Brian Irvine Strikes Up the Bland

Inspired by Carnmoney's aviation pioneer, the composer explores the science of creativity with help from the Ulster Orchestra and 200 female singers

The educational system nowadays places great emphasis on the central role of 'creativity'. The Oxford English Dictionary defines creativity as 'the use of imagination or original ideas to create something'.

As the last century progressed, a distinct change took place in how education, the act of learning, could in itself encourage creativity and therefore enhance the educational outcome.

A dichotomy occurred between what was seen as the often dull, tried and tested didactic formulae, and the more innovative freedom of self-expression and auto-didacticism. Putting it in perhaps overly simple terms, people were encouraged to find things out for themselves through questioning rather than be told the way to get a 'right' answer.

In the early 19th century, an Italian educationalist called Maria Montessori propounded a theory that education in the broadest terms began crucially in the child’s early years. 'Education is a natural process carried out by the child and is not acquired by listening to words but by experiences in the environment…plainly, the environment must be a living one, directed by a higher intelligence, arranged by an adult who is prepared for his [/her] mission.'

Lillian Bland 2

Lillian Bland

Montessori focussed her ideas largely but not exclusively on music, but she was criticised by some for her highly structured approach and, ironically, the perceived lack of opportunities for creativity when the child works with various prescribed materials.

So what was the difference between that and what had gone before?

It was the new focus, the structured exploration of the process of learning and the importance of individual creativity in that process, rather than the emphasis on the product which could be seen as the result merely of an unimaginative, mindless mass.

In the world of the Arts, the balance between process and product has always been delicate and fragile. In the second part of the 20th century, an imbalance occurred, partly as a result of the rise of the 'process art' movement of the '60s, which was a reflection of the huge change in social attitudes of the time. One of the unforeseen repercussions, however, was that it indirectly encouraged artistic endeavour, or perhaps more correctly, the outcome of artistic endeavour, to be classed as 'elitist' in a disparaging sense.

Lilian colour a9

Photograph by Lillian Bland, which she had tinted to give the illusion of colour

This was not the original intention. But, unfortunately, the consequent 'community arts' movement led the charge with its hijacked, headline banner of 'process not product', seeking a populist appeal which, with a blunt swing of the pendulum, provided the polar opposite of the equally mistaken past – 'product not process' message.

A work such as Brian Irvine’s Anything but Bland, which receives its two premier performances in Belfast’s Ulster Hall on Wednesday, February 15, is a perfect example of where meaningful, artistic balancing of process and product comes into play.

Most obviously, the subject matter arouses interest and challenges both listener and performer to find out what it is all about. Yes, Lilian Bland – the Carnmoney-based innovator who in 1910 became the first female in the world to design, build and then fly her own plane.

Inspirational even at that level.

But Irvine and his imaginative 'librettist', John McIlduff, are keen to explore that story in relation to other aspects of communal life here in Northern Ireland – the place of women in our society, and further still, the place of women in the wider context of scientific research. The latter explains why this new work is opening the NI Science Festival.

Lillian Bland 1

It was Irvine’s intention, as an artist and musician of flair but also of proven technical experience and ability, to work personally with his more amateur forces in rehearsal to ensure that 'the process' is given due consideration but also that 'the product' is of an artistically high quality.

This ensures that his specially assembled, female community choir of all ages are guided through the learning process with creative energy and with artistic sensibility – and, I would imagine, a good deal of fun as well. The presence of the Ulster Orchestra’s professional services and the production of multidisciplinary company Dumbworld, of course, helps to ensure also that the product is, again, being given balanced consideration.

This all fits neatly with Montessori’s advice from the last century.

Irvine chose the title of his new work as a subtle encouragement to all of us to remember that whatever we do in life, it need not be dull and boring. And, it would have to be said that Brian himself is anything but bland!

Anything But Bland opens the NI Science Festival with two performances at the Ulster Hall, Belfast on February 15, at 6.30pm and 8.30pm. Tickets are available from