Cormac Larkin - The Sunday Tribune Article " Everybody starts out as a nobody" - 23/11/08
I've been meaning to write about this article for a few weeks, it caught my eye and I felt that there were some extremely astute observations made, though not all particularly revealing. I felt compelled to add my own two cents worth on some of Larkin's own observations, particularly since the subject is that of "fame, obscurity, creativity and new music".
"it is important never to forget where famous musicians come from. It's a place called obscurity. You may not have heard of it, but it is a country all too familiar if you play challenging creative music for a living."
In a society that is preoccupied with fame, music is just one of the art forms to suffer. More and more young people do not understand the notion of "slaving away for years in obscurity" and this is exactly what Larkin talks about - that obscurity is practically a given if one decides to devote their life to music making, irrespective of ability or genre. He also mentions the words "challenging, creative music". This means that one doesn't sing karaoke style cover versions of hackneyed songs (X Factor, All Ireland Talent Show, Your a Star wannabes take note), nor does one spend hours and hours slaving away at classical repertoire just so it can be performed louder and faster than those great composers and musicians who have sacrificed all for the sake of their art. Challenging, creative music does not necessarily mean the pretentious garbage that so many young composers are creating simply because they have too much spare time, and thousands of Euros worth of musical/electronic equipment (generously funded by their parents).
For music to challenge, it must question the conventions of its time, and yet be at the most basic level authentic and pure. For music to be creative, it needs to be born out of something new - a new idea, a new interpretation, a new perspective, and this can take the form of a complex virtuoso piece, or the simplest folk melody. Having an asymmetrical haircut and painting a violin bright red does not make the music "challenging and creative" - it simply implies that the performer feels the need to overcompensate for the actual lack of both those things.
"Everyone starts out as a nobody, and most good musicians spend years in relative obscurity honing their craft before they become well known."
This is generally true, with a few exceptions. In classical music, it is also possible to become well known (whatever that means for each individual) simply by mingling in the right circles, and knowing the right people. Of course, this method of "overnight fame" is never the norm, but it has flourished for decades. As with any art form, longetivity is rarely guaranteed if one chooses the quickest, easiest option , and in any case, is being "well known" even worth while in the long run? Being well known is also relatively easy given the world we live in - the internet revolution means that anyone, irrespective of talent/ability can become "well known" and/or achieve fame and notoriety thanks to YouTube, facebook, MySpace, bebo and the like! But yes, as Larkin writes, most "good musicians" would have spent years in relative obscurity, playing small pubs, bars, town halls, churches before they hit the big-time. This is probably more accurate in other genres such as folk, rock and roll, pop and perhaps even jazz.
"For a scene to happen, there needs to be a number of essential conditions. Musicians, obviously, are a prerequisite. And we've got plenty of those. Sympathetic venues which are able to take risks with new music are essential, and well, we've not got too many of those, but enough to be getting on with. Promoters and agents who understand the artistic process and can channel funds from government to those that will benefit most are crucial, and we have a couple of those. But perhaps most important of all, a new music scene needs an audience. Without people to hear the sounds, musicians are singing into a void, the publicans are staring at empty seats, and the government is looking elsewhere to earn its brownie points for supporting the arts. So never think that the music scene is happening without you. It is informed, open-minded listeners that ultimately make the scene. "
Larkin writes that for a "musical revolution" of sorts, for a revival, a new music scene - whatever you may call it, musicians, venues, promoters, agents and the government all play their part. But the audience is the most important. Obviously, this is a very well put argument, and makes complete sense. However, I disagree with the fact that the "audience" is the most important of all - call me an eternal optimist, but unlike the majority of people in the arts circles in this country, I think the audience are always ready and willing. They are always there. I feel it’s the other elements that Cormac Larkin talks about - promoters, agents, venues, government funding, these get in the way of actually bringing new music to an audience. I've seen this through my own radio program - it may not be on a mainstream national radio station, and yet the number of people who listen each week, download podcasts, write to the program, send text messages proves that there is an audience out there, for new music. For "creative, challenging music". Unfortunately, venues and promoters are not always willing to take chances with obscure musicians, young composers, or music that doesn't fall under the bland, mediocre category that seems to be everywhere of late. So while there are some fantastic live acts, musicians, artists out there, they never experience a massive influx of bookings, or tour dates, simply because those who call the shots choose to adopt a cautionary, if somewhat silly, approach. With government funding, it is never quite so simple. Often, musicians, bands and artists need to fulfil a long list of prerequisites, and submit so much supporting material, that it is no wonder all their time and money is spent on this, when they should be rehearsing, playing, composing, collaborating. Also, with most funding, the "bigwigs" of each genre are the ones that usually receive grants, which means we are constantly exposed to the same people (again, in classical music this is even more predominant) playing the same music! What chance do young bands, musicians, performers, composers stand if they are compared to veteran performers in their field. Obviously, this sounds like a very pessimistic, doom and gloom view, and obviously there are some musicians and composers that get lucky with funding. But looking at statistics, there are still far more “already well known" performers/musicians who get the benefit of funding than not. Promoters and Venues need to take a far more active role in making things happen - they do, after all, reap the rewards, and its about time they actually did more work to justify the earnings. Audiences want to listen to new music, they want to be educated, challenged, excited, and inspired.
Larkin then goes on to discuss the work of the Improvised Music Company, and their upcoming concerts. The Improvised Music Company is clearly doing incredible work to bring new music to audiences here. It’s somewhat puzzling, though, as to why the image of Cora Venus Lunny, with a violin between her legs, was used to illustrate this article. The article talks about obscurity, the need for new music, and the picture of a young musician who is clearly incredibly skilled, but who is also the daughter of one of Ireland's most legendary musicians, Donal Lunny (something that certainly wouldn't have done Cora any harm in terms of her music career) is contradictory to what the whole point of the article " Everybody starts out as a nobody" actually is. Cora hasn't started out as a nobody, and there are so many young violinists, even from that line up of the Improvised Music Company gigs that were mentioned, that are equally talented, and extremely skilled, and that could have illustrated the article far better. Seán Óg, Colm O'Hora, Daragh Kelly, Judith Mok, Lauren Kinsella are all infinitely more skilled, and certainly deserve to be even more "well known" than Cora Venus Lunny, and would have benefitted from the exposure a photo in a Sunday Newspaper would have provided, no doubt! A small gripe, in what was otherwise a very stimulating, concise and informative article. At least journalism that has the ability to make the reader think and question is worth writing about, for that I thank the author Cormac Larkin, and it is for the same reason I felt the need to share my own opinion, which in turn will invoke even more thought and response, I hope! Karishmeh Felfeli