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Mark O'Leary: Plucking the Flower

Eyal Hareuveni By

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Becoming a Musician

At the age of 15, I knew this was what I wanted to do—be a musician. I set the goalposts very high and decided that I wanted to study at http://www.mi.edu/ TARGET=_blank>Musicians Institute in Los Angeles. I went there while I was quite young, at 17. That was an incredible experience because there were so many older, more experienced musicians than me there, and you would get up in the morning and go to school and as soon as you were in the Institute's building, you were learning. Things that I needed to know, theoretical things, mainly, but ironically that's also where I discovered Karlheinz Stockhausen's tape music, Steve Reich, Gyorgy Ligeti and Bela Bartok and Ornette Coleman and all the jazz guys I had missed.

When I think back, I remember that the teachers every Friday would get up on stage without material and improvise—no structure, nothing written, just play. I found this amazing, and I ended up doing it a lot myself, but it was my first introduction to it and it inspired me quite a bit.

Mark O'LearySo I was there for a year, and when I returned to Ireland, that's where the major work began. I started to work as a teacher and I also discovered some very important music which I consider my strongest roots— Edward Vesala, Paul Bley, Tomasz Stanko and early Jan Garbarek. I liked his Triptykon (ECM, 1972). The austere melodies and rubato figures contoured my aesthetic. Vesala's stark melodies on Nan Madol (ECM, 1974), Satu (ECM, 1976) and Lumi (ECM, 1986), and the way the music evolved, the dynamic contrast, are really a music for the soul. It reached me and effected me deeply.

I love Stanko's early recordings. He is one of the great tone poets; Stanko always has a song in his heart. They, along with Stockhausen, Reich, Ligeti and later Anton Webern and Arnold Schoenberg really shaped who I am now. Even though I am always open and listening and learning from new music in all idioms, I would consider these artists of foremost importance to the shaping of my aesthetic as a composer and musician.

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Selected Projects

My first band after that was with local guys here in Cork—guitar, drums and electric bass, called the Mark O'Leary Trio. We played a mix of standards, fusion and free material. It was like doing a Master's program. It was a lab, a canvas, an arena for developing, but also some innocent fun, because the music was far from perfect. When that band finished, I decided that I never wanted to call another band that name again, because the music was very special to me.

The first project I did here was with Kenny Wheeler. I have always loved Kenny's playing and tunes, so I decided to bring him over to Cork for a concert project. It took some persuading, as I had no albums out and had not played outside Ireland or in the USA. Ironically, during rehearsals, he asked me if I composed anything for the concert. I hadn't, because I was putting everything I had into learning his music, but I started a few months afterward. I'm not the most confident person in the world, so the project with Kenny gave me the self-belief I needed to keep going. I am still very grateful to him.

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Matthew Shipp, Mat Maneri and Randy Peterson

The first recording project I did where I didn't feel like had to genuflect all the time was when I recorded with Matthew Shipp and Mat Maneri. It was just after 9/11 and things were incredibly tense, but I love New York and had to go to show my support to family and friends. That was a really positive experience. "Out of this nettle danger, we pluck this flower, safety," as Shakespeare wrote.

Mark O'LearyWe played at Tonic and The Kennedy Center. Three records came from the project. Mat and I made a trio with Randy Peterson on drums for Self Luminous (Leo, 2005). Chamber Trio (Leo, 2005) is with Matthew and Mat, and the new Labyrinth (FMR, 2009), which is dedicated to writer Jorge Luis Borges, is a duo with Matthew, whose playing on it is very different and special—it's very impressionistic. During the sessions with Matthew, Mat and Randy, we discussed the direction of the music a little before we played, but nothing was composed—we just played.

In Chamber Trio, one thing that did capture our imaginations during the recording is our mutual appreciation of Charles Ives. I have always been a big fan of his sonatas for piano and violin. I think, for me, there are moments on that album where I can hear strains of it permeating the music. The labyrinthine impressionism of the duo disc lends to its title. It was very profound—for me one of my deepest, most emotional—when I listen to that disc, I am still very moved by it. I love Randy's drumming. He is unique; his rhythmic editing and dynamism are terrific. His playing was the critical element, in terms of how the music evolved and enhanced the interaction between guitar and viola. Also, Mat refrained, of his own volition, from using electric viola on both projects. I like the juxtaposition of electric and acoustic instruments.

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