SHAUN DAVEY INTERVIEW
A PILGRIM'S PROGRESS
Shaun Davey is recognised as one of Ireland's leading composers of music that combines popular appeal with genuine cultural significance. His work, The Pilgrim (sequel to The Brendan Voyage, 1980) with Ben Kingsley as narrator, was described by one critic as a splendidly executed performance." Shaun talks to Aidan O'Hara about his music.
" I learned to play music by ear even though I was given some formal music lessons at school, which made me very lazy in terms of learning to read." It wasn't exactly the answer I was expecting when I asked successful composer, Shaun Davey, to tell me about his musical background. He added: "I broke my music teacher's heart." Hardly surprising, and his poor teacher, recognising young Davey's latent talents, must have been driven to distraction by his refusal to practice his scales and sight reading. Anyway, this candid confession of Shaun's will come as a great surprise, and indeed as a bit of a shock, to the many who admire his brilliance as a composer of acclaimed concert works like The Brendan Voyage, The Pilgrim, and Granuaile. And while it may well scandalise music teachers, it will encourage others, who refuse to travel the usual hard road of discipline required of most musicians. But Shaun Davey would be the first to sound the warning that his route to musical success isn't necessarily the easy route to follow. Talent is one thing; the will and the drive to succeed is another; and he has both, in strong combination.
Shaun Davey was brought up on the southern shore of Belfast Lough near Cultra on the outskirts of Belfast. "An interesting place, and I watched the ships go up and down every day. My father worked in a bank and was transferred to Dublin. I finished school in Belfast and then joined the family in Dublin. And I've been here more or less ever since. What sort of music did he hear growing up?" There was a record collection which was the key. I mean, there was a mixture of classical music, Chopin and Beethoven, and Gershwin, and some dance music. So I listened to that as a boy. And then I grew up in the sixties when there was a revolution in pop music. I enjoyed listening to a lot of the rhythm and blues that came in and was playing on the radio and was quiet accessible in Belfast. And Van Morrison was about a year or two older than me, so I witnessed the development of his band called 'Them' at the time.
When he came to Dublin he was taken to hear traditional music for the first time. "Finbar Furey was the first person I heard playing the uilleann pipes, and I remember sitting in this room at the top of the building in Trinity where I was studying, and Finbar and his brother were playing. And I just remember being so incredibly moved by something that I knew I didn't understand. I didn't know anything about this traditional music. The sound was new, and yet the actual notes I felt I understood, and the form, too, very strongly, and in an intuitive way"
What had he planned to do after his secondary education? "Well, I thought I was going to be a painter for two years, so I held off going to university, but I eventually crept in and came out six years later with an MA in history of Art," A subject he taught in Trinity and at the College of Art for a couple of years before finding a way of earning a living through music.
The seventies were an exciting time in traditional music and Shaun began meeting more and more of the people in the front line of its development. "By the time I woke up (to traditional music), Sean O'Riada had died. The Chieftains were carrying on. I even remember meeting with Sean O'Se and working with him on one occasion. Planxty were going strong, traditional music was becoming popular, and I suppose glamorous in many ways. But it was glamorous because it was becoming a very powerful voice indeed."
The route he traveled towards this goal of becoming a composer of a unique form of Irish concert works was as unorthodox as that of his early years. "The reason I was able to leave teaching and work in music was simply because I was able to work at providing music for advertisements. So I spent years doing that. And during the course of that, the goals I set myself were to develop as much musically as I could within that framework, and to learn as much as I could and part of that was to learn notation. And one other thing there was a great need to be tuneful; and even within thirty seconds, a tune can have a beginning, middle, and an end. And if ever the history of jingles comes to be written, the best jingles will be found to have exactly that, a beginning, middle, and an end. Just like any piece of music."
And how did Shaun come to write The Brendan Voyage, his first concert work? It came about, he said, because he wanted to write a piece of music based on real experience, specifically Tim Severin's crossing the Atlantic in a leather-skin boat. "I wanted in that piece to explore my understanding of the uilleann pipes, and my understanding of the orchestra, and put the two together in a way that had not been done before. And I also wanted to write a piece of music that was performable… I was trying to make it up as I went along, and the fundamental difficulty was how to carry a whole tract of music in my head and write it all down before I either became totally exhausted or forgot it. That was the discipline.
It was during these years that Shaun developed a musical relationship with Rita Connolly and Liam O'Flynn. "Liam is the lynch pin of my career in the sense that when I want to write music for the uilleann pipes I went to him, because I knew him from Planxty, and admired his playing a lot. And if he said no, he didn't want to pursue the idea, I probably would never have tried to write The Brendan Voyage. The fact is he said yes, and we've remained collaborators ever since. I met Rita as a session singer back in 1977, I think, and she first sang songs for me in The Pilgrim which was written and performed for the first time in 1983. She had three songs in that, so many people said to me, why aren't you writing more songs for Rita Connolly? So, two years later I wrote the music for Granuaile for her"
Two other musicians Shaun admires are Liam O Maonlai and Carlos Nunez, both of whom appeared in the recent performance of his revised working of The Pilgrim, in Blanchardstown . I admire Liam O Maonlai because, apart from the fact that he is a great singer, he is in my view one of the greatest singers of songs in the Irish language. He produces something unique through the language when he sings. And again, as with my reaction on hearing the uilleann pipes for the first time, alas and unfortunately, I am not an Irish speaker because it wasn't provided in the education I received. But I recognise it intuitively as being a great and an astonishingly fine language. And I admire it and love the sound of it."I was surprised to hear Shaun say that far from being a relatively recent arrival on the Irish music scene, Carlos Nunez, the great Spanish piper, played in the first performance of The Pilgrim when he was a boy of eleven. "He's now a superstar in Spain, and of course the world." Shaun points out. But lest there be any doubts about who he admires most of all, he adds with emphasis: "Rita Connolly, now my wife, is my favourite singer." Shaun Davey has written the music for many successful films and TV series, and towards the end of our conversation, when I asked how that part of his work was progressing, he responded with startling candour: "Film and television offers have dried up." But then he added that his work for the theatre continues to thrive. "I wrote the music for a show running on Broadway, James Joyce's, The Dead. That play won't run forever, so I am open to offers!"
Shaun Davey has received a People of the Year award for his contribution to Irish culture, an Ivor Novello Award for his score for The Hanging Gale, an Ivor nomination for his music for Twelfth Night, two BAFTA nominations (The Hanging Gale and Ballykissangel) and, recently, a Tric Award for Best UK TV Theme (Ballykissangel), Is there anybody out there listening.
Reproduced by kind permission of the Irish Music magazine