Category Archives: togetherness

Chamber music group in Howth

One of the things I miss the most in my music making at the moment is playing with others. I’m just coming to the end of Alan Rusbridger’s inspiring book, ‘Play It Again’, and found his descriptions of informal chamber music sessions very compelling. I also had the great fortune to win a couple of tickets to see the Vienna Piano Trio playing Haydn, Schubert and Beethoven in Castle Coole last week. It was wonderful to watch the communication between them and sense, especially in the Haydn, the fun they were having. I’d like to try and initiate something like that in Howth (where I live). It would be a place for musicians to come together and explore the chamber repertoire. Maybe you have learned an instrument when you were younger and haven’t played for ages… I play piano, but I also play clarinet and would love to *actually* play it, as opposed to just knowing how to!

Please pass this on to anyone you think might be interested.

Brian Eno


Brian Eno gave a lecture at the Red Bull Music Academy recently. I just watched it this morning and now have a small checklist of things to do / listen to, an app to download, and a workflow to get going. I read his excellent, insightful 1995 diary, ‘A Year With Swollen Appendices’ about ten years ago and have always been impressed by him.

Here’s an excellent summary of the lecture by someone who was actually there, Una Mullally.

Sherbet lemon?


I’ve been a subscriber to The Irish Times for about six months now (it is delivered imperceptibly every morning, waiting for me on the front step when I come down). One of the very great things about it is the variety and scope of the writers. Reading them week after week, you get a sense of their personality (the norm now of putting the writer’s picture at the top of the article helps, too). I read a lot of international news media on the Internet, too, but it doesn’t compare to leafing through the paper over a cup of coffee, casting one’s eye over the properly full-sized pages, reading the odd thing that jumps out. For example, Michael Dervan is the grandmaster of music criticism in Ireland — towering in stature and in intellect — so I had to read twice the following charmingly Dumbledore-ish sentence in his column today:

In its lowest range [the double bass] is utterly unique, rich and soft-textured in a way that makes you smile and want to rub your tummy.

He describes the new film, A Late Quartet, too (about the complicated relationships between the members of a professional string quartet), which sounds very good. (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Christopher Walken?! — albeit, as it transpires, senza vibrato…)

Watch Low perform ‘Waiting’ for Best Fit

Watch Low perform ‘Waiting’ for Best Fit.

One of my very favourite bands. I first heard them when I was at university in Edinburgh and an artist friend, David Martin, asked me what I wanted for Christmas. I asked for Low’s ‘Christmas’ album, that I’d read good things about. They way they write and, crucially, the beautiful way they perform, impacted me greatly.

I saw them play in Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral a few years later, and have seen them a couple of times since. Mesmerising.

This video is beautifully shot, portraying the distillation that comes across in their work. The shelves of books, learning, curiosity, filtered through these human beings into such plain-spoken, finely-wrought music.



Up early this morning and off into St Ann’s to assist with the music. Charles is playing a ‘Fugue, Canzone, and Epilogue’ by German composer Sigfrid Karg-Elert. He played a bit of it for me yesterday and I’m looking forward to hearing it again. After the organ opening (in what *looks like* F# major…), there comes a part for violin and also female chorus. They sing the last line of the creed, “I believe in the life everlasting”. I’ll be turning pages.

I’m going to be having another crack at leading the congregation in a hymn, too: the mighty ‘Finlandia’ by Jean Sibelius. It’s a poignant hymn and its stoic words are very fitting for Remembrance Sunday. One of the most prominent features of St Ann’s is its memorial to those who died in The Great War – the names flank the altar. I often look at them as I sit up beside the organ console. One is a Wilson, one is a Dobbin (my step-father’s name).

The memorial in St Stephen’s church (which lost as many of its young men) is to the side of the church. Consider the painful discussions that must have gone on in churches all over these islands.

Be still, my soul…

You must remember this…

I’m in Spain with New Dublin Voices – we’re staying in a lovely town by the sea called Garautz, and the competition is taking place in a town about 45 mins south, Tolosa. It’s the first time I’ve visited Euskadia, ‘the Basque country’.

Two of the pieces we performed yesterday in the ‘folk’ competition were in the Basque language – one of them based on folk rhythms and which proved very tough to learn by heart. The music was easy enough, and it helped to have a strong ‘earworm’ to hang the words on.

It’s funny how memorization happens. Most of the task is repetition and using as many tricks as possible to come at it from different angles, because it’s obviously necessary to do most of the learning outside the precious rehearsal time. I found the input from other choir members really useful in the past few days. Not even ‘input’, more a shared concentration – literally going over the words beside someone else doing the same thing. Sharing little ways to link phrases in the memory. There’s something about the ‘hothouse’ environment of a competition that focuses everyone.
We’ve one more rehearsal now, for a gig tonight (the competition performances are over now…results tonight).

Addendum: we got 3rd prize! 1st was a choir from Ukraine, 2nd was a French choir. Next thing on the horizon, our concert in Christ Church Cathedral on the 18th.

New Dublin Voices doing ‘Lady Madonna’

My friend Fionnuala, who sings with New Dublin Voices, got married at the weekend and a group of us sang at the wedding ceremony. It was a truly lovely event with many delightful details. Needless to say, we broke out some NDV favourites in the bar afterwards. Like, *very* much afterwards. We always do this — doubtless a bewildering spectacle for those in the vicinity…!

Anyway, one of the ones we like to do in these musically-dodgy situations is a cool arrangement (by Carol Canning, for The Swingle Singers) of ‘Lady Madonna’ by The Beatles. Here’s a video of us performing it at a competition in Marktoberdorf, Germany in 2009. I sing the verses 🙂

Scorn Not His Simplicity

My Dad was a big fan of Phil Coulter. He was at Queen’s at the same time as Phil and liked to tell us about the time Phil locked him and a bunch of other students in a room on the campus to rehearse them! As a boy, I went to hear Phil Coulter and his orchestra a number of times—in Craigavon Leisure Centre, in the Grand Opera House at least once—and his albums were staples of family car journeys. I enjoyed his arrangements of Irish folk songs and I still remember going to Matchett’s Music in Belfast one Saturday morning to get a copy of his piano book (which I still have, complete with pencilled-in letters on ‘The Town I Loved So Well’ under the ledger line bass notes that Anna and I hadn’t learned yet). Actually, it’s through Phil Coulter that I got to know most of the tunes in the first place. Definitely a big inspiration to me. I still have a couple of signed photos somewhere with him posing at the piano in a billowy white shirt 🙂

His songs were what particularly made an impression on me. He started his songwriting career at a run, penning a Eurovision winner and a one-point-off-the-top runner-up at a time when doing so meant that, (a) it was a good song, and (b) they were destined to be massive hits. Check out his website for more of his story—it’s very readable, clearly written by him, and filled with loads of stories about the amazing career he’s enjoyed.

I was prompted to write this today by one song in particular, though, ‘Scorn Not His Simplicity’. Written from Phil’s personal experience, this song was first introduced to the world by the wonderful Luke Kelly. Here’s a lovely, intimate recording from a Tallaght pub in 1974:

Today parents, teachers, pupils, Special Needs Assistants and others are taking to the street outside the Dáil here in Dublin to protest the cutting of funding for SNAs. Listen to this song and let your heart go out to them.

The Good Book

AC Grayling, one of my very favourite writers and thinkers, talked at the Sydney Writer’s Festival yesterday about his latest work, the culmination of three decades of living as a philosopher. In ‘The Good Book’, Grayling aims to open up the “casket of jewels”— the great ideas about living that have been set down through the ages and that belong to us all.

Listen to his talk here.

The full listing of speakers at the festival is here.