Absence makes the song sound sweeter

The Blasket Islands may be deserted, but their music lives on
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The Independent Culture

The robust folk songs of now-deserted islands are to take on new life as the cornerstones of a new composition. The piece, by Leonard Bernstein's British protégé Matthew Taylor, receives its first performance in Manchester this week.

When the last few inhabitants of the Blasket Islands off the coast of Trelee, Ireland, left behind a bleak and unsustainable life and headed for the comforts of the mainland, their distinctive musical tradition seemed unlikely to survive the sea crossing. But when Taylor came across archive recordings of the songs on his honeymoon in Ireland two years ago, he found them inspiring.

He likens his new composition, The Blasket Dances, to Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, with his own music as the "promenade" between each of four pieces borrowed from the islanders. "With The Blasket Dances I did something that I had never done before, which was to take great chunks of other material. I wanted to capture the spirit, but didn't want to dine out on the creativity of others," he explains.

Taylor has departed from the commonplace before when searching for the genesis of a new composition. His Second Symphony was commissioned by in-vitro fertilisation pioneer Professor Ian Craft, who asked for a musical representation of his vocation. Rendering in-vitro fertilisation into music proving something of a challenge, Taylor suggested broadening the brief to a symphony about the birth. He sat in on a woman in labour, and the symphony, too, was born. Requiring huge forces, it has never been performed. If it were, Taylor would conduct it himself. As a young conductor championed by Leonard Bernstein, he now divides his time between conducting and composition, also lecturing at the Royal Academy and, as professor of composition, at the Junior Academy.

His Irish honeymoon included a visit to the widow of Robert Simpson, something of a mentor. "It always surprised me that the Irish folk tradition didn't infuse into Robert Simpson's music. He went to live outside Trelee in the 1980s because he could take Thatcher no longer. I think maybe subconsciously the music did have an influence on him.''

It was Taylor's wife, Caroline, also a musician, who alighted on the recordings of old Blasket tunes in a museum shop. The recurring themes of romance and love for the landscape are rehearsed over and over, but the couple were moved by the immediacy of the songs. "I imagine they were recorded in the 1930s or 1940s with very primitive equipment, with just one violin or accordion, but you also get extraneous noise from onlookers." Despite the familiarity of the songs, the bystanders were responding with murmurs or yelps of appreciation, becoming part of the performance forever.

The process of dovetailing his own ideas with the four songs required structural ingenuity. Two love songs are sandwiched between rumbustious jigs. Each link is devised differently. On one occasion a clarinet breaks away to be joined in turn by the three others until a reel leaps off on its own. In the second, two tunes are superimposed until the traditional melody breaks through. Another time the marimba, vibraphone and tubular bells play with a fragment from the second dance and turn it into the third; the fourth dance starts abruptly and unexpectedly.

"In a way, it was actually very liberating using these tunes," says Taylor. "The more one looked the more they were capable of symphonic treatment. English folk music is more genteel, more soft-edged. This stuff is more brutal, but beautiful."

The Blasket Dances are scored for wind orchestra, a medium that has had mixed fortunes. "In the classical era the wind orchestra was known as the 'harmonia' and was used as background music for banquets and ceremonies. As these occasions died out in the 19th century the raison d'être of the harmonia died with them. Hardly anything was written in the 19th century, apart from Dvorak's Wind Serenade, an affectionate throwback to an earlier style. It was only in the 20th century that it regained its place."

Latterly the reputation of wind music has been enhanced by Tim Reynish, consultant in conducting and for 21 years Head of Wind and Percussion at the Royal Northern College of Music, who will conduct the first performance of The Blasket Dances on Wednesday. "What Tim has done for the British wind orchestra tradition, what he's grown at the RNCM, the way he has generated new players and new ideas – it's colossal," says the composer.

The performance will be given in memory of Reynish's son who died recently in an accident at the age of 34. It is dedicated "to the Blasket people and to the equally courageous spirit of Will Reynish who loved wild places and wild ceilidhs".

The Blasket Dances: Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester (0161 907 5278), Wednesday