In Conversation with Neil Martin The Arts Show


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In Conversation with Neil Martin

Marie-Louise Muir talks to Belfast-born musician, composer and broadcaster, Neil Martin, about his long and illustrious career in theatre, film and television.


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And on BBC Newsline tonight: A Health Trust admits liability for

:00:00.:00:00.

the deaths of two children in its care.

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And the Director of Public Prosecutions says anyone who helps

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a woman go to Britain for an abortion is not committing a crime.

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This programme contains some strong language. On tonight's Arts Show In

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Conversation, I talk to one of Ireland's foremost contemporary

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composers in theatre, film and television, whose work has been

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performed all over the globe from Mostar to Ground Zero and which has

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even been heard on International Space Station. Neil Martin is a

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Belfast composer, broadcaster and multi-instrumentalist on cello,

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Uilleann pipes, low whistle and piano. He's performed with everyone

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from The Dubliners, The Chieftains to Mary Black and Christy Moore. He

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also writes and performs with the acclaimed West Ocean String Quartet.

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A musical pioneer, his signature style is to mix the Irish and

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classical genres together. Neil Martin, welcome to The Arts Show.

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Why do you do it? I love it. I love it. I loved it. My earliest memory

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of life as a child of three, on a Sunday morning and my father would

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play B minor mass on the old record player. I can still hear the song

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and the smell I remember of my mother making a fry. That was the

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start of my life and I still love Bach and fried food. Both together?

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Not so much these days. I've loved music from the very start. I was

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very lucky in life because my parents had a very, very broad

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eclectic taste in their record collection. There was Bach, Mozart,

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Beethoven, the Beatles, film scores, hand written labels, part of them

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written in pen. Louis Armstrong 1927. We grew up with all these

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different styles of music frequently being played. That must have had a

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big bearing on us as kids. As a youngster, Neil took up the cello

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and Uilleann pipes and in a sign of things to come will play both

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traditional Irish and classical on each instrument. If you went to your

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music teacher and said, I am also playing the Uilleann pipes and

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liking this low whistle as well, what did they say? Were they purists

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and snobs? Did they say that the two couldn't mix? There were certain

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people from the traditional side who said you play Uilleann pipes and you

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play the cello, you can't be a proper piper. Thankfully I didn't

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take them too seriously because I knew within myself that these two

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parallel tracks were comfortable. Hearing traditional Irish on the

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cello doesn't sound as strange as saying it. No, it seemed an

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absolutely natural progression for me and I have always found that it

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has worked, especially in slower music. It works extremely well. It

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has that melancholy human range that the cello does. That seems to suit

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the timbre of traditional music very well.

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As a teenager in the mid-1970s learning the Uilleann pipes, you had

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the great fortune to encounter one of your musical idols, Liam O'Flynn,

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who was then enjoying huge success as part of Irish folk supergroup,

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Planxton. He also taught you as well. Liam

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did, when I was a young fellow. My God was Liam O'Flynn. I was learning

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the pipes. I went to a week of classes. This particular year, Liam

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O'Flynn was the Olympic tutor. It completely transformed my way of

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thinking about pipes. He gave me lots of exercise and technique and

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showed me lots of things. In Northern Ireland, if you have an

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interest in Irish music and culture you are considered as coming from

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one side. Have you ever had to encounter that as a musician? Yes, a

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bit, certainly in the 1970s as a young fella going through town, for

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example, with a set of Uilleann pipes. You would be searched and so

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on and sometimes not savoury things were said because of the association

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of Irish music with a particular type of religion or set of beliefs.

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We grew up in a very good house with very open-minded parents and there

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was never any hatred or bigotry, not a syllable of it in-house. I

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wouldn't have let the narrow minded person get to me growing up. Do you

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feel that it is safer to articulate that now? Post the Good Friday

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agreement? Is it a safer place to be that musician now?

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It probably is and also the advancement here has given other

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people who hitherto might not have declared openly the love of Irish

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language of Irish music. I think it has given a greater confluence to

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those people to say, this is our language, this is our music. It

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belongs to all of us who have pins on this island. Language and music

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are beyond religion and politics. Even in the late 18th century, Irish

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culture was a point of contention and an unlikely figure, a Belfast

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organist, paved the way for future students of Irish traditional music.

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Edward Bunting was engaged by some terrifically far-sighted

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Presbyterians in the end of the 18th century Belfast. At the last

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gathering, these harpers hobbled into Belfast and with the end of the

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road. Bunting provided this essential link with the old world.

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Because it was written down. We are strong on broken lane from those

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Belfast men through to the Chieftains and Riverdance and

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Michael Flatley and all of those other things that are connected. He

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brought out three books and I have some originals. One of them is

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signed by Bunting himself. If the house was on fire, what would you

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grab first? 1809. And my cello in the other hand and the kids could

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get out at some point. I very often go back to the source of Bunting and

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look at it. The older I get, the more I appreciate the importance of

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all of that. After studying the music and Celtic

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studies at Queen's University, his daughter to carve out a career as a

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musician touring with the likes of Phil Coulter. -- he started. Writing

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tunes since the age of ten he began to find his voice as a composer. In

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1988, a last-minute invitation from Field Day Theatre Company to perform

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with them led to his first theatre commission. Actor, Stephen Rea,

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recognised his potential and the following year commissioned him to

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score for a play about Oscar Wilde. You have done a lot of work with the

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Field Day Theatre Company in the early 90s when they approached you

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to do something. Is there a different approach that you have as

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a composer or is it always the story that drives the music on? There are

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a lot of things. You have to be aware of the different media for

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which you are writing. The film music needs to say a certain thing

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in a certain way. Ditto theatre. Each area I find myself writing in

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has its own particular set of demands and you need to be faithful

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to those and understand what those demands are. You also need a very

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good director and you need to listen very carefully to what the director

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tells you and interpret their feelings and try and get behind

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sometimes the words that they are saying. Try and understand the

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emotion that they are trying to impart in their production. There

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are a whole lot of things. Different hats, yes, there are different hats.

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More theatre work followed. Marie Jones commissioned him for her

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programme on HRT. He also had to write for Northern Star. One day in

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1987, he unexpectedly heard from his former piping mentor, Liam O'Flynn.

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I got a phone call from Liam O'Flynn whom I haven't seen in the

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intervening years saying that he was thinking of starting a group and

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would like to join him. That was another huge reward. Liam had seen

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and heard some things that I had done with the cello and Irish music

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and he was naturally drawn towards the combination of pipes and cello.

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It works very well as a medium. The two have collaborated in various

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ways ever since. In 2004, Neil won his first and large-scale orchestral

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commission. The opening concert of the Belfast Festival at Queens. For

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it he composed the pipe concerto, No Tongue Can Tell, for Liam. Do you

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have a favourite medium? In this last decade because I have had the

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opportunity to do it more, orchestral writing. I love writing

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large-scale stuff. You are such a convivial person. I

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can't imagine you sitting in this room trying to compose. I do have a

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discipline. I still ask very hard questions of myself when I'm writing

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music. I do not let myself away with anything that I am not happy with. I

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never have said, that'll do because it won't. You have to be able to

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stand over every little thing that you write because every little thing

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isimportant. He has since won many orchestral commissions including

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Further Shore and the ambitious choral symphony, Ossa.

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It took me a year to write this piece of music and that is a very

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solitary kind of station that you are on for that year but in music.

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It is not until humans react with those little black circles on a page

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that the music, you hear it for the first time. It is a massive honour

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when you hear a full symphony orchestra and 120 singers singing

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and playing music that you spent with rally in your head for a year.

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That is such a liberation. The deadline is terrific news for

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anybody who is a professional creator of anything. There are

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moments of absolute terror in my life when I have found myself lying

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on the floor wondering why I started this piece of music. Should I send

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the money back? I have never given up and I have always won that

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battle. Sometimes you are staring into a wall and you need to get a

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result. He has also written for film and television including the movie,

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Hells Pavement and the award-winning TV drama, Food For Ravens. Come to

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me, my lovely and no delays. The road ahead awaits us. And better

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days. She never came. Sometimes I write

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for film, theatre and concert, stage and orchestra. I think maybe all of

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those early influences of my parents re-emerged later in life in all of

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that music. Alongside his composing, Neil's

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first performance has been satisfied with his West Ocean String Quartet

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which he co-founded and for which he writes and arranges all the

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material. All four of their albums have been played upon the

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International Space Station. It is a democracy where I write and arrange

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all the music for the quartet. It is absolutely where I am between worlds

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and traditional music. Where as I do write it, we rehearse together and I

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am open to any suggestions that my colleagues make. We don't need to

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spoon-feed each other and they all make wonderful music or

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contributions to the end product. Do you write mostly for the cello and

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do you write solos for yourself? I am not that vain. I don't. I am very

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conscious of the strengths of the four of us so I write to the

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strengths of the individuals. It is tailored for that. I shy away from

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too many cello solos. Let them do the hard work.

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And that's become very much your signature style, hasn't it, to marry

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the two together and have that fusion? It's the space in between

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music. I get great comfort and happiness and succour in there. And

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once you get in there and you are in between the worlds looking round

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you, it is without limit. It is an intriguing, beguiling place. Do you

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feel like you have been a pioneer? Maybe that is for other people to

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judge, but certainly there was no one a playing uilleann pipes and

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cello together when I was growing up. Is there still? I would not be

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surprised if there were people doing it now. Certainly, there was nobody

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really using the cello in traditional music before myself.

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That was no great master plan, it's just how my life happened.

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As social personality, Neil is popular amongst his peers and

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renowned for his mischievous sense of humour. You have become so many

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people's friend as well. Everybody knows Neil Martin. They know that

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twinkle in the eye and the penchant for limericks as well. We will gloss

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over that. How do you combine the two? How do you have that really

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humorous side to you but then you come out and you play this angelic

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music. I have always wondered how the two go together. I don't know. I

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am not going to analyse that one. The friendship thing is great I

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think, in life. Music is a wonderful passport. My own children are

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discovering this as they travel to various parts of the world playing

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music. It is a terrific passport and it immediately bridges you with

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other people who have similar interests, regardless of race or

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religion or creed or anything. It just breaks all of that down. They

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are not barriers. I think the friendship thing I have developed

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through music is kind of part and parcel of the thing. As regards my

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own body humour, that is how it is. It is fine. A lot of musicians know

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bad jokes. That is how you let off steam? Yes. Neil shared a long

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friendship with the late Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney. He

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was honoured to play alongside his old friend Liam O'Flynn at Seamus'

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funeral. That must have been such a huge responsibility? Yes, it was. I

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can think of no better way, it was a massive responsibility. Both of us

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were very close. As you know, Liam played often with Seamus Heaney. A

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couple of weeks before Seamus died, they had played together, memorably

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up in Derry. It was an emotional thing for both of us to play at that

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funeral. Seamus's wife asked if I would play the Brahms and I said

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yes. I did not realise until the day before the funeral that Seamus had

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actually requested this piece be played. Never before did such a

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straightforward simple little tune take on another dimension. It was a

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great responsibility but... You know, the friendship with Seamus

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over 25 or more years really helped through that. That you were able to

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just think of Seamus as he played it. That got you through.

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Neil's latest major theatre project is The Conquest Of Happiness, a

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harrowing anti-war play directed by Bosnian theatre and film director

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Haris Pasovic. It recently premiered in Derry-Londonderry as part of the

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UK City of Culture. The show The Conquest Of Happiness,

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it is based on the writings of Bertrand Russell. The show looks at

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the dreadful atrocities that have happened in the 20th century, the

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outrageous greed and cruelty of man. Russell had a kind of prime concept

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that the world was horrible, horrible, horrible. That is the kind

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of starting premise. We look at some of that and then we try to find a

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way out, a way of salvation as well. See that army truck down there, it

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has a parachute over the top of it. That's home. Rod and myself sit in

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there and we have obviously a monitor and we can hear what is

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going on. We accompany the cast and we have to play great attention to

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the script and all of it. But that is home, a U.S. Army Second World

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War truck. The play has toured around the Balkans, including a

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performance underneath the rebuilt bridge at Mostar in Bosnia and

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Herzegovina, before it returns to Northern Ireland for the 51st

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Belfast Festival at Queens. No sentient human who comes to this

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show will be unmoved by what they experience. It is on a huge scale

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and it is hugely emotional. A very emotional show. Some of the scenes

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are quite disturbing but I think it is important for all of us that we

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don't forget. We shouldn't. He has also scored the latest play

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from Kabosh, Belfast by Moonlight. Is theatre taking over your world at

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the moment? I know you will be working with Field Day Theatre

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Company, a new production of a Sam Shepard play. That is hugely

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significant to be working with somebody of that calibre. It is. We

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had some workdays with Sam Shepard earlier this year and last year, and

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they were wonderful. Very insightful. I think the nature of a

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freelance person, sometimes you are busy in one genre for a period of

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time. At times I could have done nothing but write orchestral stuff

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for months on end. This particular period in my life is theatre. Very,

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very busy with theatre at the moment.

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He lives with his family just a few streets from where he grew up in the

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North Belfast. This is the Last Supper.

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THEY PRETEND TO CRY. My disrespectful family all around me.

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I go off to tour for Europe for a month in the morning with The

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Conquest Of Happiness show. It will be a much quieter house, apparently.

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Slainte, everybody. Safe travels and all of that. Some people say how is

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that fellow from North Belfast speaking in such a different accent?

:24:09.:24:14.

Where did you get it? I don't know. Part of me thinks that I used to

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travel and tour a lot and I have one of those wobbly heads that picks up

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colours as you go. Also, although my mother is from Derry City, she

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doesn't have a strong Derry accent. My wife is from the Antrim Derry

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border but she doesn't have a strong accent. I think I want to be from

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Donegal and I spend a lot of time over there on the West Coast, Critch

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Island, that wonderful part of the world. I think part of my spirit

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wants to be from Donegal. Your spirit is a Donegal man? I think so.

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What about the ones in North Belfast, they won't be too happy

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about that. Ah, lock them! What have you been most proud of

:24:53.:25:39.

that you've done? God, I don't know. I would find that very difficult to

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answer because each new project throws up a new challenge and a new

:25:43.:25:49.

result, and I feel great. I mean, the big orchestral stuff, also

:25:50.:25:51.

writing it and the uilleann pipe concerto for Liam Flynn. That was a

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big moment. Writing for Barry Douglas and his orchestra was a big

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moment. Writing for the Linen Hall Library. But equally, writing for

:26:03.:26:05.

the West Ocean String Quartet and equally, equally writing tunes for

:26:06.:26:08.

each of my children. I'm really proud that I've been able to do

:26:09.:26:12.

that. Simple kind of tunes for the kids. But that, I'm very proud of.

:26:13.:26:17.

And they've taken the music on as well? They haven't ditched you for

:26:18.:26:21.

One Direction or anything like that? No, they are all into music to

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varying degrees. That is a terrific reward for Siobhan and I. They are

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all into music. They all appreciate music. Have you a famous instrument?

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You have cello and uilleann pipes, low whistle. I think at this stage

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it is probably the cello. I feel very comfortable with the cello. And

:26:41.:26:43.

the particular instrument I was very lucky to get 25 or more years ago.

:26:44.:26:48.

It really suits me. It is the first of only two instruments made by this

:26:49.:26:52.

guy still in existence. It is a very unique thing. I think even if I

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could afford Stradivarius I would hold onto this cello. Really, you

:26:58.:27:01.

would say, no, I don't want the Strad. No, you can keep your Strad.

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And what is left to do? I am only starting, honestly. There are so

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many things I want. I want to write an opera. I want to write a ballet.

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I really want to write a ballet. I want to write a lot more chamber

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music. You know, I want to write maybe a guitar concerto. I want to

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write a piano sonata. And those are the things, the fore of the head.

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But no, I truly believe I have only started to scratch the surface of

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what maybe I can do and what I would like to do. But I think it takes a

:27:37.:27:39.

certain few decades knocking about this globe, before you can voice

:27:40.:27:43.

that to yourself and realise that for yourself. At least that is how

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it is for me. Neil Martin, thank you very much. Thank you, Marie-Louise,

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I have enjoyed it very much.

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