How Music Works: how Ensemble Music is breaking down musical barriers
Rob Farhat, director of Ensemble Music, on the company’s ambitions to challenge perceptions of what classical or contemporary music can be
Rob Farhat: “In order to attract a younger, wider audience, you do need to bring the presentation into the 21st century”
If it wasn’t for music, Rob Farhat might be living in Iran. His father, Hormoz Farhat, was the head of music at the University of Tehran but was forced to move when the Islamic regime took hold and subsequently banned music. So Rob’s parents moved to a safer place – Belfast, during the Troubles in 1979.
Later, his father took up a position as professor of music in Trinity College in Dublin, while his mother, Maria Baghramian is a professor of philosophy at UCD. Rob initially followed in his father’s footsteps, training as a classical pianist throughout secondary school with established pianists John O’Conor and Hugh Tinney, followed by a year at the Royal Academy of Music.
Realising his interest in music was broader than the classical, Farhat studied economics at Trinity but it wasn’t long before music took hold once again. A role as manager with the Trinity Orchestra allowed him to flex his music and marketing muscles. It was my first taste of the organisational side of music,” says Farhat.
When he joined the Trinity Orchestra, they were doing classical arrangements of popular music like Sigur Ros. Farhat organised the Orchestra’s first concert abroad to Berlin and organised a filming of a performance of Daft Punk’s Discovery which went on to receive 800,000-plus views. The Orchestra were subsequentially booked for festivals such as Forbidden Fruit, Electric Picnic and Metropolis.
A two-year stint as head of marketing for the Web Summit followed where he received some “high-level” marketing experience.
“I didn’t know what I was doing at first, yet I learned a lot in two years,” says Farhat. “But I missed being involved in music.”
Farhat met Rob Kearns, who was then working in production with Riverdance. They saw a gap for in Ireland for early-stage artists whose music doesn’t fit into the typical, traditional genre conventions.
“The way musicians are making music these days and the way people are listening to music has changed, and is increasingly going beyond the idea of genre,” explains Farhat.
“The music industry is still slow to catch up on that. It’s not that we have all the answers but we thought with the experience we did have, Ensemble was worth starting up.”
Ensemble Music was established as a one-stop shop music company, which would manage artists, bookings, marketing, produce events, and help them navigate the music industry’s tumultuous ever-changing waters.
Ensemble counts artists such as Sierra Leonean Irish soul singer Loah, the contemporary trad group Ensemble Ériu and contemporary music ensemble Kirkos on their roster.
Early on, they made a name for themselves through their ambitious varied events in unique spaces: Block B in Smithfield, the Freemason’s Hall, Belvedere House, the Dublin Food Co-Op and the Chocolate Factory.
“In order to attract a younger, wider audience, you do need to bring the presentation into the 21st century,” says Farhat. “It’s a way of challenging perceptions of what classical or contemporary music can be.”
Farhat mentions the Blackout series of events that took place the Royal Irish Academy of Music, featuring contemporary music from the Kirkos Ensemble and food by Gruel Guerilla, enjoyed in complete darkness.
“It was a multi-sensory experience that took people outside their comfort zones. The classical audience that came are used to sitting down and listening with two halves and an interval. The series brought in an audience who wouldn’t normally give classical music a go because they were taken in by the presentation or the food, the theatre or sound design elements.”
Ensemble moved into label services with the release of Mayo composer Conor Walsh’s debut EP The Front in 2015. Walsh tragically died of a heart attack in March this year at the age of 36. His passing was a huge loss to Irish music. Farhat describes it as “a devastating event”.
“Conor was an amazing musician and human being who was so humble,” he says. “I’m still learning how amazing of a human being he was since he died.
“It’s very easy to say it’s a shame we didn’t hear more from him but on the flipside, we’re lucky we got some music from him before he did pass away. His EP was our first release and it went reasonably well, but we made mistakes. I was kicking myself of having not done a better job of it.”
These days, the roles in Ensemble are more clearly defined. Farhat runs the company and focuses on artist management, Kearns focuses on event production, Tadhg Byrne of the band Meltybrains? and the club promoters Sim Simma looks after the event promotion, while his fellow Meltybrains? band member Brian Dillon looks after the label side.
Future events and plans for Ensemble include programming a stage at the Dublin City Block Party, a large-scale multi-label showcase event, a collaboration with Non Classical, a company doing similar things in London, and if things go well, a music venue, modelled on Café Oto in London, a bar and venue for emerging music with a DIY aesthetic and an eclectic booking policy.
This week, Ensemble will are jointly releasing the second album Imbas from Ensemble Éiru with Raelach Records, a decision that is about attempting to cast the net as wide as possible for the band’s music. Ensemble will promote to the contemporary and classical world, while Raelach will focus on the trad world. The band recently spoke to The Irish Times about their ambitions and their approach to music.
“We’re in this together, trying to achieve the same goals so it makes more sense to be both our names to it as it’s a larger potential audience between us. Ensemble Éiru also work with Improvised Music Company on their live production and they have a big jazz audience so between the three of us, we try and cover as much ground as possible.”
“We want to present music in a non-traditional way,” states Farhat. “Our idea is to help raise artists to a platform where they can start getting some traction abroad and potentially get signed to a bigger equivalent independent label.”
- Ensemble Éiru’s Imbas is out Friday, June 24th and is currently streaming on Fractured Air. The band play The Crane Bar, Galway on Thursday, The Sugar Club, Dublin on Friday and Cork Midsummer Festival on Saturday. More info on ensemble.ie.