Frank Corcoran

irish composer



” Joycean Aesthetics, Ethnic Memory and Mythopoetic Imagination in the Music of Frank Corcoran ”


Joyce’s symbolic thunderclap is a maître-mot in Finnegans Wake and one of the keys to understanding Frank Corcoran’s musical world. There is no Irish composer who has more consciously chosen Joyce as a natural ancestor, and fewer still who have been, like Joyce, so seduced as an artist in exile by Ireland’s antagonistic pull. The psychological contradictions that inform the creative work of both are deeply embedded. Joyce, the most influential of literary modernists was nostalgically addicted to Victorian Irish song and popular Italian opera. Corcoran, Ireland’s most unapologetic modernist composer, is obsessed with a pre-colonised medieval Ireland. The work of both emerges out of their shared and anguished rejection of Roman Catholicism—existential traumas somewhat alleviated by their unshakable faith in myth’s abiding significance.

I want to explore points of convergence and difference in Corcoran’s relationship to Joyce as a method of assessing the music of one of Ireland’s most radical, individual and uncompromising composers. I will explore how deconstruction and assemblage and the sonus-logos-melos nexus central to Joycean aesthetics emerge as core components of Corcoran’s music. I will consider the way Corcoran’s abstract works correlate to Joycean techniques of etymological and lexical extension (best exemplified by Finnegans Wake), which diminish specificity of meaning as a method of metaphorising language. A paradox will be exposed whereby the nature of Corcoran’s abstract canvases allows for synaesthetic alliances to extra-musical phenomena such as violence and landscape. I will also discuss the two distinct Irish locales to which the works of each are directed—one rural, the other metropolitan. An investigation of the political contexts of Corcoran’s more programmatic music will show similarities in the ways both he and Joyce reject reified and stylised versions of post-Independence Ireland for more multi-narrative readings. Finally, I will discuss how Corcoran more than any other Irish composer imbues his work with the mythic in ways analogous to Joyce. While Joyce creates a mythic Irish inner consciousness, in Corcoran’s music, myth manifests itself in a re-imagined Irish spiritual landscape.

Deconstruction and Assemblage

The fragmentation in Joycean language is perhaps the most immediate and observable influence on Corcoran’s musical aesthetics. This manifests itself in the methods by which Corcoran pieces together shards of musical material to develop content and create structure. Corcoran is nothing if not forthright in his acknowledgement of Joyce’s abiding influence: Joycespeak – Musik, he tells us, ‘is “about” [Joyce’s] phonemes and his musical themes, the aura of those knots of synaesthetic associations that transcend the logos-myth divide’.[2] Thus, Joyce’s etymological interrogations are replicated in Corcoran’s dissections of word and melody. At certain points these distinct and converging creative approaches become indistinguishable from each other; hence Joyce’s verbalisation of sound and Corcoran’s sonorification of text.

Related to both is the notion of psychological and spiritual remembrance, a kind of Jungian anthropological excavation that needs to pull asunder literature and music as a way of mining latent meaning in their exposed roots. The creative act of recovery, of piecing syllables and melody fragments back together again—often through unexpected juxtapositions and unique methods of contrapuntal interweaving—offers a potential for healing.[3] As Stephen Dedalus states: ‘There can be no reconciliation […] if there has been no sundering.[4] Corcoran’s entire oeuvre may be seen as an extended project of dissecting music and piecing the shards back together again in a creative cycle of ‘sundering’ and ‘reconciliation’.

‘Anonymity’ and Structure

As Boulez underscores, there is a motivation within Joyce’s language that strives towards the condition of anonymity to a degree subsuming thematic material into the insular preoccupation of its etymological and structural experiment.[5] This is a condition to which much of Corcoran’s music consciously aspires. His sensitivity to the abstract-figurative dialectic is patent when he asks: ‘Is the complex battery of percussion I use in my sole American opus, Music for the Book of Kells, already ruined by centuries of use as symbols, clichés, atmosphere?’[6] Such a concern, however, is ultimately addressed by the abstruse, self-reflexive anxiety of the Symphonies and other similarly constructed instrumental works, which effectively attenuate all the recognisable narrativity that conventional elements of composition convey. They do this by dissolving such components of specificity into their organised coherence of atonal abstractions and internalised soundscapes. Corcoran claims: ‘first and foremost my Second Symphony has to be about itself, about its parts and their relationships with the whole thing. The autonomy of art is the thing.’[7] The self-obsession of his music’s post-tonal, a-rhythmic gestures allied to a fluid dynamic of melodic sharding and assemblage invigorate its insularity to a degree that largely denies outside reference or figurative association. Corcoran’s rejection of established compositional components as applied aesthetic tools in lieu of a compositional process short-circuited to nascent creative impulses accounts for the unpolished vernacular of his music; its material is never quite reified by external attributes such as ‘style’ or ‘idiom’. The result is what I will call Corcoran’s ‘de-aesthetisised aesthetics’. However, what we lose in stylised sophistication, we gain in raw psychic and emotional authenticity, a uniquely ‘autonomous and […] absolute character hitherto unknown’.[8]

Furthermore, a Joycean tendency towards the condition of anonymity also impacts the character of Corcoran’s structural frameworks. As I have outlined, in the Symphonies and other instrumental works, musical discourse is driven by what might be described as ‘gestures of non-specificity’. Organised coherence relies less on established rhythmic formulae, predetermined harmonic patterns, recognisable principles of melodic construction and mimetic motions of expression than upon spontaneous and irregular sequences of gestures that generate themselves directly out of instinctive emotional and psychological impulses. The unfolding of these energetic impulses creates the structural character or what Adorno calls the ‘formal progress’ of the music. Rather than being a pre-fabricated entity, the architecture of Corcoran’s Symphonies emerges out of that which has been structured by gesture.[9] This encourages us to consider Corcoran’s forms less as autonomous and paradigmatic components than as gestalten ensuing from musical impulses that are completely emancipated from predictable compositional discursivity and programmatic narrativity. As Adorno clarifies: ‘If musical structure or form […] are to be considered more than didactic schemata, they do not enclose the content in an external way, but are its very destiny, as that of something spiritual.’[10] In Corcoran’s case, such spirituality emerges, I think, out of the music’s coterminous relationship with instinctive emotional and psychological impulses. Unmediated by the external filtering and reifying influences of established compositional rhetoric and formal architectures, his creative responsiveness to these impulses gives his music a deeply humane quality.

Modi Operandi

Heretofore, I have discussed how Joyce has provided significant models for Corcoran’s technical approaches to composition. Also common to both is a certain self-consciousness relating to the modi operandi of their respective creative endeavours. Through Dedalus, Joyce has spoken about ‘forging in the smithy’ of his soul ‘the uncreated conscience’ of his race. Corcoran has boldly stated that ‘no Irish composer has yet dealt adequately with our past.’ For both artists, permanent exile has had the dual impact of sharpening objective perceptions of Ireland while fostering an ache for remembrance and healing. Thus, foundational to their creative impulses is an extravagant, almost messianic desire to provide through their respective works ways of regenerating latent and unexpressed energies within the collective Irish psyche.

However, the extensive coterminous ground occupied by Joyce and Corcoran in relation to techniques and aesthetics does not preclude certain differences that exist within their creative approaches. While both recognise the broad failure of Anglo-Irish representations of the Irish psyche, each focuses on different strands of society in their projects to revitalise it. Aware that he could not penetrate the secrets of Irish rural life, Joyce concentrated his literary focus upon the milieus of post-Independence metropolitan Dublin. His themes centre upon the growing consciousness of middle-class Catholicism, its aspiration to emulate Ascendancy mentalité and the socio-cultural suffocation of the emergent theocratic nation state. While certainly a radical experiment in modernist literature, Ulysses is also a damning critique of Ireland’s religious, social and cultural stagnation. Joyce’s literary mythos thus creates a powerful, alternative vision to the restrictive and impoverished actuality of Ireland. While he is also astutely critical of Irish political and cultural malaise, Corcoran’s artistic position differs from Joyce’s in its recalibration of ethnic and cultural-spiritual landscapes; his attention evades the urban and the contemporary in favour of resuscitating lost socio-cultural practices that predate, some extensively, the polity of modern life. Music for the Book of Kells is exemplary in this regard:

This was my way of reassessing Ireland – what was this little island I came from? Contemporary Ireland didn’t interest me at all, nor does it today. But, by God, 5th and 6th-century Ireland did. This was my big myth.[11]

The renovation of lost cultural and spiritual practices thus forms the basis of Corcoran’s project to re-invent Ireland through music rich in mythic significance. I now want to discuss some ways in which he achieves this.

Onomatopoeia and the Abstract-figurative Dichotomy

While Corcoran’s instrumental music largely strives for aesthetic anonymity and abstraction, there are occasions where figurative elements are consciously introduced. For example, the piano music that emerges near the end of Music for the Book of Kells intones fragments of Bach’s Chorale melody, Es ist genung (BWV 60), and the early medieval Irish plainchant Ibunt sancti appears in Quasi una Fuga as an apparition in high harmonics. Because of the dominance of abstraction in his musical canvases, and because such abstraction speaks no dialect, Corcoran knows that the slightest figurative references will have a disproportionate and thus powerful symbolic and mythical resonance.

Such manipulation of the abstract-figurative dichotomy does not merely rely on the introduction of melodic or harmonic fragments. In those works devoid of overt figurative quotation, elements of onomatopoeia are skillfully manipulated to innovatively root the music to a sensed locale or to invoke extra-musical phenomena. This point, however, leads us to a contradiction that lies at the heart of Corcoran’s work, about which I think he is aware: ‘The music is about itself. Forget the composer’s breakfast, mistress, death, bank account, experience as a youthful resistance fighter, they’re all there too.’[12] That final ‘they’re all there too’ verifies that Corcoran’s music, while extolling a self-sufficient abstraction, also formulates a type of musical messaging and sonic phenomena that encourage figurative association. The composer tells us even more pointedly that the ‘abstract’ effect of bowing string instruments behind the bridge is, in fact, ‘the barking of seals and human suffering.’[13]

In this sense, a paradoxical Joycean influence is detectable. Whereas Joyce uses the denotational system of language as a basis for creating texts of increasing abstraction and metaphorical potential, Corcoran’s abstract musical language forms the basis for the sonic exploration of potential narrativity and ethnic memory. Such abstract sonorities within Corcoran’s aesthetics, which nonetheless suggest extra-musical phenomena ranging from invocations of tribal violence and animal sounds to rugged landscape, are almost unique in Irish art music in that they avoid overt figurative association.[14] An inherent element of suppressed violence in this music unleashes hidden precincts where ineffable emotional and psychological traits find expressive release. While such sonic phenomena cannot be identified as specifically Irish or Celtic, within the context of Corcoran’s political, cultural and temporal locations, they do elicit an emergent sense of synaesthetic ethnic associations, archaic primitivism, psychological disturbance and even primal aggression that could be located convincingly within a medieval-Gaelic-rural-landscape paradigm. Refusing to restrict himself to limited and reductionist musical dialects, Corcoran creates an ‘Irish’ music entirely out of broader palettes of aesthetic sensibility and augmented emotional registers.

De-aesthetisised Aesthetics

Corcoran’s artistic character determines that when his abstract music invokes such ethnic imagery through the employment of onomatopoeia, it does so not through, for example, the soft ‘vowel-meadow’ sonority of Seamus Heaney’s Anahorish, but rather through a raw and brutal realism more closely akin to Heaney’s other similarly-titled townland poem, Anahorish 1944:

We were killing pigs when the Americans arrived.

A Tuesday morning, sunlight and gutter-blood

Outside the slaughterhouse. From the main road

They would have heard the squealing,

Then heard it stop…

I am not concerned here so much with the programmatic rural environment of Heaney’s verse, but rather with the de-aesthetisised rawness of the subject matter and how the gritty alliteration might translate into music. Corcoran describes the one hundred and twenty pigs, a boar and ten sows his mother kept as ‘his first orchestra’. His natural ear for dissonance and angular, asynchronous rhythm may very well have been nurtured in this ‘inharmonious’ environment:

As a little kid I would carry the big heavy buckets of slop for the pigs, and the ‘Berlin Pigharmonic Orchestra’ would open up – a vast sound continuum from the deepest boar and sow tones up to the highest piccolo of the piglets. Even then I was thinking: ‘God, if there was some way I could record this, manipulate it in some way, this would be great.

Thus, the primal and native sounds of a rural childhood are the seeds of a music composed as an act of memory and recollection of those very kernels. Significantly, the recuperation is not idyllic—a transference of actual life into attractive, aestheticised art. Rather, this is musical memory that seeks to capture the raw emotional weight of an animal scream, to sound the scarring of an exposed landscape, to emit the psychological and emotional grief that informs its ‘gutter-blood’ aesthetics. From his earliest experiences as a child, an endless repository of sound was stored in Corcoran’s mind to find release in the act of composition: ‘I’ve magic memories there of natural sounds, of animal sounds. I still hear the scream of the sawmill in the local village. So there was magic realism and it’s in the best work today—that energy flows in.’[15] Thus, while it might seem extravagant to suggest a coherent trajectory from rural cacophony to atonal soundscape, I am convinced by this idea of sonic recuperation from childhood memory—two minutes into Symphony No. 3 we hear these high-pitched squeals and psychic screams unleashed from the snorting, animalistic groans of low brass and woodwind.

Music as Spiritual Mythos

While synaesthetic associations of a medieval-Gaelic-rural-landscape paradigm can never be emphatically proven in relation to Corcoran’s abstract music, they are obviously a central component of a number of his electro-acoustic and multi-media works that employ archival recordings and other objets trouvés. A prime example is Quasi una Missa, a musique concrète Mass in four movements: ‘Kyrie’, ‘Gloria’, ‘Sanctus’ and ‘Agnus Dei’. Culminating in its fourth movement, vocal fragments comprising text from various sources, disjointed phonemes, objets trouvés (recordings of 1950s Aran Islands keening and port a’bhéil),[16] paralinguistic material and angst-ridden screams are interwoven to create a sonic landscape of multi-narrative complexity. Heard one moment as autonomous entities and the next as part of an overall sound structure, these interweaving elements create a sonic documentary of social and cultural practices. Vocal and guttural interjections by Corcoran and others, which are interpolated into the contrapuntal mix, represent verbalised meditations upon the ‘word’, the ‘sacred syllable’. The superimposition of identifiable verbal fragments with abstruse musical and vocal gestures, which creates a continuous modulation between semantic cognition and pure abstraction, is a thoroughly Joycean conceit. Even the cowbell sound that loudly and repeatedly intrudes into the dramatic action simultaneously conjures up abstract interjectory noise, rural life and church ritualism.

Indeed, ritualism is at the core of Quasi una Missa and other similar works by Corcoran. Utterance is a central aspect, which seeks meaning in etymological deconstruction, a kind of composed ursprache, which assumes a deep relationship between language and its referents—‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’[17] If language has been cognised on the level of consciousness where the subject and the object meet, Quasi una Missa is a meditation that attempts to unveil meaning not just through the utterance of words and their roots but also from whatever latent knowledge may be extracted from the purely sonic resonances these words and fragments emit; thus, in Quasi una Missa, music becomes mantra.

[…] it’s the deepest human utterance; God utterance from over two thousand years of Ireland’s God tradition, with all its crazy pathological and ecstatic forms from the god, Amhergín, who is ‘wind on sea’, as we know, right up to Bishop Berkeley, in the Sanctus […] At the end we have the utterances: Deus est: God is, God is not, God is beyond being – , plus quam which is Neoplatonic […]. I use plus quam, and the very final utterance is reduced to ‘pl’. Of course, this is Joycean. The Gloria, for example, has the great theophanic thunder at the beginning, which I borrowed from Finnegans Wake.

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