Energy at the Core

Finola Merivale.

Energy at the Core

Irish composer Finola Merivale's debut album 'Tús', winner of the National Concert Hall/Sounding the Feminists Music Recording Award, features five works performed by New York chamber music ensemble Desdemona. Brendan Finan reviews.

It’s oddly appropriate, given her musical style, that a lot seems to be happening for the composer Finola Merivale at once. Her virtual reality opera with Jody O’Neill, Out of the Ordinary, was presented this month by Irish National Opera at Kilkenny Arts Festival. She’s worked with organisations including National Sawdust, Sō Percussion, and Crash Ensemble, and late last year she won the National Concert Hall and Sounding the Feminists’ Music Recording Award. It’s this last accomplishment that’s led to Tús, her first album release, featuring five compositions from across the past decade. The works are recorded by the American chamber music group Desdemona, a pianist and string quartet broken into smaller groups for each work. 

Merivale’s music is built on tightly wound repetitions and variations, showing influence of, without fealty to, American minimalism, instruments blending with and separating from each other. Other works which can be heard on her website, such as Falling Flames, her work for Sō Percussion, hew even closer to these influences, but her more dissonant works are more convincing, with a more distinct compositional voice.

Something extra
The music on this album draws freely from extended techniques, seeming always to have something extra in reserve – be it a Bartók pizzicato, a Col Legno strike, or even a surprise consonance – to upset the balance and keep the textures shifting and shimmering.

The first two tracks, along with the fourth, make up the bulk of the album. The opener, Do You Hear Me Now?, is a frenetically driven piece for string trio written in 2018. It charges forward in the high register for about the first seven minutes, maintaining its momentum even in quiet passages. Violinist Adrianne Munden-Dixon takes the violin part (as she does on four of the works on the album), with violist Carrie Frey and cellist Julia Henderson. The three instruments play over and on top of one another, before being pulled into an uneasy, and very clearly temporary, peace.

Munden-Dixon is joined by pianist Margarita Rovenskaya for Release, an eight-minute duo for violin and piano written two years later. The works are both responses to academic conditions Merivale found misogynistic and stifling. Like Do You Hear Me Now?, Release has an uneasy quiet at its core. A delicate, water-like melody might bounce along for a few seconds before its destruction by a heavy scratch tone. In the middle of the piece, an almost modal passage lasts just long enough to create a sense of expectation, to know something is coming. When it finally does, it lands hard enough to propel the piece through its last three minutes.

These types of moments are my favourite on the album, and stuck with me long after listening. The calm spaces that Merivale constructs are fragile, unstable things with no illusion of permanence. Listening to them you experience a profound tension between relief and anxiety.

Creating space
Other works on the album are more introverted (though just as involved). The violin and cello duo,
The Silent Sweep as You Stand Still, feels poised between the two instruments, played by Caroline Drexler with Henderson, high harmonics and glissandi creating space and pulling both ways.

The 2013 work for violin and electronics Arbores Erimus, arrives as something of a relief, coming straight after the intensity of Do You Hear Me Now?. Melodic patterns swirl around a repeated G sharp, growing and branching and drifting through electronic echoes and manipulations like an ink blot spreading across a page. 

The final track on the album, the seven-minute string quartet The Language of Mountains is Rain, was written the same year, while Merivale was teaching English in Hong Kong. Named for the second-last chapter of David Mitchell’s novel Number9dream, it shares the more internalised energy of Arbores Erimus, with the instruments occasionally in dialogue, sometimes even carrying a melody between them, others separating and each seeming to do its own thing.  

For all the frenetic density of the music, as a listener you never feel lost – or at least it never feels like an accident when you do. And as busy as Merivale’s writing can be, it’s also very clear. It’s taut, nervy, and demanding, and Desdemona matches it skilfully and fearlessly.

It’s energy that’s at the core of this music. Whether that’s the charging, relentless drive of Do You Hear Me Now? or the stored electricity of The Silent Sweep as You Stand Still. The energy of her music may have changed across the ten-year span covered by the album, but it shows little sign of letting up.

To purchase Tús, visit

Published on 17 August 2022

Brendan Finan is a teacher and writer. Visit

comments powered by Disqus