The sound of sadness permeates musical commemorations of the Rising

Sorrow and loss continue to hold us in greater thrall than the idea of a new order in the offing

The first musical celebration of the 1916 centenary that I came across was Simon O'Connor's Left Behind, which was first heard in Dublin this time last year. O'Connor's set of intimate songs, imagining 1916 through the experience of the wives of the rebel leaders, is currently on tour, and will make it to the National Concert Hall with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra on Wednesday, April 27th, when the Ergodos label's album of the work will also be launched.

Following the National Concert Hall's all-embracing Imagining Home concerts during Easter Week, the Irish Chamber Orchestra brought its Rising-related 1916: Revolution and Rhetoric programme on a short tour to Dublin, Limerick and Ennis.

The ICO's concert was, you might say, old-fashioned in intent. Words by WB Yeats, Patrick Pearse and AE, as well as The Foggy Dew and Dermot O'Byrne's A Dublin Ballad: 1916, all in readings by Des Keogh, with idiosyncratic intonation and emphasis, were interspersed between the musical items.

The music reached back to Arnold Bax's In Memoriam (1916) for cor anglais, harp and string quartet. English composer Bax, of course, is one and the same as Dermot O'Byrne, whose A Dublin Ballad and Other Poems – written, he said, "with painful intensity of emotion just after the rebellion" – was suppressed by the British censor.


It is more than curious that none of the big names of Irish music of the time seems to have attempted to mark the Rising in music. And the elegiac tone of Bax's sextet might almost have served as a model for Simon O'Connor's ballads and even impinged on Donnacha Dennehy's The Dark Places, premiered as part of the Imagining Home project. After all, Colm Tóibín's text for this piece ends with the words: "All silence, no tears / More than they could bear."

Sorrow and loss continue to hold us in greater thrall than the idea of a new order in the offing. The Rising commemorations are somehow sad. This is true in John Kinsella's The Splendid Years, written for the 75th anniversary in 1991, which tastefully layers traditional music (Cormac Jean Breatnach on whistle) with his own musical voice, and also in Roger Doyle's reserved Steal a Kiss (Laoise Kelly on harp) and Sam Perkin's Pause, for strings, electronics, voice and audience, in which the audience is left at the end to continue humming quietly where the musicians on stage leave off.

MusicTown festival

The ICO’s Dublin concert in the Round Room of the Mansion House was given as part of Dublin City Council’s MusicTown, a festival now in its second year, in which diversity seems to be the key word.

Music Current was a three-day festival within a festival, with concerts in Smock Alley Theatre, masterclasses and workshops, and a panel discussion – Who's Afraid of Electronic Music? – at the Contemporary Music Centre.

The subject of the discussion is key to the festival's content, which is new music at the experimental end of the spectrum, mixing live performance and electronics. The fullest expression of the multimedia focus was Jennifer Walshe's The Total Mountain, a solo performance for voice (Walshe herself), and film with sound. The work was commissioned by Germany's venerable Donaueschingen Festival, and is already out on DVD in a set documenting work from that event in 2014.

Walshe has described the piece as being “to do with living, thinking, making music, reading in the world we live in now after the advent of the internet and its integration into our lives”. She is a high-energy performer, and one who loves to step from persona to persona, or adopt two at once, as the combination of film and her own physical presence allows. The material flies past at dizzying speeds.

If The Total Mountain is like anything, it is perhaps a one-person multimedia revue, dense and demanding rather than light, and laced with humour and barbs as revue needs to be. And, like most revue, it's also hit-and-miss, not least because if you blink you will miss something, and sometimes you will miss it anyway, because the speed of the words tips over and intelligibility is left behind.

The other long (40 minutes plus) piece was Fergal Dowling's Spoils, for two baroque violins, baroque cello, harpsichord, recorded voice, interactive electronics, surround sound and video.

The video, by Mihai Cucu, projected a pale image of a slow-moving, snow-white Olwen Fouéré, like a ghostly presence conjured up by mirrors in a 19th-century opera production.

Dowling’s handling of electronics came across as rather more successful than the writing for the live instruments, where the pressured conflicts of the microtonal lines seemed rather too arbitrary, a kind of contemporary equivalent of those 19th-century pieces with an over-reliance on the chord of the diminished seventh.

The closing programme focused on pieces by composers who had taken part in the workshops – Anna Murray, Rob Casey, Amanda Feery, Richard Bailie and Brian Connolly – all of whom might be described as some kind of Celtic conceptual minimalist.

The ideas behind their pieces were all perfectly clear, but rather in the way that a detailed programme note can be suggestive of the music it describes. The pieces on this programme all worked better at the transmission of the ideas than as effective real-life music.

Gráinne Mulvey, one of the festival's tutors, closed the evening with her Zyzgy for cello (Ilse de Ziah) and electronics, a work with an aesthetic stance that allows for an altogether busier surface. In this piece, the interest is in the way the correlations between cello and soundtrack shift back and forth, blurring distinctions between cause and effect.