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Former punk musician Brian Irvine is Belfast's first Music Laureate

Composer Brian Irvine has today been named as the first Belfast Music Laureate. The former punk musician talks to Ivan Little.

Belfast's newly appointed Mr Music, Brian Irvine doesn't fit the tired old stereotype of a stuffy, starchy operatic and orchestral composer.

And even if you were to take a pinch of punk, mix in a little dash of jazz, add a shot of rhythm and blues and stir in a spoonful of soul, you still wouldn't have the measure of this melting pot of a musician.

For the 49-year-old Belfast-born and Bangor-bred one-off is hewn from a very different mould, a livewire charmer who has involved policemen and paramilitaries in his musical projects and who has been described by one man who knows him as the most charismatic person he has ever worked with.

The same self-avowed admirer said of the former punk and showband musician: "He has a brilliant mind and a personality to match. Musicians would drop everything if he calls.

"There's no-one else here who even comes close."

Irvine is today named as Belfast's first ever Music Laureate by the city council and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland with a brief to carry out a series of musical duties and activities over the tenure of office of the Lord Mayor Nichola Mallon.

Last year, her predecessor Mairtin O Muilleoir appointed Sinead Morrissey as Belfast's first Poet Laureate and Brian can hardly wait to get in on the artistic act, to bring hundreds of people on board his musical bandwagon in community choirs, concerts and what he calls "operatic moments".

The crescendo of his ground-breaking projects will come at Belfast's historic Ulster Hall in a couple of months' time. Which could hardly be a more appropriate venue for Brian's high note.

Because it was at the very same arena that Brian's musical odyssey began in his teens as he watched his very first live concert, by the iconic blues guitarist Rory Gallagher, who made the Ulster Hall his second home.

"I remember the gig very distinctly as a life-changing moment," says Brian who studied music in America, England and at the University of Ulster, and for whom the offer of the Laureate's role came as a pleasant surprise.

"The officials explained that they want to use music as a means of engaging with people to create musical experiences which wouldn't otherwise happen.

"I was very excited and I came up with some thoughts on how I would like things to pan out and how to integrate them with what I was already doing."

One of the first initiatives will be that Ulster Hall musical spectacle called Bluebottle, which will be performed by up to 500 children from 12 Belfast schools and - budget cuts permitting - the Ulster Orchestra together with a live animator and a narrator to tell the story of a young girl who tries to get her father singing again.

Bluebottle has already had a critically-acclaimed run in Dublin with hundreds of children from Wicklow and the RTE National Symphony Orchestra on stage at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre.

Another large-scale Belfast multi-disciplinary performance will take place in T13, an old shipyard warehouse in the Titanic Quarter, and will feature a fusion of all sorts of influences from punk to classical translating the movements of BMXers and skateboarders and the like into musical pieces.

And a further unusual project which will be mounted by Brian's own production company, Dumbworld, will revolve around a series of short site-specific operatic interludes called Things We Throw Away.

They'll be staged in 20 different locations across Belfast from St George's Market to shopping centres and even street corners, with one of the pieces featuring a discarded ironing board singing to an iron.

And Things We Throw Away will be the chance for a newly-recruited community choir to do their musical bit.

"We're appealing for as many as 60 people to join the choir which will be based at the City Hall. They won't need to have a musical background and we hope that the choir will go on and have a longer legacy," says Brian, who is used to getting a diverse range of people singing from the same hymn-sheet.

In 2012, he did a massive music performance and art installation piece in T13 called Nest which tied in with the London Olympics involving 3,500 people who donated objects and mustering a 300 strong choir to sing with the Ulster Youth Orchestra.

"I believe that anyone can integrate into something that has a high artistic ambition. It's about creating something that is interesting and fascinating, not just something for the sake of involving people" says Brian, who for four years was the Associate Composer with the Ulster Orchestra, devising a number of pieces for them.

But he was also heavily involved with the Orchestra's education department. "I worked with over 2,000 people from children in residential homes to Alzheimer's sufferers, young offenders and people with learning disabilities."

But ex-prisoners, paramilitaries and former RUC men have also teamed up with Irvine for the development of a series of theatre pieces with music.

And at the Playhouse Theatre in Londonderry, he and another jazz musician, Sid Peacock, collaborated with four loyalist flute bands to explore their music-making and to create a new work dubbed Beyond the March.

Brian insists that he never tries to dictate what will come out of any of his musical projects, adding: "For me, it's always been about working with people to find something collectively. It's not about me telling people what to do. It's not outreach, it's engagement."

Trying to pigeonhole the eclectic Irvine is and always has been impossible.

He says he's been fascinated by music from his earliest years in the Shankill Road area of Belfast, where he lived before his parents moved to Bangor. He went through the almost obligatory punk phase in the Seventies playing guitar with friends in bands like Extension 449, but none of them rocked North Down or anywhere else.

He went on to play in a "weird" New Romantic electronic group called Third Party before joining showbands and wedding bands

But he recalls: "As I got deeper and deeper into music, I realised that it was a massive big playground and I wanted to have a go on all the rides. To me playing with my band was like going on the swings and working with an orchestra was like going on the witch's hat. And so on. And so on."

And even now Brian is still clearly happy on the musical merry-go-round. His tastes basically know no bounds and he has enjoyed sorties into everything from rock and classical to jazz and electronica. To him music is music. And he makes a living out of it.

Which he has done virtually since he stopped studying. "I went to London and I got a publishing deal after hoking my demos around the place," he says.

"But then I got more and more into composition and set up the music department at what was the North Down Institute with Willie Maxwell and we were working with young teenagers who didn't quite fit into the education system and just wanted to play in bands.

"It started with just seven students and one of the first meeting places was my mother's attic. But it just grew and grew into one of the biggest music departments in Northern Ireland, with more than 260 full-time students. My 10 years there were fantastic."

Members of Snow Patrol were among Brian's earliest students and he has worked with the successful band on a number of different projects. "Not on a production level," says Brian. "But rather on things like the Prince's Trust Soundlive programme. The boys came down without any major fuss and helped with a residential course I was running."

Brian has won major gongs for his jazz, but he also picked up a British Composer of the Year award for an opera he was commissioned to write by the Welsh National Opera.

The always busy composer, who's written a number of film scores, is justly proud of his 15-piece Brian Irvine ensemble, who have taken their innovative music all over the globe.

He knows that some people sometimes label his ensemble's musical extravaganzas as wacky and off-the-wall.

But he counters: "It's normally off-the-wall people who say that."

The proof of the pudding will be in the listening over the few months in Belfast but in the meantime Brian's work is readily accessible on YouTube.

His ensemble even feature in clips from Russian TV playing tunes like Tango on My Old Hitachi in a concert at the International House of Music in Moscow.

The TV report describes the ensemble as a "cult" improvisational band from Northern Ireland and it also includes an excerpt of Brian conducting the colourfully-clad musicians before trying to explain what he's all about to his Russian interviewer.

"If you took all the music that I listened to as I was growing up and put it in a washing machine and stuck it on and it all swirled around and spewed out - that would be the kind of music that we play," he says.

A career of great note ...

  • Born in Belfast in 1965, Brian's body of work includes everything from operas, orchestral works, large-scale oratorios, installations, film, theatre and dance scores to ensemble, solo, chamber works
  • He has been commissioned by many international orchestras and companies and has toured extensively with his own 12-piece ensemble
  • Among the awards he has won for his music are the British Composers Award for Opera and the BBC Radio 3 Jazz Award
  • He has toured extensively throughout Europe the USA and Russia, and has appeared at some of the world's leading international music festivals, including the Washington National Library of Congress, the Glasgow International Festival and at The International House of Music in Moscow
  • His work has also included composition and improvisation workshops with nursery, primary, secondary, and third level students, as well as amateurs, professionals, orchestras, disability groups, the unemployed, music teachers, care home residents, alzheimer groups and young offenders, among others

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