The Litany of the Saints: Musical Quotations and Influences in the Music of Tommie Potts.

Potts, Riada, and the search for an Irish music identity


Apart from what these examples tell us about the musical intelligence at work within Potts’ music, what else can we learn from this case study? Firstly, it can hardly be a coincidence that the Irish composer Seán Ó Riada (1930-1971) created his innovatory band, Ceoltóirí Chualainn, at more or less the same time that Tommie Potts was experimenting with his received tradition. 

Both Potts and Ó Riada were attempting to create what Ó Riada called ‘a native Irish arts music’ (Ó Súilleabháin  2004 [a]). This is not how Potts described it, but we have already quoted him earlier in this essay where he rails against “the intellectuals” who are putting down any possibility of traditional music developing “ to symphony heights”.  The essential difference in the movement made by Potts and that made by Ó Riada was one of the starting point. Ó Riada was attempting to come into the arena from the standpoint of a composer who chose to bypass the symphonic tradition (at least in terms of this part of his musical output), while Potts was attempting to move towards the same arena from the standpoint of a performing traditional musician.  Perhaps Potts held the upper hand here in terms of creative process? Part of the frustration for Ó Riada (who is reported in Ó Mordha 1982 as saying that he had “taken the Ceoltóirí Chualainn ideas a far as it would go”) was that creative process within traditional music resided in the hand of the performer.  The concept of composer did not exist – outside of a small number of musicians known for creating new tunes in the traditional mould, musicians who might more accurately be termed tune smiths rather than composesr in the classical music sense.  Within the tradition, the highest status was reserved for those musicians who created new settings out of received tunes.  Potts was taking this a stage further by moving through the normal level of ‘variation’ onto another level of what I have termed ‘alteration’.  Indeed, this essay has shown in some detail how much of that ‘alteration’ process was directly inspired and affected by the musical borrowings we have unearthed. 

Ó Riada created a new concert format of the music through the organisation of extended ‘arrangements’ of traditional tunes.  The fact that he organised these in such a manner as to showcase the individual styles and voices of his musicians only serves to prove the point that the creative process lay in the hand of the performer.  Furthermore, because Ó Riada choose to work in ensemble, he was constrained in terms of the received agreed structural pattern of the ‘round’ and its eight bar ‘parts’.  Potts, on the other hand, was working as a solo musician.  In this, he was operating in at the heart of the tradition itself, without any constraint.  With no obligation to synchronise with anyone else, and embodying the creative essence of the tradition within his hands, it is in a sense not surprising that he would subvert the tradition in a manner not open to Ó Riada to accomplish.  On the contrary, part of Ó Riada’s mission was to honour tradition by holding it up to scrutiny before new audiences.  As against that, Potts was operating in private (hence his ‘Domestic Tapes’ marked by him as “experimental” in the 1950s), with the innovatory aspects of his music known only to a relatively small number of aficionados, mainly in the Dublin circle of the traditional music community.  The prime collector of traditional music of the time, Breandán Breathnach, was disinterested in that aspect of Potts’ creativity, and sought instead to highlight the mainstream repertoire that Potts had inherited from his father and from others.  While Ó Riada’s ensemble version of traditional music was warmly received by the traditional music community, Potts’ music has continued to perplex listeners even up to the time of this writing.  For example, Tony McMahon in his shared Keynote Address to the Crossroads Conference in 1996 hailed Potts as the epitome of tradition, choosing to invest a greater weighting to that side of Potts’s music than to the innovation side:

He was one of the great innovators, but to define his art in terms of the innovation he brought to a small part of his repertoire is to misunderstand the main message on [sic] his music… [Mac Mahon 1996,112 – 120]

Potts would undoubtedly have disagreed. For him, the extension of his received tradition into new forms was the essence of his artistic journey.

Another interesting contrast between Ó Riada and Potts is to be found in Ó Riada’s disdain for some aspects of the classical music tradition as quoted in  White (1998:125-150) from an interview with Ó Riada by Charles Acton about a year before the composer’s death:

Ó Riada’s disdain for the European tradition of art music is particularly shrill:
“Beethoven couldn't write a tune to save his life and most of the European composers likewise. And when they did they were but cheap vulgar tunes”. (Acton in ibid., p.199)

Acton also remarks in this interview (published in Eire-Ireland in 1971, the year of Ó Riada’s death), as White points out, that:

Nomos 2 can be considered a young composer’s farewell to the European tradition of his formal training via a pessimistic text from Sophocles.

White furthermore remarks that this ‘farewell to classical tradition’ reading of Nomos 2 was “apparently authorised by Ó Riada himself”.

Potts, on the other hand, was attempting to embrace aspects of the classical tradition. For him the ‘great composers’ were in a sense musical ‘saints’. In rehearsing a litany of them within his own musical borrowings and inspirations, Potts was aspiring to musical sainthood himself. However, in moving towards classical tradition, he felt obliged to position traditional music from what might be viewed as a post-colonial standpoint. We have already quoted from this letter written by Potts, but it bears repetition here:

First of all folk music (with ballads) is just as it says the music of the ‘people’ i.e. the peasantry, the masses or the common people - whichever you like - I do not say this in a derogatory sense, but it is a primitive form and at that, it is within the capacity of the ‘people’ to appreciate and understand. This because, generally speaking, the ‘people’ have no training in the finer points and theory of music. [Potts MSS, p.V see Ó Súilleabháin 1987]

This dis-ease that Potts felt with the tradition is quite obviously one which he picked up from “the intellectual sphere” as he put it himself (see the earlier quotation). Whatever the reason, it met with a deep desire within him to ‘develop’ his received tradition “to symphony heights” (earlier quotation). This desire was ignited and confirmed through his haphazard exposure to classical music in his late teens (through the 78 rpm recordings of a friend: see Ó Súilleabháin  1987) and throughout his life (marching band arrangements, radio, cinema, and liturgical settings among others). The effect upon Potts was not to cause him to leave down his inherited tradition and pick up on a classical repertoire. Instead, for a variety of complex musical, historical, and social reasons, he remained with his tradition and faced the cultural conflict within himself. The extraordinary result manifested itself in his innovative fiddle style and improvisatory process.

There is an essential difference between Potts and Ó Riada: while Potts was journeying out from the ground of traditional music, Ó Riada was journeying into that same ground. I have suggested elsewhere that Ó Riada was also involved in another ‘criss-cross’ movement where I compare his movement in the 1960s towards the non-literate oral-tradition world of Irish indigenous tradition to the movement by the avant garde German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen towards a world of aleatoric composition with his orchestral musicians where he attempts to bypass musical literacy (Ó Súilleabháin  2004 [a]).

Within the world of Irish traditional music, however, while Potts embarked upon his journey alone with his fiddle in hand, Ó Riada formed a band of traditional musicians to complete his task. The essential success or failure of both of their efforts is still a matter of contention. Ó Riada felt he had taken his ensemble idea ‘as far as it would go’. Potts’ music was so idiosyncratic as to be unplayable in an ensemble context. Furthermore, he did not generate any immediate successors.

What does this criss-crossing of cultural worlds tell us about music and identity in Ireland during the second half of the 20th century?  If Heaney speaks of a ‘redress of poetry’ within English language tradition (Heaney 1995), can we view  Potts and Ó Riada as being involved in some way in ‘a redress of music’? What came up and out of music in Ireland during that period that made traditional music so central to a resurrection of an Irish psyche? Has some imbalance been redressed? Certainly, the ‘mainstreaming’ of traditional music in Ireland that has occurred since 1950 is significant - in media, in education, in cultural institutions. An international flowering of Irishness has been carried across the world on a stream of sound which at times seems like the very earth of Ireland singing. Because it has come out of the ‘agriculture’ of Irishness, the ground is the sound. Furthermore, because of this local grounding, whatever redress of music has been in process has landed on the beat of the turning process of cultural globalisation (see Ó Súilleabháin  2004 [b] and Ó Súilleabháin  2004 [c]).

In all of this it is important to realise that the redress of one imbalance may highlight yet another. This is central to an important growing debate in Ireland at this time concerning the musical voice of Ireland within a contemporary classical music context (White 1998, Cox and Klein 2003). Ó Riada has a pivotal role in that debate - perhaps as much to contextualise what he is not as much as what he is. Potts, on the other hand, because his creativity resides within the domain of oral-tradition, is seen – if indeed he is seen at all – as outside the debate. Until the idea of ‘contemporary music’ in Ireland is widened to include Irish traditional music – as it should be – any attempted understanding of music and contemporary identity in Ireland can only fly on one wing.

Nonetheless, both Potts and O Riada, may yet be seen to have been prophetic of a process which released Irish traditional music into a new world on its own terms. Ó Riada’s awareness of global music traditions was indeed prophetic of the decades that followed his death. The seeds of his vision, while they may not have rested within his compositional activity within his own lifetime, may yet find a surprising fruitfulness carried by the wind of succeeding generations. With regard to his search for a ‘native Irish art music’, his awareness in the final years of his life of Potts’ music may have been an indication to him that the indigenous tradition was itself striving to generate out of its own organic dynamic a movement towards those very fields of intrinsic innovation which he envisioned.

In the three decades since his death, the hidden world of Potts has become more apparent, and new generations of traditional players firmly grounded in tradition have continued the search for inventiveness beyond the boundaries of the received tradition itself - Máirtín O’Connor, Eileen Ivers, Mel Mercier, Martin Hayes, and Niall Keegan are just some of increasing number of names which spring to mind. Many traditional musicians on the innovative side of the spectrum cite Potts as a significant influence on their musical style - not least Martin Hayes.

Again, we might note here that the release of the recording, Ó Riada’s Farewell in 1972 coincided with Potts’ one and only recording release, The Liffey Banks. Indeed, both were issued by Claddagh Records, and both were released at the same press event in Dublin. This synchronic intersection of Ó Riada’s and Potts’ music is indeed an interesting one. While the Ó Riada legacy within the traditional music community led directly to the encouragement of new ensemble forms of traditional music, the Potts legacy lay like a prophetic utterance of a desire within the traditional creative process itself to stretch the limits of the received tradition. Ó Riada’s search for ‘a native Irish art music’ may not in the end have sufficiently satisfied his own hunger for personal artistic expression, but in combination with a similar desire as enshrined within Potts’ music, both Ó Riada and Potts contributed something essential to the release of that music into a renaissance of international dimensions.