The Splintering
Niels Rønsholdt’s opera, Ord for Ord

The Splintering

Towards a future of micro music communities.

Every morning during our summer holidays as children in An Cheathrú Rua, each of us had a job to do. My responsibility was tidying the sitting room. In general, it involved fixing cushions on the couch, clearing ash and the odd beer can out of the fire, emptying the ashtray, putting pipe tobacco on the bookshelf, sweeping the dust on the floor under the carpet and spending the rest of the time looking at the record collection.

When the records didn’t match the sleeves, I would pull them all out and reorganise them, usually into sections. It wasn’t a difficult task – pop, classical, Irish traditional – but I never knew what to do with the Roger Doyle records. And so I gave them a section of their own. I was still a child when I related this unfortunate news to Roger, who said it was the greatest compliment that somebody could give him, which of course confused me entirely. 

Doyle may have been my first introduction to the splintering music world, but during the reign of records, tapes and CDs, even a ten-year-old could chart that change. Not any more.

The splintering of our musical life continues apace, driven inexhaustibly by our digital world. The future we are heading towards is one where micro music communities proliferate, as artists, with unbounded access to new sounds and ideas, create endless types of musical expression. With every new artistic stretch, audiences too become stretched. Something will break. Perhaps everything will.

For listeners, this is a golden age; for artists, it’s a creative nirvana; for promoters, the brave ones, it is an opportunity. 

Do it anyway

The SPOR festival in Aarrhus, Denmark, which I attended this month, is a festival that navigates the very edge of this sound world. Now in its ninth year – and meaning ‘track’ – it is described as a festival of contemporary music and sound art. Over four days, directors Ane Marqvardsen and Anna Berit Asp Christensen, collaborating with this year’s guest curator Jennifer Walshe, presented eight sound installations, ten concerts, a sound sculpture, a hackathon, a seminar on the festival theme, ‘Do It Anyway’, an opera and a video presentation, all of which included ten world premieres.

As well as having the Danish premiere of her string quartet Marlowe S (2009), Walshe performed with New Yorker Tony Conrad under the title Ma la Pert; the festival also featured Object Collection from New York, Cikada String Quartet from Norway, Danish composer Niels Rønsholdt performing a solo opera, Danish ensemble SCENATET, and several other performers and composers.

This is a festival that treads at the edge of our understanding of ‘music’ and ‘theatre’. It is a visual as much as an aural experience. In the absence of familiarity, you become guided by your emotional responses to the adventurous and sometimes provocative curves and oscillations of the performances. An intense moment here, a poignant gesture there, a surprising change, a touching response by one artist to another, an inventive sound, a slice of virtuosic skill, a courageous leap, a piece of humour, a curious accent – these are the things that help you find a response to the work.

On the Saturday evening, Tony Conrad poked a hole through a toy racket that had a microphone attached to it. He then pushed a bow through it and made rubbing sounds that Jennifer Walshe responded to with her voice. The 1960s avant-garde pioneer then picked up a violin and bowed open strings. Walshe blew into a toy melodica. She picked up a cello. He would tap on the racket again. She did karate chops and stabbing motions. He drew a picture and rubbed his fingers on the canvas. She strode off stage and went to an organ behind the audience. He poked a hole in his drawing and put the bow in again. Completely improvised, Walshe was the virtuoso who never seemed to run short on ideas, Conrad was the anchor.

These performances expand your concept of performance and musical expression. They force you to calm the mind, and forget what you know, to waive judgement. And afterwards, as I sat on the canal side in Aarhus with other people attending the festival, what was interesting was how tentatively we all talked about it. We still don’t have all the words we need for music at the splintered edge, and yet it thrilled us.

Don’t applaud, but eat the grapes

On the Saturday afternoon, twelve of us entered a small dark room to see the world premiere of Niels Rønsholdt’s new opera, Ord for Ord (‘Word by Word’). Rønsholdt and a woman lay on a table, toe to toe, their eyes closed, she in her underwear. They were covered with grapes, strawberries and chocolate. He started singing in a high-pitched voice and related a story of frustration, paranoia and betrayal in the form of Danish text messages. Every now and then, in the darkness, she would check her phone. She giggled. He removed his shirt, singing to a recorded accompaniment. At the end, he made repeated physical gestures that were synchronised with the music. At the ticket desk beforehand, they asked us not to applaud at the end, but said we could eat the grapes, which some people did.

The experience stayed with me afterwards. I began to forgive the unvaried repetition of the music, to doubt my first impression that it could have been more. The colour and originality of the thirty minutes, and Rønsholdt’s awkward, tragic performance, overrode everything else.

Perhaps the most powerful emotion I felt in Aarhus was of complete sadness. As part of the Object Ensemble’s performance, three people on the Saturday night stood around a microphone and shouted furiously at us. I couldn’t understand anything they said, and that was surely the point, the frustration of not being able to communicate. It was a deep-running theme in the performance. In one section, a man lay on the ground and spoke into a microphone, plaintively contradicting every second statement he made: ‘I think this is going well, I don’t think is going well, I think this is a good piece, I don’t this is a good piece, I am confused by politics, I am not confused by politics, I am a mass murderer, I am not a mass murderer.’ The composer Travis Just sat in the darkness to the left, and earlier, with a camera sending images to a screen, tore up a piece of paper with the word ‘money’ written on it. Later, a performer stood with a lamp on his head and followed gestures illustrated on a booklet on a music stand. Meanwhile, two men sat down, one blindfolded, while the other gave him directions on punching a frame with nothing in it, catching an apple, sifting flour, cutting string and blowing out a candle. It was a performance imbued with frustration, and no one could totally escape its impact.

Earlier that day, at a seminar on the festival theme ‘Do It Anyway’, contributors talked about how the culture of technology, and particularly the hackathon – in which digital creatives periodically get together for a day to make something, anything – is influencing musical expression. Composers such as Walshe, Just and Jonathan Marmor, and Object Ensemble’s co-director Kara Feely, spoke of being motivated by the idea. The idea that was suggested by one contributor, that ‘the process, the way people create music today, is radically being rethought’ across the world, jumped out at me.

Crowds of unfamiliarity

I was impressed by SPOR’s commitment to adventure, to promoting new ideas, though we in Ireland are so used to having to repeatedly justify every penny of investment in the arts, I did wonder how connected the event was to the wider community. From their website, I see that a composition school for children, and a project focusing on innovative communication of new music are part of their plans, so clearly this is an area in development.

There was plenty more at SPOR too – a concert of work by students of Brunel University in London and Aarhus University, including an intrepid piece by young Irish composer Paul McGuire; Juliana Hodkinson’s boundless Angel View; a combative video presentation by Tony Conrad; and a quiet, most disciplined piece for ensemble titled D by young Danish composer Simon Løffler – but what ultimately stands out from the weekend is the work of Walshe, and how she has carved out such a distinctive and focussed voice, both as a composer and a performer.

I have written about Walshe here before, but in a public discussion after her tinglingly unconventional string quartet on Sunday morning, she gave clues as to what makes her work so original, mentioning how she thinks about the works visually, and also her focus on timbre – it is not an easy balance to strike. To that I would add the very considered timing in her composed and improvised work, which somehow carries the listener shoulder-high through crowds of musical unfamiliarity – the kind that a festival like SPOR excels in presenting.

Published on 23 May 2014

Toner Quinn is Editor of the Journal of Music. His new book, What Ireland Can Teach the World About Music, is available here.

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