It's not exactly easy to describe the musical world of Sebastian Adams, who co-directs the ensemble Kirkos with fellow composer Robert Coleman. One of the best places to start would be a description of some of the pieces from Kirkos's new Biosphere Project, a series of "free, outdoor-based experimental encounters", running between Tuesday, September 1st, and Sunday, September 6th, with a launch gig on Monday, August 31st. The publicity promises "radical works exploring our relationship with Dublin's natural and built environment as we confront the climate crisis".
Adams’s own Tide Quartet is for string quartet, with the players dressed in wetsuits and sitting on chairs in the sea as the tide comes in. The instruments, all cheap and in some way broken, says Adams, “will be destroyed by the salt water during the performance, after which I will attempt to rescue the soaked instruments – this will be turned into an installation, where the dripping instruments are amplified and put on view via webcam.”
Natasha Bourke’s Zorb Balls Piece (working title) involves a Zorb ball, a patiently assembled pile of shredded single-use plastics, and Tai Chi.
Work by one of Jennifer Walshe’s alter egos, The Dowager Marchylove, a drag queen, can be heard at the Hellfire Club.
Sean Clancy and Andy Ingamells's This is About is "a music-theatre performance combining hurling with the sounds of contemporary music", and is "structured around the Clare v Galway 2018 All-Ireland semi-final".
Kirkos is the group which in 2015 presented a series of Blackout concerts in the Royal Irish Academy of Music, when audience members were led through dimly-lit corridors into a near-dark hall, where the whole of the floorspace was used by the performers, and food pairings were provided for each of the pieces.
Although Adams comes from a musical family (his father is the organist and harpsichordist David Adams, and he's related to the the late composer Eric Sweeney and organist Peter Sweeney), he says, "I was probably 16 before it even crossed my mind to do music as a career." Before that, although he had been a choirboy, had studied violin and viola, and had played in youth orchestras, he had thought of becoming a journalist, given his strength in English writing.
That all changed when he became hooked on electronic music. “It was learning how to make music with the computer that brought me to making music. And then it was my dad who encouraged me to apply to the composition degree in the Royal Irish Academy of Music, which I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. It was really only at that point that I started writing notated music.”
His earliest electronic music, he says, “was almost like a kind of outsider art, because I didn’t really listen to electronic music. I was just experimenting with the way the software worked.”
I like pure music. And I also like making my own stuff rather than producing stuff for other people
He describes the sound world as being closer to the pop end of electronic music than anything else, “but then I was always interested in doing weird things, like punching the midi notes together as fast as possible, what I now know was sort of making an oscillation. But at the time I didn’t know why it worked. I think I was always drawn to trying to do weirder things.”
For a while he had thought of music production or becoming a sound engineer or writing music for for ads and film. “Then pretty much as soon as I encountered the classical and experimental music world I realised, hey, this is a good fit for me. I really like doing this. I like pure music. And I also like making my own stuff rather than producing stuff for other people.”
Key early influences included seeing the way his composition teacher Jonathan Nangle worked; listening to his dad talk about composers "once he realised I was interested"; and going to "a couple of really brilliant Crash Ensemble gigs." He mentions Ed Bennett's Stop-Motion Music and Sean Friar's Velvet Hammer, "music full of energy in a cool context". Very quickly, "it became kind of unimaginable that I could have done any other kind of music course."
That’s in spite of the fact that his second choice was a music technology course in Maynooth, and “if I’d done that I’m sure I would have had a totally different kind of life and career since then. It’s weird looking back, because I feel like I have done exactly what I wanted to do.”
What he’s wanted to do has been a moveable feast. “I think maybe more so than most composers, I do a lot of very different things, and it can be hard to see the links between them at times. Whereas most composers have a very clear practice, centred in one area. I don’t think I have that so much. The influences over the years have just shifted. What I tend to do is get hooked on somebody or something for a while and then exhaust it and move on.
“So when I was 21” – he will turn 30 next year – “I was hugely into Bruckner and so that came out in all sorts of ways in my music, everything from actually quoting his pieces to just writing long works that unfolded very slowly.”
In 2018 Kirkos ran Body Noise Work workshops led by Jennifer Walshe, "intensive weekends with nine artists from different disciplines as participants." The influence on him was "huge".
“For about a year after that I wasn’t really sure what to do with myself because I was thinking I really wanted to do something that was totally different from what I had been doing and that I didn’t even necessarily seem to be qualified to do.”
You really just have to sit down and think, well, I have to make this page not be blank
Adams’s resulting Weight Piece found him seated in his underwear, playing solo viola before being roped up and treated like a puppet, with control of his arm movements being gradually wrested from him.
Individual works can be sparked into life in different ways. “There are two ways for me. The first one is pragmatic, which is that I have to write a piece because I have a deadline. In those cases it can be that there is no stroke of inspiration and you really just have to sit down and think, well, I have to make this page not be blank. Then it comes down to really just using whatever arsenal of techniques I have.
“Especially now, I work from the structure downwards. So often I will have a fully worked-out structure at the stage where I might have no musical ideas, or just one or two small ideas. Then I often work it like a grid, and fit everything in.” He describes this as “a kind of craftsman, craftsperson way of writing – which isn’t to say that the pieces aren’t just as good.”
The second way is that an idea is just sparked. "This Tide Quartet piece, I was at an exhibition in IMMA. It might have been the Derek Jarman exhibition, or maybe the Desire one that was on at the same time. I was just walking around IMMA, and, yup," – he gives a kind of yelp – "just suddenly the idea is there. I just have to think about it for a while to fill in the details.
The Covid-19 lockdown has been as strange for Adams as for anyone else, though he found himself with the pleasurable distraction of having to move house in the middle of it. Like everyone else without a full-time job, he had time on his hands, which he used “for exploratory work, which normally I wouldn’t get a chance to do”. On the other hand, “I found that having no set deadlines made me feel I didn’t want to write any pieces. I think a lot of composers reacted in a similar way.”
Deep responses to wherever they're being performed would be at the core of the pieces
He was involved in lots of meetings discussing the state of the music scene and the lack of performing spaces in Dublin, which has left him with “a deeper awareness of how much we lack infrastructure and support for the kind of spaces that actually encourage people to make work”. He’s really thinking about pieces with an installation element when he says that.
The Biosphere project has been years in gestation. Outdoors was always part of the consideration – “works that would have no possible life in a concert hall” and in which “deep responses to wherever they’re being performed would be at the core of the pieces”. And of course, “Anything taking place outdoors in beautiful surroundings right now is going to be drawing attention to the impact that humans are having on the natural environment.”
He doesn’t expect anyone to make it to all the performances, not least because Ruairi Donovan’s Necessary Journey involves a walk from Oileán Chléire to Cork. So everything from Biosphere will have an afterlife on kirkosensemble.com, where details can also be found on all the pieces and performances.
Kirkos has decided, due to the ongoing Covid-19 restrictions, to make the outdoor performances private, with public viewing only available online