Arc of the Seasons
It’s been a turbulent start for Galway 2020. The year-long, multi-disciplinary, county-wide festival’s opening ceremony was called off due to severe winds last month, and now, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, all events until 29 March have been cancelled or postponed. This includes Galway-based theatre company Branar’s production Sruth na Teanga and the large-scale light installation Savage Beauty by Finnish artist Kari Kola that was set to take place in the open landscape of Connemara, although that was filmed and is viewable online.
After a lengthy and community-driven campaign to achieve the title of European Capital of Culture, and four years of preparing, curating and producing, it’s a significant interruption to the first season of the festival’s programme.
This is a challenging time for all of us, of course, but what I – like many of us – can still garner joy and escapism from, is music. While the string of concert and festival cancellations and the closing of venues is overwhelming, recorded music is still here for us.
Released last month, just before the world changed radically, is Galway songwriter Anna Mullarkey’s debut album Spéir (’sky’), commissioned by Galway 2020. Having previously performed with alternative folk-jazz ensemble My Fellow Sponges, Mullarkey’s solo style is synth-focused, using layers of sound effects beneath her far-ranging vocals and piano. I had seen her perform in the past, each time wishing I could listen to more of her music after the concert, so this five-track record is a welcome debut.
Spéir is just eighteen minutes of listening time, and is based on the seasons of the year and the festivities planned for Galway’s year as European Capital of Culture. The first song ‘Waiting for Spring’ is a one-minute prelude with long, lingering chords on electronics as Mullarkey sings in Irish the words ‘Bígí Linn, bígí le chéile’ (Be with us, be together), a sentiment that doesn’t align to our current social distancing, but still creates a hopeful conviction for the year to come.
‘Summer’ starts with arpeggios in a major key, struck by Mullarkey on the piano, echoing and fading into the next, as a grand and enigmatic introduction to the track. The arpeggios recur throughout. Each note is drawn out as she sings the lyrics ‘ag damhsa sa spéir, ag damhsa sa spéir’ (dancing in the sky). This slow and uplifting song was written in response to birds in flight and finishes just as it opens, fading out and into the next track. ‘Sky Dance’ is more synth-heavy and marks the point at which the album rises in tempo, before later winding down, giving the record a natural arc, mimicking the pattern of a year. A dancing motif on piano persists throughout as layers of clicking and beeping electronics and sections on string flow underneath the elongated, ornamented vocals.
Representing winter, fourth track ‘Larger Than Life’ is a moody electronic piece that starts slow with a dark drone on synth, and solid percussion creating a dance beat, setting it apart from the other tracks. It builds in sound as Mullarkey sings the lyrics ‘We are stronger when we come together’, a nod to the community spirit of the Galway 2020 outreach.
The album closes with ‘Passing’, an ambient three minutes that washes over in a haze of glittering electronics, fading vocals and a constant pedal note throughout, winding the album out as it concludes. It is slow and absorbing and finishes the album in an effervescent burst of sound.
Despite its short length, Spéir is a strong debut album from Mullarkey. As with her live shows, she layers sound around her vocals giving her music an otherworldly feel, and, as a listener, you can become totally immersed in it. Such synth-heavy music doesn’t lend itself to mediocre recording or production, and what Mullarkey has presented here is a five-track record of full-bodied, high-fidelity sound.
While the world as we know it has been changed drastically and overwhelmingly in just a matter of days, Spéir is an escape, a reminder that time will keep moving, the earth will keep spinning, seasons change, and we will see light again.
For more on Anna Mullarkey, visit annamullarkey.bandcamp.com/
Published on 19 March 2020
Shannon McNamee is assistant editor of the Journal of Music.