This Limerick Life Sept 7

Born in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, I continue to have a deep loyalty to the town.

Born in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, I continue to have a deep loyalty to the town.

Music was not overtly present in my immediate family but there were a number of choral groups as well as a magnificent marching band (Banna Chluain Meala) present in the town. Growing up, music was everything to me. I started each day by the playing piano before breakfast and had to be dragged away from it. I never practiced as such – I just played! After spending 18 years teaching in the Music Department of University College Cork, where I studied with composers Aloys Fleischmann and Seán O Riada, I found the idea of a fresh start at the University of Limerick (UL) to be quite engaging.

My father was innately musical with the gene travelling on that side of our family.

My brother, John, was a cool drummer in his day and is back practicing again now. I was already a musician before I knew it myself. But there have been many musicians who have deeply affected my journey. However, you don’t select your talents. They select you. I have been fortunate in that recording companies have always been interested in certain aspects of what I produce. The current collapse of the recording industry, in the face of the web and digital download, is a major turning point. It throws up at least as many opportunities as obstacles.

My earliest memory is of playing a toy piano under the kitchen table at home.

I still remember vividly the actual notes I played and how I ‘discovered’ certain ‘rules’ governing the sounds. Piano was and remains my touchstone for making sounds, but in my teens, I formed several rock groups and played electric guitar. However, I was a musical magpie at heart, and played everything and anything that I heard. Piano lessons drew me into classical music, but all forms of pop music caught my ear, and I felt a natural affinity with Jazz from early on.

Artistic expression opens the way for the emergence of a personal fingerprint. This is why we find children painting, singing, dancing, and making things such a joy. They instinctively know that their personal growth is hugely enhanced through personal expression. It leads to self-confidence, a trusting instinct, and new ways of thinking that effect us all, not only in the artistic sphere but across all forms of human activity. Dancing is music in motion and is the supreme art form. Like music it undercuts language in terms of emotional communication. The articulation of the body is its own intelligence.

A lyrical song or piece cannot be chased.

It must be delivered to you like a letter which you write to yourself. Poetry is also like that but writing larger pieces - for me increasingly orchestral pieces - is akin to architecture. The basic concept is like poetry – it is entirely intuitive. But the working through of the essential idea demands resilience, patience, tenacity, perseverance, personal discipline, and craft. The idea of 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration seems correct to me.

The idea of having an established group was too constricting.

Perhaps, I was also diverted through my intuitive interest in music outside of the popular arena. The relatively few times I have toured have been deeply enjoyable but have convinced me that such a life would wear me down. I have always travelled extensively, both through my educational and musical work, but it has usually involved specific visits for specific purposes. Virtually all of my concerts are ‘tailor-made’ for a specific occasion. For example, I recently spent three months preparing for a single concert (the European première of my work Madison’s Descent: A Masque in Ten Movements).

The arts must be opened to us through lifelong learning systems.

Education is the key and music is no exception. Unless you expose yourself or are exposed to the opportunity of trying something out, you are unlikely to find the gold lying within you. One wonderful thing about that gold is that it exists within the human frame irrespective of social origin, financial circumstances, or cultural position. Finding it is the problem, although it can also find you in the most surprising of ways. This is where education comes in. Mining the gold is a different, more practical, problem. But there are many ways intelligent and well-thought-out social and educational systems can maximise the find. The result is priceless both for the person themselves and for the communities within which they live.

Next year, is the 20th Anniversary of the founding of the Irish World Academy.

In that time, it has come to encompass 19 degree offerings, 25 full-time staff, and over a hundred part-time visiting teaching scholars and artists. We have 300 full-time students, at any one time, from about 25 different countries. Since inception we have graduated students from 47 different countries. In January of this year I stepped back as Director of the Academy in order to facilitate the best transition to the next phase. I remain as Professor of Music – which is where I came in 20 years ago. I am happy to say that all of the signals for the Academy are positive. The support for, and appreciation of the Academy, by UL’s Governing Authority, are palpable.

Prof. Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin will have new music on the bill performed by Iarla O Lionáird and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra at the Cork Opera House on September 11, at the National Concert Hall (NCH), Dublin, on September 12. He will perform at the DEBARTOLO Centre for Performing Arts, Indiana, on October 18 and the NCH, Dublin, again, on January 22, 2014. For more information see the websites: and

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