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


the deaths of two children in its care.


And the Director of Public Prosecutions says anyone who helps


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


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


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


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


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


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


Belfast composer, broadcaster and multi-instrumentalist on cello,


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


parallel tracks were comfortable. Hearing traditional Irish on the


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


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


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


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


the timbre of traditional music very well.


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


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


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


Planxton. He also taught you as well. Liam


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


It probably is and also the advancement here has given other


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Edward Bunting was engaged by some terrifically far-sighted


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


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


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


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


Belfast men through to the Chieftains and Riverdance and


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


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


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


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


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


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


all of that. After studying the music and Celtic


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


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


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


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


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


recognised his potential and the following year commissioned him to


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


tells you and interpret their feelings and try and get behind


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


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


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


More theatre work followed. Marie Jones commissioned him for her


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


isimportant. He has since won many orchestral commissions including


Further Shore and the ambitious choral symphony, Ossa.


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


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


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


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


when you hear a full symphony orchestra and 120 singers singing


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


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


anybody who is a professional creator of anything. There are


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


days. She never came. Sometimes I write


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


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


that music. Alongside his composing, Neil's


first performance has been satisfied with his West Ocean String Quartet


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


really using the cello in traditional music before myself.


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


As social personality, Neil is popular amongst his peers and


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


other people who have similar interests, regardless of race or


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


performance underneath the rebuilt bridge at Mostar in Bosnia and


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


very busy with theatre at the moment.


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


North Belfast. This is the Last Supper.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


I have enjoyed it very much.