“In music you are allowed more elbow room to find your own way to whatever you interpret the music to be. So I think that’s a kind of interesting wrinkle in music, that because of its abstract nature it actually allows the listener to participate maybe a bit more with their own creativity and their own spontaneity … “
Ronan Guilfoyle talks about his suite, A Shy-Going Boy, to be presented at this year’s Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues
Irish acoustic bass guitarist Ronan Guilfoyle recalls his grandfather as a softly spoken, witty man, but Lt.-Col. Joseph Guilfoyle was also a revolutionary — a volunteer at age 17 in the 1916 Rising against British rule in Ireland.
As a member of Michael Collins’s group the Squad during the War of Independence, Joe took part in the killing of British magistrate Alan Bell, who was ordered off a tram in Ballsbridge in March 1920 and shot dead in the street.
Ronan has explored that ambiguity in an eight-part suite that will be performed on Saturday, October 29 as part of the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues. He will be joined by his son, Chris Guilfoyle, on guitar, Matthew Jacobson on drums and three Australian musicians, Jamie Oehlers on saxophone, Scott Tinkler on trumpet and Andrea Keller on piano.
Ronan chose A Shy-Going Boy as the suite’s title because Joe Guilfoyle described himself thus in a radio broadcast.
“It’s how he describes himself and I’ve never heard that expression before or since,” Ronan says in his recorded response to Ausjazz questions.
“He said, ‘I was always a shy-going boy’ and he talks about being shy in joining the volunteers. It really struck me that the idea of a shy boy volunteering to take part in an armed revolution was an interesting one and it was such an unusual phrase I thought it was perfect for the title.”
Ronan is no stranger to creating music related to family members, having composed a suite for string quartet and guitar trio, which John Abercrombie played on, for his father, who died when he was 17.
“The idea of going through my father’s biography was a very interesting experience for me and the same with my grandfather. I was less familiar with my grandfather, but I learnt more that I didn’t know about him or his life in researching the piece, so as a composer I really had wrestle with how to represent some of those things that I discovered.”
On the juxtaposition between “the quiet old man that I knew and the revolutionary who took part in assassinations”, Ronan says he learned “just how much duality and complexity there is in these situations”.
“On the one hand you have a young man, 17 years of age, who goes off to join the 1916 Rising and in this talk he gives, he talks about going to confession the night before the Rising. So him and his brother, these are two people in their late teens going off to confession because they know there’s a good chance they will be killed the next day.
“It’s extraordinary to think of that now, it seems such a long way from my experience for sure and I’m sure most teenagers in the world — the idea of knowing that you could be killed the next day and yet off you go and do it. It’s an extraordinary act of courage on their part and also belief. So you really have to admire that, or I do, the belief in it and the willingness to risk their lives for what they believed in.
“On the other hand, what he was involved with — taking a guy off a tram and shooting him in cold blood up against the railings — is, there’s no way around it, you’re shooting somebody dead, you’re murdering somebody, or assassinating them … a huge amount depends on your point of view,” Ronan says.
“What I found is that you can look at things from more than one point of view and I tried to reflect that in the music. It is quite ambiguous at times or it goes from dark to light and light to dark, sometimes within the one piece. So I did try to represent that kind of ambiguity in the music.”
Ronan says Joe Guilfoyle had an extraordinary life and took part in historical and hair-raising events. He was arrested by a British officer and found to have a letter in his pocket from a very well known associate of revolutionary leader Michael Collins.
“He was taken out to a golf course at 4 o’clock in the morning and had a gun put up to his head and the officer told him that he needed to understand that he, the officer, had been given carte blanche to do whatever he wanted in the course of his investigations and there would be no repercussions for anything he did. So basically he was telling him, ‘I can kill you right here and nothing’s gonna happen. So now I’m gonna ask you some questions’.
“Joe didn’t answer the questions and he was brought back to the cell. This story is actually told by another person in the war archives, not by Joe Guilfoyle, but by a guy who was with him, who tells the story about him being brought back from the golf course in the dead of night and being, and I quote, ‘None the worse for his adventure’, which is an extraordinary expression to use for a guy who’s just been forced to his knees and had a gun put to his head.”
Ronan says Joe was also in London as a bodyguard when Collins was negotiating the treaty that partitioned Ireland with Lloyd George, “which is extraordinary … if you think of the repercussions of what that treaty represented with the partition of Ireland and the bloodshed that flowed from that over the course of the years”.
And the shy-going boy was also in military intelligence during the second world war, which was known as “The Emergency” in Ireland, with the job of keeping an eye on the German members of visiting delegations, because the country was neutral.
“I was very young when he died, and I wish now that I had been able to question him about some of these things,” Ronan says. “To be honest I didn’t even know about them at that time.”
At last year’s Wangaratta Jazz Festival we heard two concerts that explored aspects of war — Lloyd Swanton’s monumental Ambon about his uncle as a prisoner of war, and Hope In My Pocket about letters soldiers sent home from war.
One piece entitled in the suite by Ronan Guilfoyle, A Dog With Two Tails, is a response to his grandfather marching proudly with a gun, which is an instrument of death. The composer acknowledges that music is a good vehicle to express the contradictions and contrasts of bitter conflict.
“I think it is, it’s very powerful,” Ronan says. “Unless you use lyrics, instrumental music is quite abstract and you can read many different things into it. Stravinsky famously said, ‘music is incapable of expressing anything other than itself’. In other words, the music just “is” and all of the interpretations of what it means are just placed on the music by us as we listen.
“Having said that, I think that the use of music in films and TV and all of that since the invention of the visual medium does show just how powerful music can be as an instigator of atmosphere and also emotion and all of those things.
“As to whether you can write a piece and it says this is such and such, doing such and such, and everyone will understand that just by hearing the music, I don’t think that is the case, but you can certainly express contradictions and contrasts in music very easily and very effectively I think.”
Asked what an audience can take away from a suite such as A Shy-Going Boy, when compared with a film that has dialogue to help convey its messages, Ronan it can’t be that explicit in music.
“A film like Michael Collins or The Wind that Shakes the Barley about the civil war, these are really great films, [that] show the issues that were going on at that time. I wouldn’t say my music, or anyone else’s for that matter, could be as explicit in conveying the events as a film or a book.
“Having said that, music can have a power and can allow the listener to have their own experience in a way that is maybe not as easy as when something is being told to you explicitly or you are being guided in a very specific direction.
“In music you are allowed more elbow room to find your own way to whatever you interpret the music to be. So I think that’s a kind of interesting wrinkle in music that because of its abstract nature — on the one hand it can’t be as explicit as a film, but on the other hand, it actually allows the listener to participate maybe a bit more with their own creativity and their own spontaneity than maybe the explicitness of the film would allow them to do.”
Ronan Guilfoyle says his view of the Rising changed as a result of his research for A Shy-Going Boy.
“Absolutely, totally changed. Not that I think it was an irredeemably bad thing, thinking, as a kid, that it was a glorious revolution. It was an extraordinary event and I really learnt a lot about it. I buried myself in research.
“The ambiguity of it all was what I learnt about it. I mean the first man to be shot in the Rising was an Irish-speaking father of six, an unarmed policeman, who was shot dead by the volunteers because he wouldn’t open the gate to Dublin castle. So there was an idea that they were fighting the British, but there were an awful lot of Irish people killed by Irish people in this conflict,” Ronan says.
“And in the same week that the Rising went on, I think over 600 Irishmen were killed on the Western Front in that same week, fighting in the British army. And there were more than 20,000 Irish people in the British army at that time, fighting for England, or for Britain.
“So on the one hand the army that they were attacking in Dublin was comprised of a very big contingent of Irish soldiers, and the revolutionaries were considered to be really traitorous, especially by people whose husbands were in the army, because their husbands were fighting and sending home money to keep them alive and these guys were attacking the institution that was helping to keep those fellows alive, so it was very ambiguous.
“And of course more civilians were killed in the revolution than either volunteers or British soldiers, so I really did learn there was a huge amount of ambiguity about this and it was a very complex event … as are all of these events, of course, nothing is ever very simple.”
Ronan has used an excerpt from a talk given by Joe Guilfoyle to open the suite.
“The piece opens with my grandfather talking about his time in the Rising. People in the audience will hear him speak. It was recorded about 1960. It’s funny, he keeps it very light and you don’t really get a sense of the danger and the horror there must have been as well. He was very funny as a person and he’s very funny on this as well. He tells very funny stories about his experiences as a young man in the volunteers.
“And then I’ve got an actor to read some of his memoirs … he wrote about 12 pages of his memoirs, didn’t finish them, so I got an actor to read and record those and also to read the story of him being taken out to the golf club.
“And there’s a little bit from [Irish nationalist] Padraig Pearse where he’s saying that a nation that has lost its taste for blood has lost its manhood, I mean, real hair-raising stuff from the man, as I said, who was considered a saint when I was a kid. But this stuff sounds really like zealotry. He says we might shoot the wrong people, but there’s a price we have to pay or they have to pay. So I used some of that and it weaves in and out of the music.”
Ronan has sent the charts for A Shy-Going Boy in advance, but will have two rehearsals with Jamie Oehlers, Scott Tinkler and Andrea Keller once in Australia.
“There’s a lot of written music in it and a lot of improvisation. It’s probably evenly balanced, but it’s definitely going to take some work for us to put it together. Myself and Chris and Matt have played this many times and that helps a lot I think. And the other three are such great musicians, I’ve worked with all of them in different contexts before, so I’m very confident that we’ll give a good performance.”
Ronan is hoping A Shy-Going Boy can be recorded next year.
“It’s difficult to get funding these days, especially as recordings don’t sell anything any more, but for me personally it’s a nice thing to document.”
(My thanks to Ronan Guilfoyle for so comprehensively answering my questions at short notice.)