I’ve been to some great stuff at the Clonmel Junction Arts Festival (CJAF) over the years: the puppet show The Man Who Planted Trees, and 3epkano, live playing their soundtrack to accompany The Golem, particularly spring to mind. So it was with high hopes that I went to the world premier of Buile Shuibhne – The Madness of King Sweeney last night, and I wasn’t disappointed.
I didn’t know quite what to expect. The festival programme billed the piece as a …unique blend of new music and spoken word… …commissioned by leading uilleann piper David Power, and written by New York-based composer Dana Lyn… [and] …performed by Power together with acclaimed string ensemble the ConTempo Quartet. Interwoven with the music, actor Barry McGovern reads excerpts from a translation of the ancient story… This sort of mélange could go several ways; what was served up was very much a straight contemporary music concert and none the worse for that.
Bookended by two other short works, the 45 minutes or so of Buile Shuibhne consisted of seven passages read from the poem, each followed by a musical recapitulation of the action described.
The story of Sweeney was new to me. In summary, Sweeney, the pagan King of Dál Riada, offends Saint Ronan the Fair, who is erecting a church in his territory without permission. As a result Ronan, curses Sweeney to wander about the world naked and in madness until he should die by spear point. And so it transpires, with much blood letting along the way, giving the lie to the notion that in Ireland the transition from paganism to Christianity was bloodless, as David Power noted in his introduction.
The one jarring note in the tale is Sweeney’s death-bed embrace of Christianity at the end. Presumably this is the authorial propaganda of the time. It is rather the implacable Ronan, with his lack of compassion and his cursing, that radiates the evil as the action is unfolding; Sweeney is merely headstrong. There seems to be no good reason why his repentance should be accompanied by a spiritual cost.
I found the full text of J.G. O’Keeffe’s 1913 translation of the poem on-line. I’m not sure if it was the same text used for the performance, but it seems very similar. Here’s an excerpt of the story contained in the opening movement:-
Suibhne was greatly angered and enraged, and
he set out with the utmost haste to drive the cleric from the
church. His wife Eorann, daughter of Conn of Ciannacht,
in order to hold him, seized the wing of the fringed, crimson
cloak which was around him, so that the fibula of pure white
silver, neatly inlaid with gold, which was on his cloak over
his breast, sprang through the house. Therewith, leaving his
cloak with the queen, he set out stark-naked in his swift
career to expel the cleric from the church, until he reached
the place where Ronan was.
He found the cleric at the time glorifying the King of
heaven and earth by blithely chanting his psalms with his
lined, right-beautiful psalter in front of him. Suibhne took up
the psalter and cast it into the depths of the cold-water lake
which was near him, so that it was drowned therein.
And this from the second movement:-
Thereafter, at the end of a day and a night, an otter
that was in the lake came to Ronan with the psalter, and
neither line nor letter of it was injured. Ronan gave thanks
to God for that miracle, and then cursed Suibhne, saying:
‘Be it my will, together with the will of the mighty Lord,
that even as he came stark-naked to expel me, may it
be thus that he will ever be, naked, wandering and flying
throughout the world ; may it be death from a spear-point
that will carry him off.’
The playing of the ConTempo Quartet was impressively lively and inventive. I particularly enjoyed the musical depiction of Sweeney leaping across the land, pursued by five severed heads. The one weak moment was the one weakness of the piece itself, the unpromising opening of the first movement, which doesn’t immediately snare the listener, drawing them in, but rather threatens a difficult evening ahead.
David Power’s pipes surprised me. I enjoy uilleann pipe music, but most that I’ve listened to has had a more ringing character. Here we had a lower and more plaintive sound – I kept thinking of the shepherd’s pipes in the third act of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. I know nothing of the technical capabilities of the instrument, so presumably there are variations of chanters with other pitches and different tuning methods one can apply. Perhaps this was a choice made so as not to swamp the string quartet. That certainly never happened, though there were a couple of passages where the quartet threatened to overwhelm the pipes.
The readings were nicely done by Barry McGovern. I found the overall narrative somewhat disjointed, but O’Keeffe, in the introduction to his translation, suggests that this is an inherent characteristic of the poem. If so, it’s a good reason to structure the piece the way it was, with seven passages and seven movements, rather than trying to have the words and music flowing more into each other.
I think the performance is touring to other venues over the summer. If so, it’s well worth catching up with. I hope they make a recording.