Mike Nielsen and Ellen Demos: Microtonal Sound Recipes review – A brave new world

Nielsen’s artistic courage now places him among the most intrepid pioneers in jazz

Microtonal Sound Recipes: Multiple Layers
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Artist: Mike Nielsen, Ellen Demos, Shane O'Donovan
Genre: Jazz
Label: Modal Citizen Records

An impulse during an improvisation 20 years ago caused Mike Nielsen to pluck the strings on the far side of the bridge of his guitar and in what he calls his "eureka moment", he heard a note that did not occur in the standard 12-tone system of western harmony.

That “microtone” marked the beginning of a journey for the restless Sligo-born guitarist involving intense study and the necessary creation of his own microtonal instruments.

Nielsen's companion on that journey has been American-born vocalist Ellen Demos, whose lithe, liberated vocals deploy a repertoire of words, sighs, shrieks and moans, and this astonishing, disruptive, often unsettling album is the result of two days of fearless microtonal improvisation by the pair.

Percussionist Shane O'Donovan added another layer of sounds in the studio, like scaffolding erected round a delicate structure, and inventive saxophonist Matthew Halpin appears on Cringing Madmen, the album's only live track.


At the start of his journey, Nielsen was already one of Ireland’s most respected jazz musicians with an international reputation as an innovator, but the guitarist’s artistic courage now places him among the most intrepid pioneers in jazz.

There will be those who fear to follow into these “atonal” spaces where consonance and dissonance dissolve, but for those who want to explore the potential of the ear to comprehend more than the meagre western diet of 12 notes, Microtonal Sound Recipes is a map to a brave new world.

Cormac Larkin

Cormac Larkin

Cormac Larkin, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a musician, writer and director