The Reason of Sweeney

Here is the text of a talk I did via skype at the THNMF Conference in Perth on 26 October 2017. It gives some thoughts on what I was trying to do in my recent work for Matt Horsley on uilleann pipes, A Book of Migrations. Some kind of recording of this work should be available soon, and hopefully a proper studio recording will be done in 2018.

In the Medieval Irish legend Buile Suibhne (‘The Frenzy of Sweeney’), Sweeney, the king of Dál nAraidi in Ireland, is cursed with madness after he insults a Christian saint and loses a battle against a nearby rival kingdom. He flees the battle, half-way metamorphosing into a bird, and spends the next few years roaming around the countryside, living off watercress and composing poems before meeting an unceremonious death at the hands of a villager.

Matt Horsley preparing for the premiere performance at BIFEM on 2 September, 2017.

My recent composition A Book of Migrations, a concert-length work for solo uilleann pipes (that is, Irish bagpipes) and electronics created in collaboration with Matthew Horsley and premiered in September at BIFEM, took Sweeney’s internal exile as its conceptual point of departure. Rather than translate the story of Sweeney’s journey into a narrative musical form, it attempted to situate itself within an internal displacement of the traditional stylistic and technical elements of the uilleann pipes.

The work takes its name from a fabulous book by Rebecca Solnit, documenting her travels through Ireland as an American of Irish descent. Not unlike Sweeney, Solnit’s work details a series of displacements, both metaphorical and physical, within the overall space that could be called ‘Ireland’.

One of the working hypotheses of the compositional process was that this old Sweeney myth is in fact formally equivalent to Adorno’s concept of ‘musique informelle’ from the 1960s. Adorno famously criticised the post-war serialist composers for imposing an entirely abstract system in their compositions, leading to a kind of static formalism, purged of all dissonance. While much of his critique can be seen to be conservative in its orientation, its essential argument for a music which is “completely free of anything irreducibly alien to itself or superimposed upon it” (1998, p. 272) is nonetheless a compelling compositional perspective. As a dialectical and materialist doctrine, the point of musique informelle is to take an existing set of conditions or materials and liberate from within some hidden ‘tendencies inherent’ in them, rather than adding external elements in order to create something new by their juxtaposition.

As with Sweeney, the exile is not to another place, but to the same place. The same place, yet seen differently, made anew, on condition of freedom, albeit an unhappy one in both Sweeney and Adorno’s cases.

I have toyed with this understanding of musique informelle in the past – such as in my solo flute work Warped Passages that I developed in collaboration with Hannah Reardon-Smith – however, it had tended to stay at the formal level. The fact of writing for the uilleann pipes forced me take into account the social significance of the instrument, and how meaning operates in relation to this idea of internal exile.

Here is an instrument whose sound seems so loaded, particularly when placed within the art music setting. It is particularly loaded in the context of Australian colonial society.

Robert Hughes (2003) has pointed out that while it is largely not true, one of the dominant myths of Australian settler culture has been that many, if not the majority, of the Irish convicts sent to Australia were in reality political prisoners and that their rebelliousness was at least in part what gave Australia its egalitarian and anti-elitist spirit (pp. 194-195). And recently the first Aboriginal woman in Australian Federal parliament Linda Burney pointed out that Irish people also engaged in atrocities, unsettling a fairly widespread idea that the Irish were not really colonisers in Australia, since they share a common history of invasion and dispossession to First Nations Australians (Irish Times, 18/10/17).

My argument is that, for the white Australian context, the sound of the uilleann pipes cannot be separated from the affect of these origin myths. More broadly, from within the context of modern music (and here I’m not talking of a specific genre, but instead of music that is largely commodified and rationalised, which includes everything from pop to jazz to ‘contemporary classical music’), the uilleann pipes, with their drones, their non-equal tempered intonation, and their myriad timbral idiosyncrasies, cannot but be invested to some extent with an affect of lost wholeness and an escape from the alienation and mechanical standardisation of the present.

To borrow from political theorist Ernesto Laclau, we could say that the various aspects of the uilleann pipes – their drones, intonation, timbral nuances, ornamentational conventions, tunes, harmonies and so on – become an equivalential chain of signifiers for an “absent fullness of the community”.

Thus, following the idea of musique informelle, the goal of A Book of Migrations was to situate the work (and the listener) inside this chain of equivalences and explode it from within by way of a whole bunch of internal displacements – defamiliarising the familiar by extending and reconfiguring it, rather than by simply placing some familiar signifiers within a wholly new context.

I’ll just mention a couple of the techniques to achieve this now.

Firstly, the work is fundamentally rooted in folk materials:

  • Each section of the work is based on one of three Irish folk melodies (all with Australian connections): Australian Waters, Boolavogue, and Na Connerys. These are subjected at different times to temporal expansion and compression, registral displacement and pitch alterations.
  • One of the defining characteristics of the uilleann pipes is how the set of traditional Irish ornaments sounds on the instrument—from cuts and taps to crans and rolls and backstitching. Each of these feature heavily in the work, sometimes in typical ways, sometimes temporally expanded or contracted, with extra notes added, or on pitches and fingerings not commonly associated with these techniques.

Physical elements and performance:

  • The slower the structural folk tunes are in the work, the more they function as cantus firmus-like points. In between each of these points a different pitch logic is used: Inspired by Richard Barrett’s concept of ‘radically idiomatic composition’ particularly as in his solo flute work Vale, each change of pitch can only involve a depression of fingers or a removal of fingers, never both at the same time. This creates a different path through the range of possible pitches, but also facilitates a smooth transition from ornamental techniques and melodic lines.
  • The drones were detuned four times throughout the piece ranging from the traditional all-D tuning to vastly altered chords, sometimes with parts of pipes removed. This preserved their ‘drone-like’ dimension, while creating eerily different harmonic regions.
  • The regulators (a set of keys that sits on the leg), were slightly detuned, and the alterations in timbre and intonation that result from simultaneous depression of different keys was fairly extensively explored.

The electronics

  • The work features electronics, which seem to contradict this idea of internal displacement, however, each of the electronics components is based solely upon processing of the different drone chords (largely filters and detuning).


  • On the level of the text, parts of Sweeney’s poems are recited periodically throughout the work, but with different distributions of the English and medieval Irish versions, to heighten the sense of internal displacement. And yes, Matthew Horsley did learn how to pronounce the medieval Irish gaelic, because he’s a mad bastard.

A variant on the common Hegelian theme that alienation is at the origin of consciousness, Sweeney’s dislocation appears as a madness from the standpoint of the day-to-day world but simultaneously reveals itself to be a heightened awareness of his homeland, rendered in his poems. This is Sweeney’s reason. A Book of Migrations attempts to do something similar to the equivalential chain of signifiers for lost fullness embedded in the uilleann pipes by displacing and exploding them from within. However, being art and not politics of some sort or another, the purpose here is not primarily to create a critical awareness of the falsehood of this lost wholeness, but to liberate richer, more complex and contradictory experiences hidden within.