Crash's Free State: Freedom and Responsibility

Violinist Mairéad Hickey performing with Crash Ensemble in ‘Free State’ at the National Concert Hall. Photo: Ros Kavanagh.

Crash's Free State: Freedom and Responsibility

John McLachlan attends Crash Ensemble's 9th 'Free State' concert, which offered a range of work from emerging Irish composers.

Since 2006 Crash Ensemble have had a nearly annual series called Free State, in which they perform an all-Irish programme, usually following an open call for scores from emerging composers. On 22 March at the Studio in the National Concert Hall, the programme was curated by composer Garrett Sholdice and Crash Ensemble Artistic Director Kate Ellis out of more than fifty submissions. As well as the selected composers – Daniel McDermott, Peter Fahy, Neil Quigley, Emma O’Halloran, Sebastian Adams and Paul Flynn – a new commission by Sholdice was also performed. The concert was dedicated to the memory of Bob Gilmore.

New generation
The programme note for McDermott’s
GriT mentions that the letters stand for ‘grinding, relentless, interrogation, torture’. Interestingly, if one were new to Crash Ensemble concerts and this kind of music, that would be a big part of the impression – but for those who have attended Crash concerts over 19 years it was much more of a ‘Crash Ensemble type’, reducing the possibility for surprise. The main motif of la, ti, do, was relentlessly repeated, while it collided with violent bass clusters on the piano. These simple elements in the piece were very effectively played upon as they unravelled through non-predictable neighbour-additions to both time and pitch, becoming entangled by reasonably simple processes. That entanglement gave rise to nicely peculiar richness of texture, forming the best parts of the piece. There was also relief offered near the end in the form of a beautifully played static texture.

Peter Fahy’s Labourd was a different kind of piece, more complex in its construction. Yet it began simply enough with rising linear motifs layered with atmospheric timbre effects of extended techniques. There was a lot of development and contrast, showing a composer who is full of effective ideas and colour impressions without relying on nostalgia for past music, but also perhaps, on this one-time impression, squeezing in too many ideas for the time allowed. The delight we could have had in the quieter moments was marred by noise from air-conditioning; this problem recurred later in the programme wherever things got very quiet.

Colour and atmospherics came to the fore completely in Garrett Sholdice’s The Root and the Crown. Everything seemed to be derived from the varying presentation of about two chord-types. This was a piece with massive repetition or with none, depending how close you listened in, and it really repaid close listening. It is hard to produce such satisfying music with scant recourse to traditionally perceived line, counterpoint or functional harmony. What was working tirelessly through this piece was subtle balance of the voicing and colour of chords, so that the listener could not baulk as the piece used black dissonance here, and white diatonic sets there, often spread over the whole available range. The outer sections featured all ten players presenting ideas together, the inner sections of duos and trios presented purer coloured ghosts of melody and counterpoint. There was a straightforward dramaturgy to the piece that should have left nobody confused.

Neil Quigley’s Crutch was from a different world to everything in the first half of the programme. With just solo cello and laptop, using very limited materials, a clean and modest piece was produced. Economy of gesture and material was a strength here, as Kate Ellis really can create an engaged performance with what is effectively knife-edge material in terms of pitch and colour (with so much sul pont required). The laptop part was all very synthetic, even sometimes comical, and it was a wonder how it actually fitted in so well with the real sound of cello – a very confident piece of writing.

Vertical Fields is a piano trio, and it was announced that Emma O’Halloran studies in Princeton with Crash founder Donnacha Dennehy. A pity, as the piece then reminded some in the audience of his piano trio, Bulb. In fact it only had some procedural qualities in common. With this and with the first piece one could start to imagine a Crash style and a School of Dennehy. The friendly open chords and friendly post-minimal repetition mollifies the weird side that is also present in the music: of stretches, distortions and occasional strange turns; in this respect I was reminded of much current East coast American music. The voice of the composer came through in the overall shaping and even capriciousness achieved against this grain.

With Sebastian Adams’ 2014.5 we swung into a world of fearlessness regarding style and expectation. This piece sounded orchestral, and seemed to tap into the harmonies of historical expressionism in a clever and original, light-fingered way. It was wild and impatient in its layout, sweeping the listeners around before narrowing into a looping texture that seemed like a superfluous nod to post-minimalism. Then it ended.

Paul Flynn had more than a nod to a typical Crash style in Still Point. Using all ten players, but with the bass becoming electric and the percussionist switching to a kit, it was introduced as reminiscent of early Dennehy. And it was. The use of crunching dissonance, rhythmic loops and layering also bizarrely put me in mind of the energy of Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin, but with added heavy metal. In fact the piece had its own logic and clarity and was effective and dramatic, seeming to leave off with more to say.

Freedom and responsibiltiy
Crash Ensemble sells itself to the public as ‘Ireland’s leading new-music ensemble: a group of world-class musicians who play the most adventurous, ground-breaking music of today.’ After nineteen years they have certainly reason to be proud of their track record in bringing good audiences, to what is usually great music – within a host of parameters, and is played by the best musicians we have, who can hold their heads up anywhere. I travelled over a ten-hour round trip to hear them, spending a small fortune in the process.

But I hope that behind the marketing hyperbole (and the programme booklet had a whole page of that) they are also able to reflect critically on where they are today and, crucially, what parts they have yet to reach. Over their lifetime so far they have played a part in shaping the sound of what some Irish composers are producing and this is a big responsibility, even if they didn’t set out to get it. The typical Irish composer has benefited from the stylistic expansion that Crash initiated. In broad terms they turned a rather Europe-oriented and modernist scene to one that has much more appreciation of the energy and irreverence offered across the Atlantic and of the existing European styles that had already digested American influence. They also coincided with a big expansion in the numbers of Irish composers due to external institutional factors.

Crash have evolved in this period very much in terms of capacity and professionalism, which impacts hugely on the scale of what can be achieved or attempted. This concert probably featured the largest chamber ensemble living composers here have ever had access to. But it is important that supporters, composers, the public, or Crash themselves, do not use this group as a shorthand or sole representative for Ireland’s contemporary music in its entirety, as in fact there are some very different Irish scenes, groups, ensembles and companies thriving or struggling who together make a much broader picture of where we are today, stylistically. Despite drawing a co-curator from outside and selecting from anonymous submissions, this concert could only go so far in representing the state of freedom in Irish music today.

Published on 29 March 2016

John McLachlan is a composer and member of Aosdána. www.johnmclachlan.info