The Bandcamp label Nyahh has recently brought out a compilation album, Under the Island: Experimental Music in Ireland 1960 – 1994. A lot of famous acts – some more mainstream than others – came out of Ireland during that period. However, as the notes to the album say, “further down underground there were a few artists working away in their bedrooms and non-studio settings experimenting with tapes and handmade instruments.”
Of the fourteen tracks several stand out, either on account of the artist or artists involved, or the music itself, or a combination of both. The first track, Esoteric Sound Poem, is by Desmond Leslie. An RAF Spitfire pilot in WWII, he turned his attention in peace time to – among other things – electronic music. He was also a writer and film-maker: the album cover artwork features Leslie stood in front of an advert for a talk about his most famous work, the book Flying Saucers Have Landed. Leslie gained notoriety in the early 1960s as the person who punched the critic Bernard Levin live on air during the programme, That Was the Week That Was. Esoteric Sound Poem, created in 1960, is a classic piece of tape music featuring a mixture of recorded and electronic sounds together a fragment of Richard Strauss’ Don Juan.
Tape Piece One (1971), an early work by Roger Doyle, is a collage created from fragments of music, radio announcements and various other sounds. It’s quite animated and exploits the spatial possibilities of stereo. It’s not without humour, too: at one point a voice can be heard saying, ‘Oh, Roger, I so love you.’ Roger Doyle, like Leslie, was a seminal figure in the development of Irish electronic music. His electronic magnum opus is the 5-CD set, Babel, which he worked on through most of the 1990s. Doyle describes it as ‘a large-scale musical structure making use of many technologies and music languages, with each piece of music being thought of as a ‘room’ or place within an enormous tower city.’ In the early 1980s, he formed the music theatre company, Operating Theatre with the actor Olwen Fouéré, one of Ireland’s most important actors and performance artists. Together, they’ve performed around the world.
The album also includes an example of Operating Theatre’s output, an excerpt from The Pentagonal Dream Under Snow (1986). This was – though you wouldn’t know it from the album notes – a play that has been described as one of the greatest lost works of Irish theatre. A monodrama about toxic male sexuality, it was written for and performed by Fouéré. Through the use of a vocoder, she was able to speak with five different voices. Rather than being separate characters, the different voices are different aspects of the same man. Sadly, the album only credits Fouéré. In fact, the music was created by Roger Doyle, the play was written by Sebastian Barry and the performance was directed by David Heap.
Sean O’hUiginn’s Flostic (1977) sounds – in a way I can’t quite explain – like its title. Strange, close-up unpitched sounds, that I suspect would appeal to ASMR fans, are combined with others made with stretched elastic bands. Again, the piece is not without its humorous side. There’s also a two-minute excerpt of multidisciplinary artist Noel Molloy’s Ashes to Ashes (1980), a tape-piece that plays on the idea of sinister reversed messages being concealed in rock albums, etc. It takes Pope John Paul II’s speech to the young people of Ireland and reverses it. The result is an abstract soundscape, until you know what it is.
Fergus Kelly’s Foreign Bodies (1991) is a soundscape created from field recordings (including train sounds) and popular Turkish music. It was originally part of a tape/slide piece based on the situation of Turkish migrant workers working in Germany’s Ruhr District. Evening Echoes (1993-95) was an installation created by the photographer John Carson in collaboration with composer and musician Conor Kelly. What we hear is a piece of musique concrète by Kelly, based on the street-calls of newspaper vendors, created to complement Carson’s photos.
The electronic piece by Daniel Figgis (aka Haa-Lacka Binttii, one-time drummer with The Virgin Prunes), Look! I’m Running!(1977), sounds like it might’ve been created with sound-effects from early computer-games. Maverick songwiter Giordaí Ua Laoghaire puts in an appearance, too, with a recorded live performance of An Pocaide (The Pocket). This, like the track by Danny McCarthy that precedes it, is reminiscent of the work of US-musician Eugene Chadbourne (lead singer of Shockabilly). Which came first, Chadbourne’s electric rake or McCarthy’s electric hurling stick? Go Google. There’s an internet time-vampire there if ever there was one.
One thing that’s quite frustrating about this album is the lack of album notes. There are some, but a lot more could be said – not just information, but context, too – about the artists and the tracks, especially given that we’re talking about experimental work from thirty or more years ago. And although what notes there are strive to create an outsider mystique (“artists working away in their bedrooms”) and it might well be the case for some of them, was it ever true of, say, Operating Theatre? I’m also interested to know what got left out: there’s no work by Michael O’Shea, for example, which is a shame. O’Shea created his own instrument, ‘Mo Cara’, a cross between a dulcimer and a sitar, with which he busked in Covent Garden and the London Underground. He went on to play in Ronnie Scotts and to support Ravi Shankar. That said, this is an intriguing album for anyone unfamiliar with experimental music in Ireland. As is the way with such compilations, every track is a potential line of enquiry.
Roger Doyle’s Bandcamp page:
John Carson and Conor Kelly:
Olwen Fouéré’s webpage:
Noel Molloy’s webpage:
Giordaí Ua Laoghaire: