The Weight That Cultural Spaces Hold

Lisa Hannigan at the National Concert Hall (Photo: Ross Turner)

The Weight That Cultural Spaces Hold

The latest release from Ergodos is a collection of duets recorded by Ross Turner in the off-stage spaces of the National Concert Hall. Andrea Cleary reviews.

We’ve talked a lot about empty spaces these past eighteen months; how in the absence of audiences they still seem to vibrate with energy, like a balloon filled with too much water waiting to burst. We watched as the National Gallery was transformed into a statement on cultural history by Denise Chaila, as Lankum took to the Abbey Theatre to examine its ghosts, and as musicians with guitars and keyboards sang to us from their bedrooms. Music never stopped, only the spaces it moved in.

Socially and politically, cultural spaces have taken on a new resonance for us. We knew that venues would take a hit from the pandemic, that many wouldn’t open again, and as we’ve seen in the response to the threat to the Cobblestone pub in Smithfield, we understand the impact that this has on the cultural landscape of our cities.

For In The Echo: Field Recordings from Earlsfort Terrace, an eight-track conceptual work, recorded before the pandemic, a group of Irish performers, led by Dublin-based musician Ross Turner, took to the National Concert Hall. Musicians transformed disused stairwells, a former morgue and old lecture theatres in the process, allowing music to resonate through every nook and cranny of the space. What could speak better to gathering after a long absence than a record of collaboration, tentative and gentle, two artists at a time.

Singer-songwriter Lisa O’Neill and violinist and composer Colm Mac Con Iomaire perform ‘Peggy Gordon’, a Nova Scotian folk song that moves solemnly and beautifully, buoyed by gentle guitars, finger-picked banjo and Mac Con Iomaire’s forlorn strings. O’Neill has a way of embodying folk songs with immediacy, a tender balance of rejuvenation and yearning, transforming them into some alternative version of the present moment.

Katie Kim and Seán Mac Erlaine’s ‘Empire One’ leans into the ghostliness of the space; adventurous, haunting hums underscore Kim’s almost conversational vocal tone, while yearning woodwind add warmth.

Paul Noonan, who released another excellent collaborative project earlier this year with producer Daithí Ó Dronaí entitled Houseplants, pairs with Roger Moffatt for ‘A Tenderness’, which makes full use of the space. A hint of echo is audible as though an audience stands rapturously out of sight. The song is an exercise in building tension before allowing the boughs to break into its captivating closing moments, modulating and transforming into something that sounds like hope.

‘Naranja’, performed by Eileen and Sean Carpio is sweet and expressive, while Brigid Mae Power’s collaboration with Adrian Crowley, ‘Halfway to Andalucia’, is folk storytelling performed beautifully; rich and clear-eyed. As the pair sing about freedom, the natural sounds of the city begin to interrupt – cars passing on a road, perhaps the distant squawk of a bird – before returning to a story about travelling to the southern coast of Spain. For many of us, it may as well be a dream world. Conor O’Brien and Cian Nugent’s ‘Do I Care?’ and Saileog Ní Cheannabháin and Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh’s ‘The Campanile’ also make great use of the NCH space. 

A stunning, wordless tone piece from Lisa Hannigan and Crash Ensemble, ‘MCMXIV’, would have sat prettily as an interlude in any other collection. Here, closing the record, it is a battle cry. It swells and soars far beyond any walls that deign to contain it; a sensory, beautiful piece that sits at the intersection between joy and pain. Crash Ensemble is truly one of Ireland’s most accomplished and adventurous groups; their use of drones alongside spirited melodic runs on accordion (Francesco Turrisi) are joyous, while the strings call to mind Vaughan Williams in their soaring intensity. Hannigan’s voice blends organically into the environment in a collaboration that is inspired.

At just eight tracks, this is a short but transporting album that has been brought together with consideration and care for the weight that cultural spaces hold. Is it any accident that these beautiful pieces are recorded out of sight, on the periphery of stages? Let these eight songs stand as evidence that we need our cultural venues, the spaces that allow artists to grow, now more than ever. 

In The Echo: Field Recordings from Earlsfort Terrace is available to purchase on 180g vinyl and as a digital album from Bandcamp:

Published on 14 October 2021

Andrea Cleary is a freelance music and culture writer based in Dublin.

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