'The pleasure is always a beat behind the work'
EVEN IN University College Cork’s music building, a former 19th Century monastery overlooking the River Lee, the Seomra Gamelan comes as some surprise.
Visitors leave their shoes outside and enter a modest room with two immediately striking features: the first is a rotund pillar sprouting through the centre of the room; the second, elegantly manoeuvred around it, is a full Javanese gamelan; a variety of pendulous bronze gongs, squat kettle bonang, slim, twittering gendèr and wide metallophones, which a first-time visitor might mistake for small benches before realising that, here, everybody sits on the floor.
That makes no difference if you are one of several student musicians sitting by the ornately hand-forged instruments made for UCC in 1995, or if you are Mel Mercier, the energetic and sharp-witted head of school, composer, accomplished trad musician and theatre collaborator, who last week led rehearsals from the underside of a large goatskin drum called the kendhang. They were joined by Fiona Shaw, a long-time collaborator of Mercier’s, for a dramatic recitation from Jeannette Winterson’s collection of contemporary myths, The PowerBook, to be performed as part of this year’s annual gamelan concert in Cork Opera House. As they rehearsed, repeated and refined this retelling of the doomed love affair between Francesca da Rimini and Paolo, Mercier remained alert, warm and irreverent: “It’s all really happy face / sad face,” he instructed the musicians.
Gradually, though, the music became more nuanced, surging and retreating, then dying out completely before Shaw’s last, haunting line: “No one can separate us now. Not even God.”
The revisionist myths of Jeannette Winterson, which Shaw had performed before for director Deborah Warner in 2002, are not an immediate fit for traditional Indonesian music, so the sympathy between performer and musicians suggested weeks of effort. In fact they had been rehearsing for just one hour. It seemed fair to ask if Mercier and Shaw, who have collaborated together with Warner since the Abbey’s sensational Medea in 2000, if they had acquired a professional shorthand.
“No,” says Shaw. “Nothing is ever in shorthand. You just have to work like mad on everything. We’re always working ridiculous hours. We’ve achieved a longhand.”
“I think we do have an understanding,” says Mercier. “I don’t think we’d have continued to work together otherwise. There is a shared commitment to working and often knowing that it’s going to be very difficult. But you’ve got to keep going.”
That may be the underpinning to the gamelan concert, which this year involves a performance of Mercier’s 2004 composition for Gamelan, Telephones and Gongs, together with guest performances from Shaw, the cellist Kate Ellis and the dancer Colin Dunne. Clearly, they like doing things the hard way. “You move right into the tension,” Mercier says of such collaborations, which begin with little common ground. “That’s where the really interesting creative space is.”
The son of Chieftains musician Peadar Mercier and brother of playwright Paul Mercier, he first heard the gamelan as a student in Cork in the late eighties under the influence of his then professor Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, but didn’t encounter one until his masters degree in the California Institute of the Arts.
“It sounded very exotic and ‘other’ to me at that time,” he remembers. “Something about connecting the sound to the instruments helps you to appreciate it.”
If the Seomra Gamelan encourages a sense of humility, so does the gamelan’s ensemble: traditionally, every musician can play each instrument and there are no soloists or lead players. “There are no stars,” nods Mercier. “And there’s no conductor.” That approach, combined with room for improvisation, may also serve a theatre composer well.
Mercier and Shaw vividly remember the introduction of Medea, when a low undulating drone heralded Shaw to the stage, falling away sharply with her first word, “Ladies.” The jolting effect, Shaw recalls, was “like you’ve fallen out of a plane”.
“You can work with some actors and do exactly the same thing and it will go for nothing,” says Mercier. “But Fiona has an understanding of the rhythm. Fiona actually makes sense of it.”
It works the other way too. With the National Theatre of Great Britain’s Happy Days in 2008, Shaw and Warner asked Mercier for “the sound of someone crumbling from within.” Shaw turns to Mercier. “And you found it. It was amazing. It gave the audience a total experience.”
Warner, Shaw and Mercier’s next collaboration may be their most ambitious: a series of installations to be featured on coasts around Ireland and the UK, for which Mercier will compose a soundscape, lasting from dawn to dusk, while Shaw sources and records poems to embed within it.
When asked about the project, due to feature as part of the London Cultural Olympiad during the summer, Shaw responds with an almost primal yowl. They have, at least, discovered many things that do not work. “This is the turning point, I hope . . .” says Shaw, gamely, and turns to Mercier. “I don’t suppose you know what you’re doing?”
“No,” Mercier replies, sounding undaunted. “Not yet.”
Flexibility, though, has proven useful in Mercier’s practice, which he can sometimes make sound like a continuous percussion improvisation. “I get my pleasure through the work. The pleasure is always a beat behind the work.
“You’re just always moving forward. For a moment you can delight in it. And as soon as you’ve done that you want to move on. You want to get the next beat.”
Mel Mercier’s Gamelan, Telephones and Gongs is performed tonight at Cork Opera House