Bill Whelan in Irish Times Weekend Review

June 03, 2009

Belinda McKeon interviews Bill Whelan
(Irish Times Weekend Review, March 14)

James Higgins

THE SATURDAY INTERVIEW: ‘DEPRESSION HAS TO be outside of our options at the moment,” says Bill Whelan. He’s talking about Ireland. He’s talking about the end of that era in Irish history to which some believe Whelan himself, with Riverdance in 1994, wrote the official soundtrack: the Celtic Tiger. Which is a phrase, by the way, that sets Whelan visibly wincing.

He has always hated it, he says. “It meant nothing. It didn’t resonate. And I couldn’t understand the sort of confident people wandering around the place talking about making millions. To me, this Ireland was a place where we were still struggling with our identity, and finding out who we were, and with what felt comfortable to be Irish.”

For Whelan the composer, that struggle took the form of a slow-burning reconciliation with Irish traditional music and dance, and of a negotiation of the forms, a long process of accepting them as part of his lineage and part of his language. Fed on a diet of jazz and of the music of the 1960s and 1970s, it took him years to see trad as something which felt right for him. It was out of that experience, and the experience of melding traditional forms with his myriad other musical influences, that Riverdance was written, Whelan says, and not out of any anticipation of, or even interest in, the notion of what he calls “Celtic Tigers”. The plural conjures up images of a whole ambush of beasts tearing through the country, fleet of foot, or even Flatley of foot – but no, this was not the stuff, insists Whelan, out of which music could be made.

“It could never be the main impetus,” he says of the social and economic story. “You’re never trying to make some statement.”

Riverdance did, however, turn out to be the stuff out of which millions could be made. For its creators certainly – witness Whelan’s New York home, the penthouse apartment in a beautiful old Chelsea building – but also for its country of origin. Riverdance was there at the beginning of a canny and crucial re-marketing and repackaging of Ireland on the global stage. And even if the coming of boom-time Ireland was not scored into Whelan’s staves as he wrote Riverdance, such an Ireland glimpsed itself in the phenomenal success that was the full-length, world-touring show which followed on from the original Eurovision interval act. This was a glittering, glamorous Ireland, an Ireland sure of its own footing and high on its own fuel. It had moves. It had long, lovely legs. It had arms that it was not afraid to move any damn way it pleased. It had little black dresses and slick black shirts. It even – and here the handiwork of American dentists proved almost as important as that of the American dancing teachers who gave us Michael Flatley and Jean Butler in the first place – had great teeth.

Coincidence or not, Ireland began thundering its way to a new confidence and prosperity at just about the time that Riverdance began thundering its way across the stage of the Point.

But it was a paper tiger, that Ireland, according to Whelan, and he’s not sorry to see the back of it. Easy to say from the comfort of a penthouse overlooking Manhattan? Maybe. Yet what Whelan feels most strongly about post-boom Ireland is plain optimism.

“Put the Celtic Tiger to one side, and I think that there is an Ireland, post-Celtic Tiger, post-Belfast Agreement, which we have to feel confident about,” he says. “We’re at an ugly stage right now, because we’re dealing with an economic situation which is totally unreal, where we had allowed the economy to exist totally removed from the normal things of labour, production, work, all of those things. And we were not connected. It was obviously going to fall apart. But what I think has emerged out of the late 20th-century Ireland is that it’s not the Ireland of the 1950s. We have all these bright people, these educated people around the world. There is an Ireland now which is ready for post-recession. And it is open for business. We need to put the Celtic Tiger stuff in a sort of bad cultural bank and move forward.”

We are in Whelan’s home studio, a small blue-painted room on a level above the living space, with a window on to the red turrets of the Chelsea Hotel and, further off, the grey shade of Lady Liberty. He and his wife, Denise, spend some of the year here; their twin daughters, Nessa and Fiona, are working in the city at present; their youngest son, Brian, is at Berklee College of Music in Boston; and the eldest, David, lives in Ireland. Each year, they also live in Paris for a time, but home is in Roundstone, Connemara.

THE TRAVELLING WORKS out well, Whelan says, giving him the distance or the filter he needs to write about Ireland, if writing about Ireland is what he is doing (his recent Connemara Suite, for example, was written mostly in Paris). He has a neat, disciplined routine; composing from early in the morning to lunchtime, and again in the afternoon.

Hovering behind Whelan as he talks, on his computer screen, is the first page of his newest score, a piece commissioned by BBC Radio Ulster and written for Michael Longley’s poem, The War Graves. The work will receive its premiere at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall on St Patrick’s Day as part of a concert-length celebration of Whelan’s music (including sections from Riverdance, his 1992 Seville Suite and other compositions). The War Graves, Whelan says, will segue into a Scots Gaelic war lament performed by Hebridean folk singer Julie Fowlis.

Two pieces about war, about young soldiers lost and lonely. Suddenly, sadly, Whelan’s latest work has new resonances, rawly contemporary resonances. A work about young men going to war was always going to ring true in today’s world, but it has suddenly struck that much closer to home and, certainly, that much closer to Waterfront Hall.

“The severest spot. The lads did well,” the friends of slain men write in a visitors’ book at a first World War cemetery in Longley’s poem. The line cannot but bring to mind the photograph in many of the day’s newspapers, showing “RIP LADS” inscribed on a red and black army belt, left with flowers at the army base in Masserreene, Co Antrim.

The shadows of Northern Ireland may be finding their way into Whelan’s music at the moment for a very simple reason: his two biggest current projects involve close collaboration with Northern Irish poets. As well as the Longley work, Whelan has paired up with Paul Muldoon to write a piece for the New York Metropolitan Opera. It’s a work “still very much in embryo”, he says, but it may take as its broad base a story from Irish myth.

Whelan is clearly interested in how a people lean on their inherited myths, on what uses they make of those myths to find their way through whatever time and place they find themselves in. It’s in such terms, for example, that he’ll talk about what has just happened in Antrim and Armagh.

“There are people there, I think, who are carrying a lot of mythology around in their heads,” he says. “And we can no longer afford to think as an island.”

This is what bothered him, he says, about Ireland’s No vote to Lisbon. It bothered him, too, he says later, when Irish-American audience members walked out of Riverdance performances in protest at the presence of African-American dancers and singers.

“We can think as a culture within ourselves, but it’s no longer an option to us to have a culture which doesn’t connect with the rest of the world, a narrow . . . even my own father’s nationalism. I think that, if he was alive today, that nationalism would have grown into an internationalism.”

WHELAN WAS BORN in 1950 in Barrington Street, Limerick, the only child of parents who ran a newsagent’s shop on William Street. His father’s name was over the door in English and in Irish: David Whelan, Daithi O’Faolain. Inside, he sold An Phoblacht, the United Irishman, the Easter lilies. He was “enormously” proud of his Republicanism, as he was of his Labour politics, with both his own father and his brother serving as early Labour councillors in Limerick. Of the Civil War, though, his father gave little away, according to Whelan. “On that, he was very silent. As most people were.”

It was a house, too, of music. Whelan’s mother was a classically trained pianist, who had been to the Royal Irish Academy and had taken lessons with some of the eastern European pianists who came to Dublin in the 1930s. In the house, she played Chopin. His father was self-taught and “picked out chords” on the piano and accordion, but it was the harmonica, says Whelan, that “really opened him up”. On that instrument, he was a natural, and it’s a big regret for Whelan that he has no knowledge of how or why this was (his father died when Whelan was 21, before he thought to ask him such things). Whelan would also love to know how his father came to have such an extraordinary record collection: Thelonious Monk, Jussi Björling, Duke Ellington, Bill Haley, Renata Tebaldi, the Clancy Brothers.

Whelan does have some inkling of how there came to be in the house a piano so impressive that famous musicians and singers passing through Limerick (including pianist Charles Lynch and, later, the soprano Suzanne Murphy) would be told “Whelans have a nice Bechstein” and would come to try it out. And of how his father had, too, a Bell Howell projector around which he built a tiny cinema in the house, and a Vortexion tape recorder which would become the heart of the teenage Whelan’s first recording studio.

“They never took holidays,” he says of his parents. “Any money they had went on things like that”, by hire purchase if necessary. His father was what would today be called an early adapter, the 1950s equivalent of the nerd queuing outside the Apple store to see the latest Mac.

“He was fascinated by technology,” says Whelan. “He’d be fascinated, now, by the net.”

The beginnings of Whelan’s musical career involved some more primitive technology: two knives on an old toffee can, banged in accompaniment to his father’s harmonica. Further down the line, there were piano lessons, but he was an impatient student, something he feels he had to make up for later on.

“We seemed to spend the whole year just learning a couple of pieces for exams, and scales and arpeggios,” he says, “and I was very keen to get down to it, and to write songs, to be part of the mainstream of making music.”

He laughs. When his father would ask to hear what he had learned in piano class, the young Whelan would improvise, imitating an examination piece here, adding his own spin there. “He knew well,” remembers Whelan. “He used to just look out the window, but he just let me at it. He was very patient. And my parents never pushed music at me. It was just part of the environment.”

Whatever he was like as a piano student, Whelan was a precocious musician. In the recording studio built for him by his father in the attic in Barrington Street, he recorded a flute and piano piece which, sent to a friend in England, ended up finding its way to the ears of Limerick-born actor Richard Harris, who was then looking for theme music for his new film. He liked it, and Whelan was brought to London. There were parties (the Bee Gees and Christine Keeler in attendance), there was a recording studio not of the home-made, Vortexion variety, and there was a glitzy premiere of the finished film back in Limerick. At the premiere, a bomb scare cleared out the cinema. And the film flopped. Just as well, according to Whelan now.

“I thought it was the beginning, and the end,” he says of the gig. “I thought, ‘this is it’. So when the film did no business, it was back to reality. But, as usual, you still have to do the hours. And it was just as well really.”

HE STUDIED LAW at UCD, but his heart was in the demos he was making in Limerick and, later, after Polygram gave him an advance, in Dublin with musicians such as Louis Stewart and Dessie Reynolds. For several years, including the first years of his marriage, he was a jobbing session musician, in studios, in jazz groups, then in RTÉ. It was in RTÉ that he truly began to flex different muscles, arranging, writing, producing.

The late 1970s and early 1980s, as his children arrived (two sons and twin girls), were a melange of jobs and angles: keyboards on a Planxty album; a composition for a television series about Eamon de Valera, with Liam O’Flynn on pipes; a Eurovision interval act, Timedance, written with Donal Lunny in 1981. It was modern dance and trad, but the formula needed a little tweaking. He toured with Noel Pearson musicals, such as Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. With Van Morrison, in 1984, there was the score for the film Lamb. He produced records, including albums by Freddie White and Sligo band Those Nervous Animals, and a track (The Refugee) on U2’s 1983 album, War.

It was busy, it was frenetic, but it was far from secure, and money was extremely short. Whelan remembers a “disastrous, depressing” summer in New York, trying to follow up on some leads provided by Paul McGuinness, with a very young family in tow.

What made the difference? Not Riverdance – that was still a long way off. What changed the record, according to Whelan, was Windmill Lane.

“Before Windmill Lane, everyone, all the musicians – Van, Thin Lizzy, Rory Gallagher – went away,” he says. “The impetus was to get out of the country, never to engage with your own place. But the Windmill Lane thing reversed that tide. They brought all these support mechanisms back to Ireland. It was a hive – management, editing, production. There was a great sense that once we gather these skills, once we do this, we can make it happen from here.”

It is remembering this, he says, that colours his perspective on U2’s recent tax-related controversies.

“It’s all very well to see these things in the moment, but when you look across the broad picture, you know, the effects really were seismic in terms of how we saw ourselves,” he says. “And it did turn things around. You could see people coming to Ireland. Or you could present an idea to A&R people, and suddenly they’d listen.”

Whelan knows that Riverdance was his seismic shift, but at the same time he can’t view it in isolation from the work that came before it, such as Timedance or the eastern European-influenced album he produced with Andy Irvine and Davy Spillane, or his Seville Suite in 1992, or his orchestral work, The Spirit of Mayo, in 1993.

“To many people it seems like it was one night. And it was that, in a way, and that was important,” he says. “But all that work was all part of it, and then we got the break.

“So it was an explosion, yes. But it was an explosion of things that had accumulated over a long time.”

And 15 years later, you sense, he’s not entirely sorry that the aftershocks are finally starting to quieten down.

“We have all these bright people around the world. There is an Ireland now which is ready for post-recession . . . We need to put the Celtic Tiger stuff in a sort of bad cultural bank and move forward.



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