New Music Dublin festival breaks fresh ground

Unusual ambience and myriad external intrusions fails to derail eclectic artistry

Xenia Pestova Bennett introduced Irish listeners to the sounds of the Magnetic Resonator Piano.  Photograph: Paul Hudson

Xenia Pestova Bennett introduced Irish listeners to the sounds of the Magnetic Resonator Piano. Photograph: Paul Hudson

 

Remember the National Concert Hall’s old Kevin Barry Room? The one which turned Earlsfort Terrace into a destination for experimental and offbeat music? Where the sounds of the wind and rain outside, and the busses and motorbikes, all mingled with the music? It was recreated just down the corridor, in the clinically-named Room 103, during last week’s New Music Dublin festival, outside noises and all.

Mostly the outside intrusions didn’t matter, as the music was amplified, often with a large dollop of artificial reverberation, as if, sonically speaking, someone had walloped a bottle of tomato ketchup too hard, and, after the gurgling bottle had dropped its load, kept on walloping. It’s a sad fact of amplified new music that, once the volume or the effects are turned up, they’re almost never turned down again.

The external noises did matter in the opening concert, when violinist Darragh Morgan and pianist John Tilbury tiptoed through the almost spidery delicacy of Morton Feldman’s micro-tonally inflected For John Cage of 1982, a work of endless fascination.

The concert was the first of a series tying in with a batch of new releases on the Diatribe label. I was wowed by the playing in A Way A Lone At Last, which featured flautists Lina Andonovska and Claire Chase, and percussionist Matthew Jacobson, but not by the music or the sonic presentation. 

The idea of using amplification so that you can have the sounds of a Goliath rather than a Pan – or two so that you can have a battle between one Goliath and another – was overdone in this programme, and the novelty wore off pretty quickly. The idea of a one-person flute chorus – live soloist in partnership with a pre-recorded background – brought to prominence in Steve Reich’s Vermont Counterpoint still has life in it, as the multiplicity of bass flutes in Claire Chase’s performance of Marcos Balter’s Pessoa ably demonstrated.

A programme titled what is the word, featured baroque violinist Maya Homburger, double bassist Barry Guy, actor Mark D’Aughton, with Benjamin Dwyer, the programme’s major featured composer, on guitar. It placed Dwyer’s work (one of his disjecta, the six residua and the triptych what is the word) in the context of pieces by Kurtág and Guy, everything linked by connections with Samuel Beckett. Dwyer is a thoughtful composer – and an over-thoughtful programme note writer – and the programme’s connections served to create a whole that was more than the sum of its parts.

The focus in the other Diatribe concert I heard, Atomic Legacies, was on another composer/performer, Xenia Pestova Bennett, who introduced Irish listeners to the sounds of the Magnetic Resonator Piano. This is a regular piano with an apparatus over the strings (though not touching them), which can induce the strings to vibrate and which allows the resulting sounds to be controlled directly from the keyboard.

Although the piano can still be played in the normal way, the most unusual aspect of the set-up is that depressing a key without causing the hammer to strike the string will actually produce a sound. The depression of the key causes the relevant damper to lift off the strings and once that happens, those strings will be energised by one of the magnetic resonators. Refinements include the use of vibrato and the selection of individual harmonics.

This is all genuinely impressive but, with drone effects predominating, the overall impression was of a solution without a problem. History is littered with similar endeavours – the claviorganum (which combined a harpsichord and an organ), the baryton (which added an extra set of playable strings to the bass viol), the arpeggione (which merged aspects of the cello and the guitar), or the Cordovox, an electronic accordion from the 1960s.

One of those defunct instruments is the glass harmonica, invented by Benjamin Franklin, who was inspired by the sounds that can be recreated by rubbing the rims of water-filled glasses. Those sounds were brought to the concert platform in Chamber Choir Ireland’s programme conducted at the Peppercanister Church by Nils Schweckendiek.

The work was Canadian composer Matthew Whittall’s ad puram annihilationem meam (to the purest annihilation of myself), a setting of words by Teilhard de Chardin in a work for choir (with the glasses) and percussion (Alex Petcu). The music references widely across time and continents in ways that are raw, elemental and theatrical as well as gentle. It could so easily have sounded cliched, but it didn’t. And part of the thrill for the listener was the total command of the singers no matter how extreme the demands they were confronting.

Other memorable events included Úna Monaghan’s Aonaracht I, an ambitious if uneven marriage of solo musicians (Paddy Glackin, Saileog Ní Cheannabháin, Tiarnán Ó Duinnchinn, Pauline Scanlon and Jack Talty) and computer.

Fergus Johnston’s Sinfonia for string octet and electronics (ConTempo Quartet and Friends) broached a big subject, by creating “a memorial wall in sound” using pitch material cyphered from the names of children who died in the Bon Secours Home in Tuam, and the Bethany Home in Dublin. But the electronics were beset by gremlins, and the work sounded best when the processing was at its lightest. 

A Hard Rain SoloistEnsemble portrait concert of work by Kevin O’Connell showed a composer always grappling with clear compositional issues in ways designed to bring freshness to both the sounds and the expressive reach of individual works.

Siobhán Cleary’s Hum!, for two actors (Ciarán McCauley and John Carty), with the RTÉ NSO under Ryan McAdams, brought a welcome theatrical wit, as a single word was used to exlpore an issue of personal identity.

Amanda Feery’s It’s in the trees, it’s coming, inspired by Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love, was the richest discovery of Crash Ensemble’s Free State 12 programme.

Gerald Barry’s Viola Concerto (Lawrence Power with the RTÉCO under Ilan Volkov) was a typically upside-down undertaking, with exercise patterns thrust into the limelight in ways that seemed destined to be banal, but somehow weren’t. The work also pulled off another coup, with a whistled end that was full of pathos. 

Accordionist Andreas Borregaard’s Solo-Act, a pairing of works by Jennifer Walshe (Self-Care) and Simon Steen Andersen (Asthma), turned the world of the accordion on its head in thought-provoking and astonishingly virtuosic ways.

And Jonathan Nangle’s new Surface Patterns for solo piano, played by Máire Carroll at a Royal Irish Academy of Music lunchtime concert, created entrancing spray-like patterns in which you could almost imagine individual droplets being lifted and carried by the wind.

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