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Tuesday, December 17, 2019

My Mother, Music and Mortality

(My mother with her beloved Bobby)

Professional musicians are generally pragmatic. We get on with things, we do what we do because, well....that's what we do. In the creative music world you often have to deal with two conflicting requirements - being creative and 'doing the gig'. Sometimes the circumstances of the gig, (poor sound, long travel, less than ideal playing conditions etc.), makes being creative a challenge. But the mantra of 'the show must go on', is still strongly embedded in the psyche of musicians and we generally get on with it, and, in the creative music world, try and keep the creativity alive in all circumstances.

Recently I came face to face with a challenge which was related to the one I've described above, but which was at the same time very different, more fundamental, and one that brought the whole question of the meaning of music, and its place in our lives into sharp relief.

A series of circumstances arose in which myself, and my son Chris, had to make a decision whether to play a concert or not, knowing that my mother, (and of course, his grandmother), was slipping away from this world, and may well have left it by the time we finished.

My Mother

My mother May Guilfoyle (née Mullarkey), passed away in April of this year. She was a great age, in her early 90s, and up to the very last years of her life had been in generally good health. She had managed to live in her own home up to her late 80s, and had then moved to a retirement home, close to her own home, where she was relatively happy.

Her life had been very challenging in many ways, especially in the first half of it. At age twelve, at the beginning of the WWII, her mother had died, leaving her in loco parentis to her three younger brothers, forcing her to grow up very quickly and take on responsibilities that no twelve year old should have to. She met my father in the mid-1950s and settled down and raised a large family, (eight children!), as was quite common in that Irish catholic era.

My father became ill in his mid-forties, couldn't work for a couple of years, and passed away, leaving my mother with eight children, ranging from university to primary school age, to look after. This she did with the toughness, pragmatism, and stoicism which was such a feature of her personality, and doubtless forged through her childhood experience of adversity. Having found herself bereft of her mother at a young age, and then bereft of her husband in middle-age, my mother just got on with it and did what needed to be done. She was an extraordinary woman in so many ways.

(My mother in her garden, which was her pride and joy)

After this second hammer blow, things slowly got better for her for various reasons  - she had more income coming in, her children gradually starting leaving home and getting jobs etc. So she found herself, for the first time in her life, being able to do what she wanted to do rather than what she had to do. The things she loved were gardening, travelling, and going to classical music concerts, (and latterly, the love of a rescue dog called Bobby), and the second half of her life featured these pursuits, as well as being closely involved in the family lives of her children.

The Concert

(The Hugh Lane Gallery)

The concert came up at relatively short notice, in the lovely Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin. They've run a great series of free 'Sundays at Noon' concerts there for over twenty five years, and I've played them often. Usually I will write a new piece to be performed there to mark the occasion. In this instance I was asked in March would I like to perform there in April, as a previously scheduled performer had cancelled. I love to play there so I agreed, and decided, despite the short notice, to write a new piece. The room lends itself to small chamber-like music, so I decided to use a trio of myself on bass, my son Chris on guitar and the improvising contemporary pianist Izumi Kimura. I planned on having the new piece performed, and have the rest of the concert feature improvisations by all three of us. I managed to find some time free at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre and went there in early March for five days and started on the piece.

The Piece - Modus Operandi/Modus Vivendi

As I drove to the Centre, I admit I had no idea of what I was going to write, other than that I would write it for electric guitar and piano. But on the car radio I heard someone use the phrase 'Modus Operandi', and it's always been a phrase I've liked - something about the sound of it. And I began to think about whether there were other Latin phrases along the same lines and the only one I could think of was 'Modus Vivendi'. And it struck me that these two phrases, which can roughly be translated as ways of working, and ways of living, could provide fertile ground for a piece.

So often our lives are divided into doing the work we have to do, and, when we can, doing the things we want to do. I set out to try and represent that dichotomy in the piece with a very busy, active, minimalistic theme which represented the Modus Operandi aspects of life, and richer more traditionally melodic Brazilian-influenced passages which represented the happier Modus Vivendi moments. I juggled these over the course of what became a twenty minute piece, and was relatively happy with how it turned out.

The piece went into rehearsal, and I looked forward to the concert, however the circumstances under which the concert would take place were to change very suddenly and we were confronted with a choice which asked many questions regarding music and its ultimate meaning in our lives.

End of Life....

In the week preceding the Sunday concert, my mother had become unwell, and on the Thursday of that week we were told that the doctor had said she was at the 'end of life' stage. It was quite shocking how quickly this had arrived, but it became clear that the doctor was right, and by Friday it was evident that it would be a very short time before she left us. The doctor had said it was impossible to predict how long this last phase would take, it could be hours or days.

Any family who has gone through this will probably be familiar with combination of shock and grief, and yet the thinking about the practicalities of the funeral etc. are also present. With my mother hovering on the edge of life, a decision had to be made regarding the concert which was to take place on Sunday.

Mortality, Music and Its Meaning For Us

The obvious thing to do with the concert was to get someone else to do it. I certainly know enough musicians in Dublin, some of whom could have stepped into the breach at short notice, to cover the concert. 'The show must go on' mentality was never a consideration in the thought processes that ultimately led to our decision. The show could have gone on without us.

Chris and I discussed what we should do, and by Saturday had decided that we would play the concert, come what may. This wasn't an easy decision to make and involved thinking about many different aspects of the situation, and ultimately of life and death, and what being a creative musician actually means and why we are involved with it.

(Chris performing at the concert)

Principally our discussions centred around the reasons why we should play the concert or why we should not. My mother at this point was sleeping constantly and there being eight of us, plus extended family, several of us were always with her. So we knew she would never be alone, and we lived close by and could get to her bedside in minutes. The reasons why we felt we should play the concert revolved around the nature of creative music itself and why we are involved with it. But there was another aspect to it - the piece itself.

In writing the piece I had not necessarily associated the Modus Operandi/Modus Vivendi idea with my mother's life, but on thinking about it in these new circumstances, I realised that it could have been expressly written with her life in mind. The first half of her life, the first 45 years or so, contained huge amounts of Modus Operandi as she met the challenges of looking after her brothers, and then her children in very adverse circumstances. The second half, the second 45 years or so, was much better for her and she was able to do so much of the stuff she loved to do, for herself - the Modus Vivendi era if you like.

The realisation that the piece could have been designed to represent her life so well, combined with the fact that, for us, playing creative music is not only a profession, but is how we represent a lot of the things we intrinsically believe in, decided us on playing the concert. By playing this music for my mother, we felt we would get closer to honouring her in that moment than by any other means at our disposal.

(Chris and Izumi playing the piece)

We decided that if she passed before the concert we would dedicate the music to her memory, and if she was still with us when we played, we knew we would be playing for her. I decided that I would tell the audience the background to the concert, but only after we had finished playing. I wanted to publicly acknowledge her life and what playing the music had meant to us, but I wanted the audience to experience the music without me planting any specific interpretation regarding its context.

We began the concert with three solo improvisations, and then Modus Operandi/Modus Vivendi. The performance of the piece was really outstanding. It's a technically difficult piece for the players, and it would have been a very fine performance even under far less weighted circumstances. When it was finished, I stood up and told the audience the background to the performance and we got a very touching and warm response from them, several of whom spoke to me afterwards about how moved they'd been once made aware of the background.

(Giving the audience the background to the performance)

During the concert we did not know whether my mother was still with us, and when we finished we found she was still there. We drove to the retirement home and she had passed on a couple of minutes before we got there, surrounded by all my siblings and extended family.

Six months on from these events, I'm happy that we did the right thing by my mother and by ourselves. By being able to share this momentous occasion with the audience via music and then verbally, I feel we honoured my mother's life through the medium with which we have chosen to express ourselves. This a very powerful feeling. Playing creative music in today's society is not easy, a lot of the time you're really up against it in terms of recognition of what you do and the difficulty of making a living from it. But it's at times like these that the true power of music, and of what we do becomes evident

Modus Operandi/Modus Vivendi - The Performance

After all that background and description, here then is the piece itself - a good recording of the actual performance on the day in question. Although it wasn't originally written for my mother, I know I'll always think of her every time I hear it. I hope you enjoy it, and it has some meaning for you, in whatever way that manifests itself.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Evidence - Lulu's Back In Town

Recorded at Billy Byrne's in Kilkenny, Evidence is a trio dedicated to playing both the music of Thelonious Monk, and standards that he liked to play. This is one of the latter, "Lulu's Back in Town'.

Monk had some in-between tempos that are difficult to get right - they're what might be called 'bright medium', and are easy to rush. I think we locked into a nice Monk Tempo on this one!