Sounds and Sadness in South Dublin
The cover image of Folding, the new album of collective compositions by Izumi Kimura, Cora Venus Lunny and Anthony Kelly, gives you a good picture of what’s within. You are in Dún Laoghaire in south County Dublin, looking out across the sea onto an abstract but rumbling rain cloud, under which the chimneys of the Poolbeg power plant stand dwarfed but not obscured.
Each of the tracks in the album (except one, which we will get to shortly) is named after a field recording that serves as that track’s backbone or ground, taken from in and around Dún Laoghaire, where Kelly, along with Farpoint Recordings co-founder David Stalling, is creating a project called ‘A Sound Map of Dún Laoghaire’. Juxtaposed against these concrete recordings – of bees, leaves, waves – is the abstract quasi-improvised duet of Kimura and Lunny.
The relationship between field recording and live performance in this record is subtle and varied. In ‘Blackbird Sings to Nearby Birds,’ Lunny playfully, loosely imitates the field recording’s blackbird’s song. In ‘Rain and Thunderstorm,’ it seems the two elements are vying for dominance. At other times, one element entirely recedes in favour of the other. But what’s wonderful here is how many shades and hues of interplay the artists find: never simple imitation or contrast, neither element ever simply in the background or the foreground. It is like looking into a roiling cloud, in which figures imperceptibly condense and dissipate.
You could hardly hope for better musicians to find such infinitesimal distinctions than Kimura and Lunny. They are both stalwarts of the Irish new music scene. Lunny’s previous solo release, Terminus (Conscientiae) (2014), is a tour de force of free improvisation, and Kimura plays in a number of free-improvisation groups with musicians such as Barry Guy and Gerry Hemingway. Kimura and Lunny have also improvised together for years, most recently in this year’s Finding a Voice festival. The performance is both expansive and inward, spacious and contemplative. In the opening ‘Sea’, for instance, after over a minute of waves lapping against the beach a cappella, Lunny enters with a pianissimo harmonic that adds a sense of height to the scene, and Kimura follows with some sparse middle-register notes that place abstract figures on the shore.
This gestural improvisation of the album has a curious interlude in the CD and digital releases of Folding that is not on the vinyl version: an impossibly sweet swung waltz written by Kimura and called ‘For Stephen’, and which, unlike the abstract introspection of the rest of the album, has limpid, functional harmonies, a singable tune and confident outward movement. But, coming as it does after the oppressively wintery ‘Storm Emma’ and the fine silver lining that follows it, ‘Spring Birds’, and listened to in this context, ‘For Stephen’ seems to build on ‘Spring Birds’: ‘Spring Birds’ is the clearing of the air after the storm, and ‘For Stephen’ is the full sun and playing children who rush in after. Suddenly the track seems rather the centrepiece of the album, recontextualising everything around it, and making the CD/digital and vinyl releases profoundly different from one another. But there is much more: there is a dark side to ‘For Stephen’, as the listener realises towards the end when the sound of an airliner presses down a huge shadow on the delicately dancing duet between Kimura and Lunny. This field recording, the liner notes tell us, was taken from Deansgrange Cemetery; this is where Stephen was buried, in 1972, when only a month old. He was born and died in a mother and baby home, and ‘For Stephen’ is a lullaby for him.
This field recording of Deansgrange Cemetery is complicated in a sense that all of Kelly’s field recordings are: ‘Spring Birds’ captures the sound of birds, yes, but also the sound of some boyos drag-racing their cars in the distance; ‘Dry Leaves’ captures the sounds of dry leaves, but also the hum of traffic. Nowhere, though, is this complicatedness richer or heavier than in ‘For Stephen’. That airliner’s roar might be the loudest the album ever gets, and it’s just when the instruments are at their sweetest. But aeroplanes are not only cacophonies: they also carry us away. And Kimura and Lunny’s lullaby is not interrupted by the plane. I don’t know what to make of this, but it will sit with me for a long time, and I could not ask for more from music.
Folding by Izumi Kimura, Cora Venus Lunny and Anthony Kelly can be purchased on Bandcamp here.
Published on 17 August 2021
James Camien McGuiggan holds a PhD in the philosophy of art from the University of Southampton. Prior to this, he studied music in Maynooth University. He is currently an independent scholar, with interests in the philosophy of music and R. G. Collingwood.