Raymond Deane



Interview with Brian Smith, an Irish musician and researcher based in Berlin (November 2012)

  Firstly, many thanks for taking the time to participate with this interview, I'm very glad you were one of the first people to get on board with it.

The people who know you already are familiar with either your music or your political activity in recent years. Are you spending more time on politically-oriented activities than music?


Not at all. My default position in life is that of composer, an activity that isn’t confined to sitting at the piano or computer.


How did your involvement with founding the Irish Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (IPSC) come about?


I was a member of the East Timor Ireland Solidarity Campaign which was (famously) run by Tom Hyland. When Ariel Sharon was elected prime minister of Israel in 2001 and as the East Timor issue neared some kind of resolution, Tom felt that it would be a good idea to do something similar for Palestine. I was one of the co-founders of the IPSC, and when Tom gave up its chairmanship I was elected (in absentia!) to the chair, a position I held until 2005.


The IPSC calls for mindfulness of Irish artists, filmmakers and cultural workers to reflect deeply on "all cooperation with state-sponsored Israeli cultural events and institutions". What impact has this had so far?


Your phrasing is more reminiscent of the motion Margaretta Darcy and I presented at the Aosdána General Assembly in 2007, and that was accepted after a bruising and, frankly, rather disgusting “debate”. The IPSC calls for more than “mindfulness”: we call for a comprehensive boycott of the state of Israel, including a cultural boycott. With that in mind, in August 2012 I instituted a “pledge” whereby artists state they will accept no invitations to Israel from state-sponsored cultural institutions. At present that pledge has 230 signatories, and as a national initiative it remains unique in the world and is seen as an example to emulate (eventually).


You lived in Berlin for a time, where I've been living for the past three years, what are your experiences and impressions of the city?


I lived there in 1978/9, a decade before the fall of the Wall. My experiences there were rather disastrous, but that was more my fault than Berlin’s! I’ve been back twice since then, and while the city has changed considerably it still isn’t really “my kind of town” – I’m fonder of Paris and New York. Berlin sprawls too much, its constituent parts have too little communication with each other, there are too many soulless spaghetti junctions… That said, a lot of people I respect swear by Berlin, and were I to spend some time there I might change my perspective. Meanwhile, however, I’ve forsaken Prussia for Bavaria, so that’s an added problem!


On the topic of German and Irish culture, the Irish author Hugo Hamilton explores the largely positive relationship between Irish and German culture in very intimate and insightful ways. Are you familiar with Hamilton's work and do you have any opinion on the similarities and cultural bonding of German and Irish culture?


I’ve read a number of Hugo Hamilton’s books. I really have no feeling for any “cultural bonding” between today’s German culture, whatever that is, and Ireland’s. I spend a lot of time in Germany, but the only German culture I really engage with is that of the past. I don’t have any sense of affinity with what I know of contemporary German music, literature or visual arts (except for the films of Herzog, perhaps), and German foreign politicy – in particular the disastrous involvement in Afghanistan and the unconditional support for Israel – is an abomination. As far as I’m concerned, therefore, there’s nothing with which to “bond culturally”. I don’t actually know what you mean by “the largely positive relationship between Irish and German culture” – whether that of the past or present, I see very little knowledge of German culture in Ireland.


How was your experience studying in Cologne with Stockhausen?


It’s debatable that I was ever really a “Stockhausen student”, which would have entailed becoming a kind of apprentice – something I was too lazy to do. Prior to my short period with him, I practically idolised him; afterwards, I hardly listened to his music for 20 years or so. Now, I’ve reverted to listening to him and am trying to assimilate something of what he did in latter years. Frankly, during my Cologne and Berlin periods (and prior to that, in Basel) I was only a nominal student, preferring to spend my time doing less profitable things.


While preparing these questions, I noticed while comparing the nationalities we would discuss, walls seem to separate, or have separated, the societies contained within them. Do you have an insight on the connection between the walls in Palestine, Berlin and Northern Ireland?


All such Walls are a mistake. The desire to shut out and the desire to shut in are indistinguishable. Zionist Israelis point to the “peace walls” in Northern Ireland as though they constituted some kind of justification for their own Wall (which is illegal under international law) – but they testify to the partial failure of a peace process, not to its success.


It seems at the moment, many artists are working in fractured groups, which is maybe symptomatic of contemporary society in general, where people are inundated with choice and maybe overrun and saturated with media. How important is the unity and focus of a movement, 'scene' or common goal for creative people and have you ever felt part of such a movement past or present?


I can imagine that at revolutionary periods – like the early and mid twentieth century – such unity and focus was an extraordinarily potent and productive thing. In a time like ours, it’s possible that such “movements” might be consoling for artists, a kind of communal “huddling together”. But alas, when it happens I feel it’s usually counter-productive and merely leads to an incestuous swapping of new conventions. I’ve never felt part of an artistic movement in a narrow sense –in the early 70s the composers who set up the Association of Young Irish Composers worked together to arrange performances of their music, but had nothing in common stylistically – but politically I feel I’m part of a diffuse movement of dissent symbolised by such organisations as the IPSC, the Irish Anti-War Movement, and the United Left Alliance.


The only electroacoustic piece of yours I'm aware of is Passage Work from 2001. How did you find working with electronics in this piece and is it something you would consider playing with again?


On Passage Work I collaborated with the excellent Jurgen Simpson. In fact I notated the electronic part on 8 staves, using the Finale computer notation programme. Afterwards Jurgen and I worked together in his studio on finding the sounds corresponding to what I heard in my head, and which I sketchily described in the score. I recall that one recurrent percussive sound was causing us a lot of headaches: no available sample corresponded to what I had in my head. Then Jurgen went into his back garden, got two small stones, struck them together, and recorded the sound – and that’s what went into the final mix. I was very fortunate that Jurgen had such a capacity for understanding what I was after and realising it – but ultimately this isn’t the best way to work. I keep threatening to invest in the necessary gizmos to “go electronic”, but given that I can barely change a light-bulb I’ve always drawn back at the last moment.


Passage Work references the incredibly tragic death of Walter Benjamin, I often wonder how he would think of the reproduction of digital art in recent years. Do you think the 'aura' of handmade art he spoke of is completely dead in digital media?


That’s such a gigantic question! Before I attempt an answer, I must add that I never use the word “tragic” in such contexts, as it tends to replace human (political) agency with fatality. Admittedly there was a sense of fatality about much of what happened to Benjamin throughout his life, but it’s reductionist and depoliticising to interpret his death in this way. Now, I don’t actually believe that the auratic aspect of art is linked to any particular medium or type of medium, but rather to the pratice of the individual artist concerned. I don’t think Benjamin was necessarily correct in assuming that mechanical reproduction (what he actually wrote about was “reproducibility”, but when he translated his own famous essay on the subject into French he used the word “reproduction” – very confusing) eliminated the aura, nor that the auratic character of (some) art was necessarily a regressive thing. But these are philosophical issues that ultimately exceed my competence, although I wrestle with them a great deal!


I noticed when listening to Passage Work that there were similarities to Seachanges in terms of the voicing and some performance techniques of the wind instruments. Is there a connection between the pieces?


Ummm… I’d need to know exactly what you’re referring to. The pieces are very, very different – but in that sense all my pieces are different from one another, while bearing family resemblances, so it makes sense that there would be some links. Seachanges could also be said to have a political dimension, in that the playful stance towards death that is part of its concept, a stance that I encountered most spectacularly in Mexico, is very much a survival mechanism in impoverished and oppressed regions. Passage Work is anything but playful.


Seachanges has been on the Irish Leaving Certificate music curriculum for a number of years, I remember when encountering it first it was a very divisive piece, hugely personally inspiring and thought-provoking, but also shocking for students who had no prior exposure to music of this style. How have your experiences with your audience changed since your work was introduced directly to young generations?


I suppose a larger number of Irish people than would usually be the case have become familiar with my name since Seachanges went on the curriculum. Indeed this forced me to go ex directory, as for a time I was getting abusive phone-calls from drunken Leaving Cert students in the middle of the night! I’ve had some rather remarkable experiences of encountering people who’d studied the piece; the most moving was a young woman who approached me at a poetry reading in Paris and said she had become a musicologist specialising in modern music as a direct result of Seachanges; the most amusing and the most recent was a young man behind the counter in a Dublin DVD outlet who asked me if I ever got mistaken for the composer of the same name, and who simply refused to accept that I might be the same person. As for “divisive” and “thought-provoking”, in my visits to numerous schools around the country talking about the piece I’ve actually been very shocked by the conservatism of the majority of students (I often told them that their attitude towards my music reminded me of my parents’ attitude towards the pop music I wanted to listen to as a kid), and, frankly, the lack of musical education of so many of their teachers. I was shocked also by the purely mechanistic nature of the questions on the paper the first time it featured in the Leaving Cert, and by the almost contemptuous attitude of the Department of Education when I had the temerity to suggest to them that maybe a dimension of “musical appreciation” might be introduced. Nonetheless, I believe that did indeed happen – so, once again, it’s always imperative to intervene in matters of this sort – indeed it’s a political imperative. Unfortunately, merely including Seachanges or Gerald Barry’s piece on the syllabus is no substitute for a root-and-branch revision of the whole (non-)system of musical education in this country. At present I hardly imagine this will be seen as a priority in government circles.