Conor Walsh: A self-taught minimalist piano composer

Obituary: His work earned comparisons to Philip Glass, Nils Frahm and Hauschka

Conor Walsh: June 6th, 1979 – March 11th, 2016. Photograph: Patrick Dyar

Conor Walsh: June 6th, 1979 – March 11th, 2016. Photograph: Patrick Dyar

 

A self-taught minimalist piano composer, Conor Walsh recorded mostly in isolated cottages in the west of Ireland. But his work earned comparisons to the likes of Philip Glass, Nils Frahm and Hauschka. What marked Walsh out as an extraordinary artist was his perfectionism, humility and ability to convey powerful emotions through simple melodies.

And his death came just as those talents appeared on the verge of receiving wider recognition.

Conor Walsh was born in 1979, the eldest of six children. His father Michael was a sound engineer with RTÉ. The family lived in Dublin and Sligo, before settling in Swinford, Co Mayo, where they took over the running of O’Connor’s Hotel, which had been in his mother Marie’s family for over a century.

As a teenager, Walsh was a fierce competitor on the Gaelic football pitch. An artistic side was first showcased when he and some friends formed an impromptu Nirvana tribute band, to honour the passing of Kurt Cobain. Classmates were impressed by Walsh’s mastery of complex guitar parts and soulful falsetto singing.

At the time, his musical tastes tended toward hard rock bands like Nirvana and Tool. But the record that changed his life was Aphex Twin’s seminal Selected Ambient Works 85-92, which he discovered when he was about 18. “He listened to it thousands of times,” his lifelong friend, the poet Martin Dyar recalls. “He came to regard it as a sacred document.”

Taught himself

As a child, Walsh had taken piano lessons, but chaffed at the rigidity of formal instruction. Touched now by an irrepressible urge to compose, he began teaching himself to play on the 80-year-old piano that sat in the lobby of O’Connor’s Hotel, where applause and feedback from random passers-by slowly lessened his performance anxiety.

He studied social care practice at Sligo RTC and worked with addicts in Sligo and Galway. But music was his obsession and, over many years, he developed a unique sound that fused elements of classical, grunge, electronica and DIY. He performed at festivals such as Electric Picnic and Body and Soul. His music was used on TV and radio.

But gigs were poorly paid, if they paid at all. Recording sessions were undertaken, but entire tracks and even albums were binned if they didn’t meet up to his exacting standards. Industry figures who crossed his path invariably offered the same advice: interact with your audience, wear a smarter shirt . . . But Walsh refused. He was determined his music should speak for itself.

His father died in 2007 and, soon after, the family moved out of O’Connor’s Hotel. But Conor stayed put, staging occasional gigs there to pay the bills. When the Hardy Bucks TV series was filmed in Swinford, the hotel served as their base and Walsh worked as a sound engineer on their production team.

Landscape and inspiration

During the recession, much of his peer group left Swinford and he was occasionally tempted to follow suit. But the west of Ireland was his home place, its landscape his inspiration. Where else could he disappear for two or three days of solitude, fishing on the Moy, Lough Carra or the Cong canal?

He faced the real sacrifices and occasional isolation of his artistic path with bravery and good humour. He never bemoaned his lot and was genuinely grateful for the positive attention his music received. He was naturally gregarious, close to his five siblings, adored by his two nieces and beloved by a wide circle of friends. The release of his debut EP, The Front, to widespread acclaim in October 2015, seemed a major step forward in his career. He was at work on a follow-up and there were plans for an album.

On the evening of March 11th, Conor had just cooked dinner at the family home in Ballinisland when he suffered an apparent heart attack, collapsed and died in his mother’s arms. He was 36 years old.

He is survived by his mother Marie, his siblings Dermot, Michael, Pearce, Fiona, Marieanne, and his two nieces, Beth and Alexandra.