Turning the public into composers at Dublin's City Hall


Composer Daniel Figgis’s new project is an interactive music installation located in a Dublin landmark

Imagine an acoustic environment housing a musical event in which movement creates multiple musical responses, and where those responses establish a symphonic peak – all of which is achieved without a musician in sight, without sonic manipulation and without voodoo.

Walk this way, then, into City Hall, a sonic experience created by contemporary composer and cultural curator Daniel Figgis, a man who is acclaimed internationally but curiously unheralded in Ireland.

Figgis used to be something of a rock star: in the 1980s, sometimes more terrible than enfant, he was a member of the Virgin Prunes before forming Princess Tinymeat (the band’s name was a reference to the actor Montgomery Clift’s nickname). He has long since shed those skins, however, finding more satisfaction and, arguably, creativity in areas that truly tax his ceaselessly curious mind.

“I’m no longer willing to play the class clown,” says Figgis in a Dublin bar, nursing a particularly insipid-looking glass mug of latte. Aged 51, and father to a ridiculously cute-looking baby boy, Charles (you will be lovingly shown baby photos unprompted), Figgis is a motormouth arts instigator of the highest order.

“It certainly served a purpose at a particular time, but my curatorial work has placed me outside the picture a little bit, looking at what really intrigues me.”

City Hall, which takes place over three days in the rotunda of Dublin’s City Hall, one of the city’s most architecturally admired buildings, is devised around recorded material, the arrangements of which are determined by the movement of audience members as they make their way through the space.

“It’s my attempt to finally interact,” says Figgis. “That’s an incredibly abused term, but I always point people back towards books, in that there’s nothing more interactive than deciding when or whether to turn a page.”

When you interact with events, he says, they’re generally rigged in one respect or another. For City Hall, he decided on a creative process whereby he provides a conclusion but not a path: whatever route an audience takes is out of his hands.

So what exactly happens? Each day the sounds accrete to a degree where a composition is arrived at, he says.

“On day two the composition from day one is fed in following the first gesture by the first audience member in the hall. Essentially, as you move through the building, you trigger sounds that are predetermined as a menu but not as a composition.”

So the audience composes the piece? “Yes, we’re equal partners.”

Figgis specifically chose the City Hall rotunda because of its awkward acoustics. Through attending various civic receptions and one concert (UK industrial/experimental duo Coil), Figgis realised the room suffered acoustically from a five-second echo.

“Wherever you are in the room, you have a five-second echo. If you can write a piece of music that exists happily within a five-second echo then all you need to do is to provide the signals and the room does the rest of the work.

“The problem is that you’re very close to ambient [music], and I don’t make ambient music – ever. It’s not in me. I try occasionally to do something mellow but I can’t – anything I’ve done that purports to be ambient hasn’t been that at all. It has always had a disruptive element.”

As Figgis has advanced in years it appears that sense of disruptiveness has not become more difficult to hold on to. “I’m far less fearful of the implications of things – now I just push and push and push. I’m a great deal more confident, and I don’t feel the need to prove anything in particular anymore, other than to myself.”

A second latte arrives. He is obsessed, he says, with the idea of making work of a sort he has not done before. “Which is extraordinarily difficult.”

His mantra, it seems, is this: “It’s all sh*t: today we’re sh*t; nothing happened; nothing worked; I’ve no ideas; it’s gone.”

A moment of reflection.

“I was saying that 25 years ago. The only time I didn’t feel like that was when I was 19, and I feel more like 19 now than when I was 19.”

Aside from City Hall, Figgis is involved with a forthcoming album, On the Nature of Electricity and Acoustics, which he says is a subjective judgment and appraisal of what has happened in Irish electronic music over the past 30 years. It is, he says, with a taut smile, “a compilation album for people who don’t like compilation albums, compiled by someone who doesn’t like compilation albums”.

Other recorded work will follow this or next year – as well as anything that engages his interest. “My background is in theatre, film, the humanities, and I’ve always had a compulsion to bring them all together. Unlike many people, I’ve never felt that one art form diminishes the other. I’m very ideas-led, and sometimes the ideas lead you to making work.

“If we’re talking gravestones and there’s room for just one word, then it’s composer.”

City Hall takes place on February 1st, 2nd and 3rd at the Rotunda, City Hall, Dame Street, Dublin 2. On the Nature of Electricity and Acoustics will be released on Naxos/Heresy in early March.

Three sonic installations

David Byrne, Playing the Building

This converts the infrastructural, physical elements of a building into a giant musical instrument. Devices are attached to the building’s structure that are then used to make these things produce a sound. For example, a device is attached to a heating pipe that causes it to vibrate and make a noise. The devices themselves do not produce sounds, the idea being that it is the building and its elements that are the instrument.

Susan Philipsz, Lowlands Away

This controversially won the Turner Prize in 2010, as Philipsz was the first sound artist to win what was previously a visual- arts award. Known as a “sound sculptor”, Philipsz won the award for a recording of her singing the traditional Scottish lament Lowlands Away under three different bridges in her native Glasgow.

Brian Eno, 77 Million Paintings

This is a multiplatform installation and a highly successful example of what is known as “procedural generation”, whereby images are randomly prompted, manipulated and juxtaposed on to an ambient soundscape, which is also randomly generated.

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