Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Graz, Austria

We flew from Hannover to Vienna today and took a train to Graz. This is my third time to play in Die Brücke where Doris always makes us most welcome and we get to sample her homemade Schnapps. It’s such a pleasure to do these tours by train and not be tied to a vehicle – we’ve barely seen an autobahn. Each journey is relaxing and you don’t arrive at the gig exhausted from the road. Today while we waited for the train to Graz, Róisín and I took a walk in the graveyard beside the train station at Friedhof Meidling.

When the train arrived Róisín and I got a compartment to ourselves in the first class car and so we pulled all the Pullman seats fully forward and flat to make a bed and dozed all the way to Graz. It was a sunny day and occasionally we could see the tops of trees or a church spire.

I noticed, that in his review in The Guardian of Faber’s New Irish Stories Collection edited by Joseph O’Connor, Nicholas Lezard gives this beautiful quote from O’Connor’s introduction: “Ireland is still a country, for all its innumerable shames, where the empathies involved in the sharing of a story are valued for their possibilities of hope and healing.”

Saints & Tzadiks European Tour

Almost a week into the Saints & Tzadiks German/Danish/Austrian/French tour with Lorin Sklamberg, Aidan Brennan and Róisín…the news about the earthquake in Japan has been unsettling and it’s been difficult to get updates as we’ve been traveling almost every day. At the railway station in Copenhagen I picked up an English newspaper to read the recent reports, and have seen some shocking footage on FaceBook. It’s hard to fathom, hard to imagine how life is for the survivors in the devastated towns on the other side of the world in the aftermath of the earthquake and with the appalling threat of the deteriorating situation regarding the nuclear power plants.

On Sunday we performed at the Court Theatre in the Christianborg Palace, an amazing and well-preserved theatre which dates from the 1700s and which was frequented by Hans Christian Andersen. Mozart and Chopin also played there. Róisín has started to do a solo on 'River' and so she got to perform there too. We stayed in Copenhagen for our day off yesterday to explore the city and do our own Hans Christian Andersen trail. At noon we witnessed the changing of the guard at the Amalienborg Palace, and standing on the cobbled stones we talked about how soldiers in these pale blue uniforms had inspired many of Andersen’s stories. Suddenly I remembered that John Dowland had been court lutenist here and thought of him making himself at home here long ago. We had lunch at Nyhavn where Andersen lived on a few occasions, and then dropped into the Royal Theatre box office to pick up tickets for the ballet. The production, Et Folkesagn, is a modern version of a work by the renowned Danish ballet dancer and choreographer Bournonville and weaves a romantic tale set between the human and the otherworld. When we got back to the hotel room Róisín danced around for about an hour before climbing into bed and quickly falling asleep.

So Róisín and I return to Germany to join up with Lorin and Aidan for a performance in Hamburg tonight. Last week we performed in Augsburg, Kassel and at the wonderful Festival of Fürth where we were well looked after and enjoyed day-long workshops on Saturday with enthusiastic students.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Singing in the Dark in Ireland

We just finished a tour of Ireland – the Irish release tour for Singing in the Dark.
As the album focuses on the topic of mental health, I collaborated for some of the events with people who work in the area of mental health, and I am grateful to the American Fund for Ireland, The South Lee HSE and Brendan McDonagh for their help in bringing the work to Ireland.

I arrived into Dublin on Tuesday 22 February and the following day had a rehearsal with Seamie O’Dowd and James Blennerhassett in James’ beautiful studio overlooking the south Leitrim Hills. The following morning we met up with Eamon O’Leary, over from New York, to record our first performance on the show Today with Pat Kenny on RTE 1 national radio which was broadcast the following day, the day of the general election in Ireland. We performed James Clarence Mangan’s The Nameless One and Leonard Cohen’s Anthem, and in between Pat talked with me about the link between madness and creativity.

Ireland seems very different than it was during my last trip here last summer. Everywhere there are signs that businesses have ceased operations. Almost everyone I talked with is exasperated with the handling of the financial crisis and feeling the pinch of reduced pay packets and strained finances. On the other hand there is less traffic on the roads and in the train stations, and people seem less rushed.

On Saturday afternoon Eamon and I did our first Irish in-store performance at a shop called The Celtic Note on Nassau Street. Some old friends were there to meet us as well as some new faces, some tourists, and new friends from the Irish Network of Critical Voices in Mental Health who were going on to attend Bob Whitaker’s lecture at the Edmund Burke Hall of Trinity College. We enjoyed giving some of the songs their first Irish outing and singing The Nameless One steps from where James Clarence Mangan had worked at Trinity College.

After the in-store I stepped across the road to attend Bob’s talk in the Arts Building at TCD. It was a packed auditorium where he spoke about the research he explored for his recent book Anatomy of an Epidemic. Bob’s book examines the effects of long-term use of medications such as anti-psychotics and anti-depressants within the United States in recent decades and gives evidence of research that suggests that long term use is having a disastrous effect on the mental health of American society in general. Since their introduction the percentage of people who have been diagnosed as chronically mentally ill and requiring of long term medications has increased dramatically.

Of course medications can save lives, lift people out of suicidal, psychotic and depressive states and help them rediscover enough stability in their lives to move forward on their own. But this is not the case for everyone. Too often people are prescribed medication as the first and sometimes the only treatment, when I believe what people need is to be presented with a range of options of which medication is a part.

Will Hall flew in from Portland on Sunday 27 to join us for the first gig at Whelan’s in Dublin. Will is a mental health counselor who runs Portland Hearing Voices and is the host of During each of the performances he talked about his life and work. At the performance in the West Cork Hotel in Skibbereen we participated in a workshop on the topic of Creativity & Trauma with Irish psychiatrist Dr. Pat Bracken and from the non-profit Music Alive, which brings music to mental health care settings, Kevin O’Shanahan & Caoimhe Conlon. The following day we gave a lunchtime concert at The Glucksman Gallery at University College Cork before a performance that evening at The Pavilion in Cork. Finally we concluded with a concert at the Aula Maxima of NUI Galway as part of their Arts & Medicine Series.

There has been great feedback from all of the events and I’m looking forward to doing more work like this in Ireland later this year.