Surface Tension

Caimin Gilmore

Surface Tension

Caimin Gilmore, double-bass player with groups such as Crash Ensemble and singer/songwriter with the band Sun Collective, has recently released two EPs: a four-track record of new works for solo double bass, and a collection of songs and instrumentals with Sun Collective. Anna Murray reviews.

As summer came to a close, we began to see a lot of delayed projects find new outlets, including two releases from songwriter and double-bassist Caimin Gilmore. In June, his set of double-bass commissions String Ogham received video premieres and an album release, and, in August, he marked his 32nd birthday with the second EP from his band Sun Collective.

At first glance it seems there are a lot of things that make these two releases from Gilmore wildly different. Sun Collective’s Move/Remove is an intimate and personal piece of delicately produced indie-pop primarily written by Gilmore, while String Ogham is a collection of four works for double bass by contemporary composers, commissioned by Gilmore – and yet there are clear links between them.

Desire to communicate
String Ogham features four works commissioned in 2018 from Sam Perkin, Benedict Schlepper-Connolly, Linda Buckley and Nick Roth. After the premieres at Quiet Nights in Cork last November, additional concerts were delayed by Covid-19, so further performances of the works instead took place via videos of the recording session throughout the month of June. It is worth seeking out these premiere videos, not least to see Caimin’s playing, but also for the interviews at the end of each, in which the four composers are interviewed by Billy, age 5, and Ben, age 12 with cellist Kate Ellis. After listening to the pieces for the first time, and drawing pictures in response, Billy and Ben talk to the composers about their pieces, practise Scottish accents, play the trumpet, sing the Star Wars theme song, and chat about engines and cake. It is simple, charming but also strangely insightful; we get a glimpse of why these composers are writing music, and understand their desire to communicate with the listener. 

The album opens with an expression of that first kind of joy, immediate and visceral via Sam Perkin’s <3, beginning with the sound of children’s laughter. It is neither a gimmick or a simple sound-effect; in <3, Perkin recreates musically the pattern of laughter, layering it with rhythmic swells in two double-bass parts and electronics in a remarkably attractive and cohesive piece. 

Linda Buckley’s Seanchann is a beautiful example of what the composer does best: elegiac melodies fluidly dueting with tectonically slow-changing textures, evoking natural landscapes. Buckley uses the double bass in a melodic way throughout, making use of the contrast between the brittleness of the instrument’s upper range and the rasp of its lowest, as the live instrument merges with and emerges from the surrounding soundscape. It is an altogether more melancholy work, but it is the openness of expression that links it both to Perkin’s and the following Blackberry by Benedict Schlepper-Connolly. 

Blackberry is mainly a simple melody repeated – written, as is revealed in the interview, while the composer was out picking blackberries. Schlepper-Connolly too leans into the range of the double bass, with iterations of the melody undergoing a constant expansion to contain both pizzicato open strings and harmonics without losing its sense of cohesion.

The album finishes with Nick Roth’s Arris, the most sonically adventurous. This work is where the album gets its title, with a score derived from ancient ogham script, creating a musical reading of the written ogham markings. This again is where it is worth taking advantage of the availability of the videos: this work has a strong physicality, almost a tactility to its sounds. The performance by Gilmore is notably intense. Gilmore has clearly gotten under the skin of all four pieces in a way that is palpable in his performances. 

Internal album
Sun Collective’s Move/Remove occupies more of that bittersweet joy of memory, self-realisation and renewal. Gilmore describes it as a ‘release in the physical and mental sense of the word’, and emphasises the cathartic function of musical communication. It is a deeply internal album: if it is cathartic, that catharsis is of the personal revelation kind, not the explosive outpouring of emotion. The impression is of a solid centre that is Gilmore’s voice, from which everything else merely emanates, a swirling mix of acoustic and processed sound that is as intangible as String Ogham is tactile. 

Throughout the album – four main tracks plus two segueing improvisations by Sam Perkin, ‘Reflection on Movement’ and ‘Transition and Removal’ – Gilmore creates meandering yet hooky melodies. The band focusses so much on gesture and motion rather than riffs that the songs seem to give the impression that they are without strongly defined moments like verses or choruses. This is not to its detriment, rather each song pulls you into its aura. Perkin’s contributions put this impression into relief with his highly patterned repetitive rhythms.

Sun Collective is of course not just a Gilmore project, though he is at its core, playing double bass, guitar, percussion, synths, piano and singing. The imprint of each contributing musician is clearly felt in that swirl, such as David Six’s scattered piano melodies. The rhythm section has the subtle colourations of Matthew Jacobson and Dominic Mullan, while Nick Roth’s saxophone is inflected with influences from outside the world of chamber-pop.

These imprints are most obvious in lead track ‘Roots’, which has the richest orchestration of all the tracks, and a sweet, hum-like chorus hook. Each of the four songs seems to slide between spaces with each of Gilmore’s breaths – one moment we are up close with a singer and band, the next the voice has retreated into a cavernous space, while the instruments come in closer around our heads. ‘Roots’ starts as something of a Villagers-esque indie ballad, but occasionally turns into a darker corridor, with undulating chords and vaguely menacing bass. The changes can be dizzying, but are worth it for the impact when it re-emerges once more into the light. 

‘Roots’ may be the EP’s lead track, but for me the standout track is Starve It. The turns are more sudden, more unexpected, but because of that more exciting. Its parts are more fractured, breaking up the smooth flow that characterises most of the album. Sung and spoken vocal fragments and a clicking percussion spin are set into motion around a warm synth, over which Gilmore’s voice sits, more exposed than in the other tracks. It is the ripple of jagged waves that breaks and therefore emphasises the smooth and inviting surface tension of the whole.


Published on 16 September 2020

Anna Murray is a composer and writer. Her website is

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