Saturday, June 19, 2010


We are in the mixing stage, although mixing with Ross means there is still room to go back and make changes as we go. But I started at last to get a picture of the whole, of how the album will sound. Even though we're mixing there are two incomplete songs. One is 'The Crack in Stairs', a poem by Nuala NĂ­ Dhomhnaill in a translation by Paul Muldoon which I'm really happy that the Irish composer Elaine Agnew has agreed to set to music for me. It's been years since I worked in this genre of music and I'm looking forward to the challenge. I'm also thrilled to be working with the brilliant pianist Isabelle O'Connell who, like me, happens to be a Dubliner living in New York.
The other incomplete song is Theodore Roethke's 'In A Dark Time' which Frank London set to music for me. This still needs the musical talents of Eamon O'Leary and Lorin Sklamberg before it will be ready to add the vocals of a special guest...more on that later.
I was planning on spending a lot of time in Ireland this summer but it will have to be a short trip this year - I need to stay in the city and finish the album.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Pianos and Sugar

Perhaps one of the reasons I'm interested in genealogy is because my father never talked about his childhood: he once told me he couldn't remember the first twelve years of his life. During our last conversation I was telling him about some close friends who were dealing with mental illness, and Dad said "I don't know how you meet people like that; I don't know anyone like that, I never meet people like that." But it wasn't true.

There was the man who, some years previously, had worked in the Dublin confectionery firm my father managed, who asked to be moved to a different department because of bullying. Dad managed to get him transferred to a less stressful environment. After my father had retired, the man asked for his help again regarding a pending transfer. This time my father couldn't help and the man had to deal with the move. A few months later he died by suicide. My father was deeply shocked and it took him a long time to get over it.
Knowing about my interest in the family tree Dad once offered to bring me to visit a friend of his mother's when I was back from New York. "I'm not your mother's friend, John," said Madge, "I'm her cousin," and she proceeded to tell me much about the grandparents I had never met, and details of their life, some of which I was interested to observe my father hastily attempt to contradict.

"An enigma" was how I heard my father often described. He was a mystery man and full of secrets, and although I had my own difficulties with him I appreciated his qualities of wisdom, practicality, frugality and responsibility which, as I learned more about his childhood, I realised were very finely honed survival skills. I'm grateful that in the last years of his life we were close and I love and miss him very much.
As a child, my father found his father Matthew's drunken outbursts so scary that he would make sure to be in bed before his father got home from the pub. Mathew's own father had died "in an alcoholic stupor," I was told, when he was dropping someone home from the pub and he took a corner so quickly that his horse and cart overturned. This left his wife and two sons destitute and she, a published composer and musician, put the boys in school in Dublin and went to France as a governess to pay for their education. Matthew and his brother are in the 1911 census records, two years after their father's death, aged 9 and 13, now separated in a boarding school and industrial school.

Matthew grew up to meet and marry my grandmother Sarah, who had her own abandonment issues through the deaths of her parents and brother when she was in her teens. She lived for a time with an aunt who ran a pub in Derry before coming up to Dublin where she could, rarely for the time, have her own apartment on Haddington Road in which she kept her own piano. She liked sweets and cigarettes. Matthew rose through the ranks in the civil service where he had responsibility for the allocation of sugar during the war. The family consequently received lots of sugar-laden gifts and hampers at Christmas from companies that hoped my grandfather would remember them in the coming business year.

When my father left school his first job was in a jam factory, but he then got the opportunity to specialize in the study of sugar through a job with Clarnico's of London combined with a course of study at the London Polytechnic. After some years in London he completed the course and interviewed to be the manager of a confectionery company in Barbados. One of the last questions was "Are you married?" and when he answered "No", they offered him the job. He came home to say goodbye to his mother and two sisters (his father was already dead). His sisters were violinists in an orchestra run by my mother, and so they met and, their lives were never the same. Three weeks later he sailed for Barbados and a year after that she followed him out to the island of sugar cane. They lived in a house in St. Laurence Gap which is now a Mexican restaurant owned in part by an Irish couple. My mother was the church organist at St. Patrick's church in Bridgetown and Dad ran the Caribbean Confection Company. It was still there when I visited in 2000.