Ghosts of Belfast

Úna Monaghan at rehearsals of Owenvarragh, a Belfast Circus on The Star Factory. Photo: Will McConnell.

Ghosts of Belfast

Martin Dowling's and Úna Monaghan's performance of Owenvarragh, a Belfast Circus on The Star Factory, used Cage's Roaratorio template and Ciaran Carson's poetry to recreate the soundscape of Belfast. Robert McMillen describes the experience.

When John Cage composed his ____,____ ____ circus on ____, he intended it as a template so that after he had created his own Roaratorio, An Irish Circus on Finnegan’s Wake, anyone imaginative, brave or crazy enough could use the score to produce a piece based on whatever book they chose. It was, in his words, ‘a means for translating a book into a performance without actors, a performance that is both literary and musical, or one or the other’.

Enter Martin Dowling, Lecturer in Irish Traditional Music at Queen’s University in Belfast, and Úna Monaghan, a harp and concertina player, composer, and sound artist from Belfast who also works as a sound engineer specialising in live sound for traditional music.

Since September 2011, the pair have been using Cage’s seven-paragraph score to create their own Roaratorio, based not on Finnegan’s Wake but on Belfast poet and novelist Ciaran Carson’s memoir of Belfast, The Star Factory. focussing mainly on a central chapter, ‘Owenvarragh’.

A performance in March of this year saw the fruition of the painstaking, meticulous, maddening work that went into Owenvarragh, a Belfast Circus on The Star Factory.

The precision of a Swiss clock

When Dowling, a Chicago-born fiddle player, first got the post at Queen’s, he visited the University’s Sonic Arts Research Centre and was hugely impressed.

‘When I started working here in Belfast in 2007, as soon as I came into the Sonic Lab I thought, “Someone should do the Cage Roaratorio thing here, but it should be about Belfast.”

‘And the very next thought I had was “Ciaran Carson”.’

When Dowling mentioned the idea to Úna Monaghan, she leapt up and said ‘I’ll do that!’

Monaghan focussed on the sound elements and Dowling on the poetry — the poems were created using Cage’s ‘mesostic’ technique, where a word or a phrase acts as kind of filter on another text. The approach had to match the precision of a Swiss clock.

‘After choosing the book, then we created poems out of the book. So the first thing I did was to get a sheet of paper and write THE STAR FACTORY in a column down the middle,’ Dowling explained.

Then you start the book off, and the first letter is T and under that is a H, so you find the first word in the book that has a T in it, a T that isn’t followed by an H and you circle it. The first such word on the first page of The Star Factory is “street” and you go like that until you get to the end of the book. In The Star Factory, there are 138 mesostics.’

Monaghan circled all the places and all the sounds mentioned in the book, such as Raglan Street, Clonard Street, Sevestapol Street, the Falls Road as well as far-off places like Arabia. ‘I circled those in black,’ she explained. ‘Then I took a different coloured pen and I wrote down all the sounds mentioned in the book, so you have the cistern, the sound of the toilet flushing, the “tipsy babble” which I got in the Crown Bar and the horses clopping on the cobbles I got in London.

‘I collected all those sounds and I put them into two folders, one for the sounds which related to places — I had to physically visit those places to record the sounds — and another for the more general sounds, like a match being struck or air coming out of an old sofa as you sit on it.’

Dowling also got some Italian musician friends to record the bells in the Vatican.

The next step was for Monaghan to match the sounds she had assembled to the relative sections of the poems created from the mesostics.

The Star Factory is a book about places and buildings — there are over 1,000 places mentioned in the book — but Cage left an instruction on how to reduce that number to the number of pages in the book so we got it down to just under 300 places and we’ve recorded about a third of those. Then there are around 250 other general sounds of which we’ve [recorded] about one hundred,’ said Dowling.

Cage, of course, didn’t have the technology at Monaghan’s disposal — she did all her editing in software, but he had to go into studio and take a big tape, get a pair of scissors and chop it up and stick it together again.

Everyone will make their own connections

The musicians chosen to play Owenvarragh connected with the mesostics. As well as Monaghan on the harp and concertina and Dowling playing fiddle, the band also included composer and multi-instrumentalist Patrick Davey and, called in at the last minute, piper Tiarnán Ó Duinchinn as well as singer Éamon Ó Faogáin.

Irish traditional music was a natural choice for Monaghan and Dowling. The great Belfast fiddler Sean Maguire lived in a part of the Falls Road where Ciaran Carson, who is a traditional flute player himself, lived for a time. Carson’s father translated the song ‘May the Lord in His Mercy Look Down on Belfast’. But everyone will make their own connections.

We passed the mesostics around and all four of us looked at the works and saw, for example, the word “dawn” and thought, “ah yes, I know a tune called ’The Dawn’ or ‘porter’.” And someone would know the tune “Dublin Porter” and in that way we have come up with thirty-two pages of tunes,’ said Dowling. ‘But that is more music than can be played in an hour and a half so the musicians are allowed to only play for thirty minutes each. There has to be twice as much silence coming from the musicians as there is music, according to the score.’

I think it is how the book would sound once your imagination had finished with it,’ said Monaghan, ‘because you never have the book read cleanly to you, it’s more that you get parts of it, and all of these combine in each listeners mind in different ways. That’s the way I look at it.’

A mirror to the universe

I had been listening to Roaratorio on my iPod as I walked through Belfast’s city centre. After having coffee with a friend, I walked the return journey without Cage coming through the earphones. I could hear every bit of conversation as people walked past, the sound of the busses as they waited on passengers, the fluttering of birds’ wings by the City Hall.

It mirrored an individual’s external and internal universe, the sounds creating nostalgia, laughter, reflection. Like a blind person having his vision restored — if not as dramatic — but it made me utterly aware of the soundscape of the city, the buses, workmen, an airplane overhead, our newly-acquired love of freshly ground coffee as well as the rich variety of Belfast accents.

It’s been the same for Monaghan, standing with microphones in areas of Belfast that wouldn’t be normal stomping grounds. She recalls one incident when she got quite frightened in the course of recording one early Sunday morning — a car pulled up beside her in one of Belfast’s more notorious areas — but the vast majority of people have been happy to share their sounds and their life experiences with her.

Ghosts of past and present

The Sonic Lab was brimful with people unsure as to what to expect from Owenvarragh. Singer Eamonn Ó Faogain was on the ground floor where Carson read out the mesostics in that sonorous voice of his, gravely revelling in the sounds, the two voices perfect foils for each other. The four instrumentalists — Dowling, Monaghan, Davey and Ó Duinchinn — were below ground level. (The floor of the Sonic Lab, which houses fifty loudspeakers, is made of metal mesh so you could see the musicians below.)

What followed was an aural recreation of the soundscape of Belfast during a particular period in time, imbued with the cadences of Carson’s poetry and the music and song of past and present generations floating like ghosts through the ether. It was at times like being in a multi-dimensional hologram, close to an out-of-body experience.

Merce Cunningham produced a dance piece to accompany Cage’s Roaratorio, and so Dowling also added a visual element to Owenvarragh: a slide show that featured, among other things, Carson’s father and clips from the James Mason film Odd Man Out, which was shot partly in Belfast.

I was perhaps lucky, in that I knew the areas described in the book and am of a similar age to Carson. But I wasn’t alone in finding Owenvarragh spellbinding and, at times, very moving. Even the non-Irish members of the audience were captivated by the magnetic draw of rhythm and sound and shared human experience. It was about Belfast but it was about the universal too, the passage of time, about family, about place, about memory, about love.

Dowling and Monaghan don’t have any more performances planned, but they’re putting the word out and trusting in serendipity that there is someone out there who is a Cage or a Carson enthusiast and who could help them run with what they’ve created. ‘We could have performances in pubs on summer evenings with Ciaran reading the mesostics; it could be an installation with none of us there, a YouTube video, a radio piece; we want to write about it so there is a lot we want to carry on with.’

Published on 1 May 2012

Robert MacMillan is Irish Language Editor with The Irish News in Belfast.

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