Burning in the Smallest of Things

Photo: Artistic directors of Nest, Brian Irvine and John McIlduff, with the Nest Community Choir

Burning in the Smallest of Things

Peter Rosser attends Nest, Belfast's contribution to the Cultural Olympiad, which uses donated everyday objects to build an oratorio and an installation.

Cries of ‘boondoggle’,’ ‘rampant corporatism’ and ‘land grab’  plagued preparations for the 2012 London Olympics. Even in the wake of the widely acclaimed opening ceremony by Danny Boyle, it’s still important to remember that it was cynicism in the host nation, more than, say, security provision blunder or budgetary overspend, that represented the chief obstacle to a successful delivery of the £9 billion two week festival of sport.

Understanding this, and perhaps admitting in advance that these games would be defined to a great extent by the loaded benevolence of multi-national corporations, the politicians were insistent that the Cultural Olympiad would be as overwhelming and as far-reaching as possible. 

16 million people, we’re told, have taken part in performances, 170,000 in workshops, 3.7 million in Open Weekend events across the UK, with the London 2012 Festival itself promising ‘10 million opportunities to see 12,000 events’.

Given the size and scope of this venture, it could be said that artists, more than any others (and including sports stars), were conscripted early on to provide the charm offensive. If the games were to be funded and daubed over by all those who work against the true spirit of Olympism — for fast food, oil, and financial services read obesity, eco-disaster, and day-light robbery — then musicians, dancers, filmmakers and the like were to provide the real spirit of the games.

And it would be the artists who were needed to make sense of the weird asymmetries, as the ‘biggest show on earth’ descended on a forgotten — but hardly disused — part of east London and brought with it the attention of more British army troops than were ever deployed in Afghanistan, eleven miles of high-tech surveillance equipment and electrified barbed wire fencing, not to mention the patrolling helicopters and surface-to-air missiles planted on blocks of council flats — all designed to protect ‘the most inclusive games ever’ from unwanted attention.

The central conundrum was this: how to sell a fortnight of athletic elitism (and its potential advertising bonanza) as a festival of inclusivity and equality.

Suitably enough, the Olympic performance projects that landed in Ireland all dealt somehow with these ironies of scale and content. From the New Music 20 x 12 commissions which delivered five new operas in little over 90 minutes in Belfast’s new Metropolitan Arts Centre, to the £1 million aerobatics spectacular Land of Giants in the Titanic Quarter, it was clear that ideas needed to be as metamorphosing as possible.

And so Nest, the culmination of this series of public art and performance pieces, emerged in T13 (the Titanic shipyard warehouse billed as ‘the new home of counter-culture in Belfast’), and attempted to invert, or subvert, the usually accepted understanding of spectacle.

Here the process was atomised so that the tiniest material piece of a life — a memento, or trinket, a piece of junk with only sentimental value — alongside a few words of explanation, found its place alongside thousands of others to build a vast panoply of disjecta membra splayed across the floor of the warehouse, each piece, regardless of material value, given the same simple white plinth.

Composer Brian Irvine and writer/director John McIlduff enlisted the help of the thousands who donated objects and offered in return an object of their own, a gentle, sometimes solemn, sometimes joyous, secular oratorio through the hands and voices of the excellent Ulster Youth Orchestra and combined community choirs from around the country. And it was the music that would serve to combine the scattered artefacts and their background stories into a meaningful, if temporary, dwelling — the nest itself, protective and welcoming.

‘This part of my every day/it is not an instrument/but it helps me to breathe’ is a fusion of fir cones used as kindling, a music tuner and an inhaler; the necessities and fancies of life pestled together to produce a hymn to the ordinary.

Donors could be anonymous or not, as they wished, and could be as cheeky or as brave as they dared: nothing was proscribed. So it is, in Nest, we find item #7088, ‘used only once […] Failed in expectations,’ the Rampant Rabbit G-Pulse, can stand easily together with a toy bear, item #1791, ‘this is Barney. He has been my friend from when I was 4. I am now 8 years old and think it is time to pass Barney on to someone else.’

Nest embraced all the necessary ideals of inclusivity and communality. But these need not be fakery, especially in the hands of the prepotent galvaniser Brian Irvine. This is a composer who has inspired many to believe in themselves and their abilities, his many (and award-winning) projects for children and amateurs always considered as equals to his concert and stage work.

In a diary entry Susan Sontag once scribbled these thoughts:

Each generation has to reinvent spirituality

Ardent reason


Looking for self-transcendence (or metamorphosis) — the cloud of unknowing that allows perfect expressiveness (a secular myth for this).

This ‘cloud of unknowing’ seems to resonate with Nest, an event that indeed moved cloud-like over its visitors and performers. It worked as an old-fashioned promenade concert as well as an installation. Visitors were free to choose their own paths through the paraphernalia of daily life; they could lose themselves at will, only to be met on re-emerging by the soft, warm spectacle of massed voices and symphony orchestra.

The metamorphosis was real with the brutal shipyard warehouse becoming a kind of post-industrial, spiritual, but altogether agnostic, cathedral.

As Sontag understood, this is the real challenge: to find our own new mythologies, our own expressivities, burning and glowing in the smallest of things.

Published on 13 August 2012

Peter Rosser (1970–2014) was a composer, writer and music lecturer.

He was born in London and moved to Belfast in 1990, where he studied composition at the University of Ulster and was awarded a DPhil in 1997. His music has been performed at the Spitalfields Festival in London, the Belfast Festival at Queen’s and by the Crash Ensemble in Dublin.

In 2011 the Arts Council acknowledged his contribution to the arts in Northern Ireland through a Major Individual Artist Award. He used this award to write his Second String Quartet, which was premiered in 2012 by the JACK Quartet at the opening concert at Belfast's new Metropolitan Arts Centre (The MAC).

Peter Rosser also wrote extensively on a wide range of music genres, with essays published in The Journal of Music, The Wire, Perspectives of New Music and the Crescent Journal. 

He died following an illness on 24 November 2014, aged 44.

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