This paper was presented by Dr Irene Lucchitti of the University of Wollongong at the 2017 conference of the International Association for the Study of Irish Literatures at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
Ireland’s rich literary heritage and cultural reputation have long been enhanced by the work of musicians such as Pierce Turner. For many decades Turner has pursued a musical career, producing a number of critically acclaimed albums supported by a lengthy, story-filled correspondence with his audience. His work is musical, literary and performative and, in theme, performance and relationship with audience, shows clear links to the Irish oral tradition.
Turner’s engagement with music dates from his childhood days when he sang in the church choir and played in the Confraternity Brass and Reed Band of his native Wexford. The sacred music he encountered in these formative years, including Gregorian chant, remains a potent influence, as does the music of 17th century blind harpist and composer, Turlough O’Carolan, and that of Seán Ó Ríada, whose mid- 20th century work contributed to the successful revival of Irish traditional music. His tastes broadened in his teenage years to include all kinds of contemporary music. He enjoyed the music of contemporary Irish bands Emmet Spiceland and Tir Na Nog, as well as the music of The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, The Byrds, The Lovin’ Spoonful and The Who, among others that he encountered while working in his mother’s record store. Later influences would include jazz and techno, classical music and choral harmony.
Critics see him as a creator of music that is ‘complex and accessible’ and as a ‘consummate lyricist’. These skills coupled with his ability to tell a good story well have made him a writer’s writer – his literary fans include Val McDermid, Eoin Colfer, Billy Roche, Colum McCann, Joseph O’Connor, Kevin Barry and Liam Fay. Screen writer and film director, Jim Sheridan, credits him with awakening him from a creative ennui and stimulating a renewed interest in things Irish, leading to the creation of My Left Foot.
His album ‘3 Minute World’ was voted one of the top 100 Irish albums of all time in nationwide polls and his song ‘Wicklow Hills’ as one of the top 25 Irish songs. His music has featured in several films and television shows and he has written scores for several movies, most recently ‘Emerald City’. He has been the recipient of many awards, including Hot Press Awards as Maverick of the Year and as Irish Solo Performer of the Year. The Irish Times described him as one of the most important artists of the last several decades. Career highlights include his performance of his “Yogi with a Broken Heart” on stage with avant-garde American composer, Philip Glass, at Carnegie Hall in 2010 and the Wexford celebration of the Mass he composed for Ireland’s The Gathering of 2013.
In addition to his music, he has also created a literary artefact that takes the form of a lengthy correspondence with his audience, his ‘Pierce’s Newsletters’ and his current blog, ‘Monday Morning Milk’. Although both sets of writing were produced episodically over many years, and although they function in part to publicise upcoming events, their subject matter, as well as the cohesion and balance one finds in them, endows them with a significant degree of artistic integrity. They contain material that is sometimes autobiographical, sometimes philosophical, often funny and occasionally sad. Whatever their subject, the pieces are always entertaining and written with great competence and style.
The two bodies of writing are held together by a variety of literary devices including a narrative structure that see-saws back and forth between Wexford and Manhattan, offering autobiographical tales and observations of life and culture in both places. Occasionally, for the sake of added colour and amusement, he might enhance a tale with a textual rendition of the distinct accents of each place.
A recurring cast of characters, including Turner’s wife, Clare, his parents, Jem and Mollie, even their cats, adds another layer of cohesion to the texts. Elton John is mentioned now and then, usually in regard to questions about the impact of fame on artistic independence. Philip Glass appears several times, as an artistic authority and as a touchstone of innovative creativity. David Bowie also makes several appearances in the text – as an elusive and unseen guest at some of Turner’s gigs and, after Bowie’s death, as a prompt to reflection on the question of mortality that colours Turner’s texts, lyrics and music.
His preoccupation with this theme often takes the form of urging his reader to slow down, to live deliberately, to stop racing headlong towards his tombstone. His related concern with the transitory nature of life, of relationship and of community, also leaves its mark. As a Wexford man living in Manhattan, and as a philosopher, he also, naturally, concerns himself with the fluid nature of identity, be it Irish, American, or simply human. Ruminations on his craft also run through his texts: his ‘1,000%’ commitment to it, his ambition, his lack of ambition, his periods of creative indolence, the corrosive effects of fame, the measure of success, the contest between artistic ambition and financial reward, and the joys and perils of the performing life.
As he explores his themes and the various lives he lives – his Irish life, his American life, his creative life, his performing life, his busy life, his lazy life – we see that they are all lived in relationship and dialogue with his readers. As the letters proceed, he addresses them, his ‘sausages’, ‘his sausage pudding pies’, in ever funnier, ever more extravagant terms of endearment, sometimes apologising for not writing, sometimes reproaching them for not writing back, and often expressing his love and need of them. ‘I hope you are out there, you never write any more, you must be so busy, and here I am loving you more than sushi!’ he writes, and later, more earnestly perhaps, ’Without you, I am toast.’
His audience is relatively small but highly valued. It is, he says, the kind of audience that musicians crave. He sees his career as ‘a collaborative effort’ between himself and the audience, and believes that it is the receptivity of his audience that endows his music with whatever beauty it might have. His relationship with his audience is personal and often expressed humorously – ‘please come to the gig, I need your company,’ he writes on one occasion; ‘please say something, squawk or squeal, inspire me, humour me,’ he writes on another. But it is also heartfelt: the illness and death of a member of his audience, moves him very personally. He acknowledges her suffering and death in his newsletter, and responds to it artistically by composing a piece of music in her honour.
Most of all, the letters and blogs are held together by a highly idiosyncratic narrative voice. Often funny, self-deprecatory, casual and intimate, and often couched as letters from an old friend, they offer a portrait of Turner, his life, his people and his art that is built up layer by layer. There are numerous highly crafted pieces among them, some of which would not be out of place in an anthology of short stories. Several of his New York stories come to mind. First is a cunning piece announcing an upcoming gig at Joe’s Pub dressed up as a story about the little apple blossom tree that stands outside his apartment in Manhattan. Something of a coquette, her beauty matches that of Hopper’s ‘Lady in a Summer Dress’. She mesmerises, she soothes, she coos in his ear, allowing him to work, all the while eliciting the details of the gig. Another New York story, ‘Henry and Delores’, meditates on the mysteries of friendship, the pleasure in its arrival and the lingering mystery and sadness of its going.
Wexford stories of note include ‘My Father Was a Fireman’ which offers poignant reminiscences of childhood, of his parents, and of performing with the Brass and Reed Band. He remembers the Band’s involvement in all the religious celebrations of the year, their procession through the town and their audience, his first audience, made up of neighbours standing in their doorways, holding candles in the dusk, waiting for the Band to pass by. In another story, ‘Leaving on a Jet-Plane’, the title of which intimates something of the musical life he is seeking, he shares his own experience of emigration. A personal story and a familiar ‘Irish’ story at one and the same time, his story of the train trip from Fishguard is reminiscent of Muiris O Suilleabhain’s account of his departure from the Blaskets and from Dingle. But this story, this version of the Irish story of leaving, is filled with sounds – the percussive rhythm of the train on the tracks, the absence of female voices, the low murmuring of male voices, their sotto voce long confessional conjuring the requiem he will write one day. It is an account of emigration that could only have been written by a musician.
Interesting and significant though this writing is, Turner is best known for his music. His musical composition reflects the depth and breadth of his diverse musical experience and taste. He possesses a strong and beautiful voice that ‘drips emotion’, a voice that makes him sound, according to Joseph O’Connor, ‘like a choirboy on acid’. While his voice is the perfect vehicle for the expression of the sacred and the sublime, somehow it is also the perfect medium for the expression of the romantic, the forlorn, the silly and even for the carping venality of small town gossip.
His innovative approach to his craft is not confined to the elements of composition, but extends also to his creative use of performance space. He has performed in spaces both intimate and grand, in cathedrals, pubs and concert halls, in the parlours of private homes, in his own home on occasion, and in concerts delivered live online. Whatever his venue, whatever his medium, he creates an environment that is interactive and dialogic.
Although his music is instantly recognisable, there is no such thing as a typical Turner song, as a brief sample will illustrate. Wicklow Hills is an exuberant, energetic escape song. Life in a Day offers a gentle meditation on the little joys and moments of life in his town, his thoughtful meanderings turning him into a little Wexford Bloom. Musha God Help Her shows the downside of small town life, perfectly ventriloquising the small town gossip, its growing raucousness reflecting the gleeful crescendo of a scandal spreading. All Messed Up gives voice to the powerful emotional dislocation that follows the end of love. Equally at home covering St Thomas Aquinas’ Tantum Ergo and Nirvana’s Lithium, he is perhaps uniquely equipped to compose a song that seamlessly integrates elements of Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side with a rousing rendition of the old hymn, Faith of Our Fathers.
He confides that he loves music and he loves entertaining people. His art is always dialogic. He is always aware of the other that he is addressing. He also loves language and uses it playfully, expressing his delight in word-craft with the mantra – why use two words when ten will do? These three aspects of his craft combine to create something unique. In combination, they reflect Turner’s identity as a latter-day shanachie, a modern-day story-teller, an heir to the Irish oral tradition.
Recognising this himself, he explains his place in the tradition in Colin Murnane’s film ‘the Song for the Year’. He points out that his parlour gigs, which seem so innovative today, are a very old idea. ‘Travelling musicians did it in the 17th and 18th centuries, and perhaps even earlier, he says. ‘[…] songs and stories were all they had. People would get up and sing a song in a room full of people who would appreciate it’. This, put simply, is what Turner continues to do today.
Lawrence Mackin, reviewer from The Irish Times, also implies a place in the tradition for Turner in his review of a gig he had attended, writing that ‘the set was exciting stuff with plenty of humour and skill and a real traditional feel, in that the audience wasn’t so much listening to a series of songs as being told a long story, with all the different elements interlinking along the way through song, spoken word and even the few odd shapes that Turner was throwing on stage’.
We also find many echoes or shadows of the old tradition in his writing – a philosophical response to weather perhaps, or a scene from nature motivating a reminiscence, a story about the old days and ways that imply comparison with life today, or autobiographical snippets interwoven through his performance – all customary elements of the oral traditions through which Ireland expressed herself for hundreds of years. Similarly, in his music, we hear echoes from down the ages – plainchant, sacred music, modern popular music, jazz, sometimes even in the same song.
It is however his relationship with his audience that is perhaps the surest marker of his place in the tradition. His dialogic performance in congenial, hospitable settings reflects the customary practices of the oral tradition. Acutely aware of the audience’s important role in his musical composition and performance, Turner nurtures a symbiotic relationship with his audience, and does so to great effect. Liam Fay once remarked that Turner’s grip on his audience is so tight he leaves fingerprints.
The endlessness of tradition and Turner’s place within it is fully declared in ‘The Song for the Year’, a song narrated by a bird who must each year create a unique song with which to woo a partner. The bird is a lover, a poet, a musician. He composes and performs with his very specific audience in mind. Only his audience can give it meaning.
Both timeless and ephemeral, the song is linked to tradition in purpose, word and melody. The song the bird is calling out is ‘an ancient song’; it is a gift to him ‘from memory’, from time immemorial. It is mystical – he opens his mouth ‘and a song comes out’. It comes from him and from beyond him. Its reach fills the earth. Although it is the urge to renew that drives the bird’s composition and performance, the elements of plainchant link it to the past and to tradition, while the sounds of the organ overlay it with a quasi-religious, philosophical layer. Behind the vocals, behind the main melody, we hear the sounds of a bird filled forest canopy. The song ends with plainchant intonation of the mantra to ‘sing your song’.
An expression of tradition incarnate, this is a mystical song that reflects the cycle of life. It is a hauntingly beautiful song. Its lovely harmonies and shifts between minor and major keys signal the bird’s shifts in emotions and offer a musical rendition of the tension between enacting tradition and achieving renewal, between the self that is called upon each spring to create a new song and the self that, in so doing, conforms to the age-old practices of its species. The bird’s forest home becomes a cathedral of the bush, a place where age-old customs are endlessly repeated and refreshed in performance, where the newest song is old and the oldest song is new.
But this is also a mystical song about the life of an artist, compelled always to create something new yet touched always by what has gone before. Like the bird, Turner calls out his unique songs, ancient and modern, his gift from memory, to woo his audience. In obedience to his own mantra, to ‘sing [your] song’, he opens his mouth and his dreams come out. His art, gifted to him by those who went before, is a gift to those who hear him and to those who will follow.