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!”

The Kelly Family: Harp Magic at City Hall

Music has always been a family affair for RTÉ LyricFM’s Evelyn Grant and her family, especially the Cork Pops Orchestra. Ahead of their new collaborative show, HARP Magic, playing at the Cork City Hall, Mike McGrath-Bryan talks to Grant and her daughter Jean Kelly.

The Cork Pops Orchestra has been, for many years, the point of entry for young learners to the world of classical music, recasting the presence and power of the orchestra for the burgeoning minds and frames of reference of youngsters. At the coalface of this pillar of music education have been Evelyn Grant and husband Gerry Kelly, prominent music professionals and players in their own right. Their children, including performers Jean and Fiona Kelly, have gone on to become outstanding classical musicians and third-generation composers, and for them, the Pops Orchestra is a family happening. This year’s installment of their annual schools concert series sees them all rally around a common instrument – the harp, a symbol of Irish independence. For Grant, it’s a point of pride. “We love including the harp in our projects, it sounds great. Seeing a demonstration of how it is put together, and how the harpist uses the pedals is really fascinating. And, of course, we love working with Jean. So it is a win-win – for both the audience and the orchestra. Jean and Fiona have performed the Mozart Flute and Harp Concerto many times together, so it was a very obvious centrepiece for the concert. Of course, Fiona is really only keeping the seat warm for her wonderful former teacher, Sabine Ducrot, who usually plays flute in the Cork Pops Orchestra, but wasn’t able to take part this year.”

The creative and rehearsal process behind assembling the show is always going to be a demanding one, striking a balance between maintaining interest and educating the young listener, and this year was no different according to Grant, even with the change in dynamic that a family-assembled show brings. “It’s not always easy working with family! But, we have lots of experience of it, and now with three of the four children living in London, working together has become a great way to get together. To keep the marital harmony intact, Gerry and I have very clear roles. He looks after all the business side of things, dealing with the schools, the bookings, the insurance, the marketing and all the rest. My role is much more exciting! The main thing is picking the programme. For that, I need to have a strong theme and to know how I am going to present a narrative around the music to which the young audience can relate… one of the first things I do is prepare the Teachers’ Notes and CD, to send out to the schools in September. It’s like creating the show first, and then fitting all the pieces of the jigsaw together. And it is such a great feeling – and a relief – to get a reaction to the first performance, when we know that it all works!”

Evelyn and Gerry have, in recent years, been running quite a successful outreach project via RTÉ LyricFM, expanding on the educational aspect of the Pops Orchestra’s work. Grant explains the challenges that lie in reaching younger minds, shorter attention spans and new places, as well as what has changed in twenty-five years of doing so. “Surprisingly, I have found that the listening has improved. Maybe is that I have got better at both divising the programmes and commanding the attention. It may also be that the CD that goes out beforehand prepares them for what to expect, and we do keep the excerpts fairly short. But, I find it thrilling that we can have really engaged listening, followed by hilarious interaction – clapping, singing and generally having fun with the music. Our post-primary school audiences seem to be even more open to diverse kinds of music, and they can follow up so easily, through the internet, on anything that catches their imagination. What I love about our work for the RTÉ Lyric FM outreach project is that we reach all ages, and have been able to perform in all parts of rural Ireland. It is a real ‘life-long learning’ experience.”

Performing live as mentioned is harpist Jean Kelly. With a distinguished career with a number of scores and soundtrack credits to her name, including the Lord of the Rings series, as well as a reputation for rearrangements, it must be difficult to pick one personal highlight of her body of work thus far. But there is one that stands out. “One of my highlights was recording solo harp music by Jonny Greenwood a few years ago. We had a wonderful day in the studio, he is such an inspiring musician, and it really spurred me on to start writing my own music and to start experimenting with electronics. Since then I have enjoyed various collaborations with colleagues writing and recording music, including two musicians I met in Cork but who are also now based in London, Alison Arnopp, vocalist, and Rory Dempsey, double bass.”

Harp Magic happens at City Hall next week from November 7th to 9th in addition to a date at University Concert Hall in Limerick the day after. Grant collects her thoughts on pupils’ reactions when asked what her thoughts are, heading into a big run of major events, more specifically for a schools/academic audience. “The pupils always seem to love the energy that happens when there is a big audience present. The teachers who go to the trouble of organising the trip to the concerts deserve great praise. They really enthuse the pupils about live music, and they do a lot of work on the programme. So, I take very seriously my responsibility to give them plenty of material around the musical content, so that it really is a worthwhile, cross-curricular experience. It is very exciting for us musicians to get the positive reaction we always receive. Classical players love a rock-star response!”
Of course, right around now will be silly season for a lot of players, as the academic and touring years kick into high gear. Jean’s next engagement looks set to be an educational excursion of an eclectic sort. “I am off on a UK tour with a group called The Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments. For our winter line-up, we are performing as a trio – Hardanger fiddle, Nickelharpa and Irish harp.” Evelyn, meanwhile, relishes the upcoming projects and performances that form part and parcel of her work. “I’m looking forward to presenting the Cork Youth Orchestra’s Christmas Concert in City Hall, early in December. Such a wonderful group of young musicians! This is the proper start of Christmas season for me. Then, there’s a collaboration with Voiceworks and the Percussion Department of the Cork School of Music, a concert in aid of Cork University Hospital Children’s Unit. Not forgetting my work on RTE lyric fm – I love when the Christmas music begins on Lyric after December 8th.”