Kormac: ‘I like to take a big, ridiculous project on’
‘Equivalent Exchange’, his new one-off show for St Patrick’s Festival, is the biggest and most ambitious collaboration undertaken by the producer, DJ and Big Band leader
Exchange of ideas: Kormac’s collaborators on the project include Sierra Leonean/Irish singer Loah, Cork musician Jack O’Rourke and US-based Galway native Eimear Noone
To say that Cormac O’Halloran is a man who loves a challenge is a bit like saying Mo Farah enjoys a spot of jogging in his spare time. To date, the Dubliner known as Kormac has been a DJ, a master sampler, a turntablist in an experimental indie band, a solo artist with an impressive AV show, a collaborator of the likes of author Irvine Welsh, and the leader of the most unusual Big Band you’re likely to see.
When I put this dizzying list to him, the Howth native guffaws. “There’s definitely a theme of that running in my career: I like to take a big, ridiculous project on,” he smiles, nodding.
“The way I get a lot of work done is when I get most excited about stuff. It’s just about having fun with it; when you’re at your most creative there’s just a bit of abandonment there and you’re just like ‘F**k it, let’s do that!’”
Comfort zones are a fleeting whimsy in his world and Kormac: Equivalent Exchange marks no change on that front. His latest endeavour sees him go down the orchestral route for the first time, bringing the Irish Chamber Orchestra together with his Big Band and numerous solo artists in the biggest and most ambitious collaboration he’s undertaken to date.
As the flagship event of this year’s St Patrick’s Festival, the one-off concert at Vicar Street will involve more than 30 musicians.
“I’ve had this idea kicking around in my head to work with a live orchestra for a couple of years – but I wanted to do it my way,” he explains of the project’s genesis. “I wanted to write it, to build it from the ground up, compositionally. My manager and I were talking about it 18 months ago and we were thinking about doing it independently – but then Karen [Walshe, the festival’s artistic director] had heard about it, so then they came on board and were full of ideas. Considering it’s the closing show of the St Patrick’s Festival, it’s a big honour for me.”
O’Halloran did a music and media technology master’s degree in Trinity, but there was a gap in his knowledge when it came to composition.
“I went down the technical route, so I built a lot of music software and plug-ins and did all my thesis research on that basis,” he explains. “I didn’t do the composition – so when these ideas were starting to take shape, I kind of went back and studied a lot of it myself online. Then I went to Bulgaria for a month last summer. I did a course there and studied with some composers and conductors and all that sort of stuff – just to learn how it all kind of works, to be honest. It forced me to completely re-evaluate how I write music, and also just to learn how this massive living, breathing organism works.”
The notion behind Equivalent Exchange, he says, is that in order to gain something new, you have to give something up. For the fiercely independent O’Halloran, it meant surrendering some of the control when the songs were in their early stages.
“I’m giving collaborators tunes earlier than I would have – certainly earlier than I would have on [last album] Doorsteps,” he nods. “In a lot of cases, like with Speech Debelle or Irvine Welsh, I kind of arrived at their houses with tunes that were pretty much done; it was pretty obvious where the vocals were gonna go. But I thought for this project, I might write a little bit less – particularly with the vocals – to give them a much more sparse framework that they can write over. Then I developed the track around them, as opposed to just giving them something to season or just feature on top of. You do surrender a lot of control, but you get a lot more back – and certainly something you might not have expected.”
His collaborators this time around include Sierra Leonean/Irish singer Loah, Cork musician Jack O’Rourke and US-based Galway native Eimear Noone, who is renowned for her video game compositions. Celebrated artist Maser is also on board for the visuals and artwork.
“The collaborators that I’m working with are all living here, or have spent a lot of time here,” he says. “I’m not bringing in rappers from the UK, or any of that stuff I might have done before. I’m even working with two Irish-based Iranian musicians on one song – people from all walks of Irish life, basically.”
Artistic director Karen Walshe enjoyed success last year with two shows she commissioned for last year’s programme: Young Blood and Music for 18 Machines. She is confident that Kormac: Equivalent Exchange will have an equally memorable impact.
I had no idea how it was going to sound. I’m putting a big band, an orchestra and all my electronics together and I was terrified. But it worked, and it was a wonderful feeling
“I really wanted to present what I feel reflects Ireland today and the calibre of amazing artists that we have out there,” she says. “What particularly interested me about Kormac’s event – as well as the two we staged last year – is that they’re really unique events that you won’t see at any other time of the year. They’re not easy to get off the ground; it’ll take up to a year to develop and it’ll keep changing and moving, and it’s hard work. But for me, that’s the kind of event that I wanted to ultimately be looking at for the festival; something really outstanding as the flagship event, as opposed to just booking a band and throwing a few support acts on with them.”
Walking into the University Hall in Limerick for the first rehearsal in December, O’Halloran recalls the trepidation he felt. With a month to go until showtime, he says, he is feeling a lot more confident.
“I had no idea how it was going to sound,” he recalls, laughing. “I thought, ‘Theoretically, it should be fine’, but I’m putting a big band, an orchestra and all my electronics together and I was terrified. But it worked, and it was a wonderful feeling. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. You need to put yourself in those positions that are outside your comfort zone to learn something new, and that’s kind of what the project is all about. The whole thing has been really inspirational. I’m hoping that I can deliver my end of the bargain.”
Kormac: Equivalent Exchange takes place at Vicar Street, Dublin, on March 18th