Seán MacErlaine: “The Process is Different”

On a break from creating trailblazing contemporary music with ensemble This is How We Fly, woodwind musician Sean MacErlaine talks to Mike McGrath-Bryan about his gig this weekend at the Triskel.

Contemporary music in Ireland is marked out by a preponderance of curious minds and consummate musicians, striving to move the classical oeuvre forward and encountering success on the national and world stages. Amid all of the movement, Seán Mac Erlaine, a Dublin-based woodwind instrumentalist, composer and electronic producer, finds his creative home, performing solo and with touring ensemble This is How We Fly.

Sitting at the Venn diagram between folk, free improvisation, jazz and traditional music, MacErlaine also collaborates with a number of outfits and artists in improvisation, theatre and radio. His new solo album ‘Music for Empty Ears’ is launching this month, MacErlaine’s third solo record, and MacErlaine details the creative and production processes while working with some of his regular collaborators. “I prepared a lot of material to bring over to Oslo, which is where we recorded the album. The recording only took two days, and a lot of material was torn apart and reordered, and we’d make it in order to suit the group. There was a lot of input from (Norwegian sampling pioneer) Jan Bang as a producer, as he’s worked a lot as a producer over the years. Super, super-experienced in that field, so he would guide me in ways that I wouldn’t have had on my first two albums, where it was literally just me on my own. The process is different, much more about collaboration. And the two of them, Jan and Eyvind (Aarset, guitarist) have worked together for years over countless records, so I had so much to learn from them, and it was a privilege.”

The record releases through Ergodos, a Dublin record label dedicated specifically to contemporary music in the classical idiom – longtime supporters of MacErlaine and his work. He’s quick to outline the importance of the label to his music and the wider contemporary community. “They’re super to work with. Highly dedicated, over-the-top dedicated, from the big picture to the tiny details. They have so many skills within layout, design, putting things together, and in live performance, helping organise these gigs. They’re great. They have their own space, now, in Dublin. So they have a great little hub, people coming in and out, very busy. Musicians and composers, very into what they’re doing, so I’m glad to be releasing with them.”

In the process of maintaining a busy artistic schedule, MacErlaine often finds his work crossing over into other media. Last month, he was involved with a live-scoring of cinematic classic The Four Horsemen for Dublin’s St. Patrick’s Festival last month, alongside members of Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds, Adrian Crowley and Kevin Murphy. What was the process of scoring almost on the fly like, in terms of cinemagoers’ expectation and creating to the ‘beat’ of the work? “The first thing is to have some shared understanding of what the film is, what it might be trying to say, and to have some idea of the tone that the film is setting. And that might seem obvious, but people have different ideas and (interpretations) of the tone of the film, and someone will have an opposite opinion. We have to have some kind of consensus. Then it’s about having the right kind of people in the room, then, and being able to listen to people, respond appropriately, then link in and make sense with what’s going on on-screen. It can be an interesting extra step, when you have a film in front of you, but it comes down to listening to each other, and listening to the film. Something might sound nice, but it might not make sense in sync with the screen. You have to make some hard decisions to serve the film, and give more nuance to the director’s intentions.”

His other outlet, This is How we Fly, saw its second album ‘Foreign Fields’ released late last year to acclaim from specialist press, and though the touring and such is in the rear-view mirror, he’s not yet given himself the time to settle into the record as a finished work. “I haven’t listened to it in a while, but I’m very proud of that record, and happy with the way we made it! We made the first record and that was great, but one of the key things about the group is the four of us being on stage, interacting with each other and then the audience. Very important in all my music that there’s a give and take between artist and audience, a sort of spirit flow. In some other projects, some musicians work in their bedrooms and find that’s ‘where the real stuff happens’, and ‘if only they could bring that to stage’. But with us, it’s the opposite, being able to perform in front of people, and the element of movement is important and really gets expressed. You’re really able to capture that on a record.”

MacErlaine is playing the Triskel Christchurch on Saturday night as part of a clutch of dates in support of the new record, and looks forward to reacquainting himself with the intricacies one of his favourite venues in the country. “I’ve been lucky to play there a few times over the past number of years, and it’s beautiful, a very special space, and I’ve gone to gigs there. A great space to listen to gigs. I’m very happy to come back to Cork and work there.”

“I must say, I’m a fan of Cork”, he intones with stress in his voice, as if taking care with his words when addressing as discerning a music market as Corkonians. “I’m a Dublin man, but I’m a great fan of Cork. It’s true. I could see myself living there. After three or four years, I’ve finally made sense of traffic and parking, but I’ve finally made sense of the geography of the place”, he laughs, possibly blissfully unaware of Patrick Street’s recent partial pedestrianisation. After his upcoming clutch of dates on his own, MacErlaine can barely take pause for breath before his next musical engagement comes calling. “The week after, I’m going to Estonia to work on a piece I’ll be performing there with musicians in September. I’m playing with Macnas in Galway, making a piece about the monster Crom for the Theatre Festival there”. So I’ll be composing new music there, then This is How We Fly are heading to Scotland, with a residency to be announced. So lots of things to keep me off the streets!”

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