‘Total freedom’: Kirkos get experimental in a former hair salon in Dublin

The ensemble can take chances in their Prussia Street home, as well as helping others, such as by hosting the premiere of a David Bremner opera

Sebastian Adams is not trying to save the world. Well, probably not — his website does list “music in the climate crisis” as one of the issues he’s thinking about. But he is trying to protect anyone intent on performing experimental music from the kind of problems he’s had to grapple with as a composer and as artistic director of the experimental new music ensemble Kirkos, which is now 10 years old. This issue could be summed up as saving composers, planners and players some of the pain of having to crash in other people’s performing spaces.

Kirkos, which started off as a student ensemble at the Royal Irish Academy of Music (RIAM) has given concerts in architectural treasures (Farmleigh House and the Irish Architectural Archive on Merrion Square), churches, clubs, theatres, galleries, a train station, the National Concert Hall’s Kevin Barry Room (pre-renovation) and Studio, as well as, pre-pandemic, a place it for a while could call its own, a Dublin City Council Incubation Space at 5 James Joyce Street.

None of those places come with much of the kind of infrastructure that Kirkos need: audio and video equipment, recording and streaming facilities. The ensemble did find ways of turning some of the situations to their advantage. The long walk from the front door of RIAM on Westland Row to the entrance of the Katherine Brennan Hall at the back of the building inspired the idea of giving blackout concerts, events where that long walk was turned into a late-night walk in the dark before concerts performed with almost no lighting; they even gave listeners different selections of food to be consumed in the dark to match the character of individual pieces.

But their new space, Unit 44 at the Park Shopping Centre at the north end of Prussia Street, is what Adams calls “a game-changer”. It’s not exactly the description you might expect when you realise that the building, which fronts directly on to the street, is a former hairdressing salon.

“Probably the most important thing,” he says, “is that it allows us to leverage the money that we’re getting from the Arts Council to help a lot of other people who aren’t getting money from the Arts Council. That’s because when we’re paying for the venue already, it costs us very little to have a staff member there for four hours and run a gig. So somebody else goes from having nothing to having a technician, a venue, a backline or equipment or whatever, and a recording. Because we have a fully set-up live-streaming and recording situation, which is literally like one button to record a concert. That’s the single most important factor. That turns what we’re contributing to the arts from a small thing into a very big thing, for very little money.”

The day I visit I find the composer Donal Sarsfield at work with theatre and opera director Tom Creed sitting in. The white walls are lined with loudspeakers. The chequerboard floor is distinctive and eye-catching. The ceiling is festooned with microphones and a compact control desk takes up very little space in a venue that can accommodate up to 50 people.

The big drawback is clear. There is no real acoustic isolation from the street outside, which is on a number of bus routes. All you have to do is think of wind and rain and wet outside to know that intrusive sounds are inevitable, just as they were before the NCH’s Kevin Barry Room got its facelift. But, post-facelift, that venue has been a desert for the kind of experimental work that was once allowed to thrive there; and, back then, it never had anything like the facilities Kirkos have now built in.

What Kirkos gets from Unit 44, says Adams, is “total freedom to try whatever we want, without pressure. We can try something just to see what happens. So can a lot of the people who work with us.” They’re no longer constrained by a situation in which “all the setup and rehearsal has to be done in the smallest amount of time possible, because it’s all about the amount of money you’re spending on your event”.

They have effectively upended the cliche that time is money. “If we think something is going to be complicated,” he says, “we can try it a month ahead, find out it doesn’t work, try something else. It gives us all these options to try much more complicated or one-off or sophisticated things that would be really risky in a paid venue situation, or when you’re going into a venue that you’ve hired for one day.”

There are other advantages. “It’s always our own staff,” he says. “We’re not dealing with sound engineers we don’t know, or a venue manager who we mightn’t have met before. And, segueing from that, it makes it so much less work to put on one gig. The absolute minimum it would take to put on a gig now is possibly two emails and then Paul [Scully] turning up on the day to let someone in. Literally.”

It’s not just a saving of time and money. He sees it as a powerful lever to improve productivity. “We’ve just moved the limit of what we can do [he struggles for the words] really hugely ... ” He laughs at himself when he finds his words falling short of the enthusiasm he feels and wants to convey.

Adams may have taken inspiration from what he encountered during time spent in Vienna. “One thing in Vienna that really impressed me — shocked me, even — was that all of the important concert halls and even non-arts spaces, they all seemed to have a venue that was specifically for weird stuff, for stuff that was maybe by unproven people, or that just was experimental. These were specific spaces that were very well-specced. But the most important this is just that they were there.”

Recent weeks at Unit 44 have seen A Clatter and Drone’s debut single and music video release, Kirkos’s first spatial music concert (an open call yielded works from Ireland, the UK, New Zealand, Colombia and Brazil), a Bloomsday sound installation by Danny McCarthy, and an improv jam (the host changes every month and it’s a gig for jammers without audience). And from July 28th-31st, Kirkos give eight free concerts over four days to celebrate their 10th birthday with “everything from Fluxus Open Mics and music for zippers to brand new music by some of Ireland’s most exciting composers”.

Before that, though, Béal presents four free performances of Slow Recognition, a new opera by composer David Bremner. It’s a collaboration with director and dramaturg Hélène Montague and designer John Comiskey, and is being performed in the round with a cast of three (soprano Elizabeth Hilliard, mezzo-soprano Naomi Louisa O’Connell and baritone Rory Musgrave), with Andreea Banciu (viola) and Bremner himself doing live electronics.

The space, says Bremner, is “ideal for the piece, because of the style. I’m calling it a OuLiPo opera” — after Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, the French group of writers and mathematicians.

“It’s very much about a playfulness with independent small units of material,” he says, “little gobbets of expressive opera, reconfigured and recombined into different units.” For him, “The look of the Kirkos space, with its lovely chequerboard floor, has a kind of David Lynch vibe”, an aesthetic he feels will really suit his work.

He says, “It’s going to be very immersive as an experience, which again suits the material. They way we’ve worked it, it’s almost cutting out all that extraneous or extra material, the connective tissues that are oftentimes in opera. So it’s just the key words creating this fluid environment with little expressive atoms that combine in different ways. Fluidity of the environment is what we were looking at.”

He likes the scale of the space, too, because, “In a really small space like that, in the round, the audience not just surrounding the performers, but really very close to them, and very close to the sound as well ... it’s going to be quite full-on, a really quite intense experience.”

He has nothing but praise for the new venue. “It’s fantastic work Kirkos are doing there, the whole DIY aesthetic. People were talking a lot about that kind of thing maybe 10 or 15 years ago. It seems to have trailed off slightly. It’s becoming very difficult to do more independent-type work. So I think what Kirkos are doing, what they’ve managed to achieve with that space is fantastic. It’s nice to be putting stuff on there. The variety of what they put on there is great. It’s nice to be a part of that.”

kirkosensemble.com, davidbremner.net

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan is a music critic and Irish Times contributor