Utopia: Reimagining live events after the pandemic

Una Mullally and Conner Habib’s National Concert Hall series explores what we can do better

My entire life has been built around going to gigs. That absence – and that of clubbing, theatre, cinema, visual art, drag, spoken word, live performances of any kind – left a kind of hollow in me that grew so large throughout the pandemic, I began to wonder how on Earth it could be filled. I was also worried whether my expectations were shot. When you miss something for so long, the time stretches that yearning until it’s threadbare. When live music comes back, I began to think, will it be satisfying? What do I want to experience? What do I need? It had to be something different.

Socially distanced shows, and certainly live-streamed shows, only begin to approach fulfilling that need we have. Sometimes things experienced remotely were thrilling, but only when they embraced the form, as opposed to attempted to shoehorn another form into one that now lived on a screen. Róisín Murphy’s pandemic-era filmed gig thrilled me. Saint Sister’s amazing live album performance on a stage filled with wildflowers was beautiful. Other Voices’ Courage series was excellent, especially when Denise Chaila appeared to almost single-handedly usher in a new era of Irish culture, rapping in the National Gallery, or when Lankum derided the portraits of ancient men peering down the walls at them in Kilkenny Castle, before getting down to the business of being the best music group in the country.

I thought I wanted gigs back, but it turns out I wanted crowds back

Yet every time I watched a gig on my laptop, I just wanted to be in the room. Then a really strange thing happened to me last December when I travelled to Dingle for Other Voices, which was going ahead without an audience. At the time I was working on a piece on For Those I Love (David Balfe), and was meeting up with him as part of a series of conversations we were having. I thought getting my fix of live music in St James’s Church would be nourishing in the old way. The fizz, the buzz, the vibe. But something else happened. Without an audience, the tension was extra-loaded. The emotional release of musicians on stage was connecting with people around the world tuning in online, but in the room, it almost had no crowd to land on, no hearts to flutter into, no hairs to raise on skin, no ribcages to crack open that bit wider. I used to think that we all went to gigs to witness talented people believe in themselves. But in Dingle, I understood live shows as something much simpler: a proxy to be together, us absent strangers in a room, providing the artist on stage with a safety net of encouragement of support. With the audience departed, the atmosphere felt tentative, dangerous. I thought I wanted gigs back, but it turns out I wanted crowds back.

But then, what if I was being overly sentimental about gigs of yore? Because something I didn’t want to admit was the fact that in the years preceding the pandemic, the homogeny of festival sites, repetitive touring syndrome, and predictable lineups dropped a kernel of dullness into the literal arena of live music where I spent so much of my time. Simultaneously, I saw that many artists were intuitively gravitating towards a new horizon, reimagining what gigs could be. As the pandemic progressed, I realised that I didn’t want a “return” to gigs I was familiar with, I wanted a progression towards something new.

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At the outset of the pandemic, myself and a friend, Conner Habib, started talking deeply about the concept and process of utopia. We began with the question: what do you want? Conner is the American son of a Syrian immigrant, now living in Ireland, and recently hosted the Ulysses For The Rest Of Us! series at the Museum of Literature Ireland. He is an astonishing thinker, author, and has a podcast called Against Everyone with Conner Habib, offering mind-enriching, stimulating conversations with philosophers and writers and artists about life and the world. This process became a spiritual and intellectual safety net, crutch, and pathway through the pandemic for me. We started a website (utopiaireland.ie) and gradually watched people's ideas, dreams and fantasies drop into our inbox. It was riveting and wonderful. But how could this process live offline?

Magically, myself and Conner were offered the privilege of developing a series of events themed around utopia for the National Concert Hall, running from October 20th to 24th. If you’ve wondered whether things will be satisfying or radically different when you “go back” to “live events”, then you should come to this series. We are taking a risk, and doing things differently, because otherwise, what’s the point?

On Wednesday, October 20th at 7.30pm, myself and Andrea Horan, who co-hosts our podcast United Ireland, are collaborating with Conner to host Everyone United, a live podcast event that offers and encourages ideas for a utopian Ireland. If things are so broken, then why not strive for utopia?

Conner is a huge admirer of the work of the Irish philosopher and mystic John Moriarty. On Thursday, October 21st, at 7.30pm, we’re hosting an event called Republic of Birds: John Moriarty’s Visions of Ireland, including a rare screening of Julius Ziz and Dónal Ó Céilleachair’s 2012 documentary about Moriarty, Dreamtime, Revisited.

In programming music events, we are asking artists to be free and loose, to do what they want, and to be involved in the curatorial process to create something new. The battle is a long-standing format in rap, but I’m more interested in the cypher, where rappers create their music extemporaneously, freestyling in the moment. For our Cypher event, at 8pm on Saturday, October 23rd, we’ve gathered six artists to do just that. DJ Replay is sourcing beats from producers around the country, and using those as the musical bed on top of which the rap cypher can be laid. The MCs participating include Strange Boy, whose album Holy/Unholy, released this year, opens with an extraordinary track, Beginnings, featuring Moya Brennan. “Where should I start?” he asks, with immediate, urgent emotional fluency. Rebel Phoenix is one of the most underrated freestylers in Irish rap. It’s hard to explain the level of his verbal dexterity and grasp of metaphor. Dyramid, one half of NEOMADiC, has a hazy, husky delivery with an almost synaesthetic quality. Celaviedmai is another extraordinary talent. Her latest single, Heal, holds the duality she manages to transmit in her music, vulnerability matched with determination, rawness and softness, combined. And last year, Alicia Raye released the project Alphabet, an astonishing collection of 26 tracks with almost 40 collaborators. These are artists pushing themselves beyond boundaries, and then saying: beat that.

The healing power of music was felt so greatly by many over the past 19 months. In my opinion, Dublin Digital Radio is one of the most important cultural entities in the country. Throughout the pandemic, it became a resource I relied on more and more. One of the most helpful shows to escape into a different realm is No Place Like Drone. When we approached the DJ and writer Kate Butler to develop an idea around the idea of immersing people in a long sonic journey, she developed The Chill Out Room As A Radical Space (Loving You), in collaboration with No Place Like Drone and Don Rosco. This is an eight-hour sound immersion also featuring newly commissioned works from Bambi, LAIR, and Quiet Clapping. It’s free, but ticketed, and will take place all day Saturday the 23rd. Come, listen, and stay as long as you want.

Finally, there’s Murmuration, on Sunday, October 24th, at 8pm. This concert, in the main auditorium, is an experiment. If we really want to rethink what our experience of live music is, then why don’t we throw everything up in the air? In this concert, a collection of musicians will create improvised music live in the moment, and then find their way in and out of each other’s songs. This approach, with this number of musicians from such diverse genres, is not something I’ve ever seen take place on an Irish stage before. The amazing saxophonist Ben Castle will “lead” – insofar as one can in such a liberated setting – and he will be joined by Rory Friers on guitars from And So I Watch You From Afar; David Kitt on synths and electronics; there’s Darren Beckett, an extraordinary jazz drummer who also plays in Brandon Flowers of The Killers’ solo project; Gemma Doherty from Saint Sister will play harp; MayKay is on vocals; the folk star Daeirí Farrell is also part of the “band”; along with Dave Le’aupepe from the Australian rock stars Gang Of Youths; and the brilliant classical pianist Izumi Kimura.

So, what happens when everything changes? What occurs when you ask yourself: what do I want? What can be programmed when you strive for utopia? What will unfold if you attempt to cross a new threshold? I suppose we’ll see. What I’m happy about, is that nothing is known, predictable, set in stone or certain. It’s all up for grabs, so come and reach for it with us.

The Utopia series runs at the National Concert Hall, October 20th-24th, as part of the Refractions season. Tickets are priced between free and €15 and available from nch.ie