Picked Up and Placed Elsewhere

Picked Up and Placed Elsewhere

The new Metronome series began at the NCH last week (16 March) with Ordnance Survey's 'Nomos: O’Riada Reimagined' and Sharon Phelan's 'Radio Ocean'. Brendan Finan reviews.

Entering the National Concert Hall when the only performance is taking place in The Studio, the hip, minimalist performing space upstairs from the main auditorium, you feel as if you’re being let in on a secret. The lights are dim, the main bars closed, and the spaces, minus crowds, feel vast; it’s the type of empty that fills with potential energy.

This was the context for the first Metronome concert, a new series at the National Concert Hall featuring collaborations with emerging artists, which took place last Thursday night, the 16th of March. Featured were Ordnance Survey, the collaborative project of electronic musician Neil O’Connor, and the sound artist Sharon Phelan.

This was the most intimate concert I’ve been to in quite some time, with attendees standing or sitting on the floor, some holding drinks or phones, in a loose rainbow shape opposite the stage. The stage lighting was minimal, the performers as much in deep shadow as blue light.

Phelan comes onstage first, beginning her performance of her work Radio Ocean quietly as the audience is still entering. A bass rumble grabs you bodily and doesn’t let go for minutes. You feel it all over, every fibre vibrates. Other sounds – rustling or talking from the audience, say – are distorted by its sheer intensity to the point that it’s often unclear whether it’s coming from the speakers or elsewhere in the room; the bass pulls like the gravity of a black hole. Phelan gently adjusts faders and knobs behind a laptop. Above her, a time lapse video shows the moon traverse the sky over water in a little over 35 minutes.

But the bass rumble does release, at least for a while, giving way to snatches of other, more distinct sounds – speech, pitches, maybe modems. The whole duration of the piece is an ebb and flow, until, as dawn approaches, the produced sounds finally give way to crashing waves. Or do they? Is that a lingering flange effect, or are your ears adjusting to the relief after the long exposure to such intense sound? Whatever the case, the work leaves you feeling as though you’ve been picked up and placed down elsewhere.

Ó Riada reimagined
I’ve always been fascinated by how much an adaptation – especially an electronic adaptation – of a piece of music can dismantle and manipulate a work that inspires it and still leave it recognisable at the end. Ordnance Survey has recently given the music of Seán Ó Riada this treatment in their album Nomos: O’Riada Reimagined, most of which O’Connor, with David Murphy on pedal steel guitar and Gareth Quinn Redmond on violin (and all three adding electronic elements), played on Thursday night.

In their work, Ó Riada’s harmony forms the basis for a candescence of colour, of washing, wistful resonance and heavy drones, electronic spiccati and groovy bass octaves. The trio performed just about the whole album, which draws on a number of  Ó Riada works including his arrangements of ‘Aisling Gheal’ and ‘Planxty Irwin’, as well as Mise Éire and others. In live performance, though, they let the sections bleed into one another, improvising over it to create a new version of the work. Ó Riada’s chords are still there at the core, feeling like an implication: you know how this goes, or at least how it went. It’s like a memory, abstract associations providing the connective tissue, though it’s never nostalgic.

Like Phelan’s work, this had projected video above it, this one – by Gavin O’Brien – a spliced and reconfigured display of shots from films  Ó Riada scored. It took a similarly psychedelic approach to the music, starting from the visuals and spinning out. Shapes pop in and out, different scenes – or different parts of the same scene – overlaid on each other in defiance of context.

David Murphy, Neil O’Connor and Gareth Quinn Redmond at the NCH (Photo: Ordnance Survey)

A strong start
With both of these works, especially performed live, there’s a strong sense of structure; not of musical structure but of being inside a space, and of being surrounded and enclosed and carried by sound. More than anything, the feeling I took away from this concert was an awareness and an awe of the sheer physicality of the work. For Phelan’s piece in particular, when I look for descriptive words, I keep returning to ‘shaken’ and ‘moved’, though I mean them in a wholly tactile, rather than emotional, sense.

As a new series promoting emerging artists, Metronome has had a strong start, and – wisely – it is not confining itself by genre; upcoming acts include the synth-driven group Everything Shook and the staunchly anti-categorisation Zeropunkt. What they have in common is the type of appeal that draws a small, passionate, curious audience. Series like Metronome are the type of incubator such artists and audiences need.

For upcoming Metronome concerts, visit www.nch.ie.

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Published on 23 March 2023

Brendan Finan is a teacher and writer. Visit www.brendanfinan.net.

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