The New Music Festival Ireland Deserves?

Jennifer Walshe performing in ‘The Site of an Investigation’ (Photo: Joanne Taaffe)

The New Music Festival Ireland Deserves?

New Music Dublin 2019 featured four days of contemporary music including over twenty-two world premieres. Does Ireland now have the new music festival it deserves? Adrian Smith provides a comprehensive review of 15 events, with additions for two concerts from Ryan Molloy and Toner Quinn.

Art may sometimes mirror nature but nature doesn’t always reciprocate in kind, and last year’s ‘Beast from the East’ was responsible for the cancellation of the 2018 edition of New Music Dublin. Thus it was with a renewed sense of purpose that the organisers of the 2019 event went about their business, determined to deliver on the unrealised promise of last year’s festival (although some elements did appear in a ‘Defrosted’ concert series in September). For the four days between 28 February and 3 March last weekend, the National Concert Hall and several other venues around the city centre played host to an eclectic range of styles that traversed the spectrum of today’s new music. Under the artistic direction of John Harris, the festival included sound art, electronica, video art, rock music and much else, alongside featured composers Kaija Saariaho and Louis Andriessen. Fortunately, the elements behaved themselves better this year and the ironic dusting of snow on Sunday afternoon almost seemed like a divine apology for the weather that scuppered last year’s event.

New music is by definition a risky venture – most new works are neither masterpieces nor particularly bad but hang somewhere on a line stretched between these poles. However, the whole excitement of attending concerts of new work is the possibility of experiencing something truly memorable; something endowed with that vital quality of strangeness that temporarily lifts one out of the mundanity of everyday life. It is this fragile prospect that keeps us coming back relentlessly time and time again. A festival of new music should logically increase the chances of this experience, but, in order to be truly successful, it needs to have a certain life or death quality: a sense of excitement at the possibility of a new work being a success or a failure. For the first time in many years, an Irish new music festival managed to deliver this crucial ingredient by premiering over 22 new works – mostly from Irish composers – as well as presenting a whole series of pieces by international figures that had never been performed in Ireland before.

Day 1
: Walshe/Fennessy
Day 2: Fidelio Trio/RIAM + Paris Conservatoire/Saariaho and Andriessen/Professor Bad Trip
Day 3: Totally Made Up Orchestra/Free State 11/Musikfabrik/Ensemble Intercontemporain
Day 4: Ergodos/Noctuary/RTE Cór na nÓg and RTÉ Cór Linn/RTÉ ConTempo/Chamber Choir Ireland/Workers Union/Sounds Like Art


Day 1: Thursday 28 February 

Risky music
NCH, 8pm: ‘Double Header’ – RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra; Jean Deroyer, conductor. The Site of an Investigation: Jennifer Walshe, voice. Conquest of the Useless: David Fennessy, electric guitar; Peter Dowling, electronics; Jennifer Johnston, singer; Aaron Monaghan, actor.

The opening concert of New Music Dublin featured premieres of substantial orchestral works by two of Ireland’s leading composers, Jennifer Walshe and David Fennessy, both of whom had large performance roles in their respective pieces.

As with most of her work, Walshe’s The Site of an Investigation is an exploration of what it means to be living in today’s world. It is structured in several sections, each of which deals with a different variety of internet-induced hysteria, traversing everything from Mark Zuckerberg and NASA to microplastics and Jackson Pollock. The text was assembled by Walshe herself using an eclectic range of source material and was delivered in a characteristically relentless fashion, using a mixture of spoken monologue and singing over the appropriate musical cliché.

While this piece was classic Walshe and couldn’t be by anyone else, as it progressed, the more it resulted in a kind of conceptually correct but overly randomised comedy that ticked all the theoretical boxes – juxtaposition, eclectic sources, buzz words, critical theory jargon and parody. However, it didn’t convey what is, presumably, the intended political message about malicious corporate capitalist culture with a clear sense of focus. The constant riffing on the absurdities of technological excess tended to become uniform after a while which meant that some of the genuinely powerful sections, like the ending – a kind of tragic-comic monologue on the attempts of the director of engineering at Google to bring back his deceased father with artificial intelligence – lost the impact they might have attained with a more direct structure. Nevertheless, there’s no taking away from the fact that was a brave and admirably risky piece of work. 

David Fennessy’s Conquest of the Useless was inspired by Werner Herzog’s diary of the same name detailing the making of his iconic film Fitzcarraldo and constitutes a cycle that brings together several pieces inspired by this source. Although there were occasional snippets of attractive music, like the opening where fragments of the overture to Rigoletto were split apart by a rising orchestral glissando, the whole 70-minute edifice was undone by large swathes of blandness where nothing of interest was happening. In this respect, particularly confusing was Fennessy’s own contribution on the electric guitar which consisted of repeating pitch bends saturated in pedal effects followed by an outburst of strumming. Crucially, the work didn’t seem to yield any particularly profound insight into either Herzog or Fitzcarraldo and needed a much greater sense of direction to bring the concept behind it into clearer view. This was particularly disappointing as Fennessy is one of Ireland’s most talented composers whose previous work has impressed greatly over the years.

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Day 2: Friday 1 March

Expressive and unruly
Kevin Barry Room, NCH, 1pm: ‘Commissions’ – Fidelio Trio

On Friday, the first event of the day was a concert in the Kevin Barry Room of the NCH featuring piano trios by composers Ann Cleare, Linda Catlin Smith and Kevin Volans.

The standout piece here was Cleare’s trio 93 million miles away whose delicate textures involving extended techniques and variations thereof never lost interest despite its sectionalised structure. Cleare’s music is more than just the local representative of the post-Lachenmann extended technique fetish and what seems to be its distinguishing feature is the veiled ‘lyricism’ and sense of line which somehow manages to radiate through the unconventional techniques. Her piece was also extremely expressive and the penultimate section featuring a duet between the violin and cello, both utilising very wide vibrato, was a particularly poignant moment.  

Catlin Smith’s trio entitled Far from shore began with the violin and cello circling around each other with gently dissonant chords on the piano before proceeding through several more fairly innocuous sections.

Kevin Volans’ Piano Trio No. 3 ‘Le Tombeau des Regrets’ began with an understated but arresting interlocking repetitive pattern alternating between the violin/cello and the piano. Although this pattern was interrupted from time to time by other material, the variations applied to it became more and more compelling the longer it when on. In the middle of the piece, however, Volans opted for more sparse textures, some of which just frankly weren’t that interesting – for example a section where a sustained note of the violin was accompanied by isolated single notes ascending up the piano – and the piece never really re-gathered the promise of the opening material.

The Fidelio Trio brought their trademark dedication and thoroughness to the performance which on this occasion was tested as the concert itself was not without incident. Cleare’s piece was marred by persistent heckling from some elderly ladies who had obviously been expecting a very different kind of concert. Indeed, it’s a measure of the Fidelio’s commitment to new music that, after playing through Cleare’s piece unfazed despite these intrusions, they actually decided to give it another performance after the ladies departed. Violinist Darragh Morgan handled this potentially awkward situation with great sensitivity.

Illustrious company
National Gallery, 2.30pm: ‘Entente Cordiale’ – Royal Irish Academy of Music with the Paris Conservatoire

The above ‘intervention’ meant that the concert ran until 2.20pm and so it was a frenetic dash down to the National Gallery to make ‘Entente Cordiale’ in time, though it turned out that John Harris had seen to it that the concert was delayed by 10 minutes to allow people to make their way down. This performance was given by doctoral students from the Royal Irish Academy of Music and the Paris Conservatoire featuring works by Boulez, Saariaho, Andriessen and Irish composer Amanda Feery.

Amongst such illustrious company, Feery’s piece entitled Blood Under Winter-White Skin for piano trio more than held its own. It began with rapid alternating glissandi on the strings which tended upwards and remained a recurring feature throughout. The most striking section occurred near the end where the strings shimmered over a largely static alternating pattern between the right and left hand of the piano. According to Feery, the piece grew out of an experiment to see how much expressivity could be extracted from this alternating piano pattern. The answer, it turned out, was a great deal, and many audience members of this well-attended concert were quite clearly moved by the piece.

All the other pieces on the programme received excellent performances, but the highlight of the concert was Saariaho’s Changing Light for voice and solo flute. Soprano Sylvia O’Brien and flautist Gilles Breda’s outstanding performance of this piece benefitted greatly from the resonant acoustic of the National Gallery’s Shaw Room. Unfortunately, the acoustic had the inverse effect on Boulez’s Derive 1, a piece which benefits from a certain degree of resonance but not this much, and on Andriessen’s canonic Hout which needs no acoustic at all. Nevertheless, the performers played extremely well and the concert was very well received.

Featured composers
NCH Main Stage, 7.30pm: ‘Saariaho and Andriessen’ – RTÉ Concert Orchestra; Robert Houlihan, conductor; Hae Sun Kang, violin.   

A welcome four-hour hiatus to gather one’s strength followed before it was back to the NCH for the main event featuring substantial orchestral works by the featured composers of the festival: Kaija Saariaho and Louis Andriessen.

Since Ligeti’s 1993 violin concerto, glassy natural harmonics for the soloist have been the fashionable opening gambit for this genre and Saariaho’s work composed the following year is no exception. Once we get past this, however, Saariaho’s Graal théâtre soon settles into her own distinctive style. As with so much of her music, this involves keeping the harmony relatively static, particularly in the lower registers, for long stretches, while allowing masses of sound to build up in the higher registers. These orchestral textures provide a canvas for the violin to sketch a rich variety of figurations which tend to compliment and complete each sonic event rather than engaging dialectically with the orchestra. The result is a work that is greater than the sum of its parts; not every section is memorable but the total sound world leaves an indelible impression. Ensemble Intercontemporain’s Hae Sun Kang displayed a thorough knowledge of the subtle nuances of Saariaho’s constantly twisting lines and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra under Robert Houlihan played very accurately but were perhaps a little bit too restrained for fear of overpowering the delicate violin part.

Andriessen’s Vermeer Pictures is an orchestral suite from his opera Writing to Vermeer (1998), written in collaboration with film director Peter Greenaway. The opera revolves around a series of letters sent to Vermeer by the three women closest to him during the ‘disaster year’ of 1672 when Holland was at war with France. In staged performances, this conflict is dramatised through innovative choreography and the use of cinematic inserts showing images of violence. On its own, however, this orchestral suite, which is actually an arrangement by conductor Clark Rundell, doesn’t really deliver without the context provided by the singing or the stage imagery. The music is lyrical, transparent and still very much Andriessen, but the flat melodious surfaces soon lose their charm. It’s not without its moments – in particular a recurring ninth chord that cascades downwards in the strings in the latter stages – but the more agitated sections, which don’t carry any of the characteristic Andriessen urgency, fail to assuage the impression of music that has been watered-down.

Screaming solo
NCH Studio, 9.30pm: Professor Bad Trip 1, 2, and 3 – Crash Ensemble; Richard Baker, conductor.
Later that night it was the Crash Ensemble’s turn to enter the fray with the much anticipated Irish premiere of Fausto Romitelli’s Professor Bad Trip: Lessons 1, 2, and 3. Despite the constant billing of this piece along such lines as ‘classical music meets psychedelic rock’ or ‘spectralism on acid’ – which virtually guarantee its entry into trendy new music festivals – who could fail to be impressed by the immersive metallic sound world of this piece which made it perhaps the standout work in the entire festival. While it is true that at times it revels too much in its own chaos at the expense of carving out ideas, and, on the whole, it’s probably a tad too long, in terms of distinctiveness there’s no denying the quality of the material. The Crash Ensemble delivered a knockout performance with a particular highlight being Kate Ellis’ screaming solo for cello and distortion pedal in the second lesson, which was visually as well as aurally compelling as a chastened electric guitar rested mute on the guitarist’s knee.


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Day 3: Saturday 2 March

Kevin Barry Room, NCH, 1pm: Totally Made Up Orchestra (Take 2)

Teaching commitments on Saturday morning forced me to miss Brian Irvine’s ‘Totally Made Up Orchestra (Take 2)’ but this was attended by Toner Quinn, Editor of The Journal of Music, who provided the following comment for this review:

After reading Brian Irvine’s recent article on orchestras, I was keen to see his ‘Totally Made Up Orchestra’. One line from the article hung in my mind: ‘The making and imagining of orchestral sonic art is something anyone can do – and by doing it you can change everything about the world in which you live!’ But how?

At New Music Dublin, around 25 children and adults took part. They had met just that morning for the first time, and by 1pm they had a performance planned. 

Irvine stood at the front with a flip-chart that the audience couldn’t see, and had pieces of paper with numbers written on them that he would hold up to the group.  They played a range of instruments – trombone, guitars, wooden flute, silver flute, violins, saxophone, recorder, cello, clarinet, and one man with a wonderful bass voice. There was a five-year-old at the piano and teenagers and adults of all ages and abilities.  Irvine’s cards ranged from 1 to 18. It was extraordinary to think that they had worked through so many different musical ideas in such a short space of time. The audience were to be involved too, and he had us sing an eight-note scale to the words ‘My bag on-ly weighed nine-teen kilos!’ – a line from a text message. After our practice, the performance was set.

The orchestra began by tapping softly on their cheeks, then body, gradually turning into stamping and clapping. It was impossible to know what the actual directions were, but everyone seemed confident about their role. They then picked up their instruments and proceeded to play various notes. Throughout, Irvine used a fascinating conducting device. He would hold his arms wide when he wanted everyone to follow the direction, but then close in his arms to focus on one, two or three people. The regular contrast between smaller and larger groups gave each part real drama. Gradually, we moved from musical sounds to a combination of actions and sounds, for example, the orchestra re-enacting the morning ritual of washing, clothing and complaining at kids not being ready.

For the finale, the audience were brought in, singing our line about the nineteen kilos, louder and louder, combined with a musical surge from the orchestra. It was hard to imagine how Irvine was directing all of this. The harmony worked, the energy was there, it was musically engaging, and most of all, it sounded new.  It finished with everyone in the orchestra saying the name of their hometown, but Irvine focussed in on two or three, winding the performance down, and the last shout of the concert came from a young boy at the piano: ‘Castlebar!’ 

Irvine’s ability to create a performance so expressive and free with a group of people who were strangers just three hours earlier was what made the ‘Totally Made Up Orchestra’ particularly thrilling. It was like the session culture of Irish traditional music but within contemporary music. I can only imagine the impact on musical life if more musicians learned the techniques that Irvine has developed. 

Base cravings for drama
NCH Studio, 3pm: ‘Free State 11’ – Crash Ensemble

In the afternoon, Crash Ensemble returned for round two with six premieres of pieces by young Irish composers. Each was selected on the basis of their submissions to write a new piece for the full ensemble and they were mentored by Irish composer Gráinne Mulvey.

The first piece, Smack by Maria Minguella, was an exploration of the resonant possibilities of the inside of the piano. The players faced away from the audience and the trombone, double bass and clarinet players pointed their instruments directly into the piano case producing a glistening sound that was broken by sharp interjections from the percussion and Bartók pizzicati from the strings. A more resonant hall may have enhanced the intended effect but the piece managed to navigate through a rich variety of sonorities and marked a strong opening to the concert.

The swirling figures on the violin and viola in Chris McCormack’s Like Elastic formed a tangled canonic thread that was spun out for much of the piece. The permutations applied to this did generate some interesting knots but the material itself was not particularly gripping and the concept outlined in the programme notes sounded more interesting than its execution.

David Bremner’s Permanent ritornello explored textures of microtonal lines that seemed to thicken into complex densities of sound as it progressed. This piece was the most genuinely experimental on the programme and perhaps the most original in terms of the actual sounds produced, even if these were not always the most immediate.

Elis Czerniak’s The Pliant Occupy a Higher Place opened with the bass flute as a soloist while the double bass slithered away in the low register. The other instruments gradually entered in the background, and, as the texture darkened, seemed to provoke more intense gestures from the bass flute. This conflict surely had the potential to be dramatised further but the piece never rose above mezzoforte and didn’t seem to capitalise on this. However, the composer may well view this as a misunderstanding of his intentions and the ethereal ending, arrived at with an accomplished sense of transition, suggested the piece was primarily an exploration of timbre.

Guillaume Auvray’s Dark Fluid began promisingly with an interesting texture featuring the bass clarinet, low staccato piano chords and scraping sounds from the strings. However, the tape part that entered thereafter sounded quite dated, almost in a kind of sci-fi sense, while the energetic, indeed slightly trivial-sounding music which then ensued seemed completely out of step with what came before. The interactive lights and visuals didn’t mask these defects.

The standout piece was Anselm McDonnell’s Engines of Babel which wrapped up the concert. This positive assessment is no doubt due in part to base cravings for some element of drama which McDonnell managed to supply in an equally base fashion. After a barrage of percussion at the beginning, the air was literally let out of this composition from the mid-point onwards by having percussionist Alex Petcu manipulate a balloon producing a rubbery, hissing sound. At the point where the air was about to be depleted, Petcu suddenly popped a balloon with his feet, producing a momentarily disorientating effect as nobody could see where the bang came from. This trick may well be a one-off gimmick but it worked and fitted in with the overall sense of anarchic freedom which differentiated this piece from the other items on the programme. 

Scorched-earth policy
NCH, 7.30pm: Ensemble Musikfabrik: Wertmüller/Zappa with Peter Brötzmann

The ‘main event’ of the day was the much hyped Musikfabrik from Cologne and saxophonist Peter Brötzmann. This concert would have been another highlight but for Michael Wertmüller’s antagonisme contrôlé, a piece which lived up to its title. Ostensibly, it purported to be an exploration of controlled improvisation on the saxophone balanced with composed material for the ensemble which the composer assures us was ‘for the most part strictly serially composed’ – a ‘radical’ proposition indeed for the second decade of the twenty-first century! In reality, the piece was governed by a scorched-earth policy of ruthlessly suppressing anything approaching a recognisable idea, a policy to which Brötzmann gave his wholehearted consent with a barrage of clichéd improvisations on the saxophone consisting entirely of loud, random semi-quavers. The overriding impression was one of self-indulgence combined with what seemed like an astounding unawareness of all previous experiments in this direction.  

The second half of the concert demonstrated what Musikfabrik could do when in possession of genuine ideas and they gave terrific interpretations of a series of Frank Zappa’s hits. The virtuosity of this performance had the effect of turbo-charging Zappa’s music, which is no mean feat, considering that, in its original form, excess is one of its most distinguishing features. It also had a beneficial effect on one’s health and spiritual well-being after the lethal Wertmüller/Brötzmann affair of the first half.

Mesmerising performances
NCH Studio, 9.30pm: ‘Music for Small Ensemble and Electronics’ – Ensemble Intercontemporain

The later concert that evening featured three musicians from the legendary new music group Ensemble Intercontemporain – flautist Emmanuelle Ophèle, percussionist Samuel Favre and violinist Hae Sun Kang – performing pieces by a variety of international composers from Europe and beyond.

Two works in this concert stood out. The first was Saariaho’s Dolce Tormento (2004), a piece which can be considered a rare success in that most formidable of composition categories: the dreaded solo piccolo commission, an assignment that frequently proves fatal. The piece featured all the usual Saariaho trademarks – swirling trills, glissandi, air sounds – but the mixture of these with the voice of the soloist declaiming fragments of the Petrarch sonnet, from which it takes its title, was transfixing. As the piece demands a high degree of interpretive freedom, much of its impact was surely due to the performance by Ophèle.

The other notable piece was Mexican composer Javier Álvarez’s Temazcal which brought the concert to its conclusion. This piece combines a tape part with improvised rhythms by the performer using two maracas based on patterns derived from Mexican folk music. The impact of the piece – which has to be experienced live – was mesmerising due to the impassive concentration of Favre.


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Day 4: Sunday 3 March

A league of their own
Various venues, 10.30am: ‘Morning Rituals’ – curated by Ergodos

On Sunday morning it was an early start for ‘Morning Rituals’ presented by Ergodos who – when it comes to presenting contemporary music in an engaging and intimate manner – are in a league of their own. Beginning in the Royal Hibernian Academy, we were led by Ergodos co-director Garrett Sholdice into the Dr Tony Ryan gallery, where we were met by cellist Kate Ellis sustaining a single note – John Lely’s The Harmonics of Real Strings – which stubbornly refused to budge and seemed ominous. What actually transpired was a lesson in patience as the music transitioned into Kate Moore’s Godin followed by an arrangement of the Irish air Aisling Gheal which seemed to emerge organically from the delicate textures of Moore’s piece. None of these pieces would have been particularly successful on their own but it’s a testament to Ellis’ artistry that she managed to tie them together into a successful unity.

From the RHA it was a stroll down to the Sugar Club on Leeson Street for Egyptian composer Nadah El Shazly’s set for voice and electronics which resembled a kind of Umm Kulthum meets postmodern electronica. The set was enhanced by the soft red furnishings of the Sugar Club which gave the gig the atmosphere of a scene out of Twin Peaks, a mood that seemed strangely in keeping with El Shazly’s music.

After this it was across to the old Real Tennis Court on Earlsfort Terrace for music by Meredith Monk, John Cage, Lachlan Skipworth and a premiere by Anna Murray. Murray’s piece, my little Force explodes, demonstrated the subtle influence of Japanese Noh and consisted of a semi-theatrical presentation in which singer Michelle O’Rourke opened envelopes containing each section of the piece. There then ensued a subtle interplay as the flute (Lina Andonovska) picked up on fragments of each of the sung sections and played with them until the opening of another envelope. In one of the sections the vocal line was reduced to sibilant whispering noises which were then taken up and imitated by the flautist like a sort of surreal tennis match. Both O’Rourke and Andonovska managed to convey the hushed drama of the piece with great conviction.

Finally it was back to the Kevin Barry room at the NCH for music for voice and electronics by composer, songwriter and visual artist Laura Sheeran. The effete sentimentality of Sheeran’s set and, in particular, the clichéd naivety of the lyrics of her songs, left me underwhelmed. I should say, however, that in forming this judgment, I was apparently in a minority. As I left, various members of the audience had risen to their feet in applause.  

Famed dialectic
NCH Studio, 1pm: Hugh Tinney plays Raymond Deane

Following this energetic starter, it was over to the Studio for pianist Hugh Tinney’s performance of Raymond Deane’s Noctuary, a two-book piano cycle of ‘night pieces’.

While this cycle contains some terrific writing for the piano, it can also be a slightly frustrating listen. This is due, in no small part, to aspects of Deane’s formal style where often, on encountering a striking passage that one naturally wants to hear more off, the passage soon falls apart or encounters an impasse of some kind, a point that Deane alluded to in his introduction. An example is perhaps ‘Versipel’, the second piece in the cycle which begins with an oddly catchy cadential gesture followed by an arpeggiated flourish. This seems to dissolve too quickly and although it returns in a fragmented format, its potential doesn’t seem fully realised.

Of course this is all part of the famed ‘dialectic’ – the subject of much recent handwringing across sectors of the Irish music scene. Although deliberate, one gets the feeling that the ‘dialectic’ is occasionally forced to clock in an overtime shift without really delivering any surplus profit and the best pieces in the cycle are where the material is allowed to run for an extended duration before gradually unravelling. Such an example is the wonderfully named ‘Night Watches’ where polyrhythmic patterns are set against each other before gradually collapsing and reassembling a number of times.

Hugh Tinney gave a ferociously accurate performance of the cycle and the intensity never wavered for the entirety of this hour-long performance.

Magical quality
John Field Room, NCH, 2.30pm: RTÉ Cór na nÓg and RTÉ Cór Linn with RTE ConTempo Quartet

Shamefully, until New Music Dublin, I had never bothered to attend an RTÉ Cór na nÓg or an RTÉ Cór Linn concert, having convinced myself that such concerts were the exclusive preserve of the children and their doting parents. I now realise that this was a woeful misconception. Right from the beginning, this concert had a magical quality and turned out to be one of the unexpected highlights of the festival featuring a varied programme of works including two new commissions from Irish composer Elaine Agnew.

Agnew is a composer who doesn’t try too hard to be original but she is an undisputed master in writing for children’s voices. Although the emotional expressivity of her music is delivered entirely through conventional means, her pieces in this concert nevertheless had an intangible quality that proves that style is often a red herring. Whether it was the angelic tone of the children’s voices, the simple beauty of the melodies, or the transparency of the text, the recurring chorus of the opening piece Wait and See left me quite moved. Under the direction of conductor Mary Amond O’Brien, both choirs performed with impressive accuracy, and, in the best new music tradition, had everything memorised. In addition to the excellent singing there was also some tasteful choreography and a special mention should be made of Cór Linn member Ferdia Ó Cairbre, the youngest composer in the festival, who made his mark with a setting of W.B. Yeats’ The Everlasting Voices.

Programming a concert such as this on the last day of a new music festival was a curatorial masterstroke. Frequently contemporary music tries very hard to make an impression by flaunting conspicuous novelties which often turn out not to be so novel. It was therefore refreshing to encounter music that didn’t seem to take itself too seriously and whose performers managed to convey a sense of joyousness that was uplifting. 

NCH rooms: Sounds like Art (open for the duration but experienced between 3.30pm and 4pm)

Throughout the festival, the rooms off the corridor by the Kevin Barry Room were given over to three sound art installations.

The first room contained Danny McCarthy’s The Threshold of Quiet which consisted of over 100 bells arranged in what was, at least visually, quite an attractive arrangement. The bells had their clappers removed so there was no audible sound. This was all part of the concept of the piece, ‘Pure blank listening’ as McCarthy writes in the programme notes. ‘They contain something beyond sound (in)silence’.

In the next room was Jürgen Simpson’s Quartet for Four Parallel Planes. In the centre of this dark room was a sculpture of four transparent layers with in-built LED lights. A number of speakers surrounding this arrangement produced gestures of rich, spectral harmony that entered from different directions and interacted with the lights so that the sculpture gave the impression of visualising the sound. This immersive experience was very impressive and undeniably beautiful.

The third room contained Karen Power’s location, location, location, an octatonic sound installation based on audible and inaudible field recordings gathered from around the world. It also contained some stunning photography by John Godfrey taken from the places where the recordings were made. In the dimly lit room their combined effect was to transport the participant to distant environments and the gentle natural sounds formed a pleasant retreat. 

Irish string quartets
Kevin Barry Room, NCH, 4pm – RTÉ ConTempo Quartet

For the last 15 year the ConTempo string quartet have displayed an admirable dedication to the cause of Irish new music and this late afternoon concert presented four Irish string quartets composed inside of the last decade.

The first item on the programme was a premiere: Frank Corcoran’s String Quartet No. 4 ‘for my 75th Birthday’. The first movement was an acerbically rhythmic essay couched in an early twentieth-century neoclassical style that maintained a kind of dry dissonant harmony throughout. The more melodic phrases of the second slow movement largely failed to make much impression but the third movement, a pulsing toccata that reconnected with the strictly monochrome dissonance of the first, was engaging.

Jane O’Leary’s 2016 quartet, the passing sound of forever, began very strongly by alternating fluidly between moments of intense agitation to softer glistening and whispery sonorities. This was beautifully written music but just as this motion started to become more and more engrossing, the first movement ended, and, after a pause, the second began with the exact same material that ended the first. The effect of this was to stop the flow of the music and after this, the piece was encumbered with no end of stoppages for page turns, mute adjustments and new movements. Surely the fantastic writing in this quartet deserves to be heard as a seamless flow.

Ian Wilson’s String Quartet No. 12 ‘Her charms invited’ was composed during a period of research into ornamentation and gesture in Irish sean-nós singing. The piece’s ornamented lines were incorporated into gently dissonant, wandering contrapuntal textures but the real pleasure of the piece was in the moments towards the end of the two main sections, where fragments of a traditional-style tune written by Wilson himself gradually began to filter through more audibly to the music’s surface.

The final item of the programme, Greg Caffrey’s String Quartet No. 4, …borne back ceaselessly into the past…probably had the greatest range of all the four quartets on the programme and built well from the angular melody of its opening right through to the well-worked conclusion. There may have been nothing particularly distinctive about the piece but it was certainly well-crafted and had an organicism that is difficult to carry off successfully. 

New music for everyone
St Ann’s Church, 7.30pm: Chamber Choir Ireland

Regrettably, I couldn’t make it to the Chamber Choir Ireland concert in St Ann’s Church on Dawson Street, but in attendance was composer and NUI Maynooth lecturer Ryan Molloy who has provided the following thoughts on the performance for this review: 

Away from the encroaching snow, Chamber Choir Ireland presented a veritable tour de force of new choral music in the penultimate concert of New Music Dublin. Personally, this was the highlight of the whole festival, presenting a varied yet balanced programme that explored both the full technical capabilities of the choir and the magnificent acoustic of St Ann’s Church.

The direction of the renowned Norwegian conductor Grete Pedersen was thrilling to observe, beautifully understated, revealing a thorough understanding of the music and a technique that commanded complete control of the sound. Chamber Choir Ireland responded to these commands with seeming ease, effortlessly shifting from the lush colours of Anne Boyd’s As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams to the extended techniques of Maja Linderoth’s Sonnet form denatured prose.

This latter work from the young Swedish composer reinforced for me precisely why we need to celebrate and support new choral work (a call echoed by Pedersen herself at the end of the concert). First, the inescapable physical connection that each of us has with choral music and its phenomenal versatility means that even non-specialist audiences more readily inhabit the entire vocal sound world – we understand how the sound works and in doing so remain more perceptive to its communication. Secondly, we are blessed with a reasonably healthy choral life in this country and in Chamber Choir Ireland we surely enjoy one of the leading vocal ensembles in Europe. They have been excellent advocates for new Irish music – as could be seen this evening in their performance of solid works by Deirdre McKay (a new commission) and Rhona Clarke (The Kiss)– and they deserve our strongest and widest support. This was truly new music for everyone.  

Joyously loud
NCH Studio, 9pm: ‘Out with a Crash’ – Crash Ensemble and guests

I did make it back later on Sunday night for the final concert of the festival given by the indefatigable Crash Ensemble who fittingly capped off the weekend with a piece that can hardly be labelled contemporary at this stage, Louis Andriessen’s Workers Union. This is such a well-known piece that it needs no description except to say that the performance, led by David Brophy and featuring Dermot Dunne on accordion as well as other festival guests, made for a joyously loud conclusion to the festival. The concert also featured a piece that is fast becoming a hit in its own right, Ed Bennett’s Accel… which I have previously reviewed for the Journal of Music and was only enhanced on a second hearing.

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A marker for the future
So what made this festival a success? The answer is quite simple: variety. There was something here to appeal to everybody, but the best rewards were for those who were willing to step outside of their comfort zone. This achievement is mainly down to festival director John Harris who did three things that have often been lacking in the planning of previous festivals.

The first was to have clearly figured out the geography of the Irish music scene and taken soundings from all quarters to see what would work for a festival. This is in stark contrast to previous festivals that have suffered from poor programming decisions made exclusively at the hands of a small cabal of arts administrators.

The second thing he did was to ensure a wide representation for all the various cliques of the Irish new music scene. Although there are exceptions, collectively Irish composers are quite factional and rarely turn up to support concerts that lie outside of their own immediate circle. The festival was notable for the appearance of a diverse range of personalities, some of whom managed to coax themselves out of hibernation and put in a rare appearance in support of their colleagues. For four days the NCH became the focus of lively discussions, banter and intrigue – which surely is what a proper ‘festival’ is all about.

Finally, Harris led from the front and was ubiquitous throughout the festival: introducing concerts, looking after musicians and composers and being generally accessible at all times. His dedication was an example to other administrators who, all too often I feel, are content to sit back and let subordinates do the work. That being said, festival producer Jonathan Pearson also deserves credit for the mileage he put in behind the scenes, ensuring the smooth running of events and dealing with the inevitable snags that are part and parcel of organising a big event like this.

Of course, there were still some issues that continue to linger. It remains the case that, as far as new music is concerned, the marketing question and the audience question are still unsolved in Ireland. Many of the bigger events were sparsely attended, particularly the Saariaho/Andriessen concert with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra which felt like a private performance. Some of this was likely due to ticket pricing, and surely it’s better to have a full house at five euros a head than charging five times that much and having an empty hall. And, since it’s a festival, would it not be sensible to offer discounts or day tickets to those who wish to attend multiple concerts, or, for the really hardcore – a festival ticket?

Although the organisation team, including marketing consultant Dairne O’Sullivan, made a big effort to sell New Music Dublin, what it really needs is for RTÉ – who are the only body in the state with the necessary resources to do so – to get fully behind it and sell the festival to the wider public, many of whom I refuse to believe are as allergic to challenging music as is so often claimed.

Nevertheless, New Music Dublin 2019 set down a marker and if the vision of this festival can be carried forward, nurtured and expanded, there is the real prospect that Ireland might regularly get the kind of new music festival it so thoroughly deserves.

Published on 7 March 2019

Adrian Smith is Lecturer in Musicology at TU Dublin Conservatoire.

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