Central And Remote: Áine O’ Dwyer
Interview with Áine O’ Dwyer.
“Nothing in particular inspired me to take up music, it has always been an accessible form of expression as long as I can remember. Although, listening to massively inspiring works allows me to hear, feel, digest, understand and learn in a different way, whether it’s Arvo Pärt’s ‘Tabula Rasa’ or Robbie Basho’s ‘Blue Crystal Fire’.”
—Áine O’ Dwyer
Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry
Later in the month of May sees the release of Áine O’ Dwyer’s first full-length album on London’s Second Language label. The name of this eagerly awaited body of work is ‘Anything Bright Or Startling?’ and most certainly, it will make for a highly enriching experience. A bonus cd contains eighteen minutes of true beauty, featuring two piano improvisations, a church organ piece, a chant/harmony (‘A Calling’) and a short flute interlude. This masterful artist and musician is capable of conjuring up an otherworldly sound through the meditative symphonic sounds of harp, piano, organ and not least, her beautiful voice. What I love about the music of Áine O’ Dwyer is the divine purity that is embedded in each of the songs. The solo piano and solo organ pieces are works of stunning beauty that places O’ Dwyer in the realm of the current Neoclassical age of composers. The harp-based compositions was my first introduction to the Limerick-born, London-based artist and it is this very instrument she is perhaps best known for.
Áine O’ Dwyer is synonymous with the independent music label, Second Language. The album ‘I Lived In Trees’ by Mark Fry was where I first came across O’ Dwyer. Her harp playing serves a vital part to the achingly beautiful folk songs of Mark Fry and The A. Lords. A pastoral landscape is etched across a gorgeous canvas of sound that aches of a lost England; evoking dreams, childhood, loss and our very existence. The delicate harp notes meanders effortlessly amidst the A. Lords’ soundscapes of spanish guitar, harmonium, accordion, bouzouki, clarinet, banjo and bells. There are numerous other collaborations O’ Dwyer has been involved with, most notably The Cloisters, Richard Moult, Piano Magic and United Bible Studies. As a collaborator, the staggering works of art – many of which have been released by Second Language – showcases the artistry and supreme talent of O’ Dwyer, where a deep understanding is forged between like-minded artists. A musical telepathy is forever inherent in these special recordings, from Michael Tanner’s Cloisters project to the experimental folk of United Bible Studies.
Seeing Áine O’ Dwyer live in concert is something to truly behold. Little did I know what awaited me. In the intimate space of my local recordstore, a beguiling tapestry of harp notes ascended into the atmosphere that simply left me dumbfounded. With no aid of technology – microphones/pedals or otherwise- O’ Dwyer’s voice and harp-based compositions carved out a sacred sound, reminiscent of Joanna Newsom. The music possesses the power to penetrate the human space, where the deeply affecting songs remain rooted to your consciousness. Later, O’ Dwyer joined United Bible Studies but it was her solo songs-not shielded behind noise of electricity-that in my eyes, celebrated art in its truest sense. Raw, fragile, moving and utterly captivating.
‘Music For Church Cleaners’ is an album of church organ music performed by Áine in St Mark’s Church, Islington. As the title suggests, the music was performed in the presence of the church cleaners, who at times can be heard in the recordings. The organ improvisations are truly breathtaking as you feel the organ filling the sacred space of the church. The music can be termed drone, ambient or classical but above all, it is sacred music. Whenever I revisit this special album, I feel a meditative and hypnotic quality exuding from the organ compositions. The pieces of music share the spirit of John Cage where a work of true beauty is created. The album was released on cassette on the Dublin-based independent label, Fort Evil Fruit.
‘Anything Bright Or Startling?’ will soon see the light of day, where Áine O’ Dwyer takes the rightful position of centre stage. It is here where she truly belongs.
‘Anything Bright Or Startling?’ will be available soon on Second Language Music. ‘Music For Church Cleaners’ is out now on Fort Evil Fruit.
Interview with Áine O’ Dwyer.
Congratulations Áine on your amazing music. Your compositions; whether piano, harp or organ-based, are all exceptional and utterly compelling. It’s a real pleasure to ask you some questions about your music. I saw you recently on your Irish tour with United Bible Studies in Cork and Limerick. It was amazing to witness your live performance; using no microphone, allowing the intimacy of your voice and harp to capture the spark of magical art in the air. It really was something to behold, Áine. I would love if you could share your memories please of this Irish tour you recently have been on and what special moments you hold onto?
Thanks Mark! Yes, no amplification was a firm decision, although it was really special at Galway’s ‘Abandon Reason’ which took place at a disused underground carpark. The sound was filtered by the buildings cavernous belly. Gorges played that night also, a trio collab with David Colohan, Decklan Krully and Bridgid Power Ryce comprised of vocals and harmonium duets.The plugd gig at the Triskel was a really lovely start and it was a treat as always to play with United Bible Studies. That night there was Paul Condon, Gavin Prior, Enda Trautt, David Colohan, Alison O’Donnell, and Michael Tanner came over from England. It was a great reunion.
Limerick’s Conflux festival was a huge success! I didn’t get to see all the events unfortunately, there was so much going on that day but my highlight was when ‘Raising Holy Sparks’ and members of the audience delivered a chorus of horn jungle chaos!!
And then to round it off, I performed at The workman’s club in Dublin with United Bible studies and Mossy Nolan on the bill that night. It was the first time I saw Nolan perform, it was powerful! So, a very satisfying and uplifting trip.
There was a part of me which enjoyed traveling around the country via public transport with my harp. It’s an unusual sight for people I suppose. Some wondered if it was a type of surf board. I would generally meet with all kinds of guessing games whilst I’m out and about with it and not just in Ireland. The instrument is zipped up in a waterproof cover and I use a metal trolley to wheel it too and fro. I met with a train master at Cork’s Colbert train station who had worked there for over 15 years and not once had he seen a harp pass through the gates. I was surprised to hear that really. A woman at Limerick Junction scolded me, saying that I’d want to ’employ a man for that sort of thing!’
Tell me please about your introduction to the harp instrument and how you have developed your playing over time?
Well, I was introduced at eleven and started to take lessons locally in Limerick. My teacher insisted that her students play outside of the four walls as much as possible and she was really encouraging at the early stages too. I remember playing in my school band that same spring. There were a couple of years where I felt discouraged and I do remember giving it up and taking on the trad flute instead but that was a short affair. Eventually, when I was a little more rehearsed, I got work at local castles in the area, weddings, funerals, private functions. I began to compose my own furniture music for these events which would usually have sections of improv. Of course this was never enough to feed my curiosity.
I remember I did try to incorporate the harp into performances when I was a student at the Limerick School of Art and Design but I wished to play with other people. Megs Morley was a student there at the time, and asked me to perform at the ENSO Arts Festival in Galway city in 2002. Whilst I was there, she introduced me to United Bibile Studies. They were also performing at the festival and I was invited to play with them that night. It was quite memorable, we all walked on stage banging broomsticks on the floor before we ever took to any instrument. After that, I began to play more frequently with the group, as it opened up a great dialogue with some extremely inspiring and creative music makers.
The following year of 2003 I headed off to New york with the harp. I spent the whole Summer busking on random parts of the city’s streets, parks, sub-ways etc. I was introduced to a variety of noise musicians who I would play/record with and also an improvising Orchestra with whom I performed both in New York and Woodstock.
There’s lots more to do with my development continuing on after 2003, but I would count these early stages to be a vital part.
What are the possibilities in this musical instrument that you see can only be obtained from the very strings of the harp?
I’ve always experimented with and enjoyed using extended techniques more so than using additional technology. It’s really lovely to bow the lower base steel strings of a harp. A lengthy piece of rubber cable also creates a nice drone. Playing on dampened strings comes in handy. (excuse the pun) Drum brushes work beautifully. I like to lay the harp down flat and play it as a hammer dulcimer too, given the chance. Metal or glass slides work very well along the strings. If I want a guitar or lute sound, I pluck the string closer to the sound board rather than in the center. Playing it backwards is fun! After that, there’s plectrums, harmonics, tremors, string bending……So, plenty of possibilities there before I ever think of plugging it in.
Is there a piece of music or song that inspired you to take up music?
Nothing in particular inspired me to take up music, it has always been an accessible form of expression as long as I can remember. Although, listening to massively inspiring works allows me to hear, feel, digest, understand and learn in a different way, whether it’s Arvo Pärt’s ‘Tabula Rasa’ or Robbie Basho’s ‘Blue Crystal Fire’.
Staying on the harp, I love the wide range of sounds you create so effortlessly in your playing. The music sounds contemporary and new yet steeped in traditional/folk but always feels so touching and real. This is clearly apparent on the beautiful piece ‘A Pelagic Recital’, a co-write between you and Michael Tanner. Please give me an insight into this musical collaboration (found on the new album from The Cloisters) and the process involved.
Michael asked me to respond to a piece of music which he gave me to listen to, and I did just that. We spoke very little about it as it was more an intuitive exchange.
Your album ‘Music For Church Cleaners’ is very special indeed. I can hear sparks of spontaneity throughout as you play the pipe organ inside St Mark’s Church in London. I would love to hear you recount this moment in time when you are playing the organ in this space. Describe the church, the sound and feel of the room and the recording of the music. In terms of the compositions, were they improvisations and experiments?
I would always play on a Saturday morning when the church cleaners would come. There was also a coffee morning in a separate room near the foyer of the church for the local elderly community and a little jumble sale displayed at the back of the nave. I remember the first morning of my visit, I found some rare vinyl there, a favorite of mine was an interpretation of Pérotin by The Dessoff choir, from the 1950’s.
The recordings took place over a space of seven months. I made seven visits and each time I brought with me two zoom recorders. I would sit and play for roughly 2 hours. Yes, they are improvisations and experiments which led to a selection of recordings which made the album.
At the end of the 7 months, I compiled the tracks and as it happens, each track is from a different month. I had explored a similar process the year before, conducting piano improvisations in my family home whilst undergoing construction. (The poor builders!!) But I managed to loose all the recordings. It was a good thing in a way, as it gave me a hunger for further experimentation.
I liked the idea of using the tape format, particularly for this project and Paul Condon of Fort Evil Fruit understood where I was coming from. I would also like to release it on vinyl if ever the opportunity arose and the finances were there.
Tell me please about the church cleaners too, who play such an integral part. I love how they themselves become the conductors of your music, if you like. For example, when a lady tells you to play different notes, rather than one single note continuously and how you follow their instruction.
Yes, I liked that part too! I think on another recording the same lady came over to ask me if I could bring sheet music the next time. They were growing a little weary of my dronings I’m sure. Maybe I’ll return one day with a score of organ music to play for them and take away the irony of the title. It has been on my mind. There was an elderly man who would do the hovering. I remember he sat on the pew behind me once, waiting for the music to stop so that he could continue with his work and not disturb me. It was only when I stopped playing that he asked me if it would be alright to turn the hoover back on again.
An elderly woman would do the polishing. One Saturday, I had placed my recorder on a nearby piano and when I listened back the next day, I heard her breath very close to the microphone, the spraying of her Mr sheen and finally her hand grabbing the sound device, lifting it up and cleaning the piano’s lid underneath it. There were many elements of chance involved and I wanted that to come through in the recordings but without heavy editing. So there are somethings which I found hard to leave out.
You told me from our last conversation about the different churches you have visited and been to and the differences you observe. I would love to know what other churches you have found magical and what is it that makes these spaces a place of inspiration?
I can’t remember which ones I talked about before.. Maybe it was the Greek Orthodox church I walked into one day ? I went through the door and the alarm immediately sounded! There must be something I don’t know about entering a Greek Orthodox church? Or maybe I’m just a bad egg. In any case, I quickly walked out again. Or was it the time I walked into another church and found two priests dressed in their black cassocks singing in unison, each standing on separate lecterns across from one another, I was the only witness there.
A house of religious services is always an intrigue of mine, whether it be the architecture of it’s walls, it’s beliefs, it’s congregation or inside where the repetitive theatrical action of ritual is housed; blessing, kissing, genuflecting, kneeling, sitting, standing, shaking hands, singing, praising. Although, more often than intrigue, I find it harrowing to know that religion is so tied up with so many disasters, wars and corruption and I’m concerned about Ireland’s dark past and present.
Your first musical instrument was the piano; if I remember correctly. I love your many beautiful piano improvisations you have recorded. (I’m sure I’ve only heard a small portion!) ‘December Piano’ is my favourite that completely transports me. I would love to gain an insight into your creative process involved in the piano-based compositions?
Ah yes, December piano.. This particular piece was an improvisation I made one morning at my parents house. We’ve always had the same piano and it’s like an old friend at this stage! I always try to make some time for it when I’m home. I’ve a heightened sense of awareness in this particular setting as it’s very still and quiet there. In this instance, I took inspiration from the wind which I could hear howling from outside the window, so, I began by mimicking it’s sound on the piano.
I love your song ‘A Calling’. Gorgeous harmonies, bird sounds and percussion creates this timeless folk sound. There is a meditative power to this song. Can you shed some light on this song please?
I made a short super 8 film based on a prayer, the same time Music For Church Cleaners was underway. ‘A Calling’ was the sound track I made to go with the film. There were dancers who wore black cloaks and reflective circular masks, a drummer and another person signaling with seamphore.
You have collaborated with many like-minded artists, such as United Bible Studies, The A. Lords, Piano Magic, Mark Fry to name but a few. As a composer, this healthy collaborative side to your work must be a wonderful thing. Tell me please about this collaborative aspect that you clearly thrive on and the impact it has?
I’m always keen for a chance to learn and explore and experience new horizons, so I will always collaborate with others. Sometimes they happen to be like-minded and sometimes not at all, it can work either way and in the spirit of the new, I always try something out at least once.
What’s next for you Áine?
I have an album coming out in May 2013 on the Second Language label. After that, I intend to find a home for an organ based release.
What direction will your next album take, if you know at this stage?
Yes, the album – ‘Anything bright or startling?’ is different in execution. Most of the tracks are centered around harp apart from one piano track and another pipeorgan track. Some are studio recordings whilst others are more of a low-fi approach. I record my voice for the first time and enter into the world of song.
‘Anything Bright Or Startling?’ will be available soon on Second Language Music.