New Skills – Collaboration – Challenges

Performing with Jacque-Droz Automata January 2020 (photo: Louise Manifold)

I’ve always loved learning new skills. It’s one of the things that attracts me to working in contemporary music. I love a challenge. I approach each new piece or collaboration with an open mind, not assuming I can possibly understand everything about a piece at first glance, not believing that only the skills I’ve already got will assist me in performing it. In working with different artists, composers, musicians I discover new ways of learning and being that can seem to open a door into an area I didn’t even know was there to explore previously.

Last Summer I was introduced to Galway artist Louise Manifold by Sarah Searson of The Dock, Carrick-on-Shannon. I had previously performed in a concert in 2018 organised by Stephen Gardner in The Dock, alongside Paul Roe and Arun Rao and had also visited an amazing exhibition “The Past is a Foreign Country” by artist Anita Groener when I was in the area for a workshop with the Millennium Choir in February 2019. The Dock has recently reopened and I’m delighted that Escape Wheel, the piece myself and Louise have been collaborating on, will be on display there as part of Louise’s exhibition Air looms from the 24th of October to the 9th of January.

I travelled to Galway to meet Louise in the Summer of 2019 (I timed it so that I could catch Opera Ireland’s fantastic production of Brian Irvine’s Least Like The Other – due to show in September at the Dublin Theatre Festival, and I believe sold out). We met in a café. I was quite nervous, I didn’t know if I’d be able to help. I’d been so interested to read Louise’s thoughts about music and narrative and had looked at some of her work online. I knew this was a project I really wanted to do and would love, but would I have the right skill set? Louise had been working on a project with the Jacques-Droz automata, these are over 300 years old, and perform creative activities. Previously they toured the world (playing an instrument, drawing some pictures, and writing short notes), they are said to have inspired Mary Shelley in her writing of Frankenstein, and are now housed at the Neuchatel Museum of Art and History in Switzerland. I had said to Louise that I was more of a performer than a sound designer, but was very happy to meet and see how we might proceed.

It was really such a great meeting – we discussed our thoughts on time and how we could reflect that in our work, we talked about the impetus to perform, the materials that are needed in a score for me to sing, and laid out a foundation for how we might work together. Neither of us were sure how this might happen. Louise had worked a lot with various sound manipulating programs and could design sound for her films, but had never composed a piece for a singer to perform, and I had never composed. We decided that trying to notate a score on manuscript would not be possible or necessary, and I suggested that perhaps she might look at graphic scores, and we could use these as a foundation to build our work together.

Over the next few months we collaborated online mainly by email but also on skype. Louise created some stunning ink drawings, she was able to describe the types of things that she knew my voice could do, and we came up with some really interesting sounds together, inspired by both her drawing and my voice. When she invited me to Switzerland to perform with these automata, I absolutely knew I had to go. Over two days in late January this year we worked together. I was singing right up next to the automata, they almost felt like real people. One of them is designed to “breathe”, they are quite lifelike and it was such a fascinating experience to be so close to them and seeing the absolutely stunning craftsmanship in their design, right down to the musician whose fingers are each able to be manipulated by the machinery so that she can play a real instrument. The Escape Wheel was due to be shown last May in The Dock, so I have been waiting some time to see the final product, but I’m really looking forward to travelling to Carrick-on-Shannon later in the year to see this work.

In 2017, Louise established Aerial/Sparks, an interdisciplinary art collaboration with the Marine Institute exploring radio connectivity and its relationship to ocean space; with this project, she has designed a programme for the Galway City of Culture 2020. Aerial/Sparks artists from Ireland, Germany, England and Slovenia have taken part in seven ocean surveys and a passage from Galway to Hamburg on the RV Celtic Explorer, one of the few marine research vessels with sonic capabilities. Each artist’s experience of ocean and water masses around Ireland and Europe has informed the production of individual work for audio and radio listening. Works by Ailís Ní Ríain, Carol Anne Connolly, David Stalling, Kennedy Browne, Kevin Barry, Magz Hall and Robertina Šebjanič will be shown on Inis Oirr from September 11 to 27, and an online event Ars Electronica will feature discussions from some of these artists from the 9th to the 11th September also. I don’t think I can make the Inis Oirr events , but I’m definitely interested to hear some of the online discussions at Ars Electronica.

I enjoy doing new things all the time, learning new skills. Sometimes I’ll learn skills that I’ll never use, sometimes I find out that there is a whole way of thinking opened up that I hadn’t known of before. This period of lockdown has challenged me – it’s difficult not to be wishing things were as they always were, but I keep moving on, finding new ways of how things are now, and trusting that the new can be as exciting as the old.

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