The participants were a collection of doctors from different disciplines and roles, from anaesthetists to GPs, all of whom are part of the Irish Doctors Orchestra and more widely the European Doctors Orchestra.
In my role as composer in residence in community hospitals with Arts for Health West Cork, I spent a lot of the Covid-19 pandemic interacting and creating music with older people living in the hospitals. Now was a chance for me to spend time with those on the other side of the curtain, the doctors who worked tirelessly through it all caring for people affected by the pandemic. I was fascinated to see how music making and creating work together would be a meaningful reflection on their experiences.
I received funding from the Arts Council of Ireland in 2022 to help make performance films of some of my musical works. The invitation from the Irish Doctors Orchestra to meet them on Heir Island and spend time playing together seemed a very fitting situation to record and film a performance of Brightly Burning Flame, a piece I wrote some years ago following the death of a close friend from Motor Neurone Disease.
I strived to create a piece of music that embodied the arc of a life lived, in the vibrations and patterns of cellular division and growth, the pulsing of heartbeat and lungs, but also in the overarching melodies of hope, grief, love, longing that are as much a part of the life as the physical and biochemical processes.
The doctors and I spent an afternoon together in a beautiful building called ‘The retreat’ with its views of the sea and surrounding islands. I felt a tangible sense that this was a moment of reflection and renewal for the players, each of whom had had their own personal experiences of the pandemic. As we worked on the music we spoke about the intention behind the piece and the players were very open and shared their thoughts and feelings that playing it brought about in them.
I had come up with ideas for how we would film the work, and throughout the process people shared their thoughts on this and ideas to add to it. We filmed two different takes, one with the orchestra all in the room playing, and then one with myself in an empty room with empty chairs conducting the piece to the void. The feeling behind this was to represent the emptiness that is left when a person dies, but also that the ‘song’ of their life carries on in the memories of their loved ones.
We then decided together to film short portraits of each player in colour (which would contrast with the black and white footage of the performance) which appear in the film every time the theme melody is played by different sections of the orchestra – in a visual way echoing the honouring of each life of each doctor whose journey had brought them to this place to make this music.
Artistic outputs included a recording and a film of the performance shot by Sean Phair and Alex Zanella. A short film documenting the process of making the piece was also created.
When the film and recording were edited and mixed they were shared privately with the doctors in order to get their ideas and responses. The response was very positive in all cases.
Some responses from the doctors:
‘I can honestly say I was blown away .. the film really captured something special. I was quite emotional listening to it! I really loved the moving portraits and the circular arrangement too. Well done to everyone involved, it was quite an achievement.’ – Julia O’Leary
‘It was a special privilege to be part of Justin’s creative process in honouring a past friend with such evocative music.’ – John McCaffrey
‘Both films are great. Such a great atmosphere. Music really works and I love the portraits of the gang!’ – Dave Tomson
‘Thanks Justin, it was a pleasure to be involved, great to see the wonderful finished product and I am glad to see in your editing that you had a viola player first and last.’ – Jane Passmore
‘This is fantastic! Great to see it come together, I’ve sent it on to everyone I know.’ -Aoife O’Callaghan
Documentation and Dissemination
The film, as well as a short film documenting the process of making the piece, are available to watch at https://www.justingrounds.com/brightlyburningflame