Nocturnal Spirit

Oneohtrix Point Never at the NCH (Photo: Ruth Medjber)

Nocturnal Spirit

The National Concert Hall hosted two nights of electronic and experimental music on 1 and 2 October, with over forty artists including Oneohtrix Point Never, Caterina Barbieri, Blackhaine, Coby Sey, Roger Doyle, Debit, Elaine Howley, R. Kitt and more. Drew Stephens reviews.

Haunted Dancehall was a two-day event held last weekend at the National Concert Hall, a collaboration with promoter Foggy Notions. Featuring 40 international and Irish artists from the worlds of electronic, contemporary classical, ambient, hauntology, noise and experimental music, in five different rooms throughout the venue from 7.30pm to late, and with an emphasis on concert and club-like events, the experience felt like an indoor festival and was a rare opportunity to celebrate this music more informally in this institution. In an unexpected inversion of usual programming, the headline act for each evening would open in the main auditorium before other concerts and festivities took place around the building. This approach encouraged the audience to arrive early and experience more of the night to come.

No dancehall in sight, we took our seats for the opening performance. Caterina Barbieri took to the main stage, her metallic glove-laden arm dramatically tweaking a modular set-up blasting out synth arpeggios while the haunted hall was filled with smoke, a huge plastic sheet catching the lights behind the stage. It was a seemingly divisive opener, with some leaving the auditorium mid-performance and others mesmerised by the spectacle and induced into hypnosis by the repetitive and meandering trance melodies. The performance lacked the live improvisatory or sonic diversity to bring out the best in a venue with its own acoustic properties and which afforded a unique opportunity to its performers. Occasional interceptions by security in the middle of the aisle to confiscate drinks – which were plentiful at the event, but not allowed in the main concert hall – reminded us that this was, after all, a festival. In that sense, many seemed to enjoy the intensity with which Barbieri kicked off the show.

The crowds then dispersed from the main hall across the building into several spaces that had been transformed for the event, purple neon lighting installed across the halls, one placed irreverently over a marble statue of a flautist. Frog of Earth, an electronic sound collagist from Dublin, opened in The Studio, with an ambient electronic set for the warming crowd, before Coby Sey performed with a full band featuring Ben Vince on saxophone and electronics, Leisha Thomas (Alpha Maid) on effects-laden electric guitar and Momoko Gill (MettaShiba) on drums and vibraphone. This was the only full band I witnessed over the festival and they took the performance somewhere only a band can go – synchronising through tender moments and finding unexpected peaks.

On Saturday, I had mainly confined myself to the line-up in The Studio, with brief trips elsewhere to catch at least some of the other performances and the social experience of the event. In my meanderings, I encountered Elaine Howley of Cork’s The Altered Hours performing solo in the Kevin Barry Room; one of the more hauntological acts on the bill, she performed her hazed-out songs to a devout crowd. Next in The Studio were Smerz, an XL-signed electronic pop duo who had attracted a crowd, but seemed to suffer the most with the limitations of the technical set-up. They managed to endear the audience through their karaoke style smart-pop antics even though it was difficult to discern any lyrics from the washed-out vocal performances.

Salford-based rap/noise project Blackhaine closed The Studio for Saturday night with an expectedly dark and tense performance. His touring DJ Croww kept his back to the audience, while Blackhaine roamed the space shouting over witch-house and drill-tinged rap-beats into an echoing reverb. It was more emotion than message, and although the energy was clearly there, it was hard to tell how much the audience could engage with what was being transmitted, the room less than full at this point, people having inevitably spread across the venue as the final performances and DJ sets were underway elsewhere in the building. A strong performance, no doubt, but one that left me wondering if an Irish drill artist such as AC-130 would ever have the opportunity to perform in a cultural institution such as this. Removing touring artists from their cultural context, we face a blind spot in our own awareness of contemporary Irish culture, in that we don’t have the infrastructure to support national artists to get to the point of having the same opportunities of internationally touring artists, who usually come pre-approved from elsewhere. Intrigued by Blackhaine’s contortions and mulling over some wider questions about the event, I missed Ana Roxanne perform in the Kevin Barry Room, which I overheard was a highlight for many.

Sadly, clashes in timetabling meant that I had also already missed local artists Bambi, Cáit and Bull Horris and David Donohoe’s DJ sets and live performances as well as the London-based Laila Sakini’s performance in the Kevin Barry Room. Across the night, I only caught moments of Dublin DJs Jio, Chósta and Ema’s sets in the John Field Room, a space of grandeur that added a surreal element to walking between the concert venues – with a general feeling that somehow we had been allowed to collectively throw a rave in a museum of Irish classical music heritage. It was a worthy tribute to John Field, who pioneered the nocturne as a form of musical composition, as the fight for new nocturnal music practices remained a present concern. Luckily, I caught the very end of R. Kitt DJing in the Terrace, a room which I had until now avoided because it had a separate queue for entry that made it look like a nightclub within the building. The energy was there, and reached a peak of festivity when the last track was imposed, before everyone was thrown out on the street at 2:30am to their cycle home or taxi-hunting excursion. 

Strange zones
Sunday sold out ahead of doors, and opened with Oneohtrix Point Never, AKA the American electronic musician and composer Daniel Lopatin, a highlight for most festival goers. Performing on an array of keyboards running through a laptop veiled behind an industrial flight-case, he worked through re-arrangements from his vast catalogue. A large-scale projection behind him jumped through 1980s VHS-style effects, digitally rendered objects and collaged cartoons. The effect was enveloping and his part-formal arrangements, part-loose synthesiser performances travelled across genres and soundscapes into strange zones. At times he would take out a violin bow and run it along what seemed to be a mic’d up piece of metal creating a harsh burst of sound that cut through the layers of playback. His performance was sonically expansive and playful, and he seemed to relish the opportunity to perform his music in such a sonically specific space, closing to a standing ovation that drew out an encore of old material preceded by his expression of gratitude: ‘It’s nice to have a rowdy audience even though you’re all seated.’

Crowds made their way to The Studio for Irish electronic music pioneer Roger Doyle’s performance. Seated at a grand piano, he performed over synchronised backing tracks, joined by guests Neil O’Connor and Jürgen Simpson on modular synthesisers. The performance was met with warm acclaim from a loyal local audience, and lived up to his worthy spot in an Irish festival celebrating developments in electronic music. Next up was Debit, performing her drone electronics with performative moments on an electronic wind instrument. It fit the loose pre-Samhain theme of the event, but as a performance that relied on performativity although apparently rooted in sonic research practices, it was met with a somewhat ambivalent response.

John Glacier, a name which I had overheard several times amidst the ‘Who are you looking forward to?’ floating around the hallways over the weekend, was unfortunately cancelled at short notice and so gush, the new duo of Henry Earnest and Jennifer Moore making ‘original pop music from Dublin’, had their slot time moved forward to just after midnight, bringing the Sunday evening to an earlier peak in the programming with their PC-music hyperpop approach. They had an entire crowd ready for action, mobilised at their command. Probably the most fun of the live performances I experienced over the weekend, it brought the party energy into the concert venue that otherwise occupied the Terrace and John Field Room dancefloors.

Elsewhere, I caught a glimpse of Meitei’s live club set in the Kevin Barry Room, unfortunately misplaced in a set-up more suited to acoustic or instrumental performances. In passing, I experienced moments from Mrs Fingers, Sunken Foal and Emmy Shigeta’s DJ sets in the John Field Room and, unfortunately, I missed Japanese vocalist Hatis Noit and London-based Irish act Fears’ performances in the Kevin Barry entirely. Taking a break between concerts, I heard local DJ’s Bé and Efa O’Neill perform in the Terrace to a packed dancefloor, but only caught moments of TR One’s set, missing Sunil Sharpe’s closing set entirely, the exhaustion of the two nights taking over.

Full nights
As is evident, there was a lot packed into this two-night festival which was supported by the Department of the Arts, and the balance of international and local acts was commendable. It was a great opportunity for people in Dublin to see many touring acts at once, but as most people, myself included, experienced clashes in programming it meant that you often had to choose one act over another. This gave the impression of a very generous season of programming for the capital crammed into two nights, revealing the usual void in Irish nightlife but without a sustainable effort to address the overall issue. At times it felt, or sounded, like both the sound systems and the audiences had been spread thin across multiple venues competing within one venue.

Unfortunately, this fits in with a continuation of the Irish government’s neoliberal regime by extending its approach that is more about the nightlife economy than the nightlife experience, or any personal or social value in the freedom to partake in culture that can’t be reduced to statistics or revenue. What we really need are the changes in legislation regarding later opening hours, which have been promised but delayed again until next year, as well as support for alternative venues and community spaces to continue without fear of rent inflation or closure. Hauntology, as one of the given themes for this event, implies that something ghostly is haunting the present, refusing its death. In this case it might be the potential experience of a Dublin nightlife haunting the undead body of a city where a culture only survives as a spectral, transient presence having long since been banished to the grave.

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Published on 6 October 2022

Drew Stephens is a musician and writer from Connemara.

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