Secret Lives of Professors: the composer

Secret Lives of Professors: the composer

Gerry with Esther Blood-Smyth performing James Joyce's 'Chamber Music'.

The day job:

Gerry Smyth is a Professor of Irish Cultural History at LJMU. He is also Principal Co-ordinator of Marginal Irish Modernisms. Along with academic events, the project group deliver public engagement activities including concerts, lectures, book discussions and plays.

The secret life:

Gerry is a musician, composer and playwright whose work typically centres around Irish literature. He also formed a sea shanty group, called The Rock Light Rollers who performed shanty flash mobs across Liverpool.

Gerry’s love of music was first expressed in the same way that many musicians and composers start out – by picking up a guitar and forming a rock band. After studying literature, however, his music would forever be shaped by this other passion.

Gerry’s fascination with drama led him to compose pieces for the theatre including incidental music and accompaniments for on-stage performances. He then discovered a way of expressing his interest in poetry by setting text to music. Having composed new versions of the lyric sequence of James Joyce’s ‘Chamber Music’, Gerry is now working on an album of original settings of poems by W.B. Yeats. We asked him about the process for composing this type of music:

“When it comes to setting a text there are many issues to consider – technical issues such as length, metre, and so forth; but also more impressionistic ones such as the mood and meaning of a poem. It’s usual to try to imagine a sympathetic musical equivalent for that mood or meaning. The technical stuff can be learnt to a great extent – issues to do with key signatures and tempo and phrasing and so on. The other stuff is more connected with that elusive thing called inspiration. Sometimes it comes, sometimes it doesn't; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.”

Most of your work focuses on Irish literature. What about it appeals to you?

“I work predominantly on Irish literature because I grew up in Ireland during the 1960s and ‘70s, and I was drawn towards the work of writers who had attempted to engage with and represent an environment with which I was familiar. When I first came to Liverpool in the 1980s I studied English at the Polytechnic – which of course is the precursor to LJMU – and my undergraduate dissertation was on Irish literature. I followed that with an MA and a longer thesis on Irish literature of the 1930s, and then went on to do my doctoral research on Irish literature of the 1950s. I was moving closer to my own period all the time in an attempt to understand my own condition.”

You are also a playwright, can you tell us a bit about your more recent work?

“With some colleagues from the Drama department at LJMU I formed the Liverpool-Irish Literary Theatre in 2011 with the goal of writing and producing original material of Irish literary interest. In the last seven years we have performed in venues across Europe, including Vienna, Trieste, Prague, Lille, Salzburg, Aberdeen, Waterford, as well as extended runs at the Edinburgh International Fringe Festival in 2012 and 2017. We’re off to Nijmegen for another performance in July – this time of a new play about the Irish writer Brendan Behan.”

How do LJMU students benefit from the plays you put on and the other work you get involved in?

“All the creative work I undertake is grounded in my research, which in turn grows out of and feeds back into my teaching activities. For example, my last play was called Nora & Jim, and it was based on a series of letters between James Joyce and his partner Nora Barnacle in 1909. The material for this play emerged from research I undertook for a book I published with Manchester University Press in 2015 entitled The Judas Kiss: Treason and Betrayal in Six Modern Irish Novels; and that book itself grew out of ideas first encountered and explored on English undergraduate modules such as Modernism, Irish and Scottish Fiction and Our House.”

“I think creativity is perhaps the most important attribute we can foster in our students – not just in a performative context but in relation to their identities as students, in their critical response to culture of all kinds, and in the sense of themselves that they bring forward after graduating. It’s not a general social panacea, but in my experience creativity generates a positive energy which benefits the self and the community. It’s definitely the best part of my job.”

Nora and Jim actors

Nora & Jim written by Gerry Smyth and performed by two former LJMU Drama students: Jade Thomson and Tom Galashan.

You also perform with a sea shanty group at events across Merseyside. Can you tell us a bit about how that came about and the history of the shanty in Liverpool?

“Liverpool was once a key location within the global maritime imagination, and that status was reflected in different musical traditions. Shanties were simple call-and-response songs used aboard ships until the end of the age of sail. They helped the crew to focus and co-ordinate their efforts.

“I live in Hoylake in Wirral, which is where Stan Hugill, sometime known as the ‘Last Shanty Man’, was born and raised. Hugill went on to be the foremost modern collector of shanties, especially ones relating to Liverpool.

“My academic interest in shanties led to an interest in their musical and performative qualities, so along with some friends from Wallasey I formed a shanty group, called The Rock Light Rollers. We’ve recorded one album of Liverpool-based shanties and performed at a wide range of events across the region, including a ‘Shanty Mob’ as part of the AHRC’s Being Human festival, and for the TUC conference in 2014.”

Find out more about Gerry’s work with Marginal Irish Modernisms and watch some of his performances of James Joyce’s ‘Chamber Music’.

If Gerry’s story has inspired you and you’d like to find out where studying English Literature or Drama could take you, why not take a look at the courses on offer at LJMU?

The Secret Lives of Professors/Lecturers series aims to celebrate the unique lives of the academics who make Liverpool John Moores University an amazing place to study. If you know of a lecturer who has some interesting side projects or great stories to share, please get in touch.


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