‘Blessed with a voice that is easy on the ear’, Barra Ó Séaghdha describes Seamus Heaney in his review of the recently-released 15-CD box set of Heaney’s Collected Poems for the current edition of Poetry Ireland Review. And over the course of the Heaney at 70 weekend (formerly known as the Easter weekend) back in April, the airwaves were taken over by that instantly-recognisable, now-available-to-purchase-in-a-deluxe-cd-box-set Voice of the Poet, reciting innumerable poems and regaling rapt interviewers with moments from his life that are by now as well-known to us as our own. Heaney was on a loop. Every time the radio was turned on, he was there. And if one turned instead to the Irish Times on that lazy Easter Saturday morning for a brief respite, the supplement of effusive tributes to Heaney spilled out all over the breakfast table. And so we had round-the-clock poetry broadcasts, non-stop Heaney. The ‘inner ear of the multitude’ may have been about to experience Heaney-overload. Yet there was one audio experience that offered something different from Heaney’s ultra-familiar, mellifluous tones, and that boldly interrupted the weekend’s attractively-packaged, easy-listening experience (which can be yours to enjoy for €74.95). Auditory relief came in the form of the live concert broadcast from the Irish Museum of Modern Art’s Baroque Chapel on Lyric FM. Instead of ‘Classic Drive’ pumping out its elevator music formula of ‘favourite classical tunes’ something rather more singular was launched over the radio.
This was the Seamus Heaney Birthday Concert. Three contemporary Irish composers had been asked to compose a work for string quartet (with voice optional) by responding musically to a Heaney poem. None of the composers opted to write for voice and so the verbal element did not enter into the mix. First up was Rachel Holstead who had selected Heaney’s ‘The Given Note’ for her original composition; Kevin O’Connell, a self-confessed Heaney aficionado, took on ‘Fosterling’ for his work Where Should this Music Be? and Ian Wilson ‘Anything Can Happen’ for his Across a Clear Blue Sky. Despite its being lavishly praised by Heaney in his birthday speech as ‘entrancing’, as comprised of ‘sounds and sweet airs that might have been heard on Prospero’s island’, the concert offered much more than these fulsome words suggest. Heaney’s comments were, in fact, not quite equal to the occasion and, to my mind, seemed quite off-key. Indeed, there was little evidence of ‘sounds and sweet airs’ from where I was sitting as I listened to the concert on the kitchen radio from the (dis)comfort of my own home. As we prepared for dinner with family and friends on that Easter Monday, one of the guests, passing quickly by, glared at the offending radio: ‘What’s that racket? Is the Heaney over?’ There was some surprise when I replied that this was in fact still ‘Heaney’, that the radio was tuned to Lyric. But this was ‘noise’, the opposite of ‘Heaney’. And it was ruining the desired ambience. Invading the airwaves at that moment was Wilson’s Across A Clear Blue Sky, scored for string quartet, two analogue radios and mechanical toys. Dissonance, atonality, dischord: captivating. Those who were tuning in to hear Heaney-lite may have been disappointed. Of course, there was nothing groundbreaking about Wilson’s composition; for anyone who knows the work of John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen or Alvin Lucier there is nothing new here in the use of electronics in live performance – indeed it would strike some listeners as passé. Yet in the context of Seamus Heaney’s birthday celebrations this music thrilled somehow. Anything can happen, it seems.
The poem that Wilson’s piece responds to is Heaney’s 9/11 elegy – described by the poet as ‘a real shocker of a poem’ – and it is, in my view, possibly the only dignified poetic response to have addressed that atrocity and its aftermath into the present day. The poem has had high-visibility too. Published first in the Irish Times on the 17 November 2001 (as ‘Horace and the Thunder’) it was appropriately positioned next to reviews of new books about the Northern Ireland peace process. After all, the images in the poem have, as Heaney has pointed out, been ‘familiar in Northern Ireland [...] for thirty-five years’. Since then it has been republished and replayed a number of times: in the Irish Pages; as part of a lecture to the Royal College of Surgeons; in Translation Ireland; in a booklet for Amnesty accompanied by translations of it into a number of languages, and it ultimately took its place in the collection District and Circle. ‘Ongoing civic service’, is how Heaney has summed up the poem’s multiple hits on the cultural radar. Heaney’s comments on the poem and its contexts have interested me as a reader of his work. Watching Heaney being interviewed by Kirsty Wark on the subject of ‘the age of anxiety in which we live’ on BBC’s Newsnight Review some years back, I was intrigued to see Heaney reciting from memory a passage from E M Cioran’s The Temptation to Exist. He had, he told Wark, learnt this ‘terrific statement’ by heart without even having to try:
Routine of the sigh and of calamity, jeremiads of minor peoples before the bestiality of the great! Yet let us be careful not to complain too much: is it not comforting to oppose to the world’s disorders the coherence of our miseries and our defeats? And have we not, in the face of universal dilettantism, the consolation of possessing, with regard to pain, a professional competence?
‘Coherent miseries is what we had but now we have the world’s disorders, and it’s a bigger, bigger problem, I think.’ Trauma. Anxiety. Disorders. Heaney again: ‘Trauma is everywhere; it’s very, very hard to know how to transmit what happened, which cannot be equalled by a set of words on a page’. Even poetry falls short. This, for me, is Heaney, incertus, on the dark side, an aspect of him that is often overlooked and replaced with a too one-dimensional figure who walks only in light and with unquestionable authority. It seems to me that we do the poet a disservice if we refuse to meet him there as well as elsewhere. On this rare occasion broadcast live on national radio it was music that forced us to go there.
Wilson’s work opens with the unsettling hiss of white noise as the two analogue radios are moved across different frequencies, drifting from signal to static. An enticing snatch of Pras Michel’s hip-hop hit ‘Ghetto Supastar’ is audible at one point. The rest is garbled talk, interference: nothing registers. The strings enter one by one; the violin sounds first with a dramatic falling glissando that suggests the noise of sirens, the high-pitched mechanical wails of the modern world’s depredations. Indeed, there is something about the opening of the piece that reminded me of Jonny Greenwood’s Popcorn Superhet Receiver (2006) which was, as the composer has elucidated, ‘inspired by radio static and the extended, dissonant chords of Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.’ Reviewing it, Alex Ross perceptively noted its ‘elegiac air, as if the radio’s white noise were carrying messages from a disintegrating world.’ This was, one suspects, the same charged effect that Wilson was after with his use of radio distortion and taut strings. Interestingly, Wilson’s own musical influences include Helmut Lachenmann, Steve Reich, Morton Feldman – for his ‘wonderful ear for colour, sense of balance for sonorities’ – John Coltrane and J S Bach. The sonic landscape here is dissonant, jarring, made up of anguished downward slides and glissandos on strings; moments of pained, expressive lyricism soar upwards fleetingly only to be drowned out and integrated back into the relentless run-away continuum of jagged semi-quavers and demi-semi-quavers. As the piece continues to gather momentum the strings are rammed into overdrive, their colouristic effects exploited to the extent that sound is beaten out of their every part as they play sul ponticello (on the bridge of the instrument), con legno battuto (striking the string with the wood of the bow), sul tasto (playing on the fingerboard) while the dynamics range from pianissimo to ff feroce. The piece ends with the eerie rattle of the wind-up drummer toys as they slowly run themselves down. Wilson has said that he employed these percussive devices as ‘a kind of ironic nod towards the whole art of war’, and from where I sat listening the effect was compelling as we were hauled through this into final blackout and silence.
The use of the radio is particularly interesting in the context of Heaney’s poem. Scoring for a radio as instrument makes for unpredictability and randomness: each performance will be different and the composer has no control over the sound material that will be generated. We live in a technological age, an age of media-saturation, and Wilson uses the white noise of radio static to shock us out of the patterned lull of our lives. In doing so he interrogates ideas about art and life, control and disorder, music and ‘noise’ as the confusion of white noise and displaced radio signals invades the rarefied atmosphere of the concert hall. The radio’s Babel transmits only fractured voices, a cacophony of signals and codes that cannot be understood or ordered. Thus, systems of language break down. In Don DeLillo’s White Noise, these electronic noises, radio transmissions, sirens, make up the soundtrack to our postmodern lives; this is the ‘white, uniform’ sound that churns just ‘below our daily level of consciousness.’ As one character asks: ‘What if death is nothing but sound?’ But using radio as a musical instrument can be risky. In his review of the concert for the Journal of Music, Ó Séaghdha remarked that it ‘failed to integrate with the quartet writing.’ I would disagree. ‘Very direct, very striking’ was how two of the musicians from the Vanbrugh Quartet described Wilson’s work before their performance of it and this for me neatly sums up its impact.
So, what did Heaney himself really think of his birthday concert? ‘Sounds and sweet airs’ doesn’t quite ring true; you have to wonder if Heaney was tuned in to the music of what really happened. No doubt he responded in public with his characteristic ‘sanguinity’ but for a poet who so often employs musical effects in his poetry and relishes its terminology in his criticism, he does not present himself as an educated listener. In Stepping Stones he admits that despite Michael Longley’s efforts to bring him to live sessions in Belfast in the early years he never took to jazz and owns but a single Fats Waller LP. When asked for his opinion of Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Heaney responds: ‘It was more like background music or fairground music’. Nor, as he admits, has he ever been much of a concert-goer. This seemingly wilful narrow-mindedness, evident in Heaney’s often dismissive view of other poetic traditions, has made him a problematic poet, for me at least. As he has made clear on a number of occasions, he sees nothing of value in the avant-garde, the experimental. This aspect of Heaney has not gone unnoticed and it was most recently criticised by Jeffrey Side in an essay on Heaney’s neo-Georgian poetics (‘The Dissembling Poet: Seamus Heaney and the Avant-Garde’) in the online Jacket Magazine. There is too, for instance, Heaney’s less than positive view of the poetry of John Ashbery which – as Belinda McKeon gently reminded us in her clear-sighted article on Heaney for the Irish Times’ Heaney supplement – he has rejected as a ‘centrally heated daydream’, as ‘inadequate’. Comments like these dismay a reader, such as myself, who enjoys the work of both Heaney and Ashbery and doesn’t see them as being in any way oppositional. Indeed, both are to my mind kindred poets in terms of their feeling for the music of poetry; Ashbery has stated that his poetry is ‘indebted to music’.
‘One striking aspect of Stepping Stones is how strongly the Sixties, or what we think of as the Sixties, seemed to bypass Heaney,’ David Wheatley has identified. What did Heaney make of Cage, Lucier, Stockhausen, if The Beatles were mere ‘fairground music’? To Heaney on his 70th birthday I would suggest to him that he sample something new – otherwise he risks repeating himself. No other poet in the world could so easily engage the ears of an entire country and commandeer the airwaves as he did over that unique weekend in April; his achievement, as countless critics, commentators and a Cambridge Companion have asserted, is secure. However, it was refreshing to see him being exposed to something outside his comfort-zone.
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Maria Johnston teaches in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin and in Mater Dei Institute at DCU. High Pop: The Irish Times Column of Stewart Parker which she co-edited with Gerald Dawe was published by Lagan Press in 2008.