Mark O'Leary

Mark O’Leary, Glucksman Gallery, Cork, 27 August 2009

The Cork-born guitarist and composer Mark O’Leary has been mining an idosyncratic but rich vein of contemporary jazz for a few years now. Recordings have seen him team up with some of the most adventurous jazz musicians, from Matthew Shipp to Tomasz Stanko and Billy Hart. This performance introduced us (as did another at the Blackrock Conservatory) to a lesser-known side of O’Leary, with laptop-based noise and found sound performances.

The performance consisted of nine short pieces of a few minutes each. The Glucksman Gallery’s award-winning design is perfect for viewing art, but lacking in atmosphere for a deep listening experience. Nevertheless, the city-scape backdrop, and some rare evening sunshine, offset the sterile conditions inside.

O’Leary’s brief introduction explained how the performance, entitled ‘Shipping Forecast’, would engage with Cork’s maritime history, and sure enough the first piece included voice samples of maritime radio weather announcements overlapping with each other, fading in and out of the main body of amorphous noise, which was somewhere between the sound of wind on a microphone and engine roar. This is a diverting piece, although one might have sought a more imaginative engagement with the concept. Even more obvious is an intermittent submarine sonar ping that punctuates the piece, a sound which, in the 1990s almost became a cliche of ambient electronica, a sort of dial-an-atmosphere cue to connote a sub-aqueous mood. In this case, it did little to engage with Cork Harbour’s past.

Subsequent pieces variously featured a distant loop of what sounded like a piece of traditional Indian music (again half-buried in a fog of noise), looming sound-slabs and bell-like tones that occasionally suggested notes of definite pitch, like finding familiar shapes in the clouds, only to have them imperceptibly melt away into the shifting sonorous drift. Echoing creaks and clanks in a later piece suggested another maritime era of wind-straining rope, timber and rigging, and the noise backdrop was reminiscent of the hum and rumble of a more modern ship’s engine. The final piece featured a voice intoning the numbers one to ten in English, French and German, echoing and overlapping, apparently randomly.

A few of O’Leary’s pieces were unexpectedly reminiscent of another Irish guitarist’s work, that of Kevin Shields who, with My Bloody Valentine, has produced some of the most involving and disorienting noise in rock music, but mainly with guitar, and always hovering on a delicious and delirious borderline between melody, structure and chaos. A more fascinating possibility might be to hear O’Leary take a leaf out of Shields’ book and hear him combine his jazz chops with his predilection for noise, texture and found sound. For a few people this evening, perhaps expecting a jazz guitar concert, the response was to leave mid-performance. Those who remained were rewarded with an engaging and suggestive, if underwhelming, voyage through sound.

Published on 1 October 2009

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