Playing for an Inside-Out World

Sarah Nicolls and her custom-made ‘inside-out piano’.

Playing for an Inside-Out World

In the first review from our new Music Writer Mentoring Scheme, supported by Galway City and Galway County Arts Offices, James Fleming reviews a performance by Sarah Nicolls of her new political work 'Twelve Years'. Presented by Galway Jazz Festival at the Mick Lally Theatre on 29 March, the composition by the British pianist and composer is a direct call for action at a time of crisis.

The grey walls of the Mick Lally Theatre tower over Sarah Nicolls and her instrument. She sits at her ‘inside-out piano’, fingers resting on the ivories, head bowed and face set. At Nicolls’ request,  Pierre Malbos of Brunel University had taken a piano and turned its body upwards by ninety degrees, creating her unique instrument. This design means that she can reach into its innards and strum its guts, plucking harmonics from the steel strings that shine in the spotlight like 88 needle-thin skyscrapers. 

Her shoulders shrug as she tightens her muscles and launches powerfully into the opening chords of Twelve Years, a piece about how humanity has just over a decade to save the planet from climate change. She hammers out the minimalist chords at rapid-fire pace, turning her head from side to side and repeating ‘Twelve years!?’ in disbelief, before the chords start to falter and fade out. She turns to the microphone and says ‘Twelve years… to save a planet?’ And then corrects herself: ‘This was written last year so… it’s actually eleven.’

Twelve movements
The concert mixes spoken word, music and invention over twelve movements. Pre-recorded news headlines play over a PA system during the piece’s second movement, titled ‘GOOD NEWS PLEASE!’ It highlights the planet’s grim prospects as Nicolls pounds out one note with both hands, a technique she would return to throughout the performance. It is as if she is italicising her message with her simple, aggressive music. When Nicolls’ pre-recorded voice intones ‘Typhoon Yutu slams into Northern Philippines killing a child’, she hits loud, tolling chords, driving the point home deep into the consciousness.

She injects her music and her inside-out piano with life; she stands up and runs a rubber ball down the piano’s strings as phone conversations play on the PA between two fictional sisters, Fran and Lara, during movement four. Lara is campaigning to combat climate change. Fran is not. Nicolls, who plays both women, underlines the tone of the conversation using everything from dramatic bangs to resigned chords to emphasise her points. 

Hard to be hopeful
Nicolls smacks the vertical strings with the flat of her palms and scrapes them with her fingernails during ‘AIDAN REASSURING’ – movement seven where Fran’s husband attempts to reassure her. She moves towards the piece’s close with grace, stepping through the chord progressions. Then the music intensifies and she starts singing in a pure angelic voice over the repeated chords of ‘I FIND IT HARD TO BE HOPEFUL BUT’. She plays an eight-note pattern, hunched over the keyboard with her fringe hanging over her eyes. Then the final chords fade away and Sarah Nicolls’ Twelve Years bows out. 

Other artists might have cloaked their meaning with metaphors. Nicolls’ direct mission, however, is to spread understanding of the danger facing our world. I found there was nothing oblique or vague about Twelve Years, but, like fine prose, it made its point and made it well, with eloquence, taste, poignancy and power. This is hard and vital music. It was not written for beauty, nor was it written for entertainment. It was written to shock. 


This is the first review published as part of  the Journal of Music/Galway City and County Music Writer Mentoring Scheme 2019 and is supported by Galway City Council and Galway County Council Arts Offices. Over the course of the years, the editorial team of the Journal of Music will work with six new writers – Rachel Deckard, Massimo Cattaneo, Jake Tiernan and Kerri Haberlin (Galway city) and  James Fleming and Tara Broderick (Galway county) – and publish their reviews of music in Galway.

Read more about our previous Music Writer Mentoring Schemes here:

Published on 18 April 2019

James Fleming is a writer and musician. Born in California and raised in Ireland, he has contributed to Golden Plec, All About Jazz and Hifi Pig. He has also played in various rock and punk garage bands. James studied Digital Media: Radio and Journalism at Galway Technical Institute and has been writing about music ever since. Genres of interest include alternative musics, jazz and roots music, and, on the writing side, creative non-fiction and speculative fiction. His favourite artists include John Coltrane, Joan Didion, Captain Beefheart, Richard Brautigan, Mary Gauthier and James Baldwin.

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