Nature and Fairy Stories

Freddy Walsh and James McDonald performing at the NI Composer Showcase

Nature and Fairy Stories

In the first review from our 2018 Northern Ireland Music Writer Mentoring Scheme – supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland – Laura Sheary writes about the NI Composer Showcase that took place earlier this summer and which featured music by Áine Mallon and Christopher McAteer.

Northern Ireland promoter Moving On Music selected five composers and musicians for its 2017/18 Emerging Artist Programme. At the beginning of this summer, two of them – Áine Mallon and Christopher McAteer – had work performed as part of the NI Composer Showcase at the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast. 

A graduate of music at the University of Manchester, Mallon’s work was previously selected for performance at a New Sounds from Manchester concert. She cites Irish traditional music, contemporary classical and musical theatre as some of her interests. 

McAteer, from Portstewart, is a past recipient of the Royal Philharmonic Society composition prize. He has had several pieces performed with the Irish Composers Collective and his most recent work includes a new opera based on the life of Roger Casement.

During the talks beforehand, hosted by the Contemporary Music Centre (and including another of the Emerging Artists, James Joys), McAteer touched upon the near subconscious impact that nature has had on his compositions. Perhaps the knowledge of this influenced my perception of his music, but I was intrigued by how the presence of the sea and its wild surroundings seemed to pervade his compositions. The programme note for quietwild, a solo work for cello, is a descriptive piece of micro fiction in which McAteer describes looking upon a forest and observing ‘a tension in the landscape’ that unsettles something within him. That tension is given voice in McAteer’s minimalist composition, which begins with sparse texture and irregular, drawn out chords. 

A strange sort of coexistence
Cellist David McCann, who is a member of the Hard Rain Soloist Ensemble, manages to move seamlessly between the dramatic and subtle styles of the piece. The jerky, erratic nature of certain sections are often interspersed with gentle harmonics that are no more than mere whispers of sound amongst the madness. This constant push and pull is evocative of the interaction between humans and their natural surroundings. The almost mechanical qualities of some of the music juxtaposed with softer moments seems to initially place human beings as outsiders disturbing the purity of their surroundings. As the piece develops, the lines of this contrast begin to merge, indicating a yearning for understanding and an eventual acceptance of a strange sort of coexistence. 

This theme of coexistence is further advanced in McAteer’s second piece, titled dreamtime. As the opening notes ring out, it seems that the tension explored in the previous piece has been resolved and transformed here into a delicate, inquisitive call and response. Performed on two electric guitars by Freddy Walsh and James McDonald, McAteer acknowledged that this was less of a collaborative effort between composer and performers than the previous piece, and perhaps as a result of this it feels slightly tentative. In the first movement we hear sporadic, muted chords on one guitar in contrast to the rock stylings of the other. The second movement transports us to hazier, more dream-like territory. Sleepy, filmic drones interplay with the melody of the music and create a dialogue between the two guitars –almost as though two distinct veins of thought are quietly trying to communicate with one another.

Reverence and reverberence 
Áine Mallon’s first offering of the evening was in the form of a video of a 2017 performance of a choral piece commissioned by the Manchester Renaissance Ensemble. This setting of Credo Quod Redemptor is built around contrasting styles of music that come together to form a lush and expressive modal work. Mallon herself delivers the opening lines of the piece, and the ornamentation in the rising notes immediately gives a distinctly traditional Irish feel to this classical Renaissance piece. Female and male voices swell and overlap to form a rich, polyphonic texture and the overall reverence expressed seems to cross over from the video performance to the hushed audience in the Crescent Arts Centre.

The sense of wonder in the room continued as Alex Petcu bowed the opening notes of Mallon’s second piece titled November Eve. With Crash Ensemble’s Pectu on tubular bells and vibraphone and Hard Rain Soloist Ensemble’s Aisling Agnew on flutes, the instrumentation turns out to be the perfect pairing to narrate a piece based on Irish mythology and fairy stories. By scoring for piccolo, flute and wooden flute, Mallon succeeds again in creating a sound world filled with Irish traditional influences and allows Agnew to convey a narrative about fairies and dead souls who dance together until the moon goes down on the first night of winter. 

Aisling Agnew and Alex Petcu

Reverberating notes sound on the bells to create a still atmosphere that acts as a wall of sound for Agnew’s melody to rise upon. The slow build allows the flute to release the delicate tension that has been created through its playful dance. The piece is interspersed with a single regular chime played by Pectu that seems to act as a pillar of time, counting down the moment until the flute’s song will cease to be heard. It is a constant that lulls and draws the listener in deeper each time; dividing the piece into sections that drift beautifully into being before quietly leaving again to make way for something new.

The NI Composer Showcase took place on 9 May 2018 at the Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast. For more Moving on Music events, visit

This review is published as part of a new scheme for writers about music in Northern Ireland. The Journal of Music Northern Ireland Music Writer Mentoring Scheme is supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and was launched in January 2018. Over the year, the editorial team of The Journal of Music will work with four new writers towards publication. The scheme participants are Laura Sheary, Marc Gregg, Stevie Lennox and Aine Cronin-McCartney. Find out more about them here.

This is the third mentoring scheme developed by The Journal of Music, following successful projects in Galway City and County Clare. For further details on the schemes, please visit

Published on 8 August 2018

Laura Sheary is a writer and musician based in Belfast. In 2018 she took part part in the Journal of Music/Arts Council of Northern Ireland Music Writer Mentoring Scheme. Laura was a member of indie pop band Staring at Lakes and now performs with Kyoto Love Hotel.

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