The universe is making music all the time

Central And Remote: Seán Mac Erlaine

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 Interview with Seán Mac Erlaine.

“The aim was (and is) to develop a responsive electronic world which matches somehow the sound and approach I had developed with saxophones and clarinets.”

—Seán MacErlaine

Words: Mark Carry, Artwork: Craig Carry


Seán Mac Erlaine is a Dublin-based woodwind instrumentalist, composer and music producer, recognized as one of Ireland’s most forward-thinking creative musicians. Mac Erlaine’s works intersects folk, free improvisation, jazz and traditional music. He also collaborates with a range of non-musical artists particularly in theatre and radio.

An accomplished saxophonist and clarinetist, Mac Erlaine holds a PhD in music (practice-led research around customised live electronics in solo woodwind performance), a first degree honours Masters of Music (Jazz Performance) and a Diploma in Jazz Performance awarded by The Guildhall School of Music, London.

Mac Erlaine has collaborated with a hugely diverse range of musicians and artists reflecting his own versatility and interest in cross-platform work. He has performed with leading musical figures including Bill Frisell, David Toop, The Smith Quartet, Hayden Chisholm, Lisa Hannigan, Frank Gratkowski, Ronan Guilfoyle, Iarla O’Lionaird, Damo Suzuki and many more. He has also performed as a special guest with Detroit techno legends Underground Resistance and The Gloaming.

One of the pinnacles of the Irish composer’s work are the two utterly compelling solo works already under his belt: the mesmerising 2012 debut full-length ‘Long After The Music Is Gone’ (recorded entirely in a small room in Leitrim) and last year’s eagerly awaited follow-up ‘A Slender Song’, consisting of live recordings of improvised performances around Ireland over a four-year period. The illuminating live performances took place across the length and breadth of the country (in turn somehow reflecting the Irish landscape and its unfathomable beauty) encompassing Cork, Dingle, Dublin, Galway, Laois, Meath, Mitchelstown, Skibereen, Sligo, Tralee and Wicklow. Both records are available on the innovative Dublin-based independent label, Ergodos.

The near-mythical Irish/Swedish quartet of This is How we Fly is a contemporary folk band with Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh – fiddle & hardanger fiddle, Seán Mac Erlaine – clarinets & live electronics, Nic Gareiss – percussive dance, and Petter Berndalen – drums and percussion. Their music sees Swedish folk music rhythms meet the texture of traditional Irish fiddle, percussive dance from America & improvised jazz and electronics. The band’s self-titled debut is a timeless gem: a distillation of contemporary music’s infinite possibilities as an emotion-filled mystical world is unleashed with each timbre and tone of incomprehensible sound cast by these four gifted musicians.


‘A Slender Song’ is available now on Ergodos.



Interview with Seán MacErlaine.

It’s a pleasure to ask you some questions about your otherworldly musical compositions. Firstly, congratulations on the stunning new album, ‘A Slender Song’; it’s a work of tender beauty. This record is a collection of live recordings of improvised performances around Ireland over a four-year period, which in many ways offers a snapshot into various moments in time; reflections on life and indeed, the landscape and trajectory of the Irish landscape. Please take me back to these live performances and the art of improvisation?

Seán Mac Erlaine: Thanks so much for asking, listening and the kind words. I started playing live solo shows around 2006/2007 but in 2010 my approach and tools changed fairly radically as I packed up my dozens of hardware pedals and acres of cables (it just got too heavy for the bicycle!) and started developing and using customised software and a computer alongside my woodwinds. This coincided with quite an increase in solo performances mainly in Ireland, and pretty much all over Ireland, and happy to say, mostly in really interesting spaces for people who (gave the impression) were listening! And being in a space with people is pretty much key to the improvisation thing for me. I’m doing my best to respond to the place and generate some form of exchange with an audience. It seems that to create new music afresh with no predetermined plan is an honest way of attempting that. I guess if you meet a friend for a chat you don’t want either party to really know what going to be said beforehand, to my mind that gets stale very quickly.

I was very interested to read that you see ‘A Slender Song’ as a sister album to your debut solo record, ‘Long After The Music Is Gone’. How has the process changed or technique altered since recording the debut record, Sean? The compelling sound of the woodwind instrumentation in addition to the innovative live electronics conjures up such a timeless and enchanting sound. I can imagine there is a close dialogue and sort of symbiosis existing between the acoustic and electronic worlds of sound for you?

SM: The first record was made in private, in a room in one location, Leitrim. In many ways in was about that location and drilling down into some ideas around that. While it’s full of improvisation there was also much deliberation and reworking and attempting to create a coherent piece of work. There was a lot of learning about the sound world I was presenting. With ‘A Slender Song‘ it was a case of playing with all I had learnt from the first record and bringing it to audiences in different parts of the country and really seeing if I could create new music from scratch every night from a type of solo woodwinds and electronics language I had worked on.

Since I started working with computers, this new set-up allows me to work with live electronics in a much more nuanced way than the guitar stomp boxes I had been using. The aim was (and is) to develop a responsive electronic world which matches somehow the sound and approach I had developed with saxophones and clarinets. I spent the years since then working with this new system (built-in Max/MSP) so that I can improvise with it like an instrumentalist would. Everything you hear comes first from the instrument – there’s no external sampling or prepared sounds, I think this helps bridge a gap between the organic and electronic.


Please take me back to your earliest musical memories? At what age did you begin playing clarinet and saxophone instruments?

SM: My predominant memories of really getting into music are through radio. Back in the day (!), Dublin’s pirate stations played many hours of 1960s chart music which I listened to for hours on end. I was playing piano back then and refusing to do the exams and buying the big book of The Doors arranged for piano was a major turning point. By that time I was playing a lot of guitar and was writing songs and playing Dublin’s singer-songwriter scene as well as terrible lead guitar playing in a band playing Velvet Underground tunes and the like. But for whatever reason I became fascinated with the saxophone, I was about 16 by then. To this day I listen a lot to those early song-making heroes but I ventured deep into the world of instrumental music and now my fingertips hurt when I pick up the six string!

In terms of influences, I would love to gain an insight into the composers and musicians you feel have inspired you – and continue to inspire you – on the path of creating new sounds and music-making?

SM: Well, the important early ones are Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Bowie (jeez I sound like a dad-rocker), when the saxophone arrived it was all Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Miles Davis and I practised everything I could understand from their music for years. I rarely listen to them anymore. I’m much more likely to listen JJ Cale than Bill Evans these days but maybe that’ll change. I’m really into guys like Arve Henriksen, Jan Bang, Toshimaru Nakamura, Jon Hassell, Joanna Newsom, Bill Callahan and heaps of other non-related stuff.

As a teacher of the Alexander Technique, please discuss for me the essence of this technique and the parallel that exists between this area of interest and music?

SM: Explaining the essence of Alexander Technique is quite the challenge, as it encompasses and influences really a lot of things and has been one of the most significant things I’ve encountered. One explanation is that it’s a training of one’s thinking, a development of a mental discipline which allows the student to improve in whatever they are doing. Another description is that I help to teach people how to think and move freely, easily and more efficiently. Music is something that I really care about doing, Alexander Technique allows me to do everything better so music falls into the everything net. It has brought much pure joy to me during performances perhaps sometimes in place of what might have been occupied by negative thinking or anxiety.

In terms of collaboration, you have been involved in many wonderful projects having performed with Bill Frissell, The Gloaming, Lisa Hannigan among many others during the recent past. I can imagine these collaborations must help your own development as a musician and performer? Please recount your memories of playing with some of these musicians? Do you have other collaborations planned in the near future?

SM: Absolutely. Music is a communication and getting to play with other musicians (and artists outside of music) of such a high calibre is really quite a spin. You can learn a ton of things from even watching someone great on stage and then sharing that stage really builds on that. I’m always collaborating with people so in the next few months I’m working on a new theatre piece with an amazing team of actors and dancers; I’m writing for a small improvising choir and setting (some of) Finnegans Wake for them; I’ve a gig with a monstrously good string quartet; and some more secret surprises that I can’t blurt out yet. But each one is a true privilege to be able to spend time and create with these folk.

You are also a member of the highly innovative and awe-inspiring Irish/Swedish group, This Is How We Fly. It’s one of those rare and magical events to witness This Is How We Fly in concert, and I’m glad to have witnessed your show earlier in the year. Please discuss the inception of This Is How We Fly and how each of you crossed paths? Please shed some light on the forthcoming record and what ideas you feel could materialize on the band’s follow-up?

SM: This has been a very special collaboration for me especially as I’m coming from a somewhat another world from the three other men who are steeped in traditional musics in a very deep, informed and ridiculously creative way. I was a big fan of Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh’s playing for years – true story: I first meet him in my own kitchen at a party. And we had spent some time working on material and just playing before he put the group together for a once-off gig. Caoimhín was the only one who knew all of us individually so it was a gamble and we haven’t looked back since. We have been lucky to get to play as often as we do, to feel such support from audiences and to get our first record out there. The next one is slowly brewing, we are writing together and road testing the material live and bit by bit amassing new ways of creating together and listening together. Hopefully that’s what people will hear when album number two is ready!




‘A Slender Song’ is available now on Ergodos.


Written by markcarry

February 23, 2015 at 11:39 am

One Response

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  1. […] Read the full interview here. […]


    March 10, 2015 at 12:53 pm

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