‘Putting on art music in a concert hall is not good enough any more’

The ‘Crashlands’ series of concerts will see Crash Ensemble perform in beautiful, remote locations around the country

 

“It’s a bit bonkers.” Malachy Robinson is sitting at the dining room table of a house on Long Island, a small but picturesque outcrop 600 metres off the coast of West Cork, home to about a dozen people. It’s a little after 10pm and the room next door is full of voices laughing, chatting, organising. Children run through the house at irregular intervals, heading for the fridge or the garden.

Robinson is the double-bassist with Crash Ensemble, a 10-piece new music group who have just performed on the lawn outside. That small stretch of stone-scattered grass slopes down to the Atlantic ocean. During the performance, Robinson had been standing no more than three or four feet from the water. He’s freezing now, but happy. 

This performance on Long Island is the first in a series of 10, collectively known as Crashlands. It’s a hugely ambitious project that will see Crash perform in beautiful, remote locations around the country. At each stop they will premiere two new works written by Irish and international composers alongside a new poem by Rooney Prize-winning Irish poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa. That’s 20 new pieces of music by 20 composers, plus 10 new poems. The entire undertaking will be captured for posterity by film-maker Brendan Canty, best known as the director of Hozier’s Take Me To Church music video. It’s an operation that would be impressive in a single, traditional venue. To do it in locations such as Long Island is almost, as Robinson puts it, bonkers.

“It’s about a kind of generous gesture,” he says. “You have to reach out to people. The model of putting on art music in a concert hall and expecting people to show up just because you’re doing it, just because it’s there, it’s not good enough any more. People have too many demands on their attention. They can get the most incredible stuff streaming into their living room – why would they go out? I think it’s really important for all of us, in all classical music groups, to reach out further, to go into communities, to bring stuff to people.”

Crashlands is certainly going out further. The next stop after Long Island is Inishboffin, off the Connemara coast. There will be shows in Aranmore, off Donegal, and Spike Island, near Cobh. These are places, and communities, not particularly well-served when it comes to world premieres of contemporary music. But after spending the day on Long Island, watching this unique show come together, the attractions are obvious. 

The setting for this first event is both spectacular and intimate. The crowd of about 100 people, including the family who own the house, are dotted all around the garden. They’ve brought bottles of wine and beer. It’s been a bright, warm day, the wind has died down, the sea is lapping quietly below them. They’re looking back east towards the mainland, where the sun is slowly sinking. It’s incredibly idyllic. Around 9pm, Andrew Hamilton’s Music For Donkeys Who Like Music gets things kicked off. It sounds bright and playful, perfect for this space and this mood. It’s followed by Peter Adriaansz’s Crash Codes, where minimalist rhythms leave lots of open space for the sound of the waves to filter through.

At the half-way point in the evening, Ní Ghríofa reads the series’ opening poem, Today, Buried, which sets out the theme of stone as a way of connecting the diverse locations Crashlands will be taking in. Canty roams the garden with a camera, making the most of the fading light. The performance finishes with a distinctly heavy-metal rendition of Ancient-Giant Nude-Hairy-Warriors Racing Down The Slopes To Battle, written by Terry Riley for the Ensemble’s 10th birthday. It will be played at all 10 of the Crashlands concerts.

Earlier in the day, it was hard to imagine any of this happening. The first ferry left the mainland around 3.30pm. It carried the initial load of equipment and a small number of crew. The musicians would be arriving in the evening, but there was a lot of work to be done before then. A single extension lead was run from the house down to the water – this provided electricity for a speaker, two amps and two keyboards. Music stands were erected, ballasted against the wind by large rocks. Clothespegs were brought out to hold the sheet music in place. Jonathan Pearson, the Ensemble’s concerts manager, was constantly on the move, ensuring everything from the sound to the sandwiches was in place.

Watching the lawn become a makeshift stage, you realise just how precarious the entire thing is. The weather is ideal, but the day before had been misty and wet. When the audience eventually arrives, ferried over in groups of 15 from the mainland, there is a degree of openness and interaction, which is rare in the world of contemporary music. People are obviously relaxed and the musicians, despite the atypical conditions, are displaying what Robinson says has been the primary characteristic of the group over its 20-year existence: “buoyant good humour”.

“The kind of stuff you’re asked to do in new music can be very taxing,” says Robinson afterwards. “Some of what we were doing tonight out there, outdoors on the garden, it’s incredibly hard work for your brain to decipher the rhythms on the page. But it helps to approach it with a sense of humour.”

At this point, Susan Doyle – the Ensemble’s flautist – walks through the dining room and, despite a mouth full of sandwich, laughs in agreement. “I like it Malachy, it suits,” she says after swallowing. “I think that’s your philosophy of life.”

Crash was founded in 1997 by the composer Donnacha Dennehy with the express aim of presenting new music and taking risks with programming and performance. The permanent line-up has shifted occasionally since then, with Robinson and Doyle the only original members present on Long Island – other 20-year veterans, like John Godfrey and Rodney O’Keefe, remain heavily involved – but the original ethos is still very much in evidence. 

Robinson says this continuity gives the group a confidence and mutual support with which to tackle even very daunting projects like Crashlands. The show on Long Island is the first step in a process that will culminate in a performance of all the new works, alongside the video and poetry, at the National Concert Hall in November. Kate Ellis, the ensemble’s cellist and artistic director, expects that the experience of Crashlands will have profound effects on the way the group plays and communicates.

“I think we’re going to learn a lot about how we function together, in a very different way than if we had done all of these in a more traditional setting,” she says. “I think we’re going to bring that into the way that we play, and the way we play those pieces in November. It’s really exciting. Getting on a boat, it’s a very different bonding experience for the 10 of us. I think it all translates back to how we play.”

The last ferry to leave Long Island is idling at the pier. The sun has fallen behind the hills on the mainland, the light reduced to a pale glow in the distance. A single lamp is strapped to the front of the jeep that is bringing the last of the equipment down from the house. (It has neither brakes nor lights, and is seemingly held together with rope.) It’s a fittingly precarious end to a DIY kind of day. Standing on the pier, we watch the lamplight slowly crest the hill. The gear is unloaded and carried down the steps to where the ferry is gently swaying. Five minutes more on dead still water. Pearson turns to the ferryman and says, “Any chance of you coming to Boffin?”

Crashlands will be at Clonmel Junction Festival, Tipperary, July 9th; Water Music Festival, Leitrim, July 12th; Earagail Arts Festival, Aranmore Island, July 23rd; Cahersiveen Festival of Music and the Arts, August 3rd; Kilkenny Arts Festival, August 16th and Sounds from a Safe Harbour Festival, Cork on September 16th

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