Liner Notes: Waypoints

Also published last week, I was honoured to be asked to write an introductory essay for the Contemporary Music Centre’s new compilation release of recent works by Irish composers, New Music: New Ireland 4. The CMC is an extraordinary organisation, as good a promoter of contemporary music as you could hope for.

Living through a global pandemic— particularly the beginning stages—may have given us more cause to focus on the places where we were than we have had for some long time. A world that has become increasingly globally connected across the past century became suddenly isolated, and we were forced, one way or another, to become intimately familiar with the spaces around us. The shadow of Covid hangs over so much—even this release; a number of works here were written during periods of lockdown.

I listened to the album a number of times while writing this, and it’s an impressive collection, both in the quality of the music and in its scope. Here’s a direct link to the album’s Bandcamp page, where it can be yours for as little as €0!

Review: Tracing a Life’s Path

A new review published in the Journal of Music last week, of Johnny Óg Connolly’s beautiful and heartfelt tribute to his late father, An Cosán Draíochta, named after an Irish phrase meaning “the magical path.” It originally referred to the path connecting the island of Connolly Sr’s birth, Inis Bearacháin, to Conamara on the west coast of Ireland. The path could be walked at low tide, but the phrase quietly takes on a number of meanings

This is a work both mournful and cathartic. The idea of a magical path informs so much of the journey of the performance. Several times, Connolly returns to a slow tune named after Inis Bearacháin, and each time the music finds a unique path to escape to a brighter tune. This has often been my experience of concerts of traditional music, especially more formal ones like this; darker moods are met with sincerity and understanding, but are never made to seem permanent. You mourn, and then you live.

Sandman: True Stories

This post contains spoilers for later issues of The Sandman, the comic book and audio play series, as well as (if future seasons get greenlit) the Netflix TV adaptation.

Dream of the Endless is, ostensibly, the main character of the Sandman series of comics. He and his siblings—Destiny, Death, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium—are each both overseers and personifications of an aspect of humanity.

You can argue that Sandman isn’t about Dream or the Endless; rather that it’s about stories and storytelling, and that Dream is its most important character. Dream’s story is the main narrative, but it’s not the only one, and at times it’s set aside for other stories where he appears only briefly, in cameo if at all. As the series evolved, storytelling itself became a central theme. And in Volume 8, Worlds’ End, it also becomes a structural device, with Gaiman consciously acknowledging the Canterbury Tales.

In Worlds’ End, we hear a story from a character called Mistress Veltis. She describes an event from her youth, getting lost in the catacombs beneath her city, which led to her right hand becoming supernaturally withered. Veltis was a teacher in the necropolis Litharge, a vast city dedicated to the dead, and to performing all manner of funerary rites.

Veltis is telling this story to her apprentices, Hermas and Klaproth, but by the time we hear it she is long dead. Hermas, now an old man, is relating the larger story of his apprenticeship under Mistress Veltis, and stories she told her apprentices, and how they came to attend her body once she died. He’s telling this story to his own assistants, Scroyle and Mig (who have also told a story each), as well as Petrefax, a novice attending the funeral, gathered around a campfire.

And Petrefax is telling this all as part of his own story, at the inn called the Worlds’ End. He’s relating the story of his apprenticeship under Klaproth, where he was sent to attend a mountaintop “air burial”. His audience is the guests at the Worlds’ End, who are sheltering from a storm, and his is only the latest of many stories.

The framing story of Worlds’ End is told by Brant Tucker, who crashed his co-driver’s car in the storm during a business trip to Chicago, made his way to the inn for shelter and recovery, and listened to the stories there. But we discover at the end of the book that he’s—in that other great English-language storytelling tradition—telling this tale to a bartender.

That’s four levels of nested story—Veltis’s, Hermas’s, Petrefax’s, Tucker’s—all of which are part of the larger Sandman story that Gaiman is telling. And I suppose—with Gaiman as the fifth—there’s a sixth level in that I’m telling it to you. Nesting stories in this way lets us look outward from the story we’re reading to the story we’re living, and to the idea that some day this might be part of another tale we’re telling.

Around the campfire, after he’s spoken of Mistress Veltis and her withered hand, Hermas invites Petrefax to tell a story, but the young man declines: “I have no stories to tell. I have done nothing. I have met no strangers, visited no foreign lands, witnessed no miracles;I have no tales.” Later, of course, this admission becomes part of Petrefax’s story. There’s an injunction here to live, and in living to gather stories. (Much like the moral imperative of the harpies in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials: “Tell them stories. … They need the truth. That’s what nourishes them. You must tell them true stories, and everything will be well.”)

But it’s deeper than that: Petrefax sees his life as that of a normal young man, yet to us, not citizens of Litharge or of any necropolis, Petrefax’s life is far form ordinary:

I know cosmetics and taxidermy, and masonry, and all the funerary arts…

I can build a catafalque or make a paper wreath or boil a skull as well as any prentice in the necropolis.”
Gaiman shows us the mundane in the fantastical, and in doing so invites us to see the reverse. I think that’s central to Gaiman’s view of fantasy. It’s always grounded. The Endless are as old as time, but they bicker and fight as much as any family. People see wonders but never speak of them.

Death, Dream’s sister, meets everyone with the same respect and interest and love. The most touching moment in the series—adapted perfectly in the TV version—sees her taking an ageing violinist. It’s such a beautiful portrait of this character who we only meet for two pages. In this tiny space we understand him almost as well as anyone else we meet in the story.

The story of the Sandman features monsters, gods, ghosts, and demons, and always we see their humanity and their flaws. But when we meet people we see every one as unique. Gaiman puts all these beings on the same level to reinforce an important truth: There is no such thing as an ordinary life.

Review: The Road to Riverdance

Next is my review of Bill Whelan’s memoir, The Road to Riverdance. I wouldn’t exactly call myself a fan of Whelan, but I can’t deny the craft of his work, nor his sense of business:

It’s unclear from the book whether he knows it, but the text demonstrates Whelan’s skill for recognising opportunity, for knowing when to say yes; in short, for being an artist in business. It’s a skill he recognises in others too, acknowledging Kate Bush’s musicianship (‘She took our master piper, Liam O’Flynn, on a kaleidoscopic journey through the tune, adding a curl here, lengthening a phrase there, until they had crafted a superb performance’) as much as her business acumen (‘… she deftly navigated the notoriously choppy waters surrounding the James Joyce estate’ in securing rights to use words for her song ‘The Sensual World’).

The memoir is, well, a fairly typical memoir, but it’s interesting to see just how many prominent musicians’ orbits Whelan has floated through in his career.

Review: Who’d Ever Think It Would Come To This?

Posting a couple of links to some of my recent writing in the Journal of Music. First up, a review of “Who’d Ever Think It Would Come To This?”—an ambitious new cantata by harpist and composer Anne-Marie O’Farrell, with a libretto by war correspondent Ed Vulliamy drawn from real accounts of the Irish Civil War:

O’Farrell writes skilfully for the whole ensemble. Flourishes in percussion that enhance or unsettle a still chord; a ghostly tin whistle or uilleann pipe passage floating up from the centre of the orchestra. (It is a credit to the composer – and to the performer Mark Redmond – that these instruments, which often rub somewhat uncomfortably against the orchestra at large, felt utterly integrated.) The influence of film composers could be felt at times – bright brass chords in the vein of John Williams, or a motoric, almost jaunty passage for strings that evoked Bernard Herrmann. That latter passage is given a grim irony as the chorus sang of a brutal assault, ‘Tied him to the tail end of a motor car, / And pulled him behind for 3 miles.’

This was a very interesting work, and one that’s sat with me for some time now. You can still, as of my writing this, listen online.

Review: Drawing from the Well

Last Sunday I was lucky enough to attend, for the Journal of Music, the Irish Traditional Music Archive’s gala concert for their Drawing from the Well series at the National Concert Hall, Dublin. It served as a stark reminder that I should a) spend more time engaging with traditional music, and b) learn to speak my native language better.

But the concert was terrific. The word “gala” comes from a French word for rejoicing, and this was a true celebration of Irish music, past and present.

If the night had a theme, the theme was conversation. Talk and story are almost as important to the tradition as anything else, but there was never a sense that the audience was there (as Schoenberg put it) for purely acoustical reasons. The audience was as exuberant as the performers.

But the conversations were musical too. Alone on stage at the start of the gala, Aoife Ní Bhriain played the beginning of the sarabande from Bach’s D minor violin partita, which after a couple of minutes morphed into the fiddler Tommie Potts’ version of the reel ‘My Love is in America’. Ní Bhriain managed the stylistic changes so smoothly it was like watching a lenticular image change with slight movements; as though at any time each of the pair of tunes was there, one visible, the other hidden.

On Fossil Fuels and Arts Sponsorships

Speaking of climate change, Toner Quinn recently wrote about how fossil fuel companies use arts organisation sponsorships they use to greenwash their reputations.

The fact that [Galway International Arts Festival] was at the same time presenting art works that highlight the peril of climate change only compounds the irony.

When I asked the festival about these issues, it said that ‘The festival is on a journey towards a more sustainable future and is making step changes to reduce its impact on the environment.’ It outlined many of the admirable steps it is taking: sourcing 50% of its total energy requirements from renewable resources and reducing current waste production by 55% by 2025; using reusable cups in bars; promoting behaviour among staff, volunteers, artists and audiences that will reduce their impact on the environment; and working with supply chains to help deliver more sustainable options. But all of this is dwarfed when they take on a fossil fuel company as a sponsor.

“Sure, we’re providing cheap advertising to fossil fuel companies, but have you seen our reusable cups?”

Fossil fuel sponsorship in the arts has long been contentious, but we’re past the point where it should even be on the table for debate. The harm that these companies do is immense, and no organisation—particularly any with impulses towards social justice—should be doing business with them. Recent years have seen major British arts bodies pull away from sponsorship deals, as reported by Francesca Willow on Ethical Unicorn in November:

Organisations such as the Tate, Edinburgh FringeThe Royal Shakespeare Company, The National Theatre and the Van Gogh Museum have all ended major fossil fuel sponsorships in recent years. Just last week, at COP26, BP or Not BP? joined forces with Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir to challenge BP’s partnership with the Scottish ballet (yes, the dancer pictured above is me). Less than two hours later, the Scottish Ballet announced they were reviewing all partnerships.

It’s clear that these companies are nearing their end, despite desperate attempts to greenwash and aggressively lobby their way into continued relevance. They have no place within the arts and culture sector, and soon they will have no place among wider society either. It’s time institutions like the British Museum, the Royal Opera House and the Scottish Ballet got on board.

I see no reason why Ireland—or anywhere—should be different.

Weather Forecasters Report Unprecedented Trolling

From the BBC, in the truest “Not the Onion” headline I’ve seen in a long time.

Most of the abuse seems to have been prompted as links were made between the heatwave and climate change.

The UK saw record high temperatures on 19 July, with 40C exceeded for the first time. Dozens of locations saw temperatures above the previous UK record of 38.7C and 15 fire services declared a state of emergency because of a surge in blazes.

The Met Office estimated the heatwave had been made 10 times more likely because of climate change.

Review: Chimp

I picked the wrong time to announce my return to blogging, as July is set to be my busiest month. Still, there’s more to come as I get a few projects moving and/or finished.

That said, I wanted to flag my latest review in yesterday’s edition of the Journal of Music, since it’s really just me finding as many ways as I can to say “listen to this album.”

[The third and ninth tracks] act as a portal into and out from the middle section of the album, a sequence of five songs that function almost as a nested EP. According to Dramm, the seed of the idea was a doctor’s waiting room. ‘There is a TV in the corner showing a National Geographicepisode about monkeys. During the middle section, we go inside the TVand hang out with them.’ There’s a self-contained flow to this central selection, as the songs bring us to a psychedelic space of metaphor and liminal connection.

An Un-Disappearance, and Personal News

I have, I admit, been a very bad blogger of late—which is to say this’ll be my first post in (ulp!) four years.

Not much to say today, but a little news upstate.

I’ve been quiet here, but busy elsewhere. In terms of writing, I’ve done a lot of reviews for the Journal of Music. Too many for me to link four years worth, but here’s a couple of quotes from the most recent ones.

On Louth Contemporary Music Society’s performance of Michael Pisaro-Liu’s Asleep, wind, voice, poe:

Music like this resists narrative implications. Each section of the work is not a journey but a place. A new note, which may arrive after a couple of minutes of the same chord, feels not like a change in direction but like a change in weather. And with music this slow and delicate, the appearance of a simple major third in the strings has a surprisingly pronounced brightening effect; the addition of a single dissonant note in the bass of the piano gives a heightened friction. Throughout, you feel like your senses are especially attuned to small changes.

I’ve covered LCMS’s summer festival for the JM every year since 2017—except for the cancelled 2021 festival—so I was heartbroken to have to miss out this year, as I was self-isolating with Covid.

Last month, I covered “Totemic,” a release from the excellent Irish label Ergodos, featuring duos for percussion and viola:

Ironically, given its title, and unusually for an Ergodos release, Totemic feels like an album pulled in four directions at once. The forceful gestures of the Berio, Schlepper-Connolly’s cool trance, the tightrope walk of Moore’s piece, and the nocturnal stillness of Wilson’s each works in isolation, and I’ve found myself returning to each one alone several times.

And also last month, I covered Irish National Opera’s production of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda. INO’s approach is generally to stage radical performances of canon—or canon-adjacent—works. I’ve generally found myself impressed, though I think the ambition of this one exceeded its outcome, though the quality of the singing was extremely high (and Tara Erraught is always amazing):

I’ll always admire a production that takes risks and makes bold choices. This would have been easy to stage as a period costume drama but, while it may have been less incongruous, it also wouldn’t have given a deeper look at the characters. And for all the pomp of the show, it is Erraught and [soprano Anna] Devin’s commitment to their characters, to displaying their internal and external conflicts, and their extraordinary vocal prowess, that carries the opera to success.

If you’re interested in reading what else I’ve been catching, the JM keeps a list of my reviews here.

My other project lately has been writing music for games. I’ve got a couple under my belt, though unfortunately one was withdrawn from availability. If you’d like to check out my first, Haunted Bar, it’s available here.

I also wrote a track for the game String of Hearts. And I’ve recently finished work on an upcoming visual novel, My Grandmother’s Last Adventure, due for release soon.

Within the next day or two, I’ll have a new page on this site with music to listen to. Moreover, I intend to start writing here more regularly, so I’ll see you again in under four years.