It’s not John Harris’s first time around the block when it comes to major cancellations. The director of the New Music Dublin festival had a baptism of fire – well, snow, actually – when the Beast from the East gradually squashed out every last event in his first festival in 2018.
In September that year he presented a cut-down festival with the title New Music Dublin Defrosted. Last year was a near miss, with the festival escaping the national closure of cultural institutions by a mere ten days.
This year, with a change of dates from late February/early March to late April, he’s had rather more advance warning. But he did still have to go through the process of planning a normal festival before adapting to the fact that the only possibility was an online programme. We’ve all become used to the idea of listeners and performers reaching each other only through a medium that, while it’s now essential, remains frustrating as an enforced substitute for the experience of live concerts.
Nowhere in my personal musical experience is the disparity between real and recorded greater than in the area of new music.
As Harris puts it in his online introduction to this year’s offerings, “How do we make music together, when we can’t come together to make music? And – especially – how do we make New Music, which doesn’t have previous examples of itself to act as guides and mentors for those who wish to attempt it in these times?”
There were factors that were simply out of his control. The National Concert Hall allowed just a single space within the building, the main hall, to be used for performances. There were serious budgetary implications of streaming all the videos for free, “because it’s going out through RTÉ”. And there was the fact that some of the performers he wanted couldn’t break their Covid bubbles to participate.
There are identification issues around the Internet which is why it's such an Irish-heavy programme
You can of course attempt to turn these limitations to advantage, which one of the festival’s events, Kirkos’s For Private Use, will do. While people can’t share a concert space, Kirkos say, “we can find other ways to share a listening context and a special experience; and we can privilege the private act of performing a piece only for yourself.” The change of perspective cuts two ways. Kirkos’s position is clear: “You don’t need to be a professional to be a performer; if you’re a performer, you don’t need an audience to perform.”
Harris has high praise for Kirkos's director, Sebastian Adams. "Sebastian Adams, God bless him, came forward and said, what about an idea of just reversing all this. He'd been having all these thoughts about witness, as in, what it means to actually witness a performance. When you watch something online, you're not there, you're not participating in any meaningful sense. You're not living, breathing the same air, there's none of this thing where the audience members just literally witness what's happened. What happens if you do an unwitnessed performance. Does it make any difference at all?"
Adams explains that For Private Use is "a kind of magazine or anthology. All of the pieces are going to be on a single webpage, to make it easy for people to scan for something that interests them. Some are text only, some are sound files with instructions involving some preparatory work." Among the pieces on offer are new commissioned from Robbie Blake, Elis Czerniak, John Godfrey, Susan Geaney, Rachel Ní Chuinn, Judith Ring and Eimear Walshe.
Harris expresses a feeling shared by many over the last 13 months. "The amount of behind the scenes work has been bonkers, absolutely bonkers. Everything is so slow. It drives me nuts." His original 2021 plan was picked apart piecemeal. First to go were things that would involve too much travel or too many people. "The RTÉ Philharmonic Choir and NSO were going to do a massive Ann Cleare blowout, but the most allowed on the NCH stage is 37 people."
But the NCH limitation could also be turned into a positive. “With orchestras, one of the problems of contemporary music is it’s always a special performance, with special instruments and special line-ups. It always requires a new thing. Bring this bathtub on stage, half-full of water. Or a particular wind-chime that you can only get from Bali.” This year he’s commissioned through RTÉ for the NSO a classical, Mozart-style orchestra, “which means that the things also might get repeat performances, because they are standard line-up”.
The new commissions for the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra are Irene Buckley's Awakening and Anne-Marie O'Farrell's Eitilt, and the programme, conducted by David Brophy, also includes Caroline Shaw's Entr'acte. The RTÉ Concert Orchestra will premiere Natas Paulberg's Atomic Hope, "recording and filming themselves remotely at home".
We're trying to work out what the equivalent of going to the pub is. Because at all festivals you go to the pub at the end of the day
Brian Irvine’s Totallly Made-Up Orchestra – no musical background or experience necessary – was a creation of Harris’s first festival. This year, as The Totally Made Up and Socially-Distanced Orchestra, “it’s probably going to be silent,” he says.
“But on Zoom. Brian is looking for visual equivalents of music, to do with mass participation. Very Brian. And we’re also doing standard contemporary music gigs, like Evlana’s three concerts – three all-Irish programmes on Friday 23rd – putting out music because that’s what they do, and I wouldn’t ask them to do anything else. And similarly with Crash and Co. All the concerts are short, all the pieces are pretty short.” And, he says, there will also be talks and interviews slotted in to the programme as initially announced.
“We lost all the international performer stuff immediately,” he says. “There is absolutely zero point in streaming, I don’t know, Ensemble Intercontemporain from Paris as part of a Dublin-based festival. There’s no skin in the game. There’s no ownership over it. There’s nothing unique about it. You have to consider always what is it that makes it your thing, not somebody else’s thing. There are identification issues around the Internet which is why it’s such an Irish-heavy programme. Which is great, as far as I’m concerned. I think we’re flying one person in, who’s Irish, from New York. That’s literally our one import. I like that. It creates challenges.
“But I think we’re in the lucky position at the moment that there are enough people doing interesting things, there’s enough material, there are enough performers, enough composers that you’d be happy to put out internationally. There’s no hiding place when you’re on the Internet.
“We’re trying to work out what the equivalent of going to the pub is. Because at all festivals you go to the pub at the end of the day. But of course we can’t do that. So what do you do? Do you have some kind of collective experience where you can gather together at the end of the day and say, that was awful, or that was brilliant, and chat. That’s the glue. Contemporary music is so tribal. Everybody comes to their own individual favourite person’s thing, or the people they love to hate, and they run into someone they haven’t seen for years from a different tribe.
“I always think of it as a Celtic warriors’ gathering. Really they don’t all get on. But they do at this time of year, just to exchange news. I don’t know how you do that online. That’s the one bit we’re still trying to fix at the moment. I don’t know if we can do it.”
As he says; “I think we’ve all out-Zoomed ourselves. The most successful I’ve done were with four or five people. You can’t do it with 25 people online. Nobody chats.”
One of the less predictable impacts of the pandemic is that, “I’m not even going to be in Ireland for my festival. I can’t make it over. Well, I could, but I’d have to quarantine for ten days, and then re-quarantine when I return. Just from a family perspective, that’s literally impossible right now. And there’s no reason for me to be in Dublin.”
Of course the upside is that he may, for once, be able to experience New Music Dublin in exactly the same way everyone else does.
New Music Dublin starts at 1pm on Friday, April 23rd, with works for soprano (Michelle O'Rourke) and harp (Richard Allen) by Ed Bennet and Deirdre Gribbin in a programme appropriately titled Grounded. It ends at 8.30pm on Sunday 25th with Crash Ensemble playing works by Bekah Simms and Ellen King under Ryan McAdams, with visuals by Laura Sheeran.