The Ritual of Daily Tunes

Aidan O’Rourke and Kit Downes (Photo © Genevieve Stevenson)

The Ritual of Daily Tunes

Lau fiddle-player Aidan O'Rourke has just released his fifth solo album, twenty-five tune compositions in response to the stories of James Robertson, accompanied by jazz pianist Kit Downes. Brendan Finan reviews.

Forming a habit of daily creative practice is one of the most common pieces of advice given to artistic professionals. The practice is one thing, but putting the results out in the open is quite another. That’s what the Scottish author James Robertson committed to do in 2013 – 365 stories, each of 365 words – and then fiddler Aidan O’Rourke responded to the project with a new composition for each story. This week sees the release of a second volume of O’Rourke’s tunes, 25 added to the 22 of Volume 1, performed by O’Rourke with accompaniment on piano and harmonium by Kit Downes. Each composition is named after the first line of the story it relates to, though the project’s website emphasises that the story and music aren’t necessarily connected, that O’Rourke simply wrote the music after hearing the story. Surely, though, it’s impossible to negate that influence entirely. While some pairs seem unconnected (‘That braggart had it coming to him’ has a much more happy-go-lucky mood than its progenitor, the story ‘A Hebridean Incitement to Battle’), others share a mood or tone, like the cold bureaucratic contempt of ‘Work Tokens’ and ‘Bill was already at his window’.

The nature of a daily-creation product like this is to make something short and complete. The stories have a sense of fine control, a structural tightness from the strict word count. By contrast, there’s a lingering ease to the tunes in the collection, a sense of improvisation and open possibility. In that way, in spite of their literary precursors, the tunes resemble photographs. Each one is a captured moment or mood.

Support, enhance, reformat
O’Rourke’s own playing is clean and dry, often in contrast to a sweetness and nostalgia that can come through in his tunes. It’s rarely showy, emphasising fine control of tone and dynamic.

Kit Downes’ harmonisations contribute to the mood too. They sometimes support the fiddle melodies, sometimes enhance them, and sometimes completely reformat them. ‘She picked up the letter again’ has a jaunty chordal accompaniment on the piano, whereas ‘I met him only once’ has a sense of counterpoint. For ‘I was riding on a Greyhound bus seeking some place to hide’, the accompaniment, now on harmonium, drifts between a nostalgic tonality and surprising dissonances.

A slower listen
Sometimes you listen to an album and you know something is there, but it’s not working for you. The ‘there’ can be tantalisingly close. Often, that can prompt a search for why the music isn’t working, but this time I had the strong sense that it was my problem. Eventually, a slower listen gave greater rewards. O’Rourke wrote each of the tunes immediately after reading Robertson’s story, and for me they worked best listening that way, one at a time, after reading the stories. Rather than a glut of 25 short works – enough to fatigue the ear and mind – each pair stood as a kind of multidisciplinary diptych.

That’s not to say that the stories are a requirement for the music. In spite of their connection, I don’t think they are – but they provide breathing room which allows each track to work. In that way, the collection feels more like an anthology than an album. Thought has gone into how the music fits together, but it’s not a primary concern, and it works even if you don’t just press play and listen through to the end.

The first volume is available online, and presumably this one will be too, but listening to it is just a taster. The CD is a step up from there: the stories are included, and you can read them alongside the music. But perhaps the truest expression of the project comes next year: daily releases of story and song together, one pair a day. Modern life provides us with infinite possible stimuli which take, individually, next to no time, and collectively can dismantle a whole day. A daily ritual of returning to some new piece of art can provide a necessary break from that. A little medicine for the soul, in an Instagram-sized package.

Aidan O’Rourke’s 365: Volume 2 is released on Reveal Records on 9 August. Read our interview with O’Rourke here.

O’Rourke, Downes and Robertson will perform at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 10 August.

To receive all 365 tunes with the corresponding spoken story by email from 1 January 2020, visit https://three-six-five.net/. 

Published on 7 August 2019

Brendan Finan is a teacher and writer living in Meath. He writes a blog at www.brendanfinan.net.

Sign up for our daily or weekly newsletter to receive our latest news, UK newsreviews, articles, jobs and events.

To add a listing see here. For advertising visit this link.