Evgeny Kissin is much more than pure sound and fury
Ashley provides his own words, and the patterns, repetitions and obsessions of the text is an integral part of the ritualised, rhythmically-driven, sound-stretching inflections that Buckner made so hypnotically fascinating. It might be best to think of what was offered at Béal as a kind of shaggy-dog story from a seanchaí whose delivery has been processed into music by a man who embraces both the preposterous and the profound with wit.
The other American composer in residence at the festival was Tom Johnson, although he has long since decamped to this side of the Atlantic to live in Paris. He gave an interesting talk about the seminal years he spent in New York when minimalism was emerging (he’s strict about differentiating minimalist music from the subset of it that he calls repetitive music). He also performed his quirkily appealing Counting Music (music from spoken number patterns), heard his Formulas for String Quartet ably negotiated by the ConTempo Quartet, and heard his specially-commissioned Tick Tock Rhythms performed by the voices of EnsemBéal – the idea, fully expressed in the title, proved stronger than the piece itself.
Béal’s directors, soprano Elizabeth Hilliard and composer/performer David Bremner, want their festival to be “all about finding alternative ways (no matter how rough and ready) of thinking and experiencing, building alternative combinations of words and music”.
Smock Alley provides a lovely space, but one that leaks sound internally (the Banquet Hall, where the performances were given, is acoustically open to the foyer below) and externally (traffic and sirens were a regular nuisance). It has a woolly acoustic that blurs words with alarming effectiveness, and lacks decent seating and heating. This is rough and ready beyond reason.
I was underwhelmed by the one piece I sampled by the new improvisation group TheOpenRehearsals, flummoxed by the gap between ambition and achievement in the scrawls and projections of Aodán McCardle’s ‘Níl’ ‘Abair’ – a set of poetry readings and improvisations using projection – and heartened by the mixture of the serious and the playful in Maurice Scully’s reading of his poems.
The new works that left the strongest impressions were Gráinne Mulvey’s The Seafarer (Elizabeth Hilliard with tape), and Ailís Ní Ríain’s Eyeless, a kind of adoringly reverential altar to the voice of sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird, with backing from EnsemBéal.
* You could think of Frank Corcoran’s new Violin Concerto (premièred by Alan Smale with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra under Christopher Warren-Green at the NCH recently) as a hard man’s homage to songfulness. The soloist cautioned the composer about music that sings, and the composer responded with a piece that he regards has having in its second movement some of the sweetest he has ever written.
Sweet, the actual piece suggests, is not quite Corcoran’s thing. A lot of his music is craggy, aggressive, harsh, as if the word rebarbative might have been invented to describe it. He often comes across as Ireland’s answer to Iannis Xenakis. The music of the Violin Concerto lacked his familiar stamp, and the milder manner – a witty reworking of Mozart in the finale notwithstanding – was like an ill-fitting suit.