Bristol New Music Festival 2022 review: Aine O’Dwyer’s ‘Song of Place’
What is our relationship to music? Do we know what music is? Have we listened to the world around us as we probably should? When was the last time we stopped and started “hearing?” Questions like these lead us out of our realities and into realms of music that seem totally alien to the conventional listening methods we may think are normal when attending a concert – sitting in our seats, staring straight ahead. , clapping as needed, remaining silent, then walking away with a sense of aesthetic pleasure. But the beauty of contemporary composers is that convention is cursed. The era of music-knowledge has arrived. Composers are no longer forced to create in a certain way and strictly adhere to formulas, and centuries past and present have continually attempted to bring the art home.
More than half of music’s lifespan has passed under the hand of outside influences, and it’s only since the 19th century that this ephemeral art has escaped. It has just regained its autonomy and/or redistributed its subordination to powers external to man and put it back in the hands of nature. During the Bristol New Music Festival 2022, ideas of what opera might be in the contemporary decade have arisen. Irish musical artist Aine O’Dwyer and his improvisational street opera “Song of Place” is a valiant attempt to bring music to people by making music that comes from the people, belonging to no one, but composed of all.
Who is Aine O’Dwyer?
O’Dwyer is an Irish experimental musician from County Limerick whose artistic arc from fine art to musical comedy began after she became disillusioned with, as she puts it, “criticism, criticism, discussion of institutional art theory. Instead, she wanted to explore the diaphanous realms of the organic, the immediate and the natural. It is about rediscovering a state of consciousness ignored because of the theory-oriented alternatives. The best way to do this was to transcend the plasticity of the fine arts into the realm of the deeply momentary art form of music. She has expressed her penchant for improvisation and what she calls “invisible scores”, which are a uniquely conscious roadmap of pre-planned ideas for sound combinations.
These, however, remain sensitive to the ever-changing nature of a performer’s state of mind when colored by externalities such as location, coworkers, and time of day. Currently, O’Dwyer’s oeuvre spans a full decade and eight full albums. His magnum opus “Music for Church Cleaners Vol. I and II” (2015) is a 17-track journey of pipe organ incidentalism-qua-meditations recorded at St Mark’s Church in Islington. The work has been described as a kind of minimalist opera where spectator intrusions and organ bellows merge to elicit complex emotional states like reflection, warmth, and playfulness.
With her background in fine arts, she is very sensitive to how sound can influence and is influenced by the space-time universe around her. O’Dwyer is a composer for whom life generates the most beautiful musicalisms. His work strives to bring our senses home by challenging the idea of a dichotomy between life and art, space of performance and space as performance, sound versus music, cause and effect, and perhaps even the hierarchy of beauty – the value of music to exist based on a subjectively determined value. O’Dwyer noted that his musical philosophy centered on “holding space as an extension of the instrument”. Yet this urge to sympathize with the world around us is a ‘found’ rejuvenation of the formalist absurdity of music inspired by the theatrical performances called ‘happenings’ that emerge from O’Dwyer’s work. Hints of standard practices and place-specific soundscapes combine with contemporary stories, inviting us to hear something far grander, nobler and more effectively human than the terms “new music” or “experimental”.
“Song of the Place”
On a fine Saturday morning on the third day of the festival, O’Dwyer’s improvisational street opera titled ‘Song of Place’ was performed on a grassy open space with a giant poplar tree in Easton, Bristol , an unassuming venue for new music. O’Dwyer’s opera centered on the “goings and goings of everyday life” and the sublime stories and narratives that can be gleaned from a heightened awareness of these daily occurrences. As O’Dwyer writes, “the small, mundane gestures are celebrated”, all of which result in forming “the found natural composition”, which can never again be truly replicated. Participants, sounds, weather, choreography and feelings are all impermanent and in motion. Knowing that your work will never be heard again could be quite a heartbreaking feeling. And yet, this street opera provided a glimpse into the heart of the opera itself, stripping away the histrionic outer shell to reveal the very human interior. In “Song of Place”, humans interacted with humans whose experiences were as momentary as the sounds they created and the characteristics they personified.
Is “Opera” the right name to use for such a work? His departure from traditional lyrical interpretation seemed too extreme. When the end came, a story by an Easton resident provided much-needed context, and after speaking with O’Dwyer afterwards, “opera” seemed like the perfect term. In operatic compositions, there is a need for continuous evolution of narrative and musical genetics, as well as a reasonable balance between shifting expectations and predictability, in order to avoid the unintended alienation of its audience.
All of this was on display in “Song of Place”. O’Dwyer constructed the work in seven “movements”: Listening Music [Aria or air of the street], Welcome Music, Shower Music, Turn Everything On, Railing Music, CAR MUSIC and Poplar Music. Every movement was time-based, as were many 20th-century avant-gardes, including Cage and Stockhausen. The “moves” were about ten minutes each, although they weren’t well established in practice and happened organically in each other’s designated listening area. Ripples of sonic realities greet the audience with conversations, bird calls, incidental classical music from a parked car, exuberant children’s cries, instruments like singing bowls and potties, and even a bottle on a string pulled by a brave child sporting a mohawk. There was a microphone the kids used to vocalize nonsense during the opera, but their happy sound was contagious.
It was not noise but music without the baggage of scoring, pre-planning, class-based strings, and stubborn demands of practice and performance quality. It was funny too, since the opera itself looked like a lovely play.
One of the most important aspects of opera was that the boundary between performance and life, performer and observer, and intentional versus accidental sound was blurred. It was becoming more and more difficult to know what was really part of the performance. However, as O’Dwyer noted in our post-performance chat, that was totally the point. The venue was a small rectangular patch of grass tucked behind houses in the street, and the same sounds could have been heard moments before outside of this performance-life binary. What had changed were the contexts, not the sounds. When positioned as the focal point of the performance, they become something. They become a sight to watch, and that’s what defines what O’Dwyer attempted to do with the 425-year-old genre of opera.
Play with expectations
Opera audiences generally expect overtures, acts, choruses, and a dramatic ending. In O’Dwyer’s work, this was not just presented but reversed, as his ‘movements’ – more specifically ‘acts’ – blend together and create a sense of timelessness; temporal linearity avoided for a capricious and peacefully volatile natural sound texture. It was difficult to anticipate or predict what was to come despite an itinerary, and therefore temporality was ignored to make peace with the dynamic surreality of feeling time instead of awareness weather. But the event’s biggest dichotomy was between the animated anticipation of the sound – the wait before the performance – and the expected sounds – like the 13-iteration community song “Aw! I see you.”
O’Dwyer’s production was something incredibly groundbreaking and commendable, a testament to the power of listening, of responding to our surroundings, and of the captivating beauty of being present without conditionality. Unfortunately, O’Dwyer’s technology hadn’t worked as expected – she said some elements didn’t work properly and her structure hadn’t been maintained. She finished early and her “moves” weren’t clearly defined.
It’s good that composers want to rediscover old stuff. As the performance made clear, the reckless idiom “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is simply wrong. What O’Dwyer conveyed is that it’s never too late to rediscover the present, like every moment. By pausing to understand our environment, our role in it, and the sublime entanglement of immediate reality with grosser realities, we are more able to live. What O’Dwyer did was disrupt the devotion to conventional operatic structures, if only for a single hour.