Friday, March 6, 2009

Support Your Local Composer (I): Ear-Plugged!

It occurred to me recently that my blog seems to be only showcasing music produced by foreign composers, something which must no doubt get up the nose of fervent patriots everywhere. They may roar indignantly: “Surely now, Irish music isn’t all Big Tom, U2, and ‘Ripples in the Rockpool’? As a nation, we must be capable of producing the occasional slice of avant-garde amusement?” And indeed there is a healthy, if not very well-publicised or supported, undercurrent of contemporary composition and experimental Improv churning away out there, occasionally surfacing from the depths on Lyric FM, like a coelacanth, before vanishing again. If you think I’m being a little theatrical here, let me ask you this: how many people in Ireland, at a rough estimate, could name five living Irish composers who aren’t Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, Bill Whelan (of Riverdance fame) or Shaun Davey (of The Brendan Voyage)? Yet there are dozens of them out there, squirreling away in their garrets with laptops, peculiar wind instruments, metronomes, or whatever, making music which at its best can stand proudly on the international stage. To cite one example, composer Jennifer Walshe has written three experimental operas which have been shown to huge acclaim in Germany, but have never been performed in Ireland (I’ve not seen them, I hasten to add, but know of them through The Journal of Music in Ireland, a stalwart publication which remains the best (in fact, the only) guide to Irish contemporary music. It’s available online here). So my (extremely belated New Year’s) resolution is to write more about the Irish contemporary scene and attend as many concerts as I can throughout the year (provided the country’s economic collapse doesn’t overly impact on me!). Support your local composers!
In that spirit of discovery, I went to the Ear-plugged Festival of New Music held in Dublin recently (due to my own negligence, I only discovered that the festival was on a few days before it started (note to self: check CMC calendar here more frequently!)). [More information on the EAR ensemble, who run this event, can be found here.] However, because of a rather nasty dose of stomach cramps on Saturday, I only got to attend two of the concerts on Friday, and entirely missed Thalassa-Muir-Sea, the multimedia performance that was being premiered on both nights. Heavens to Murgatroyd! More information about the festival can be found here.
First mention should go to a piece of sonic sculpture made by Iain McCurdy just inside the door of The Lab on Foley Street, the very modern building where the festival took place. On the floor was a black mat, about two feet wide and an inch high, with tiny sensors fitted in a circular pattern in its surface. Over them was a magnetized eight-ball (from a pool table) suspended on a string, hanging just over the mat like a pendulum. Each sensor was programmed so that, as the ball passed over it, a musical sound was produced (all sampled from a classical guitar). If you took the ball and swung it gently, so that it passed over several sensors at once, the different samples created a musical phrase which was repeated each time the ball completed an arc. But as the ball slowed down, it would pass over different sensors, so the “composition” being created by the rhythmic swings of the ball would also transform (and as the ball’s swings became slower, the sounds made became softer). It was a very simple idea in one way, but in practice it was absolutely hypnotic both to watch and listen to. The creator, whom I spoke to, told me how difficult it was to get a ball of the right size and weight to get a good swing, and how precisely it had to be placed so that the magnet wouldn’t simply pin the ball to the mat. The black eight-ball was a serendipitous choice as it both fitted the look of the exhibit, and with the eight turned on its side thusly ∞, it evoked as sense of entropy and endlessness, as well as a sense of play and repetition (what is a pool game but an endless series of repetitions?). It was a delightful piece, and well done to its creator. A not-very-good photo of the installation is below.

The first event I attended, after a certain amount of confusion as to where it was actually happening, was Friday afternoon’s electroacoustic concert, featuring works by Eduardo Reck Miranda, Simon Emmerson, Diego Garro, and Trevor Wishart (all UK-based composers of varying nationality, none of whom I was familiar with). There were only a handful of people there, which was a shame. What is an electroacoustic concert in this context, I hear you ask? Simply put, it’s a guy (in this case, Irish-based Brazilian composer Victor Lazzarini) who selects and plays CDs through a set of twelve speakers and a mixing desk, allowing him to control the volume and direction of sounds being fed through the speakers. Being used to my everyday stereo, it was a pleasure to hear experimental compositions being played in such a fashion; the superb quality and multi-directionality of the surround-sound system allowed the compositions to come to life in a way that’s difficult to achieve except on the finest of home systems.
But what of the music? Trevor Wishart’s The Division of Labour (from his ‘virtual oratorio’ Fabulous Paris (sample here)) was by far the most interesting: he took a passage from Adam Smith’s seminal text The Wealth of Nations about the manufacture of a pin in a pin factory and ran it through a series of remarkably inventive distortions, scything it up into unrecognizable fragments, reversing it, layering or burying it under noise to produce a thoughtful, fascinating, and at times rather funny piece of music. Of all the pieces, it’s the only one I’d be really interested in hearing again. The others were stimulating but not wildly exciting experiments. Miranda’s robotapithecus was described as “a choir of virtual singing robots punctuated by cries of mutant chimpanzees, baboons, gorillas, and orang-utans”, in which he seemed to be artificially synthesising natural vocal sounds through computers. It wasn’t quite as interesting as that would have you believe, although it did evoke an at-times otherworldly ambience (and the opening sounded very like Stockhausen’s Kontakte). Garro’s O que a menina ouve (which won first prize at the Bourges 32nd Festival of electronic music) was the evocation of a child’s world through sonic means; much of it was quite funny and inventive, but (like Miranda’s piece) it felt strangely secondhand, utilizing a sonic palette and technique that I felt I’d heard before without being able to pinpoint exactly where. The second half of the piece, with the sound of running water, strange electronic whispers, and animal- and bird-sounds (real or not?) was quite mysterious and atmospheric (in my notes I describe a particular sound as being “like a troll yawning”). Emmerson’s Frictions I found rather dull; based on the four elements and the horrors of conflict, I found his sound-world derivative and programmatic, reminding me a little of Thomas Koner but lacking inventiveness and intensity. Later, however, I heard a woman speaking to Lazzarini who said that Emmerson’s piece had moved her the most. Each to their own, I suppose! But all four pieces were definitely worth hearing, which makes me regret not being able to attend Saturday’s concert, and I’d highly recommend seeking out Wishart’s work (more information here). In the end of the day, like any contemporary art show, some of the pieces will impress more than others, but if one worthwhile discovery is made, the trip isn’t wasted.
Later that evening I made my way back into Dublin’s city centre from my sister’s house (where I’d spent much of the afternoon capering about to keep her two-year-old amused while she got on with household chores) and attended the early evening concert, which featured six short pieces from as many composers. All the pieces bar one were for computer/tape and a single soloist on one of the odder members of the brass or woodwind family (such as the bass flute, the slide trumpet, and the bass clarinet), except for the last piece, Uwe Storch’s Tron, which had three soloists on said instruments. Judith Ring’s Whispering the Turmoil Down for bass clarinet and tape, which can be heard here, is both representative of the type of music played (a soloist playing almost melodic fragments over an ebbing, moody undercurrent of electronic sounds) and the best piece played in my opinion; she evokes a haunting, mournful atmosphere through the exploitation both of tape sounds and the wonderful timbre of the bass clarinet (a fine instrument!). I felt the other pieces, while interesting, were less compelling, although John Lato’s Orographic Meta-Study was more inventive and lively than most, and a mention should be made of the strange technique used in Derek Kelly’s K’ark, in which the computer seemed to be taking phrases played by the clarinet and repeating them, so one had the disconcerting experience of music being produced even when the player has put down her instrument. The long final piece, Storch’s Tron, brought to mind the strange Eastern-tinged music of Giacinto Scelsi, and was described as an attempt by the composer to “capture … a moment and place of near endless time, but of much inner motion.” I’m not sure if he did, to be honest, and like all the music presented here it was merely enjoyable rather than groundbreaking or riveting, but it was definitely worth catching. I was extremely disappointed that my inconstant guts prevented me from travelling to Dublin the following day, as I feel I missed an opportunity to hear some fine music. And if any of the composers read this, is there any chance of sending me some CDs or MP3s (or whatever it is people use these days to exchange music) as I’d love to be able to listen to some of these pieces at my leisure? Or, with their permission of course, post them on my blog for the gratification of my readers?

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