Jennifer Walshe’s Flann O’Brien like invented history of the Irish avant garde replenishes the mysteries of 20th century art by plugging its absence with her credible phantom presences. By Clive Bell
Irish writer Flann O’Brien, author of The Third Policeman, devised in his spare time the Royal Myles na gCopaleen Institute of Archaeology, headed up by himself. The Institute went digging in ‘Corkadorky’, where, to general amazement, they unearthed stone carvings bearing clear evidence of prehistoric Irish greyhound racing. A premier league fantasist, O’Brien would surely have loved Jennifer Walshe’s Aisteach Foundation, with its colourful roll-call of reprobates, rebels and recluses, all supposedly figures of stature in the early history of Irish avant garde music.
Aisteach is Irish for ‘strange, wondrous, quare’. The Aisteach Foundation exists as a book (reviewed in The Wire 374) and a website with texts, photos and music. One of my favourite characters is the Reverend Joseph Garvan Digges, MA, a beekeeper and composer of experimental organ pieces. He painstakingly edited The Beekeeper’s Gazette for 33 years (though the May 1916 issue was blown up on its way to the printers during the Easter Rising). Inspired by “something terrifying in the vicious buzzing” of his bees, the Rev Digges aimed for a similar effect in his organ works and then used beeswax to create recording cylinders in an attempt to play his music back to the bees.
Then there are The Guinness Dadaists (1920s Irish language sound poets, all employed at the Guinness brewery), the 1970s political performance artists The Kilkenny Engagists, and Ultan O’Farrell, the renegade bagpiper who just loved to play long drones and after 1912 was shunned by the traditional music community. Walshe has described how she created such figures out of a frustration that, growing up in Dublin, Ireland seemed rich enough in literary experiment but devoid of musical adventure. On the website each artist is presented in straight-faced academic style, with all the fun of the footnote. There’s a satire on academia here too: wild, eccentric behaviour is later coldly codified as pioneering artistic practice, its influences carefully listed. And there’s all the pleasure of counterfactual history – could this have happened? And why didn’t it? Is it possible that hedge-school teacher Andrew Hunt and his 1893 Automatic Music-Making influenced Henry Cowell in the US, who later tutored John Cage, thereby tracing Cage’s forbears back to Ireland?
And now, thanks to Sholto Dobie, promoter of Muckle Mouth events, the Aisteach has leapt from the ether into real world performance. From January to May 2016, Walshe organised three London shows. The first was a screening of an occult ritual film by Roscommon outsider artist Caoimhín Breathnach, Walshe’s great-uncle. Walshe completed the film and, together with regular collaborator Panos Ghikas, provided a live score. I caught the second concert, at the soon to be demolished Laughing Bell venue. Angharad Davies and Lee Patterson each played solos inspired by Aisteach characters – the effect is strange, as if there’s a ghost in the room, or the musician is looking over her shoulder from time to time. You can take the music straight, or you can play a game of relating it to what we know of the invented artist being paid homage. Another dimension is activated, and the way we listen seems enriched.
In May 2016 this Aisteach concert series concluded at London Bloomsbury’s Horse Hospital, in the same format: two solos followed by a trio with Walshe herself. Cellist Lucy Railton had made a recording, with snatches of film and slides, inspired by the Ó Laoire twins, Sinéad and Fiachra. Their father was a shipbuilding engineer who inspired his children with a love for the fierce urban racket of the shipyards, where they spent their holidays: “We didn’t swim in the sea like other children, we bathed in that mad vortex of sounds.” Railton’s recording brought the alarming crashes of a steelworks into the room, overlaid by vigorous, rich cello scraping. Eventually a slide showed her in a hard hat, playing right alongside a ship under repair.
Walshe introduced the next performer as actually being Sister Anselme O’Ceallaigh in person, a Carmelite nun from a closed community who died in 1988 – a woman to hold in mind while we watched organist Áine O’Dwyer play behind white gauze, representing her withdrawal from the world.
There was something of the seance here as O’Dwyer sang devotional lines over organ drones, though her combination of whistling, bottle-blowing and throat singing had a witty, lighthearted air. Later she joined the other two women in a longer improvisation – when Walshe sings it’s as if a torrent of languages, glossolalia and snatches of popular melody are struggling in a queue to escape from her mouth, and yet there’s a calm about how she organises this rapid sequence. Railton’s over-driven cello and O’Dwyer’s melodica fantasies are the perfect foil. The Aisteach context offers a fresh way of presenting experimental music: it’s a Flann O’Brien-like pool of music history and satire that offers to explain, in an odd way, why these people are playing like this and why we are here listening.