Ceol Nua, Durham

Composer Eric Egan reports on the recent festival of Irish composers’ music, Ceol Nua, which took place at Durham University

Eric Egan

The Musicon concert series in Durham has been going on for quite a few years now, combining performances of contemporary music with traditional classical repertoire, and world music. A few years ago, Richard Rijnvos, the new director of the series, decided to furnish the series with a larger annual contemporary music event, focussing on different things every year. So far there has been a mini-festival of Messiaen’s organ music and a ten-concert event celebrating the music and legacy of John Cage. This year the idea was to showcase new music form Ireland; this resulted in a three-day mini-festival, entitled Ceol Nua.

The three concerts, by the Smith Quartet, Noriko Kawai, and the Ives Ensemble, were quite different and provided us with a varied repertoire. Some of the pieces had very clear links with traditional Irish musical roots, while others were aligned with more international directions in contemporary music. Highlights for me were Noriko Kawai’s performance of Gerald Barry’s “Au Milieu” and the Ives Ensemble’s rendition of Andrew Hamilton’s “Frank O’Hara on the phone piece”. The latter, which I heard for the first time at the festival, balanced on a fine line between the hilarious and the sinister. The comic elements of the piece are placed in such a starkly repetitive and almost violently emotive framework that it comes across as both funny and disturbing at the same time.

As part of this festival I had two performances. The first, by Noriko Kawai, was of a piano piece “…in the Pause Andy not…” from 2011, and the second was a world premiere, entitled “Though the Embers”, written for the Ives Ensemble and commissioned by Musicon with funds from the Norwegian Arts Council. The piece is for octet and can be performed with any combination of the original instruments, as solo pieces, duets, trios, etc.. Each performer plays in their own little musical world, in their own tempo, spaced out across the whole venue. The Durham performance was for the full line-up (alto flute, cor anglais, bass clarinet, piano, violin, viola, cello, double bass). It was a very exciting experience for me; as all the players are entirely in their own tempo, the piece doesn’t have a score. It all came together very well; and a lot of credit goes to ensemble whose hard work clearly shone though.

Gerald Barry and Andrew Hamilton were also present for the whole event, bringing a distinct flavour of home to the otherwise bleak Durham winter. A lot of students were in attendance, so this was a rare opportunity for them to meet with the composers. I expect that, like me, they got the sense that Irish contemporary music encompasses a lot of different styles and characters; from the simple to the complex, and from the entirely light-hearted to the more somber and serious. It was a throughly enjoyable and intellectually stimulating weekend.

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