"Just beyond the confines of Western tuning" is how composer Barry O'Halpin (b. 1987) neatly describes one aspect of his piece grave goods for solo electric guitar. Perfect description. The instrument's strings are retuned, the effect being a gentle suggestion, embedded in the background, of non-Western musical language.
And O’Halpin is masterful in the way he manipulates this altered background. He controls it so that it is always precisely that – gentle – never an overt Eastern coloration, not an accent. Just whispers.
That said, this on its own was not actually what made grave goods so arresting at its world premiere in Sunday's concert by Crash Ensemble at the Hugh Lane Gallery. Its real impact came from the quiet totality of its soundworld: hesitant, random and delicate, several different registers – high, middle and low – all in subdued, intimate discourse with one another, the separation and combination of distinct voices on a solo string instrument reminiscent of Bach.
Therefore it wasn't just tuning that went beyond "confines". O'Halpin deploys the sonic possibilities of the electric guitar in ways that are pretty much alien to those of its familiar role in rock music. The audience appeared more than willing to engage with a listening experience outside these various confines, bringing to mind how composer and Crash Ensemble co-founder Donnacha Dennehy once described his ideal audience: just people who are interested in new things. It really seemed as though that's who was there at the Hugh Lane.
This welcoming response appeared also to extend to a very different kind of music later in the concert. Whereas O’Halpin asks you to engage with his piece on its own terms, the South Korean Unsuk Chin (b. 1961) connects hers to something familiar and external to the music itself.
Her piece Advice from a Caterpillar is an interlude from her 2007 opera Alice in Wonderland. It's a depiction on solo bass clarinet of the conversation in chapter five of Lewis Carroll's book between Alice and the caterpillar, with Carroll's words projected behind the player (Crash's Deirdre O'Leary) in constantly changing fonts and sizes, sometimes interspersed with excerpts from the score.
“Who. Are. You?” slowly intones the bass clarinet, with even its narrow, downward-curving neck recalling the hookah upon which the caterpillar puffs in John Tenniel’s original illustration for the book. Chin achieves a delightful characterisation and a fitting tone to match the maddening (to Alice) nonsense of the conversation.
There was a more serious extra-musical link in music performed by the Lir String Quartet in their concert in the NCH's Kevin Barry Room, also on Sunday. This was in the single-movement String Quartet No. 3 from 2015 by Seán Doherty (b. 1987). It brings together the slow air An Londubh and the reel The Devil's Dream in a transformative dialogue which recounts the unexpected death of Doherty's fiddle teacher James Byrne as he walked home from a seisiún one night in 2008.
Full disclosure: Doherty is a friend of mine and we are both members of a choir that regularly performs his pieces. Characteristic features familiar to me in his choral music – such as his use of glissandi, sharply abrupt contrasts, and the judicious combination of existing musical material – are also important in this quartet, where he expertly marshals them for musical and emotional effect.
In particular, his use of the sliding movement of notes in his glissandi – which never threaten to take over centre-stage – brings a sub-surface rise in intensity whether with strings, as here, or with human voice.
Between these two concerts, only the Doherty and Chin pieces made reference to something outside the music. All the other pieces were self-contained pieces of art, "absolute music". On either side of the Doherty – in the final presentation in Dublin for 2018 of the National String Quartet Foundation – were the lone quartet by Debussy and the third of Beethoven's "Rasumovsky" set, Op. 59.
My guess would be that the Kevin Barry Room audience bought their tickets more for these two masterpieces than as Donnachy’s “people who are interested in new things”. But thanks to the Lir’s programming, the audience got something new and – unless my personal bias clouded my perception – seemed to respond well.
In the earlier concert there was also absolute music. Sraith by Adrian Hart (b. 1980) is a lonely and absorbing meditation for cello and electronics where the soloist – Crash's Kate Ellis – in effect duets with herself, partnered by the notes she has already played and which then are manipulated by a sound engineer.
Ellis then joined Deirdre O'Leary playing bass clarinet in between from 2006 by Deirdre McKay (b. 1972). Here, both of these normally low-register instruments are called on to dwell in their upper-most ranges, the cello mostly in harmonics, in a slow dialogue of exquisite delicacy and stillness.