Composer TOM LANE explores how three AIC composers have responded to the challenges of the pandemic.
In 2020 the global COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the cancellation and postponement of an enormous number of cultural events across the world. Live music performances were hugely impacted and the future of these events continues to be shrouded in uncertainty. This short article will investigate some of the ways in which Irish composers have adapted and responded to the new cultural landscape of 2020, and how their work has continued to thrive despite difficulties which until very recently would have been unimaginable.
Sebastian Adams – Tide Quartet, performed live as part of Biosphere, 1st September 2020 at Blackrock Beach by Kirkos Ensemble
Jennifer Walshe – Ireland: A Dataset, performed live on 26th September 2020 at the National Concert Hall, Dublin. Performed by Tonnta (Robbie Blake, Liz Hilliard, Bláthnaid Conroy Murphy, Simon MacHale), Nick Roth. Sound engineering by Una Monaghan and lighting design by Aedín Cosgrove.
Kevin O'Connell – Dreamcatchr, libretto by Lily Akerman, screen adaptation in collaboration with IADT and RIAM performed by students of the Royal Irish Academy of Music.
Sebastian Adams is a composer and viola player, as well as the artistic director of Kirkos. Kirkos is described as 'an experimental new music ensemble which specialises in Happenings and multi-sensory performances' (https://www.sebastianadams.net/). In September 2020 Kirkos presented Biosphere, a 'radical set of free, outdoor-based experimental encounters' at multiple locations around Dublin (https://www.kirkosensemble.com/). The various connected events of Biosphere were engaged with issues surrounding the climate crisis and our relationship with the natural world. The festival was scheduled to take place in 2020, and due to its close engagement with the environment it was already intended to consist of outdoor events. As part of this festival, Sebastian presented his piece Tide Quartet at Blackrock Beach in Dublin, described by the composer thus:
A string quartet dress in wetsuits, sitting on chairs on the dry sea-bed in Dublin Bay. They perform a theme and variations (improvised from a set of instructions) as the tide begins to rush in around them. The performance ends for each musician only when the water reaches their neck, making it a durational piece reliant on the speed of the tide.
Afterwards, the saturated instruments will be retrieved and the composer will attempt to save them by leaving them to dry naturally. This process will also be recorded and shown on this website. Unsalvageable parts will be repaired using driftwood, and the piece will be performed again next year.
This piece engages deeply, intrinsically, with the sea and its effect on our everyday lives. The unstoppable power of the rising tide is presented dramatically as it slowly obliterates the ability of the quartet to perform music. Due to restrictions on outdoor public gatherings, the organisers of Biosphere were not able to actively encourage audience members to attend the events - each piece was livestreamed from its specific location though. Passers-by and members of the public were of course able to witness the pieces in-situ. I was lucky enough to be present for the live performance of Tide Quartet, and the experience was unique and memorable. Blessed with a calm evening and warm September temperatures, the event was perfectly presented on the natural stage of Blackrock Beach. With the Poolbeg Towers and Howth Hill as a backdrop, an ensemble of slowly passing ferries added to the powerful sense of place. The musicians performed hauntingly beautiful phrases that slowly faded to a single violin line. Unexpectedly, I found the performance to be soothing, the music gradually and gently extinguished by a far greater force. Sebastian writes of his experience of the event:
The most unsettling and unexpected part of the experience of doing Tide Quartet was how normal it felt; it was an idea that had loomed in my mind for the whole of 2020 and I had devoted a lot of time to imagining the logistics (judging the tide etc.) and the athleticism of actually performing it. When it came down to it - probably mostly because of the perfectly calm weather - my main thoughts were about how natural it felt to be doing this. It had always seemed like an outlandish, maybe even dangerous idea, but placing ourselves as performing humans right in the middle of these great organic forces was almost a non-event, and seemed to bring my attention to the fact that the separation we feel between our world and the natural one exists only in our own heads. It was a more peaceful surrender than I had expected! In a setup test a few days earlier I had been repeatedly pulled out of my chair and was totally covered in black sludge, so a lot depended on the beautiful conditions of the day.
Kirkos Ensemble, Tide Quartet, Blackrock Beach, Dublin, 1st September 2020
Jennifer Walshe's Ireland: A Dataset was performed and livestreamed on 26th September 2020 from the National Concert Hall in Dublin. This piece was commissioned as part of the NCH & Sounding The Feminists Commissioning Scheme supported by Creative Ireland. Jennifer Walshe is a prolific and highly successful composer and performer who was recently elected to the prestigious German Akademie der Künste and the Irish Aosdána. Ireland: A Dataset was written for and performed by Tonnta vocal ensemble and saxophonist Nick Roth, and until August 2020 it was planned to perform the piece for a live audience. However, due to restrictions imposed on indoor public gatherings, the piece was streamed live from the NCH as the opening concert in the Imagining Ireland series. In contrast to some of the livestreams available during the early phases of the pandemic, this event was only viewable through the purchase of a ticket, just like a live event. The performance was carefully staged and presented with lighting designer Aedín Cosgrove and sound engineer Una Monaghan. Walshe's work is deeply rooted in the world of experimental music theatre and she is well known for presenting sonically and visually engaging performances. Presenting a livestream during Level 3 restrictions presented a unique set of demands and challenges. Only the performers could be physically present in the auditorium during the stream, the lighting designer, audio engineer and Walshe herself had to be situated outside of the room in various different spaces within the NCH. I experienced the performance at home via a laptop connected to my television. The event came across as a perfectly staged and brilliantly executed piece of music theatre. The quality of the audio and visuals was exceptional, truly broadcast quality. Through the use of multiple camera angles and effective lighting, the livestream managed to present the excellent performances in a way that would not have been possible in a live performance. It was astonishingly well realised, especially given that this was a world premiere of a brand new piece which had been rehearsed in extraordinarily difficult conditions. Of course, there was none of the sense of presence and of community that would have been achieved by being at a live performance. As an audience member there was no way of knowing how many other people were watching at the same time, but the fact that the piece was livestreamed around the world meant that the performance had the potential to reach a far larger audience than if it had only been witnessed by audience members in Dublin. Jennifer Walshe writes of her experience:
I will never forget the experience of rehearsing Ireland: A Dataset in a deserted National Concert Hall with Dublin in level 3 restrictions. Temperature checks every morning, sanitiser everywhere, everybody constantly cold from the windows being permanently open. The huge generosity of the team - Tonnta, Nick Roth, Úna Monaghan, Aedín Cosgrove, Emily Moore - as well as all the staff at the NCH, determined to make it work. The feeling of being in a room together making music after half a year of not being able to do it. What music sounds like, feels like, when it’s made by humans you can see directly in front of you. And for the first time in my life, being at a premiere of my own work, but instead of being in the hall, being in the foyer, with the livestream team, in front of a bank of screens showing 8 different camera angles. Running the video cues off my laptop, and simultaneously learning as much as I could about the rapid grammar of live performance editing from the team. It was one of the most intense work-weeks of my life, the culmination of months of late nights and constantly shifting plans for the performance. But it was also maybe one of the best weeks of my life. When it was over, I was bereft, and I needed to sleep for a month. As they say in the films, it was a privilege, and an honour.
The world premiere of Kevin O'Connell's new opera Dreamcatchr was originally scheduled to take place on 24th March 2020, performed by students from the Royal Irish Academy of Music on the Peacock Stage of the Abbey Theatre. The RIAM Opera Department collaborates annually on a significant stage production with the Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Dún Laoghaire. Dreamcatchr was commissioned by the RIAM and the libretto was written by Lily Akerman. Rehearsals and preparations for the annual opera project usually take place throughout the semester and so this process was well underway when the decision was made to cancel the live performance. This event was one of a host of live events that were cancelled in the early phase of the pandemic and the resultant lockdown. Kevin O'Connell describes the plot of the opera as the following:
The two main characters are sisters, the younger Jane and the older Polly. Jane, the dreamer of the two, discovers a way of downloading her dreams. Dreamcatchr is the name of the app she devises. This begins to take over her life, and so the drama unfolds.
O'Connell hopes that this story might become even more pertinent since the pandemic:
This is the kind of topic that is relevant at the moment in the sense that even random events like Covid seem to make it only more relevant. It is the world we have created for ourselves. In fact I was less interested in the technology than in the relationship between the two sisters. Opera is about people.
In September 2020, the RIAM and IADT began the process of creating a screen adaption of the opera. Jonathan Nangle is creating an electronic version of the instrumental score that will be far more advanced than a simple midi style mock-up. The team decided it was best to avoid this so that an eventual premiere of the instrumental version could accurately be described as such. The vocal parts will be as written. Kevin O'Connell continues:
The dream sequences which are a vital part of the opera would have been quite difficult to stage; some of them are quite surreal and involve a sizable vocal ensemble.. I think film will give us a great advantage here over the live stage.
These three pieces by AIC composers demonstrate some of the different ways in which new music in Ireland has responded to the challenges presented by the on-going COVID-19 pandemic. Jennifer Walshe's world premiere was scheduled to take place with a live audience but had to be re-conceived as a livestream at short notice. Tide Quartet by Sebastian Adams was always intended to be part of an outdoor performance series, but at the time of the event only outdoor performances were possible, and gatherings of audience members were not officially permitted. Kevin O'Connell's new opera was a major undertaking with students from two large Dublin educational institutions. The re-interpretation of this piece for the screen involves a fundamental shift of what the experience of the piece would be. In all three cases, a way for the pieces to be presented for audiences was found despite the incredibly difficult circumstances imposed by the pandemic. In all of the cases, technology was used to mediate the audience's experience of the piece. The standard of presentation in all three cases was and is exceptionally high. Tide Quartet was beautifully realised in an atmospheric outdoor location. Ireland: A Dataset was streamed using broadcast quality cameras and sound equipment. DreamCatchr will be translated into a high quality screen adaptation using the expertise of students at IADT.
In the midst of so many cancellations, these pieces demonstrated alternatives to traditional models of concert presentation that have existed since the nineteenth century. The two completed performances were artistically successful despite having to deal with difficult restrictions and circumstances, and Dreamcatcr promises to create an exciting new piece of video opera. It could even be argued that there were some advantages to these new conceptions of the works. The livestream of Jennifer Walshe's work allowed it to be experienced by a far larger and more geographically diverse audience than it was originally intended for. The use of multiple camera angles and close-ups allowed audiences to experience a greater level of detail than if the piece had been experienced at a distance. Kevin O'Connell is also optimistic that some elements of his newest opera will be enhanced by the possibilities afforded by a video adaptation. This article does not claim that these alternative models of presentation are necessarily superior to traditional forms, but I believe that there is much to be learned from the experiences of new music performances that have taken place against the odds during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr Tom Lane is a composer based in Dublin, more information about his work can be found at www.tom-lane.com
Photographs used with kind permission from Kirkos