Compánach is a fast-moving, cross-media concert of traditional Irish music, song and dance which links music and photography. It brings together the narrative power and subtle judgment of the the photographer’s eye and the aesthetic precision of musicianship. Following a theme of music and place, it uses photos and historic imagery to tell the music’s story and indicate its roots, regions, topography and topicality, its history and presence in each Irish county and in Diaspora and emigré regions abroad. A ‘live documentary’, it has solo, duet and group music representing all Irish counties and Diaspora regions and both early and modern tune-smiths. This soundscape is warmed by song in Irish and English and accented by sean-nós, percussive step-dance.
The players are leading musicians – a core group with fiddler Gerry O’Connor, uilleann piper Tiarnán Ó Duinnchín, flute-player Fintan Vallely, sean-nós step dancer and flute-player Sibéal Davitt, and sean-nós singer and fiddler Roisín Chamber; other players join the line-up for specific concerts.
The production is directed by Fintan Vallely, editor of its mentor book, the encyclopedia Companion to Irish Traditional Music, the text of which is turned back into music, a melodic adjunct to a key resource of modern-day Traditional music. The narrative is expanded subtly, by rear-projection and slow changes on a large-scale, backdrop screen: music is presented, as it were, “in” the images. The flow of 800 of these has historical and music tableaux which set off and are shaped by the superb event and landscape photography.
This show might be dubbed ph-usic – a collaboration of photography and live music. Each enhances the other – an interplay of sound, sight and imagination which effortlessly conveys a large amount of contextual and stylistic information on Irish-Traditional music from the 1700s up to modern time. The playing is seamless, but rapidly-changing, 90 tunes running without commentary in 25 sets. The story is subliminal, generated by photos and historical images supported by indicative sub-titles, and by tunes named after places in each county. While the pictures of landscapes and personalities have independent dramatic power, they also greatly expand the music experience, and they side-step the linguistic barriers which can often curtail comprehension among the diverse nationalities who listen to and perform Irish Traditional music.
Themes and objective
The Compánach audio-visual concert draws on the idea and content of the encyclopedia Companion to Irish Traditional Music. Being music-based and listener oriented, it presents
- imagery of musicians and their places, and
- performance of tunes connected with those places.
Visual imagery has been important in promoting traditional music: in paintings, engravings, and photography, media which continue to be key elements in Traditional music albums and literature. Tunes are given names as an aid to memory, but where the titles describe a locality, they become a map of where the tunes were played or the players came from. This is a feature of early-1900s Traditional music, when exile in America or Britain led to 20% of Irish tunes in collections from that period mentioning places in this way.
Compánach presents a rich sense of these in a singe event using images as narrative, and a varied repertoire in music on flute, fiddles, pipes, song in Irish and in English and sean-nós step dance. Artistically it links the subtle judgment of the the photographer’s eye to the aesthetics of musicianship, an interplay of sound, sight and imagination which effortlessly conveys a large amount of information about the music’s roots, regions, associations and people.
The music is played to a flow of 800 images, 300 of which are photography by the Belgian-Irish Jacques Nutan Piraprez whose life’s work has been with musicians and cultural figures; he has published several books of photography of Ireland and Irish musicians, and provided many album and poster images. His notoriously-vibrant, quirky personality, event and landscape photos have independent dramatic power; they expand the music experience, side-step linguistic and cultural barriers, facilitating understanding among the diverse nationalities who listen to and perform Irish music.
Fifty of the show’s photographs are the beautiful work of the Sligo landscape specialist Gareth McCormack, and the balance of images include work by Dutchman Paul Eliasberg, Carlow artist Eugene Conway, Derek Speirs, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, Fintan Vallely and prints from historical sources. The show’s theme image is a photo of Daniel Maclise’s 1832 painting ‘Snap apple night’ by Co. Meath photographer James Carney. Image presentation is by Rebecca Draisey Collishaw.
Compánach appeals equally to aficionados of the music and those interested in Irish culture. It has been performed many times since 2013, and the new series in 2016 had performance at Brussels Tradfest and Luxembourg Conservatoire in the early summer, with shows at Cork Folk Festival and Ennis Tradfest in the autumn.
Feedback from audiences has been universally enthusiastic. For them, the show sets the music’s personalities and composers in their times and in home places, giving meaning to older tunes – art in communities – so adding to aesthetic appreciation of Traditional music in a fresh way: it is about artistry, human engagement, history, variety, repertoire, forms and terrains of the music rather than personalities.