Irish Timeswriters review a selection of recent events
The Frost is All Over
Unitarian Church, St Stephen's Green, Dublin
This multi-media production is a metaphysical exploration of the music, the songs and the dance steps that we call our own. Interspersing some of piping's big tunes (such as Seamus Ennis's beloved The Fox Chase) with the slow airs which suit Tony MacMahon's playing so well, and a swathe of poems specially commissioned from Dermot Bolger, there is meat and drink for the taking in the mix.
MacMahon ekes an almost orchestral sound from his accordion, and seems to relish the lift of the dance tunes every bit as much as the dark melodrama of the slow airs. Piper David Power brings a breathtaking freshness to the set, his fluid, fluent playing as light as a feather. His tin whistle is equally unassuming on Bold Doherty, tracing a sinuous path through its core.
Echoes of Timothy O'Grady's outstanding I Could Read The Sky haunt this production of The Frost is All Over. It's a meditation on what defines our music which at times errs on the far side of reverential, its wonderment at the mysterious "soul of the tune" bogged down by its certitude that the past was not only a different but a better country. Sure, the wistful remembrances of nights in Sonny Brogan's house, where tunes were swapped with generosity, would bring a smile to the stoniest face, but would those same musicians have relished such a deconstruction of their unselfconscious entertainments? Who knows?
Then again, David Power's visible ecstasy - and his delicate mastery of not only pipes and whistle but fiddle too - as he lost himself in the tune, and Tony MacMahon's sprightly delight in O'Neill's March, were unmistakably of the moment.
Dermot Bolger brought a wealth of fine words too, but his occasionally impassioned reading was at times at odds with the plain and purl of the tunes.
Reflections such as these may well reach further into the dark recesses of an expatriate audience, and The Frost is All Over will wend its way to the US in the new year - where it may well find deeper purchase than at home.
Unitarian Church, St Stephen's Green, Dublin
This presentation of music by young members of the Irish Composers' Collective was a take-it-or-leave-it event: this is how we're writing music now and if it speaks to you, great, and if it doesn't, we're sorry.
Two pieces by Seán Reed illustrate the point. Both of them - The Faintest Trace of Nothingness for tape, and Interminable Delirium for tape and ensemble - are filled with electronically generated and manipulated sounds. It's wonderful stuff that Reed has come up with: varied and constantly changing, atmospheric, evocative of familiar sounds, stirring up memories. But beneath an unapologetic banner styled "non-developing musical structure", these pieces have licence to take all this promising sonic material for a directionless wander.
From the listener's perspective, the first piece exhausted its initial interest factor after four of its 16 minutes, and the second piece visibly reduced the four-person strings-and-percussion ensemble to the evening's lowest ebb in physical engagement.
The accompanying notes in the printed programme - always a chance to help us listeners "get it" - were of the anorak variety, so we didn't.
Other pieces had more straightforward ambitions. Peter Moran's Níl Amach na Bíníní combined slow chords on strings with a "mad jig" on harpsichord, in the end producing a rather lyrical counterpoint. Although David Bremner opaquely describes how his Out Here on the Cottage Grove it Matters grows out of processes and a "pitch lattice", the result is an arrestingly delicate texture made up of small gestures repeated and passed around between players. Dónal Sarsfield's five-minute Did You Mean To? has quirky, mercurial shifts and the recorded ticking of a mantle clock is enigmatic but evocative. Sandie Purcell's Beau affably revisits the idea of percussionists using bows and string-players slapping their instruments with their hands.
The evening's most advanced piece - because it seemed to offer a hint of parody - was also the most entertaining. In Electric Guichair, David Flynn sampled, manipulated and combined sounds from two sources: feedback caused by messing around with the leads and input jacks of his electric guitar, and a squeaky chair. Clever, imaginative, good fun, the right length.
Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin
Born in New York on December 11th, 1908, American composer Elliott Carter is not only still alive, he's still composing. In honour of his upcoming 100th birthday this Thursday, contemporary music ensemble Concorde presented seven of his chamber pieces in a one-hour concert at the Hugh Lane.
Concorde, which was only two years old when it first performed Carter in 1978, on this occasion confined its programme to works written since 1970, all but two of them from the last 15 years. This meant that, by and large, the concert was characterised by an overtly lyrical quality, something that's relatively recent for Carter.
There was no sign of his earlier multilayered density, which Norman Lebrecht describes as straining "the tolerance of players and conductors when so little aural reward was repaid for such intellectual and manual effort".
This lyricism underlined the warm, communicative element in pieces which were tributes to other musicians. The 1993 Gra, for solo clarinet, was dedicated to his friend and fellow composer Witold Lutoslawski. The title is the Polish for "play", an image brought vividly to life by soloist Paul Roe, who danced through its mischievous episodes.
Figment No 2, for solo cello, is from 2001 and is dedicated to American music's great pioneer, Charles Ives, whom Carter knew from childhood. Though no less affectionate than Gra, it is a deeper, more contemplative piece. David James brought this out with long, sensitively tapered lines and delicately placed harmonics.
Carter's latter-day lyricism was also evident in Elaine Clarke's expressive account of Rhapsodic Musings, a tribute to long-time Juilliard Quartet leader Robert Mann.
In other tribute pieces - to Stravinsky and Boulez - marginally flat intonation in the flute was enough to weaken the ensemble and render dissonances spicier than Carter intended.
The concert ended with Tempo e Tempi, eight songs based on texts by Italian poets and scored for soprano and small ensemble. Tine Verbeke brings a pure, almost instrumental quality to this style of song-setting, so that her voice and the texts seemed to emerge like an instrument from the group (which, despite its small size, still sometimes muffled her).