Little Room, Great Significance
It pays to arrive early to Listen at Lilliput, a bi-monthly evening of music held at the Lilliput Press’s premises in Stoneybatter, Dublin. Not only might you claim a much-coveted seat — or the corner of one at least — but you’ve time to take a closer look at the books that line every wall of the little room on Arbour Hill.
At an arm’s reach from me, as I was wedged into a far corner of that room last Sunday, there were books on Ireland and the Third Reich, the history of Headfort School, a book about the families of Irish chiefs. Even within the confines of ‘history’ this is a diverse range of interests. Looking about, the thought occurred that few Irish publishers must still publish books on obscure subjects such as these, but that I was glad that somebody did.
A spirit of eclecticism and an interest in curiosities likewise runs through the curation of Listen at Lilliput. The series is produced, presented and programmed by two musicians: Laura Hyland, who founded the series in January 2012, and Judith Ring, who came on board a few months later. Ring and Hyland’s production company’s name — Strike the Air —suggests a desire to look beyond style and genre and approach music from its root property, the vibration of air. ‘We try to balance the programme so that there is enough familiar material to appeal to a casual music listener,’ says Hyland, ‘but also ample space for more experimental musics that generally fall off radar once outside niche-interest music communities — be that jazz, improv, contemporary classical, sound art, spoken word.’
Last Sunday’s programme was a model of this omnivorousness. Opening, Valerie Francis, with just an acoustic guitar, sang a selection of songs from her 2009 album Slow Dynamo, but also songs from a new album she is working on; one of these was just a week old, carefully revealed like a newborn child to wide-eyed onlookers. Kelly Sullivan, a poet from New England now living in Ireland, followed with a selection of her poems, with subjects stretching from Vermont and horses to the Phoenix Park, and Harry Clarke Windows.
A short interval provides an opportunity to scour the shelves one more time; there is a discount on all titles, we are told: a guide to the forests of Ireland, Asenath Nicholson’s Annals of the Famine in Ireland and a rare bestseller for the publisher, Dónal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart, all catch my eye.
With glasses refilled (there’s a BYOB policy) and cups of tea made in the small back room, Berlin-based musician Roy Carroll embarked on his performance, taking the evening on a sharp left turn with a dense electronic texture of sounds, each produced by small, largely-homemade components: an array of small speakers, microphones, beans, pieces of metal, the tubes from whiskey bottles. Fault Line, a trio of bassist Sean Maynard Smith, drummer Shane O’Donovan and saxophonist Matthew Berril, took us off in another direction again, with a set inspired by free jazz of the 1960s.
Listen at Lilliput in ways epitomises changes that have occurred in musical life in the city in the last half decade or so. The new reality that faced musicians and producers since the economic crisis began triggered, or at least facilitated, a transformation in aspects of the musical life of the capital city.
Greater diversity in programming was one thing that seemed to really take off at this moment, with mixed genre events such as Kaleidoscope (set up in 2009) and radio shows such as the John Kelly Ensemble (first aired in 2008), and more recently the Curator’s Club, among many other ventures, tapping into an audience that was hungry for a broad range of music across a variety of traditions; one sensed this was an audience that was resisting its own definition and keen to be challenged, perhaps to escape the fatigue of the patronising political narrative of ‘we have no choice’.
A focus on intimacy, or an attempt on behalf of promoters to create a more direct connection between performers and listeners in smaller, often more casual spaces, has also been a common thread, if not for the first time in musical history. ‘We both believe a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere and a sensitive listening environment are crucial in making an audience receptive to what happens on stage — even if they don’t necessarily like what they hear,’ says Laura Hyland of Listen at Lilliput’s ambitions in this regard.
Listen at Lilliput falls into a third category of change in Dublin’s musical culture: that of the DIY, volunteer-led gig: something that was always present, but which has increased out of necessity in recent years. The organisers of Listen at Lilliput do not currently get paid for their work, and the thin door takings are split evenly amongst performers. Whether this is fair or right or sustainable is not the point — the events happen, and residents of Stoneybatter and beyond are clearly thankful for it.