One by One

One by One

Playing solo brings a whole set of musical problems. How do you balance the musical elements? How do you develop ideas? At a concert in Dublin, Francesco Turrisi, Shane Latimer, Gerry O'Beirne and Solo Cissokho showed four different ways of dealing with these challenges.

Solo Cissokho

Whirligig III
Cobalt Café, Dublin
16 July 2011

Playing solo comes with a unique set of challenges for the performer. How do you balance a rhythmic drive, a melodic line and harmonic backing? Are you stuck holding these essentials together, or can you still develop the sound? Can you deflect the intensity of the audience’s gaze? And how do you generate ideas when there’s no one to talk to? One by One, the third in a new series of ‘whirligigs’ conceived by the Improvised Music Company, presented four solo acts: the pianist Francesco Turrisi, the singer and guitarist Gerry O’Beirne, the guitarist Shane Latimer and kora player Solo Cissokho. One consideration for solo playing is the balance of being in or out of metronomic time. O’Beirne tended towards looser time keeping, with the focus on the song rather more than the instrumental accompaniment. Turrisi kept a strict pulse even when in unusual meters and tended towards linear resolutions. Latimer, whose set was largely loop-based, favoured a more quantised and layered approach — he was alone in using electronics. As for Cissokho, he typified a sense I’ve often had with West African music: that it always seems to me to be in time, even when it’s not. The Belgian guitarist Pierre van Dormael once theorised that West African music involves the layering of rhythms much in the same way that Europeans think of harmony, proposing that at least three musicians are needed to make the overall ‘rhythmic harmony’ come to life. Kora players like Cissokho, playing all the parts at once, and even improvising on top of the texture, must be the exception to this premise — a kind of solo playing made from a composite of ensemble functions.

Acknowledging the Senegalese contingent in the audience, Cissokho sang and played a number of traditional griot pieces that made full use of the dynamic range of his instrument. Despite some tuning and amplification difficulties, the music was hypnotic yet startling, with single-line improvised runs leaping out of the rhythmic tapestry. Alluding to Latimer’s earlier set, Cissokho spoke of his own playing style: ‘It’s like sampling, except I do all the parts at the same time.’ Turrisi opened the night making complete pieces out of the simplest source material — he used original melodies, but also Italian songs and ended his set with some frame drumming. The theme-and-variations approach helps melodic improvisation when used by an ensemble, but in solo performance it opens up the possibility of formal improvisation, too. Here, Turrisi looped sections of both melody and improvisation, building on them to create new segments. While this method took the listener quite gently by the hand, Gerry O’Beirne was more brazen in presentation. His eccentric but amiable banter in between songs had the effect of seemingly dissolving any pressures of performing solo, though the ever-changing sonic shift from guitar to ukulele to twelve-string guitar was also effective in guiding audience focus.

Shane Latimer, with looped layers of guitar-derived sounds, brought our attention away from the source material and to some other soundscape environment; his set asserted that even in a solo performance with tempo and syncopation there was room for sound-based improvisation. Some audience members were clearly uncomfortable with his more experimental playing, but these sections were short and skillfully interwoven.

The four soloists came together to finish the concert — you could see new type of communication at work, one otherwise unavailable to solo performers, and the shift in psychology was evident as they switched from being independent agents to a group of individuals trying to fit in with one another. And though it was far from a democratic outcome — Cissokho’s kora playing clearly led the way ‐ no one seemed to take issue with the imbalance of voices.

Published on 11 August 2011

Patrick Groenland is an Irish guitarist and composer. Having studied at the Berklee College of Music, Boston, he is now based in Dublin. www.patrickgroenland.com

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