mean plenty of their stuff will still be alive in fifty years time. But there will be songs of Jimmy McCarthy’s alive too. And Paul Brady is another, in the pure song tradition.”
Right now – the excitement of the premiere of ‘Linen and Lace’ and the thrill of his work with the Berklee College choral group notwithstanding – Bill is not in an especially optimistic frame of mind. The devaluation of the work that musicians do has been relentless. And government has done nothing to deal with the problem that the technological revolution has precipitated.
“If we just look at it locally for a minute, in Ireland, there are loads of things that are missing from the picture that weren’t missing when I was younger,” he observes. “One of them was the national broadcaster and other organizations – in theatre, for example – making home produced items, the orchestra working all the time. And now technology has had an effect on that, and everything has imploded, in that everything can be done from people’s homes.
“I did a track recently where they did just that. No one ever actually met. We’re creating a capacity to be able to do amazing things with technology, but we’re also creating a kind of cluster of islands rather than a land mass. People are increasingly isolated. For young people starting off now, they’re being encouraged by the great apostles of the Internet to give away their music: just put it up on the Internet! And it seems they just have to do this.
“And what’s happening is that music and other parts of our civic life, journalism being another one, are suffering from this belief that what people do professionally, and spend their lives being good at – whether it’s journalist, musician, artist, whatever – that that somehow has to be funded out of somewhere other than payment for the creation of the work itself.
“In music, kids won’t make their money from the music while the ‘real’ people are living in Silicon Valley and making their billions through advertising and through selling information. The problem is the lie that these Internet apostles tell you, that you are now directly interacting with your public. But you’re not; the artists are actually isolated.
“So people are just giving away their stuff. And it can’t last. And to my eyes, it is so blatantly wrong, in every way. No matter how you look at it: socially, morally, and economically. It doesn’t make any sense, and yet we are still continuing, because we are in love with the thing. We are in love, dizzy, intoxicated with the post-Internet world where everything is seen through a rosy glow of ‘we are a community connected with the Internet’. But we’re not. We’re a community isolated from each other on the Internet. That’s the truth of it.”
2005 got off to an excellent start for five Irish music students who became the first recipients of the Bill Whelan International Music Bursary.Read More
Selected Irish musicians are set to benefit from the scheme, set up by the composer of RiverdanceRead More