Tuesday 20 March 2018

Raymond Deane's Demons - the composer on his battle with drink and depression

Raymond Deane, one of Ireland's foremost composers, waged a long battle with drink and depression. As he prepares for a staging of his latest work, he spoke to our reporter

Deane of music: Raymond Deane describes his sobriety as a type of awakening. Photo: Tony Gavin.
Deane of music: Raymond Deane describes his sobriety as a type of awakening. Photo: Tony Gavin.
Raymond Deane with his partner Renate Debrun. Photo: Tony Gavin.
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

Raymond Deane and his partner Renate Debrun look knowingly at each other when I ask about the moment they first met. It was 1979, and Deane, a composer, had returned from Berlin where he had been killing himself, first slowly with alcohol and later, more determinedly, with a blade. Debrun, then 21, was in Bewleys on Grafton Street with a few of her friends chatting during the Holy Hour, when a "deathly looking person sort of staggered in, looking very morose" and proceeded to add booze to his coffee. Her friends introduced him to her and he held out his wrists, on which the scars of his recent suicide attempt were still visible. "He told me, more or less, what he had just done," she recalls. "I just looked at him, I didn't really know what to think."

Deane had displayed the wounds as "testimony to my life of sensitive martyrdom", he later wrote, and "if it was intended as an ambit of seduction, it failed miserably." He decided there and then that she was a "stuck-up prig." She regarded his display as a sort of eccentric self-indulgence. They went their separate ways but all through the years their mutual friends kept her abreast of his movements.

Deane would fall into an "intense but unconsummated liaison" with a married woman, and his life would continue to be dominated by his alcoholism. He drank in the morning, he drank in the middle of the night, he hardly ate. He was a gifted musician and composer, who even then had a national reputation - he became a member of Aosdana in 1986 - and had won a number of awards.

Unlike the other artist-denizens of Dublin of the period, his drinking was more or less useless as far as his work was concerned. "The work, looking back on it now, lacks chaos, which ironically I had in abundance in my life. I think heavy drinking may be compatible with being a visual artist or a writer but it doesn't work if you're a composer", he says. "Aside from anything else, you needed a very steady hand in those days to put the notes between the lines. I tried dope once but it didn't do anything for me. I tried magic mushrooms, but they just made me very horny!"

The only respite from his addiction would come from his trips home to Mayo, where he seemed to instantly and miraculously be able to dry out for periods. "When I was staying with them I'd go cold turkey. I would stay dry until it was time to go back to Dublin and start destroying myself again."

He spent the early part of his childhood on Achill Island, where his father was the manager of the local labour exchange and his mother was the principal of the local girls school. "We were kind of bourgeoisie. There was real poverty and I kind of envied those people running around in bare feet. There was a lot of mistrust of us, living in the big house."

His father, a cultured man who read Tolstoy to his children, was a heavy drinker too. "But this was kept from me, very skilfully", Deane recalls. "One time he came home and had to go to bed for two days and I was told he'd been at the doctor, who'd given him some bad medicine, but I was in my own world anyway so I didn't take much notice."

Raymond was a shy bookish child, who took to music eagerly and easily. "I became fanatical about music when I was about 10. When we moved to Dublin and the piano was left behind I was devastated. I used to go into Waltons on North Great Fredrick Street and take down little pieces of sheet music to play on the piano. The deprivation woke me up to the need to create music."

He loved all kinds of music, but in his teens became addicted to classical music. "Every time I came across a new piece of music I'd write something imitating it and I'd hide the pieces behind the radiator because I thought (composing) was a very sissyish thing to do."

He studied the piano at the then College of Music with Fionn O Lochlainn and went to school at Belvedere College, where he became the college organist. The year 1969 saw a performance of his Format I in the first Dublin Festival of 20th-Century Music. He would later study under such masters as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Gerald Bennett and Isang Yun. His blossoming relationship with his art was mirrored by his growing love of drink. It was, he would later write, "an entrance ticket to sociability . . . The ice had been broken, and would be broken repeatedly until I began to sink beneath it." The drink would also exacerbate his depression. In his autobiography, he recalls trying to drown himself in the Liffey by climbing down a ladder into the water and of waking up in hospital with multiple stitches for injuries, the cause of which he couldn't recall. His last drinking blowout came on Bloomsday in 1988. By then he was "pretty damn bad, I was almost like a tramp." He was in Kennedy's pub on Westland Row, ironically the place where he had also had his first drink. They would only allow him one drink and he took a taxi to St Patrick's Hospital, bouncing a cheque in Grogans on the way.

In his autobiography he reproduced hospital notes which describe his liver as being enlarged by "two finger widths" and which characterise him as "basically a loner, with no close friends". Staff at St Pats gave him "all kinds of injections and fed me up, and I had a counsellor." Once the delirium tremens had passed, the worst was over. "I never looked back. I never even had a momentary temptation, there was no transition. I was a dedicated drinker and then a dedicated sober person," he recalls.

He describes his sobriety as a type of awakening. His career would also gather renewed momentum. He was the featured composer at the 1991 Accents Festival and the 1999 Sligo New Music Festival. He was also the artistic director of the first two RTE Living Music festivals.

In 1995 he and Renate got together again. She grew up in the poverty of post-war Bavaria before moving to the "charmingly run-down and bohemian" Dublin of the 1970s. She is a visual artist and landscape gardener and they would also collaborate together on a few projects, including CD covers. They never had children together, as neither of them wanted any. "I didn't really like children for a long time," Deane says. "It's only now that I have reached grandfather age that I would maybe like one. I quite like watching children at play, whereas it would never have occurred to me 20 years ago."

He became something of an activist, championing causes such as ending apartheid in South Africa, liberating East Timor, and he co-founded the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity movement in 2001. He says that his dedication to these causes came, in part, from his childhood experiences. "There is a particular kind of strangulation, almost like a trigger, which brings me back to that moment in my childhood when I had that same feeling from people either bullying me directly or threatening to bully me if I didn't hand over some present I'd been given."

His latest work is The Alma Fragments, which will be performed on January 22 at the National Concert Hall. It derives partly from a 2013 opera he wrote, which centred on the story of Oskar Kokoschka and his famous doll. "That period, early 20th century Austria and Germany, has been a huge influence on my life and work", Deane tells me. "There was a lot of hothouse emotional excess in all of the arts of that period. I use stylistic elements from (that era) but I parody them."

He and Renate divide their time between Dublin - where they are tormented by the almost constant noise of building works near their home - and Germany, where they also have a home. They miss the beatnik Dublin of their youth.

"I suppose we remember it as even better than it was", Raymond says. "I think everyone does that with their youth. But I know one thing: I wouldn't want to go back to those years. I'm happier where I am."

The RTE National Symphony Orchestra and New York Philharmonic Assistant Conductor Courtney Lewis perform the world premiere of Raymond Deane's The Alma Fragments alongside Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances and Haydn's 'Oxford' Symphony on Friday 22 January at the National Concert Hall. Tickets from €15. See www.rte.ie/nso

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