Áine O’Dwyer and I are the last customers in a cafe in Smithfield, Dublin, and she is telling me a story about learning to play the organ at St Mark’s Church in Islington, London. One Saturday morning she visited the church, as she often did, to record herself improvising on the organ. When she arrived, a man was vacuuming. Shortly after she began to play, he stopped, not wanting to disturb her, although she had actually been enjoying the mixture of organ and vacuum sounds in the large space.
As she tells me this, the staff of the cafe are also vacuuming, around our table. When she stops telling her story, the vacuuming stops too. Áine O’Dwyer is all about such coincidences.
Some of the recordings made at St Mark's wound up as a cassette, simply titled Music for Church Cleaners, released in 2012 on the Fort Evil Fruit label. This month, those recordings and a second batch of previously unheard improvisations are being released on English label MIE as a two-LP vinyl set.
The story of their origin is straightforward. After getting talking to the church sacristan one evening, on her way to a friend’s house, O’Dwyer began visiting St Mark’s roughly once a month to record herself playing the pipe organ. Although she didn’t tell the sacristan, she had never before played such an instrument, having been refused permission to learn by a nun at school who doubted her “angsty” teenage motives. The cleaners were there with her every Saturday, as well as a boot sale and a coffee morning for old ladies.
The recordings are unedited, slightly rambling, and heavy with a sense of the place where they were made. The church cleaners are an active presence, winding their way through both the church and O’Dwyer’s exploratory, hypnotic playing. One lady asks O’Dwyer if she might not hold the one chord for quite so long: “a request from the ladies”.
Rebellion against theory
O’Dwyer moved to London to do a master’s degree in fine art media, and she says the organ playing developed naturally as a continuation of the performance-based art she had been working on since her undergraduate days in Limerick School of Art, and a rebellion against the “suffocating” world of art theory. “I think the last year of my MA, I was just so browned-off with critiquing, critiquing, talking,” she adds. “I think that’s what led me to explore something in a very organic way. I didn’t talk about it, I just went. It was quite a nice adventure every Saturday. It was quite a meditative thing to do.”
O'Dwyer had never played the organ, but she is an experienced musician, having tried her hand at piano, tin whistle, flute and fiddle before she was a teenager. The piano was the only one that stuck until, aged 11, she began to play the harp. An ambitious and confident record, Anything Bright or Startling?, followed in 2013. Given her history as a member of transcendental folk outfit United Bible Studies, as well as the meditative drone of Music for Church Cleaners, it is a perhaps a surprisingly composed, structured album. It has a classical range, but remains rooted in natural imagery, often thanks to the old poems and texts that provide the lyrics.
“I quite liked the idea of working with lyrics that already exist,” she says. “They hold their own meaning and their own time and their own historical context. I’m coming from a place where you’re always thinking about referencing. It’s to do with sampling as well, or appropriating . . . Layering is quite a nice thing, layering of meaning. I quite enjoy that.”
Much of O'Dwyer's work to date has been an investigation into the slippage between the composed and the improvised, the planned and the unexpected. The fantastic, dreamlike sequences of Anything Bright or Startling? were often born out of improvisatory sessions, but framed tightly with narrative and metaphor. Music for Church Cleaners essentially removes that frame, and allows the introspective, escapist elements of the work to come to the fore.
“There are times when you lose a little bit of yourself in improvisation,” she says. “You’re dealing with your own kind of memory paths through music, and there’s a transmission there that’s going on. There’s lots of different states you can go into, different levels of consciousness, different levels of awareness. Sometimes you end up playing something and you don’t know what the hell happened there. It’s only when you go back later that you find out what was happening. It is definitely a meditation, whatever way you look at it.”
‘I DON’T LIKE APPLAUSE’: ÁINE DWYER ON . . .
. . . music lessons "It's a funny exchange. I often thought, they never showed me the inside of a piano, ever. I just think there's so much that's left out of the curriculum that would open up a lot to students if they were given a little bit more than the examination papers. It can be stifling, and it can make less sense."
. . . live performance "I don't like applause. I get very awkward. I end up doing this kind of dance. I always tell myself, just clap at the audience. It's great if you do that, it's nice, you're acknowledging them, but I never remember to do that. I find it a bit of an assault."