It was only right and fitting that news of Micheál Ó Súilleabháin’s death lead the early morning bulletins on national radio earlier today. Even if, by any stretch, his premature passing at the age of 67, still comes as a shock to those long captivated by his distinctive brand of sorcery. His music and his records will be familiar to many.
It was Josephine Nestor, for many years a fixture within and around what we know as an Irish music industry, who first pointed me in Mícheál’s direction. Knowing well my numerous peccadilloes, and especially my love of big orchestral set-pieces, she suggested we get together for a short written piece for what was then – and what will always be – The Cork Examiner, on the occasion of the release of his album, ‘Oileán/Island’, released on Virgin Records in 1989.
And I remember well the nervy walk through town, up Washington Street and into the musty music department in University College Cork, where Mícheál was then based as Head of Music. From where he was generous and polite enough to talk the arse off of a donkey for me. Which was just as well: I loved every single complicated, stylish and often over-cooked beat of ‘Oileán’ but understood none of it. And so, holding court like a young, over-enthusiastic teacher on his first placement, he broke down the ambition behind the record and highlighted the spread of influences, legacies and histories at play within its gut into easily digestible pieces. Over the course of that hour – a masterclass, in any language – he started a connection that has endured for thirty years since.
Mícheál was a magnificent, free-form piano player who was comfortable in a variety of styles. While its correct – and obvious – to point to his compounding of traditional Irish music and bareback classical, I tended to see him more as a mighty jazz artist from Clonmel, just riding various riffs, surfing onto wherever the currents took him. Like one of his own masters before him, Seán Ó Riada, Mícheál wasn’t fazed by risk and, in his mind, I suspected that labels were strictly for vineyards. If Phil Spector built walls of sound, Mícheál dealt variously in torrents and streams, often within the same movement, a theme at the heart of the overly-earnest – but typically beautiful – documentary series, ‘A River Of Sound’ he devised and made with Philip King and Nuala O’Connor for RTÉ and BBC Northern Ireland in 1995.
Of course for years, because of the rare cut of his alchemy, the racket he made become low-hanging fruit for a generation of documentary makers, promo producers and directors in search of a theme tune. But there’s far more to his catalogue than the likes of ‘Woodbrook’, ‘Oileáin’ and ‘Oiche Nollaig’, arguably his three best-know signature pieces and those that have most connected him in the public mind. Indeed there were times when you’d look at him going to work at his keyboard, in his buttoned-up shirt and with his swept-back do and, for all the frenetic hammering and sprints through the scales, wonder how he retained his composure ? Or if, in fact, he was touching the ivory at all ?
And then there’s ‘Lumen’, his Eurovision interval composition from 1997 that, twelve months after Bill Whelan’s ‘Riverdance’ exploded onto a global stage, is often unfairly lost even within the bizarre local history of that song contest. Written and completed under serious time-pressure it remains, to these ears, the finest of that trio of showcase Eurovision scores from that period that also include Whelan’s 1980 suite, ‘Timedance’ and its companion piece from 1996. Even if, in simply taking on the commission, Mícheál was on a real hiding to nothing.
And yet, renewing acquaintances with the singing Benedictines of Glenstal Abbey, the full sweep of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra and introducing the magnificent range of a young Brian Kennedy, he manages to do like he always did: turn theory on its head while minting a work of rare beauty.
I’m not sure if Mícheál ever enjoyed the broader public recognition his gift perhaps deserved. But he certainly leaves behind him a telling and important body of work. With far more respect for the music itself than for labeling, genres and the parameters of form, he is one of those remarkable students and curators of song – some of it Irish, some of it traditional, much of it not – who saw an endless potential and limitless ambition in the most basic melody.
The kind of thinking that, in its own way, can now be heard in the work of The Gloaming – featuring one of his own former students, Iarla Ó Lionaird – among numerous other contemporary performers whose restlessness, if not necessarily licked from stones, was certainly enabled by those who first careered, head-first, through the barriers. And this was seen most recently last June at Dublin’s National Concert Hall where, with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra for back-up, and in the rare company of other former pupils like his long-standing bonesman, Mel Mercier and the fiddler, Liz Doherty – Mícheál gave a display for the ages across a wide and varied set that touched on all of his favourite bases.
Like one of his own teachers, Seán O’Riada, who died at the age of 40, Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, another of the old magicians, leaves the stage far too early. But with impeccable work done.