A PIECE of musical history was made in Glór on Culture Night last September when The Clare Memory Orchestra performed for the first time. Drawn from a talented pool of musicians equally at ease playing classical and traditional music, the orchestra works from memory, performing without sheet music, unlike the typical setup of a chamber or symphony orchestra.
“It’s called the Clare Memory Orchestra not because of memories of Clare, as somebody said, but because it’s an orchestra that plays by memory,” explains composer, Dave Flynn, the man behind the unique concept. “I suppose it’s trying to bring the spontaneity of a session together with the organisation of an orchestra,” he adds.
The inaugural concert was well received, with the audience’s excitement and standing ovation spurring Dave and company on to bring the project to the next level. Funding, however, could be an obstacle to bringing The Clare Memory Orchestra on.
“It’s not possible to do it without support,” he explains, “Obviously, bringing a big group on tour is expensive, so we would need a lot of help. It’s called the Clare Memory Orchestra because it would be based in Clare but it would really be an all-island kind of thing. We want to base it in Clare and the ultimate plan is to have maybe four touring programmes during the year every year, within Ireland – to start them in Clare and bring them around the country and to base it in Glór, where we had the first concert,” says Dave, who has been living in Ballyvaughan for a number of years.
“Then there’s an ambition to build it into a half youth orchestra – we have the core musicians there then to have a few more players per section – to have a bigger string section. Ultimately, the ambition is to have it as the Irish equivalent to Chinese orchestras that tour around the world or Indian orchestras – to create a distinctive sound.” That the orchestra would have a “distinctive” sound is of huge importance to Dave as, he feels, it offers something a bit different to what Irish symphonies have traditionally brought to international audiences.
“There was one interesting thing I heard from a musician who plays in an orchestra. Every time the orchestra goes abroad, they’re asked, where’s your Irish music? We don’t need to hear an Irish orchestra playing Beethoven – we get the Berlin Orchestra here every year. They sometimes programme a token Irish piece in the middle and they publicise the Irish piece and then it’s over in five minutes. To have an orchestra that actually won’t be playing Beethoven. We might do a bit of Bach here and there, just because there are links between Baroque and Irish music but we’ll play it in an Irish way. It’s just getting that Irish sound in an orchestra.”
In order for this Irish sound to be a successful feature of the Clare Memory Orchestra, its players must be able to play both classical and traditional to a high level.
“One of the barriers I think between getting classical and trad players to fit together is the different ways of working – the classical orchestra work with sheet music in front of them. They don’t have the music in their head, they’re relying on a conductor and there are certain things in traditional music that really you have to learn by ear, you have to hear the rhythm and the ornamentation especially and just having the tunes in your head.
“It’s like two people who speak a different language – there’s always an awkward bit in the communication where they both kinda speak a language but neither of them is fluent,” he says.
Dave’s interest in music began in his teens, living in Southside Dublin. A self-described “typical bedroom guitar player”, the first music he learned was Metallica and Iron Maiden riffs while also beginning to listen to classical guitar.
“This is where I’m probably odd compared to a lot of people who play classical – the first classical pieces I learnt were by ear,” he says. “I didn’t read music. I had a cassette of John Williams, the classical guitarist and I learned a few of those pieces by ear. I taught myself to read music when I was about 15,” he explains. Then I saw John Feeley – Ireland’s best classical guitar player – and after that I was encouraged by my mum to go meet him and get a few lessons.”
At 18, Dave went to the Rock School in Ballyfermot, Dublin, after which, he started part-time classical guitar lessons with John Feeley. With his encouragement, Dave was accepted on the DIT degree in music. Ironically, while in pursuit of an education in classical music, Dave, who was 22 at the time, inadvertently began his foray into the world of traditional music as he befriended a sean-nós singer from Donegal who initiated him into a world of jigs and reels. There was no going back. His masters degree in composition at the Guidhall School of Music in London introduced him to teacher Malcolm Singer, who encouraged Dave to allow his classical compositions to be informed by his heritage and draw on Irish traditional music. It was in this context that Dave won a composition award at the prestigious Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival for Slip – a piece that was to form part of the bigger string quartet The Cranning, which has been toured by the RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet and performed recently at an Irish Russian Chamber Music Festival in the Kremlin, Moscow, the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris as well as having been performed by the ConTempo Quartet.
On completion of his masters, Dave stayed on in London but without the security and company of student accommodation, he found London tough going. However, he found solace in the city’s vibrant traditional music scene, where he also began to learn fiddle from Karen Ryan of the London Lasses.
After a few years immersing himself in the trad scenes in Doolin and Spiddal, it’s no surprise his doctorate was in composition based on traditional music, where a lot of compositions for the Clare Memory Orchestra would have been generated.
“Around this time also I met Martin Hayes and I thought it would be great to write some music for him. So I wrote a piece called Music for the Departed – 20-minute piece that mixes Martin and Dennis’ [Cahill] characteristic style with a classical violin doing harmonies and that went really well. Out of that, a couple of years later, RTÉ commissioned me to write a concerto for Martin to play with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra – Aontacht. But all through this I was forming the idea of the memory orchestra,” he says.
“I felt there were certain things I couldn’t do with the standard orchestra, for example, getting them to play the tune along with Martin. It just wouldn’t work because they’d be looking at the music and the bowing and everything would be different. So I started getting this idea of putting together an orchestra of musicians who can do both – who have the ability to play traditional music, know all the ornaments so that you don’t have to write them out or tell them how to do it – you can just say do this and they know it. But also that they have the ability to play and to learn a big score to play in high positions with special techniques – things that trad musicians wouldn’t really know,” he explains.
While the next stage to Dave’s plan for the Clare Memory Orchestra is in place, there is, as yet, no concrete funding to make it happen. But he is in talks with potential funders about “exciting plans” for the next couple of years. In the meantime, he is working on a new album of his music for 2013, which will be produced by Grammy awarding-winning producer Judith Sherman and 10 musicians, the ConTempo Quartet, Mick O’Brien, Breanndán Begley and the string quartet of the Clare Memory Orchestra – Aoife Ní Bhríain, Ciara Ní Bhrian, Cormac O’Brien and Niamh Varian-Barry.
While Dave is funding the project completely himself, he’s appealing for additional funds to help complete the album and donations can be made through the Fund it website, www.fundit.ie/project/the-string-quartet-music-of-dave-flynn.