The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age;
Dylan Thomas (18 Poems)
One of the first times that I remember becoming fully aware of the white-hot power of performance was when I was around fourteen years old. My father had heard of a classical percussionist called Evelyn Glennie. She was making waves as a soloist with orchestras around the world, part of new generation of musicians reinvigorating those elite halls with a younger and more dynamic energy.
He had been commissioned to write a mass called Missa Gadelica– The Gaelic Mass, and he wanted her to a central part of the music. She was intrigued, and accepted.
When I first saw her, I was instantly called to attention. She was of a slight, perceptive build, with a shock of wavy black hair. She seemed to be always leaning in, sniffing the air, antennae out. And the great rumor that preceded her was that she was profoundly deaf.
Evelyn went deaf as a child, but could lip-read like a whip, and it was said that she felt all the vibrations of the music through her body. She always played bare foot – a wild statement on the classical concert hall stage.
It was at the concert hall of the University of Limerick. My father was performing with the Irish Chamber Orchestra, and during that show he introduced Evelyn to perform a solo snare drum concerto.
A snare drum is a standard part of any drum kit. It has a chain link band underneath. When it’s hit, the metal band slaps off the lower drum skin making a sharp, tight, crack.
Evelyn came out onstage, in front of the whole orchestra, and stood barefoot before that one little drum on a stand before her. She just stood there as a whole new kind of silence fell over the hall till you could have heard a heart drop. And with two sticks in her hands, she went to work.
And the whole world stood still. For those twelve minutes, the only thing happening in the cosmos was unfolding there on that stage.
First she reels the whole hall in, tipping, teasing, skipping the sticks over the taut skin, shrinking all our minds down into one tiny mind dancing on the bud of a drumstick. And once she has us there, she had us right where she wants us. Now we are all in her world and the whole world is in her hands and she is at the helm of a trip that is exploding with all the surging majesty of a breaking wave.
Very early in my life it became apparent that I had landed myself into the home of a pair of almost regal musical performers – landmarks on the landscape of music in Ireland. They were legends in their own lifetime. My father passed away at the height of his powers late 2018, and my mother is still forcefully blossoming into ever-more robust incarnations of her legendom.
When I was young they would bring me and my brother along to their performances. My favorite part of this was being able to run amok backstage at every venue I could be let loose in. I would explore behind every door, chance climbing up a ladder if I could, gaze in awe at the audio-visual technology, dotted with glowing square buttons and little colored lights. And better than any venue, was to roam free-range in a church that they were performing in, especially the stony and woody old Protestant ones. I was like a little stowaway in the belly of an upturned ship.
Way back I began to realize that there was a very peculiar sort of looking glass between what was happening onstage and what the audience perceived front of house. Glimpsing out into the darkened rows at a slant from the wings, I could see the gleaming faces looking up enrapt at the beauty on parade.
And I wondered, would they ever know of this miraculous world that I had spent the day immersed in backstage, and further back beyond that, of all the life that drove the flower unfurling out at that one magical moment?
Through a strange set of circumstances, I got the job to drive the vocal virtuoso Bobby McFerrin up and down to Dublin to perform at the medieval cathedral in the center of my hometown of Limerick.
I was to witness once more the power of one person, and one spotlight on a stage with a packed hall hanging on every sound.
As I often do after many shows, I observe the crowd as they leave, to feel out the energy, to soak up the vibes. And I had never seen anything quite like it, then or since. Everyone walked out totally transformed - almost silent, but beaming with joy and warmth and love, like having held the hem a holy man who healed all that was unwell.
In the car, after the show, I asked him what he does to warm up his voice before a show. He said that he never does. He checks his voice a couple of times, very gently throughout the day, just to hear that it’s all there. And then he just walks on stage, ‘with the sound of street in my voice’.
Sometimes, when the poet David Whyte recites by heart, at the very end of a poem, when those magic words incanted collapse down into an ever-endless pit of meaning heaped upon meaning, having spun a cloth of words woven of golden and of silver light, he throws the cloth under our feet like a dream. And then he just stands there, contemplating far off things, in absolute. Unmovable. Monolithic. Silence.
And every single soul in that room, immediately and as one, bows their head to the holy essence of it all. David stands there, still. For those endless, precious seconds we become fused with the pulse of the cosmos, our hearts filled to the brim. Then slowly, coming back to our senses, he carries us on.
I know a bit about performance, so one day I asked him if he visualized anything when he stands there during the silence. He said he did. I asked what he visualizes. And he told me, like a magician showing the young apprentice exactly how to calibrate the precise mechanism within the magic box.
At the age of twenty-two I got the job of assistant stage manager for the Irish Chamber Orchestra. Nigel Kennedy, one of humanity’s greatest players of the violin, was doing a tour of Ireland, and for two glorious weeks I got to runaway with the Kennedy circus, a time that could do nothing but entirely change a life.
I got to watch him interacting with the musicians throughout all the rehearsals and was blown away by his ease and his joy, and by the powerful encouragement he inspired in everyone he encountered. The moment Kennedy entered the room the entire orchestra grinned like a kindergarten class being read a fairytale.
My brother and I had only just started to write songs and play music together around that time. After one of these concerts, Kennedy was holding court at the after party in a hotel bar. Our father encouraged us to bring out our guitar and set up in the corner of the room and sing a song. The second we did, Kennedy’s body turned and his ears zoned in on us like a swooping hawk. In a flash he had the fiddle out and was over beside me leaning into me, eyes closed, sending out shockwaves of energy into me with every note he bowed. He was driving a force, from one body to another, a force that comes up out of the darkness and bursts like flowers of fireworks. I felt it, and can recall it now as if I am there this second.
In writing this article I went back over some old notes that I’d written on my time with Kennedy and I found an interview I did with him that I had transcribed. This was the second time I spent on the road with him, and I had gotten to know him quite well.
So I’ll give Kennedy the last word here from that interview from September 22nd, 2006.
‘You don’t have to follow a rigorous routine devised by someone else, you don’t have to learn a protocol, music is a personal journey, you’re at the driving wheel of your own fucking car.’
‘I’d say if you’ve got vision, and you know what’s right in your heart, don’t let nobody teach it out of you, the pedagogues, the protocol of learning, institutions and stuff, don’t let people teach it out of you, because you’ve got that spark.’
‘Make sure you keep hold of that at any cost. Many people will tell you that it isn’t possible to do it that way - don’t listen! Believe in yourself and the communicational powers of music man, because music brings people together much more than the theoretical forms of music, it’s the heart. If you’ve got the heart and if you’ve got some excitement about music that’s what does it for people. Listen to your own inner voice, and also what works with other people. What works in real life is what works in music, not what’s in a textbook.’