Works by Walshe, O'Connor, Boon etc

Jennifer Walshe

Kevin Barry Room, NCH, Dublin, 04 December 20094 stars

Jennifer Walshe

Bringing the 'New Sound Worlds' series (organised by Siobhán Cleary) to a close was a visit from Irish ex-pat Jennifer Walshe. Walshe is currently resident in New York City and is undoubtedly, as Cleary put it, one of Ireland's most successful musical exports of recent years.

Walshe's work, however, cannot simply be reduced to that of music; or rather, her work explores and plays with the very idea of music itself, using concert situations and the other tropes habitually rehearsed by musical culture as sites of performance, play, and more or less violent rending. The work of the composer becomes a question, the composer him- or herself a thing composed and open to exploration.

Spanning different media, Walshe's output inhabits a unique and not often visited crossing point between contemporary composition, folk music, art rock, theatre, performance art, film and so on. The exciting thing is the way she strings these different strands together in a knot, leaving the pedantic audience member to untie it while she uses the result as a skipping rope. There is some suggestion of a Judith Butler influence – certainly performativity seems to be the link between the various strands of Walshe's work.

Her NCH programme featured works by five different composers, including Walshe herself. But all the other composers featured were actually Walshe's alter egos. All five performed their own works, making for some fascinating shifts in tone in a never-boring concert.

Alongside the conventional programme note and biography under her own name there were respective programme notes and biographies for the other composers. The most beguiling thing about this was that you could not distinguish between what was a joke and what was sincere. For example the information given for Detleva Verens, an Estonian composer interested in the affective power of the spatiality of sound, seemed to parody the proclivity of composers to indulge in knowing, jargonistic and merely mechanical accounts of their music at the expense of the reader: the score for Verens's work, Scintilla, was said to be a giant construction made out of bamboo and wicker, and based on tracking satellite orbits in the sky over Dublin (with token buzz words such a 'liminal' and 'chaotic systems' thrown in); yet though none of this hypothetical complicated edifice was apparent in the heard work, just as these things usually aren't, one was left wondering whether these fantasies were not actually just as real as the music.

Three Songs by Ukeoirn O'Connor opened the concert. O’Connor is a composer who works with strong ethnomusicological leanings and a keen interest in linguistics. The outshoot of this combination is an approach to vocal composition that sees him design vocal positions based on photos of rural landscapes juxtaposed with the profile of a mouth drawn on top of each photo in black ink. It's ridiculous but also believable that this was actually put into practice – we're never quite sure.

O'Connor's music was among the most impressive on display. Each song was different, as he (Walshe) first struck up a lilting melody to an intriguing, doleful chord sequence played on a mandolin before moving to an a capella avant-garde whirlwind of vocalising using two microphones panned in stereo, placed side-by-side with the performer clasping them stood in between (something I once saw similarly done by the American musician Burning Star Core). It was a virtuoso solo display by Walshe/O'Connor.

Jennifer WalsheAnd indeed as well as a composer Walshe is known as being an accomplished vocalist, one specialising in extended techniques. This proficiency was everywhere evident, forming a practical backbone for the demanding solo programme. In Walshe's voice she has a fine instrument with which to guide and mould her musical thought. For one piece she sat at a table facing the audience – mostly male – who sat watching her as she simulated suffering violent strangulation (or rape), gasping, panting and pleading for mercy. Their voyeuristic pose exposed, not a few sat uncomfortably awaiting the next moment of humour to blank over the sudden dark moment.

Some was on hand with the performance of a work by Turf Boon (great name). The Softest Music in the World is a 'silent musical film' where a screen divided into four different shots shows scenes of apparent musical action taking place without any sound. A little teddy bear plays a plastic trumpet, a marshmallow is beat with a pair of cotton buds, a chocolate bunny melts in the top corner: the visual skin of music given its moment in the spotlight.

For the last work of the evening The Dowager Marchylove took to the stage. A human sampler of environmental sounds, the Dowager emerged in grand style in full Celtic gown, black tousled hair and moustache, and proceeded to spout a fifteen-minute splurge of speech-snippets, traditional Irish music and screaming tones from a tin whistle and kazoo. Looping these fragments with an electronic effects pedal, Walshe – I mean the Dowager – built up a giant caterwaul of different sounds, a hyper-work of traditional Irish music interspersed with operatic singing and rambling speech. Stirring stuff altogether.

By Liam Cagney

Photo credits: CMC Ireland


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