A derelict mill in Manchester, late January 2006. The temperature inside is about –5o; it’s only slightly colder outside. This is the setting for COLLECTIVE, a site-specific exhibition of new work by eight British-based artists of contrasting disciplines, some of them ‘emerging’, others relatively well established. Among them is the young Irish composer Ailís Ní Ríain, now thirty-one, who has been living in Manchester for almost seven years. Her work is called Missing Persons, and is an electro-acoustic sound installation with photographic images and texts, all of which she devised herself. Recorded fragments of the voices of three terminally-ill persons speak about their thoughts on what will happen to them after they die, and about living in the shadow of death. Their voices are set against a harmonically comforting but sonically disturbing wash of ambient chords and filtered noise, and are framed by a child-like piano piece, which comes and goes, and very high frequency chirps – the sound of mice. The photographs show abandoned, boarded-up houses near the area of Salford where she lives. It all makes for a pretty intense experience.
Although installation work is a new departure for Ní Ríain, the subject matter is not. Actual missing persons (and one of her own family members has been officially ‘missing’), and the terminally ill, inhabit a realm to which her creative imagination seems so often to return: the realm between the living and the dead. Such individuals are gone (or going) but not forgotten, not quite dead and not quite alive. The music somehow conveys this terrible feeling of uncertainty, unknowing. Listening to it stops me in my tracks. This is a composer who can get right under the skin.
Heavy stuff, then: death is no laughing matter. (‘Better on your arse than on your feet, / Flat on your back than either, dead than the lot,’ wrote Samuel Beckett, translating the eighteenth-century French aphorist Sébastien Chamfort; somehow this relativising of human endeavour has always struck me as rather cheering.) Even the most casual glance at the titles of Ní Ríain’s compositions makes clear that she shares her illustrious countryman’s obsession with death (Cease to Exist, a choral piece from 1998; The Last Time I Died (offered you my pulse, gave you my breath), an instrumental trio with speaking voices from 2001; The Dead Live, an ensemble work from 2002). Even more characteristically, her compositions return time and again to the thought that life and death are not opposites: there are many states in between. One such is Purgatory, the realm explored in her large-scale music-theatre work EXIT (2003); and there is also the realm of the not-yet-dead, and the various forms of after-life, the presence of the dead in the minds and hearts of the living. Why, for a young composer, such an attachment to these morbid thoughts?
To ask this about Ailís Ní Ríain’s work is no different than asking it about Beckett himself, or Paul Celan, or Sylvia Plath, or Kurt Cobain, or any other of the myriad artists who have dealt at length with the subject of death in their work. ‘You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes,’ the New Testament reminds us, not that we necessarily need much reminding. But why drag it so repeatedly into music?
Not even the most empathetically-challenged listener could fail to suspect that much of the extra-musical content of Ní Ríain’s work comes directly from her own experience. All her compositions from the years 2001-2004 stemmed directly from a breakdown she had in 2001, followed by her brother’s death the following year. ‘All my work stems from personal experience,’ she tells me quite matter-of-factly, as though surprised there could be any doubt. ‘I could dress it up – I did in the past, pretend it was somebody else’s story, but it isn’t. It’s only when you get older you’re prepared to say, for good and bad, that that’s what it is.’
Cork, York and Manchester
Ailís Ní Ríain was born in Cork in 1974. As a child she contracted encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain that causes extreme memory loss and poor concentration and can leave lasting traces such as mental disorders and psychotic behaviour patterns. Following the death of her father at the age of thirteen she began to suffer from episodic depression. Words and music were an outlet for her. She began writing ‘bad love songs’ quite early on, accompanying herself at the piano. Then, thanks to a chance meeting with Bridget Doolan of the Cork School of Music, she continued serious study of the piano under her guidance: Doolan, she says, was one of the most important influences on her development. Whether as a balm against personal difficulties, or simply through a growing obsession with music, or some combination of both, the piano became her lifeline: as an undergraduate at University College Cork she would do four or five hours practice a day.
By her early twenties composition had begun to seem even more important than piano playing. (She says she didn’t realise women could be composers, or even that composers could be alive, until she heard a performance of a work by Jane O’Leary in Dublin’s National Concert Hall when she was sixteen, and O’Leary stood up to acknowledge the applause.) At UCC she didn’t study composition but began to write some things entirely off her own bat: the first piece she still acknowledges, the Lewis Carroll-inspired Down the Rabbit Hole for flute, piano and bodhrán, dates from her studies there, and to her surprise won a UCC student composers’ competition. (‘There were only three entries’, she admits.) She had difficulty, however, finding a composition teacher: eventually the search for someone suitable led her to look outside Ireland. She applied to the University of York in England and was accepted. She studied part-time, working in a restaurant in the town centre and in a ‘real dive’ of a pub a bit further out. But these years were hardly plain sailing. She had hoped York would stretch her but in fact the opposite happened: ‘I found it difficult,’ she says, ‘and I started sinking’. She felt inadequate around the confident, articulate opinion-mongering of her fellow students, and sensed she had to start from the very beginning to learn about composition. But persistence paid off, and she graduated with a Masters degree in composition in 1998.
But this didn’t feel enough, and two more periods of study followed: first an M.Phil at the University of Manchester and then further studies at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM), from which she graduated in 2003. During these later student years in Manchester she began to get noticed, both in Ireland and in her adopted homeland. She won the IMRO/Mostly Modern Competition in 1999 with a witty and theatrical piece for solo double bass called Dogs in Waiting (premiered by Barry Guy), and the following year she was awarded first prize in the Composers’ Class of the RTÉ Musician of the Future Competition for The Man Made of Rain, a work for clarinet and piano incorporating a spoken text by the poet Brendan Kennelly (‘Between living and dying is the calmest place I’ve ever been…’). These events were great boosts to her morale, and counteracted some of the disillusion she felt at the end of her York years.
As these pieces show, right from the outset Ní Ríain’s creative imagination has been fired by more than music alone. Even her instrumental works are rarely ‘pure music’: they are closer at times to a sort of instrumental theatre. Several of them seem to be ‘about’ a troubled search for companionship and understanding. DON’T (2000) is a sort of argument for bass clarinet and cello. The very title, she says, ‘sets up a sort of context – one person won’t let the other person speak’. The emotional dynamic between the two players is all too familiar, and marks out a painful place where communication is longed for but doesn’t truly happen. Never? (2001), for two guitars, scratches further at the same wound. Here the two musicians, playing identical instruments, are perfectly capable of sharing sentiments (i.e. timbral qualities), and at first their music is relatively harmonious, even serene. But as the piece progresses this relationship disintegrates; one player breaks free and the other reiterates a sort of question. The ending brings no resolution, only a feeling of unease. Sometimes these inter-personal relationships can be ideological instead of emotional, as in the saxophone quartet Possibility? (2001), in which the four players engage in a sort of discussion which quickly gets defused in drunkenness and a microtonal slurring of phrases. They then abandon their instruments and recite a pseudo-philosophical text, their words overlapping; they are ‘so self-absorbed they don’t realise they are all making the same point’, writes Ní Ríain. The piece’s final section is a sort of ‘morning after’, at first punchy and then coming to rest on a ‘nauseous drone’, where all memory of the previous night’s discussion has gone. The effect is humorous and quirky, but it’s not hard to read the (political?) point the music is making.
This creatively interdisciplinary habit of mind is quite natural to her. ‘I’ve been writing texts longer than I’ve been writing music’, she points out; and she has ranged across and between different art-forms in search of an outlet for all the things she needs to express. Having written poems since her school days she now is a published poet, and is preparing her first solo collection. She also paints: her house is filled with her artwork to an extent that, she says, is almost disturbing. Most recently she has written a monologue for a female actress, Emerge In Me…, which was given four performances in Manchester’s Taurus Bar Theatre this past February; and she is presently at work on a play. Whereas music has probably received the lion’s share of her effort over the years, she has even become wary about calling herself a composer, as ‘fewer and fewer people know what that is any more’.
The dead, live, exit and the falling
Ní Ríain unhesitatingly admits that of all the media she works in, it is painting that has proved the most therapeutic of her artistic outlets. Her canvasses are often done very quickly, in the grip of energies that need immediate expression: composition, in contrast, is too measured a process to be useful at these moments. Sometimes her paintings seem to have hit the canvas in one violent splurge, like Aggressive Splash, a bold, Pollock-like interplay of foreground, middleground and background. Small Green Snooper shows a coquettish dog-like creature; but The Shell-Man Never Had It Easy is a scary amalgam of an angry clown-like face, menacing sea creatures (or are they birds?) and a sad-looking doll.
It makes sense, given her interest in the individual imagination and in individual human experience, that she is most interested in working with small-scale forces. If the chance came to write for an orchestra now, she says, her first thought would be how to subvert the medium: her inspirations derive more from individual performers, or the relationships between a small number of individuals, than they do from a mass of players. Perhaps the closest she’s come to an ‘orchestral’ sound-world is in METRO:GNOME, a short piece written in early 2001 at the Composers’ Week in Apeldoorn in Holland. This is music at the uncomplicated end of her spectrum, a lively and approachable piece that rattles through the possibilities of a three-note figure that turns out to generate all kinds of unexpected musical material. It also sounds just a bit like an affectionate piss-take on the macho style of recent Dutch contemporary music: the ensemble for which it was written, De Ereprijs, has a line-up of piccolo, saxes, brass, electric guitar, bass guitar, percussion and piano. But there is a twinkle in the eye: the amplified female voices (the use of which brings to mind Louis Andriessen epics like De Staat or De Tijd) sing nothing more profound than the word ‘Pomona’, the name of a stop on Manchester’s tram line she travelled on every day; the appalling pun of the title reflects both this mode of transportation and the fact that the piece is so, well, short, while simultaneously pointing to the rhythmic nature of the music.
Perhaps a more characteristic use of a large ensemble is a striking piece from 2002, The Dead Live. This work is for ten players divided into five duos (piccolo and bass clarinet; oboe and bassoon; cello and horn; piano and harp; double bass and percussion). Each of the duos is separated spatially and musically from the others, each pair of players forming a new timbral identity – ‘a duality,’ she says, ‘where the dead shadow the living.’ The Dead Live (premiered by the RNCM New Music Ensemble conducted by the distinguished Scottish composer James MacMillan) is a manifestation of one of her recurrent themes, the idea that (as the programme note says) ‘the dead live among us in myriad ways.’ Three of the duos ‘die’ during the piece, and their loss – sonically and physically – is felt in the remaining music.
Of all Ní Ríain’s thirty-plus compositions to date, the one that seems most satisfactorily to bring together all her various artistic talents is the music-theatre piece EXIT, produced at the RNCM in April 2003. A forty-five-minute multi-media conception involving six singers, eight players, tape and visuals, she worked at it (including directing and producing it herself) for eight solid months. Despite the full-time and stressful effort involved she describes it as the most satisfying thing she’s done, and it is certainly an area to which she wants to devote much of her energies in the years ahead. Asked a couple of years ago in an interview by Dublin’s Contemporary Music Centre what she felt to be her greatest ambition, she replied: ‘to develop an art factory where artists, writers, musicians, composers, filmmakers and intellects of different persuasions and politics could collaborate to produce engaging, relevant and challenging multi-disciplinary art that neither patronizes nor compromises.’ EXIT was followed in 2004-05 by The Falling, a music-theatre monologue for solo harpist (who also acts) and electronic sound. This work is all the more powerful for being fifty minutes in the company of a single performer, the harpist Amy Liptrott; again Ní Ríain directed the performances last summer in Manchester’s 24:7 Theatre Festival. In The Falling we are once again in characteristic territory: ‘a young woman trapped by the memories of a troubled past’, a disintegrating individual. ‘Spiteful voices mock and manipulate, forcing her to recall degrading memories’, the programme tells us. ‘Will she survive the falling?’
This is art that requires courage and conviction both to produce and to appreciate. With pressures from all sides to make art more palatable, more accessible – and Ní Ríain insists that one of her strongest compulsions as an artist is ‘to reach out to the audience’ – such subject-matter as she treats in The Falling or Missing Persons remains far from the concerns of many of her contemporaries. In her most recent work the obsession with extreme states between life and death has become, if anything, even darker than in early works like The Man Made of Rain: to do otherwise, she feels, would be a betrayal. But it’s not all weeping and wailing: she has a distinctive sense of humour (‘black and twisted though it sometimes is’) that comes across in much of her work. Who knows what new obsessions the future will bring? There are a great many projects on her mind at the moment. Besides her play-in-progress, Beaten?, there is the idea to rework The Falling as a radio play (she is interested in the creative potential of radio). She wants to increase her skills in music technology; and she is interested in exploring sign language as an artistic medium, adding yet another voice to the many she already commands (she herself has been losing her hearing for some years and now wears an audio aid). And she wants to do more collaborative work. ‘I feel there’s so much in my head,’ she says, ‘that I’ve become perhaps too used to working on my own’. There are interesting things to come from this talented and driven individual who, one feels, despite an already impressive body of work, is in a certain sense only beginning. ‘As a younger woman,’ she says, ‘I didn’t know what corner I was fighting. I still don’t know what corner I’m fighting. It takes time. When does one really become an artist? When can you say what you actually mean, or what you really feel? When are things ready to be set in stone? Never. Never.’
To date only one of Ní Ríain’s compositions is available on CD: DON’T, performed by David James, cello, and Harry Sparnaay, bass clarinet, on Contemporary Music from Ireland vol. 4, CMC CD04. Other archival recordings and scores are available from Dublin’s Contemporary Music Centre. Several audio clips, texts and paintings can be found on her website, www.ailis.info.
Published on 1 May 2006
Bob Gilmore is a musicologist and keyboard player born in Northern Ireland and presently teaching at Brunel University in London.