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Irish composer Raymond Deane talks Achill, Alma and ABBA too

By Michael Roddy

DUBLIN (Reuters) - Irish composer Raymond Deane chafes at what he sees as a lack of recognition in his homeland for classical composers in a country better known for traditional fiddling and rock supergroup U2 than for notes on staves.

"Classical music means Mozart and Beethoven and when you say Irish classical music their eyes just widen," Deane, who recently turned 60, told Reuters over lunch at a French-style bistro in Dublin.

"Classical music doesn't do much for the tourist industry except frighten off the tourists."

Deane, who also is an activist who has taken up the causes of East Timorese and Palestinian human rights and campaigns to get artists to boycott Israel, described the Irish composer's plight in the 1990s as "the honor of non-existence".

Though he can rattle off the names of more than a half dozen Irish men and women composers of international stature, he says little has changed.

The difference is this year, Deane's often haunting, sometimes playful chamber pieces got an airing at a birthday celebration in a Dublin church, one of his orchestral works was played at the National Concert Hall and September will see a concert staging of a new opera, "The Alma Fetish".

The last, a collaboration with librettist Gavin Kostick, is a musical treatment of a theme that probably - actually, undoubtedly - would have been banned in Roman Catholic Ireland not too many years ago.

It is based on the love affair between composer Gustav Mahler's widow Alma, a femme fatale for many a European intellectual, and the Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka. He became so enamored of her he ordered up a life-size doll shaped, in all respects, like Alma.

Although the performance will be a concert staging, Deane said the doll will be there in some form or other, possibly in projections.

"You couldn't not have it, because it's absolutely central," he said, adding that he was in part attracted to the story of Alma's and Kokoschka's affair because of the Olympia doll character in Offenbach's opera "The Tales of Hoffmann". Alma also seduced Oskar to the main theme of one of Deane's favorite operas, Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde".

"Alma seduced Oskar to the 'liebestod' but in my version she sings and plays it as a Viennese waltz," he said.

In a sign of the pan-European roots of his inspiration, Deane has quoted and used themes from composers as diverse as Mahler, Mussorgsky and Stockhausen in a musical career that began at about age 10 when his family moved from scenic but rustic Achill Island, off Ireland's west coast, to Dublin, and Deane began writing down improvisations at the piano.

"It's ridiculous, everyone is immature at the age of 10 but I was a particularly immature 10-year-old, and to think I've stood by a decision I made then, there's really something absurd about it."

Here's what else he had to say about getting a musical education via the BBC's classical station Radio 3, what he did or didn't learn from his professors and why he makes no secret about liking ABBA's "Dancing Queen":

Q: You studied under some of the musical greats of the 20th century, including the eternal enfant terrible Karlheinz Stockhausen. What did that do for you?

A: "'Study' in quotation marks - anybody else who would have gone through my particular curriculum vitae, studying with (composer) Gerald Bennett in Switzerland, Stockhausen in Cologne...would have made some use of them, seen them as opportunities. To a large extent I wasted all the opportunities that were offered to me by these people, quite perversely."

Q: So where did you learn your craft, or more simply, how did you become a composer?

A: "I went to the usual university, did a degree at Maynooth (National University of Ireland), a doctorate. But my main musical education really was BBC Radio 3. When we came to Dublin in my early teens I had this old transistor radio that was really my main connection to the outer world and it wasn't linked up to anything so the reception from the BBC was diabolical. The static was amazing and sometimes it would disappear completely. I would tune in and hear 'tssshh' and through this I would hear the music and then 'tssshhh'. Sometimes it would disappear and I would try to imagine what I was missing. I think a lot of the kind of perverse quality of some of those early pieces of mine stems from that - a distant relationship and a rather distorted relationship to something."

Q: Plus you and your composer friend Gerald Barry, in the days a quarter of a century ago before you swore off the drink, used to have some late evenings in which he'd play Rod Stewart and you'd pick ABBA, particularly "Dancing Queen".

A: "I was a big fan of ABBA, I still have a lot of time for ABBA, I have a lot of time for the Beatles, a lot of time for Neil Young...Bruce Springsteen. My CD and record collection has a lot of non-classical stuff in it. I probably draw the line at rap."

(Editing by Paul Casciato)

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