Marie-Louise Muir talks to Belfast-born musician, composer and broadcaster, Neil Martin, about his long and illustrious career in theatre, film and television.
Browse content similar to In Conversation with Neil Martin. Check below for episodes and series from the same categories and more!
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.