Friday, December 15, 2006

Past shadows present

How much of a shadow does the past cast on the present ? Or have we disconnected completely ? This, I hasten to add, is not in the sense of wanting to hang on to the past in some dubious heritage ideal of ‘the good ‘ol days’. Merely to wonder: what are the meaningful ways in which a connection can be kept, without preserving everything in aspic ? The problem, as I see it, is the more we demolish and replace, the more we erase and replace collective memory, and our sense of ourselves becomes less defined. And the risk inherent in this, it seems to me, is that the model becomes more and more ahistorical and apolitical, and we continue to sink into a bland state of homogeneity, undifferentiated from other states.

The Spire would seems to be a particularly salient example of this. What does this say about Dublin in the third millennium ? Apart from its formal elegance, what is its connection with the landscape ? Why has it been decided that an outdated model of a la carte modernism be the order of the day ? Do we not have a strong enough sense of ourselves to accept something more… relevant ? Less monolithic ? Though I don’t want to get into any particularly hide-bound notions of nationhood here.

In 2003, RTE created an animation as a continuity filler, in which Nelson’s column morphed into the Spire. It was as though the shift from colonized country/second city to secular society/Europeanised multiculture was a smooth and unproblematic transition, reducible to such graphic abbreviation. You can’t help but think: hey - hang on a sec ! Let’s bring this back down to earth for a minute. Nelson gets shafted. Instead of being toppled from his perch, he’s impaled from below on a giant hypodermic and whisked up into the clouds. Excuse me while I kiss the sky. RTE’s special effects version of history. The past conveniently smoothed over. Streamlined. Inoffensive. Infuriating.

Obviously development, by its very nature, looks ahead, and the reconfiguration of the modern metropolis is an ongoing and natural occurrence. Well it should be anyway. Though Dublin’s development has been more ad hoc than organic. But is it to be at the expense of severing ourselves completely from the past ? It’s curious, all the same, how the tramlines are being reinstated. The past returns in the future tense. A future which is indeed tense given the budget overruns and delays of the Luas project. Interpretive centres miss the point. What animates and makes the landscape vital is a feeling of connection with the historical layers that lie like so much temporal silt under the present – what’s brought us to where we are now.

Some parts of Dublin still have this. Certain streets you feel a connection. What’s interesting looking at archive photos of Dublin is the fact that, historically, they’re not really that old. Yet they feel centuries removed. Very hard to make the connection. Like trying to pull together two magnets by the same poles. Like realizing that you recognize someone, but you just can’t place them. Obviously so much of this is tied up with the massive sea changes in Irish society across this time, socially, politically and culturally. If we don’t know where we’ve come from, do we know where we are going ?

Photography, once the great arbiter of truth, has long since lost that authority in our digital age of endless image manipulation. Though even as far back as the war of independence, the radical women that were a very significant part of the motor for change were airbrushed out of photographs. In our present interrogation of the image, through the digital dialects of drag and drop, scan and save, a language so alien to those that wander the street in this photograph, we delve into the very fabric of the image, pull it apart pixel by pixel, shift bits of information around with a cartoon hand. The pixels, the building blocks of the image, its cell structure, are ironically also the very thing used to blur identity when the occasion is called for.

Dublin’s history of development over the last forty years is rife with examples of pig-headed notion of so-called ‘progress’ run roughshod over history. One of our major points of connection with the old city, the very foundations of the Medieval city, was in Wood Quay. And what did we do ? We built over it ! Not without a protracted public protest though, fought to the bitter end. Development wins out over history in a depressing show of power gone ape. A show of attitude that’s worse than Medieval. It’s Neanderthal.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Outside The Trains Don't Run On Time

“Woe is us, said Mercier, we’re in the slow and easy.”
Samuel Beckett, Mercier and Camier, p.39

Turning the page on the calender to the last month of the year, I’m presented with an image of the last train to leave Dublin’s famous Harcourt Street line, at 4.25pm on New Year’s Eve 1958. A detail strikes me. I’m surprised how small the station staff are. I mean, they’re tiny. Not quite Lilliputian, but the average height seems to be no more than about 5’ 2”…

As a regular traveller on the Harcourt Street line in his early years, Beckett made many references to it throughout his writing. Eoin O’ Brien, in his book The Beckett Country, relates how, ‘In the Harcourt Street terminus, it was the staff who gave the place its character –

Watt bumped into a porter wheeling a milkcan. Watt fell and his hat and bags were scattered…
The devil raise a hump on you, said the porter.
He was a handsome if dirty fellow. It is so difficult for railway porters to keep sweet and clean, with the work they have to do.” Watt, p.22

And the newsagent Evans merits detailed description, not only because of his saturnine temperament, but for his ability to master a bicycle despite deformity. A talent not unusual in the Beckettian character –

He seemed a man of more than usual acerbity, and to suffer from unremitting mental, moral and perhaps even physical pain … but one thought of him as the man who, among other things, never left off his cap, a plain blue cloth cap, with a peak and knob. For he never left off his bicycle-clips either. These were a kind that caused his trouser-ends to stick out wide, on either side. He was short and limped dreadfully. When he got started he moved rapidly, in a series of aborted genuflexions.
Watt p.23-24

One passenger, Mercier, was not at ease on the ‘Slow and Easy’ –

You remain strangely calm, said Mercier. Am I right in thinking you took advantage of my condition to substitute this hearse for the express we agreed on ? Mercier and Camier, p.41

His pessimism was not unfounded. Some extraordinary events had befallen the locomotives of the Dublin and South Eastern Railway. In 1900 the up-train went too far and crashed through the end-wall of Harcourt Street station. Some twenty years later ‘somebody, from sheer wantonness, set an engine going just outside the station. Full of the joy of liberty, it puffed forth. For ages it had longed for an excuse to get away from those shining tracks – anywhere, anywhere, off these black tracks – it pointed and flung itself wildly into an astonished backyard somewhere in Albert Place’.

Beckett’s sadness at finding the station closed on a visit to Dublin is reflected in the poignant voice of That Time

No getting out to it that way so what next no question of asking not another word to the living as long as you lived so foot it up in the end to the station bowed half double get out to it that way all closed down and boarded up Doric terminus of the Great Southern and Eastern all closed down and the colonnade crumbling away so what next That Time, p.231’

If Beckett were alive today, he could look forward to travelling this line again, as it will be re-opened to run one line of the Luas tram system. What would he make of the contemporary environment and its characters, surrounded by mobiles trilling like canaries in a tropical aviary. Disembodied, one-sided conversations, the IV drip-feed of iPod insulated passengers. The title of his prose work, Texts For Nothing could read like an ad for free text messages…

Googling “Harcourt Street line” I come across a curiosity from a discussion forum called

Blather, High Priest of Ambiguity says:

Heard a mad story yesterday from someone, who heard it from a builder who's worked on sites in the area. Here's the story she was told:

'The Harcourt line was built across a fairy fort. When the station was being built, they had to bring in workers from Donegal, because none of the Dublin lads would work on the site. When the line was eventually running, the train drivers used to hoot the horn just before arriving in the station, to warn the fairies, and to avoid pissing them off. One day, a driver forgot to hoot, and the train crashed - the famous Harcourt crash. The Luas is now running on the same bit of track. The stretch of line is supposed to be haunted between Harcourt Street station and the canal.'

It seems quite fitting that the music venue, Tripod, situated at the Harcourt Street site, will, this coming Sunday, host a band who wrote a song called Outside The Trains Don’t Run On Time. Even more fitting as the construction of the Luas has certainly not run on time - not by a long shot. 'Slow and Easy' indeed !

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Bend It Like Beckett

This summer I was invited by Danny McCarthy to compose a piece to celebrate Beckett's centenary, for a CD of 100 one minute pieces, produced by Art Trail, who are based in Shandon, Cork City. On Beckett's taking leave of Ireland he made a final call to Cork, to Shandon, to visit the grave of Francis Sylvester O'Mahoney, aka Fr Prout, a writer he greatly admired. This compilation, "Bend It Like Beckett" is now available from Arttrail and Aphasia.

Here's some background to my contribution:

Fergus Kelly: Ebb (2006) 58"

There are various starting points, interactions and associations for this piece. My first starting point was the use of Dun Laoghaire pier as a location that had resonance for Beckett, famously referred to in Krapp's Last Tape as his site of epiphany, when it was "clear to me at last" what he had been searching so long for as the subject of his work. Though the actual truth of this revelation is rather more prosaic, as it occurred in his mother's seaside house in Greystones.

The pier is a significant site for me too as I grew up nearby and it was a favourite haunt. God knows how many miles I clocked walking its stretch over the years. I loved the sound of the foghorn, how it could be heard from afar, defining a particular sense of the landscape with its long melancholy drone, like some large beast exhaling. This particular foghorn was replaced by a far less interesting one years ago, but, thankfully I managed to get a recording of the old one in 1986. A fragment of this recording briefly appears, low in the mix, about three quarters of the way through.

The main sound that occurs throughout is a gong sound made from a sample of a saw blade which as been pitch-shifted. Beckett was a keen music lover, and his sole musical foray was in 1966, when Claddagh Records made a recording of Jack McGowran reading from Beckett's work, with musical accompaniment by John and Edward Beckett. Beckett himself played gong to mark the division between passages.

Morton Feldman was in the back of my mind whilst assembling this piece. Feldman was a great admirer of Beckett, and wrote an orchestral work, For Samuel Beckett, and dedicated his String Quartet II to Beckett. He managed to get Beckett to write a libretto for his opera, Neither (both of them disliked opera).

There are parallels between Beckett and Feldman, as they both worked with extremely simple ideas which were constantly being whittled down to simpler and more elegant forms over the years. The silence between words and sounds were of equal parity to both. Hence the use of silence as an active element in this composition - breathing spaces for the decay of the sounds. Beckett's phrasing and timing was always very musical. Feldman also scored parts of his work to be played very quietly. Hence the low volume of this piece.

The third sound is made with a prepared bass, used simply because it worked, no other conceptual agenda. The title relates to the natural phenomena of sea movement and sound decay. It was also the original title for Beckett's radio play, Embers.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

It's all... history !

Twenty years to the day today - my first experience of Wire on stage, the stage being a small one in an upstairs room in a hotel in Hammersmith. A shy young art student adrift in an anonymous metropolis, I knew no-one. Forced to decamp to London for summer work. Events like tonight's were one of the few trade-offs in an otherwise interminable summer serving beer.

Visual memories very dim, not helped by the fact that I stood right down the back, as I was recording the gig on my walkman, and was afraid it would distort if I was too close to the PA. Automatic record level. It distorted anyway. In my innocence I was also afraid of being seen with a clip mic on my lapel. No-one would have either noticed or cared if they had. I'm sure I was one of many recording. I only wish I'd brought my camera. Though that would have meant a compromise with the recording - camera clicks right next to the mic. Wouldn't be an issue nowadays with digital.

The band played raw versions of what was to appear on The Ideal Copy and A Bell is a Cup... Some of the titles were slighty different to what they became: The Point Of Collapse was called Three Legged Waltz, and Over Theirs was called Nuisance Over Theirs. This material was all new to me, so it was a real treat. I loved it - simplicity and intelligence delivered with nonchalant aplomb. Interesting to hear the beat combo still capable of creating engaging new shapes with the minimum of means. The songs had an immediacy that got squeezed out on the overproduced records—technological teething troubles well documented in Kevin Eden's biography. I remember being very impressed with Robert's stripped-down kit: snare, bass drum and hi-hat. The simplicity really appealed to me; there was something very workmanlike about it—a craftsman's touch.

Couldn't get over the ignorance of some members of the crowd, who stood with their backs to the band, chatting loudly. Then, when Come Back In Two Halves began but fell apart, before it was quickly counted in again, some porridge-for-brains sneers, "Play some fackin' mew-zik..." I wanted to thump him. Give them a chance for fuck's sake ! The song was announced by Graham as though each word was punctuated with a full stop. Elsewhere, he camply exaggerated his intros: "Cheeking Tonguesssssssah.." (touch of the Mark E Smith surplus syllables) "Kidney-(feedback flare)- Kidney.. BINGossssss..." I seem to remember him getting rather annoyed at some feedback problems that dogged him at various points, the amp wailing like some rusty old elephant.

Regarding that stupid heckler, doubtless today it would be the cursed mobile phone that'd be the distraction. Harold Pinter, interviewed by Kirsty Wark on Newsnight last night, described them as "an excrescence", "a disease", and bemoaned the collapse of communication into a series of meaningless shorthand gestures. He speaks my language. Doubtless Wire could write a tune about that. He had written an hilarious two-hander called "But apart from that", which he performed with a young actor, revolving around a mobile phone conversation that goes: "Hello ! How are YOU !" "I'm fine, how are YOU ?" "No, I'm fine.. and you ? " "Very good. Really good" "Really ? Considering all - " "Yes, despite everything" "Really ? No, how are you REALLY ?" "I'm losing - " "What ?" " I'm losing you" "What ? What do you mean you're losing me ? I'm still here !" and so on...

I sometimes wonder what Wire's set would've sounded like if they'd gone into a very basic studio right after that gig and committed these tunes to tape, how fresh they'd be. None of that sequencing lark to wring the life out of them. Of course, some of them ended up on the magnificent Snakedrill EP, and that production was just right. This outstanding record seems to get overlooked in dismissive debates about Wire's 80s output being substandard. It would've been interesting if Wire's first hiatus neatly covered the period when the newer production techniques were past their difficult first stage. Of course, life's never so neat. Apparently they were within two weeks of playing in 1983, then Colin went to India. I wonder what a record would've sounded like then. One can only wonder.

Looking at the remains of my gig ticket, carefully conserved in the tape box over the years, it's tempting to retrospectively view the band name without the last letter as predictive of the the change to the short lived WIR trio of the early 90s - itself an outcome of both production and creative issues that rendered Robert redundant. The ticket shows that the door charge was a mere £4.50. Seems so paltry. Well, it was twenty years ago.

Monday, April 17, 2006

The Long Good Friday

The Pelligrini Quartet take a bow after performing the marathon 5.5 hour String Quartet 2 by Morton Feldman. John Field Room, National Concert Hall, Dublin 14 April 2006.

"The point of course is to listen. There's no final information to be conveyed... Listening to this music is like looking at a star-filled night sky, anything else is material for an astronomy lesson."

Thus begins Christian Wolff's programme notes for Morton Feldman's monumental String Quartet 2 (1983), dedicated to Beckett, being performed as part of his centenary celebrations. An experience most likely never to be repeated. Five and a half hours uninterrupted. Whatever about the audience's commitment to listening, it's an incredible commitment on the part of the players. They take their places on the small stage at midday, strangely without any form of introduction for such a significant event, and, once comfortable, eye contact made, cue given, simply start playing.

I wondered how the audience, who are free to come and go, might negotiate this. I wondered how I would deal with it. I brought my lunch of course, and thought I was smart packing some reading material too. Would I really, otherwise, just sit and listen ? Well, as it happened, yes. As the work unfolded, I found time started to change shape. The first time I looked at my watch it was about 1.30pm. A whole hour and a half had gone by and it felt like 40 minutes. Regular as clockwork, my stomach was starting to grumble. Though I didn't quite want to leave for grub just yet. I was compelled by what I was hearing. However, come 2pm, I really had to exit, as my stomach was starting to soundtrack the strings (I was sitting in the front row), and I certainly didn't want to distract the players from their epic task.

I sat in the foyer and worked my way through my lunch. I then ambled out to a deserted Earlsfort Terrace, and strolled to an O'Briens at the end of the road and got a latte which I drank on the steps of the concert hall, reflecting on the strangeness of this event, and the somewhat paltry turnout (even though tickets were a mere fiver). There couldn't have been more than about 50 people there. Well, here we are, I thought, the hardcore Feldman enthusiasts, willing to go the long haul with this one.

Back inside about half an hour later, it took quite a while to really get inside the work again, to reach the level of concentration necessary. I noticed how the players would occassionally take a mint from their music stand and slip it in to their mouths. A little sugar hit for energy ? After a while you can't help but frame the music within what you are witnessing onstage: how these men can go through this so incredibly professionally. What levels of discomfort must they feel ? How do they prepare themsleves physically and psychologically ? How do they stop from getting dehydrated ?

The sense of duration and stamina becomes encoded in the music. A narrative writes itself, despite Feldman's non-linear approach. His soundworld is very pared and precise, working deliberately with a limited palette, subjecting it to minor variations over time, drawing out fresh nuances with each new configuration. The analogy with his fondness for finely patterned antique Turkish rugs with their small descrepancies is clear to see. Or rather, hear. Not wishing to overstate the case, but what he creates is profoundly beautiful and moving, without the material itself being emotional, or emotionalist.

There are moments when it feels the material is being finely hewn over time, constantly forming and reforming itself anew, till it reaches an incredibly tight pitch, as though it were a hard surface being worked up gradually to an intense shine. Burnished by bowing. Sometimes it feels like the music is taking you somewhere you're not entirely sure you want to go, certainly not in front of an audience. Superificially, it might sound depressing at points, but what it does is far more complex than that. The music works away at patterns for various durations, then takes sudden swerves in dynamic. There are some extremely quiet moments. Patterns and repetitions are constantly revisited and reworked till you think you are hearing the same thing from earlier, but can't be quite sure, the duration does things with your memory. It throws up all sorts of questions: how long do these sections actually need to be ? How many reworkings can they be subjected to ? Do we hit a point of diminishing returns ? Curiously, I never felt remotely bored.

As the afternoon wore on, I found myself really drawn in, and time seemed to slow right down at certain points. Half an hour seemed to elapse when in fact only ten minutes had. Not half as uncomfortable as I thought I'd be. My body just seemed to settle. The thought of reading now seemed, frankly, a bit silly. It would push the music into the background, I'd lose concentration. Some passages were so quiet that I daren't move let alone take something from my bag. This was a crucial aspect of the performance that gets lost in the experience of the CD: you are with it all the way through, you experience all the detail. Some passages are just lost or are too quiet to compete with other environmental sounds no matter how minimal these seem to be, even the central heating can remove a layer from this music. Headphones would be the best option of course, but ideally I don't like cutting myself off from my surroundings.

When the players reach the end, finally lifting their bows to an incredibly pregnant silence, longer than usual, as it seemed the audience were either unsure that this was definitely the end, or stunned to have actually reached the end. However, a sustained standing ovation ensues, and the quartet take a few bows. Standing chatting in the foyer afterwards, I notice the players stroll through with their violins on their backs. Some smiles are exchanged, thank yous offered, then they disappear out the door, presumably to their hotel. It all seemed so ordinary, yet it was truly extraordinary. I felt the praises of these men could not have been sung loudly enough.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Fail again. Fail better.


Samuel Beckett 13 April 1906 - 22 December 1989

"You first saw the light in the room you most likely were conceived in. The big bow window looked west the the mountains. Mainly west. For being bow it looked also a little south. Necessarily. A little south to more mountain and a little north to more foothill and plain."

Company (1980)

In Iain Sinclair's recent book on the poet John Clare, he finds a connection to Beckett, through a relative Peggy Sinclair, whom Beckett had an ill-fated affair with. In typical Sinclair fashion, he remarks on the street where Beckett's father had his office, and where Beckett did some writing in the early days in the garrett above - it was no.6 Clare Street. My own connection with this street could be said to be memorable, though I don't remember it at all.

September 1988: I was mugged on Clare St and knocked out. Money and walkman (with tape of Dome) stolen. Two women standing outside The Source nightclub across the road called the cops and I was taken to St James' hospital. Apparently, they had only gotten as far as taking my details when I simply exited the hospital. No idea how I got home. No money for a taxi. Did I hitch a lift ? No idea. Did I walk ? Probably. Takes about two hours. My only memory, to this day, is of walking down Nassau Street towards Clare Street, and then getting into bed sometime later.

Woke up the next morning with clothes in a pile. Not like me. Something wasn't right. Jacket pocket minus walkman - shit, I've been robbed.. but when, where.. ? Mother, after recovering from the shock of my bruised face, had the presence of mind to call the cops and a report had been filed. It was from this that the details were cobbled together. I had a bit of reconstructive dentistry. The dentist remarked on my teeth by saying, "Have you been mainlining Mars bars ?"

The whole event is completely wiped out of my memory, which, perversely, might just have been the best way to experience it. City streets normally leave impressions over time. Clare Street completely erased the impression of one very specific time ...

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Not present in the present

This blog has become like an untended garden... time to fix some of those stray thoughts that have been sloshing around the brainpan. Tickle the synapses. Dabble in the wetware. Trap thoughts in Blogger's digital amber.

Presently wading through hours of accumulated field recordings for usable material to compose new pieces for the follow up to UNMOOR. Waveforms stretching across the screen like frayed rope. Outside of focussing this work, my mind wanders back to earlier in the day, or to later. Past or future. Rarely does it settle in the present for too long. I feel constantly pulled back to one or forward to the other. The past being such a vast archive to be endlessly trawled. Snapping out of a reverie is like being jolted back from time travel. Initial disorientation. Then things coalesce in the banality of the present moment.

Some of the recordings go back 20 years, and listening to them really takes me back: London, summer 1986 - a lonely art student adrift in an anonymous metropolis. Long walks with my recording walkman. Foraging for scraps. Microphone as dowsing rod. The roar of the Underground. The wash of the Thames. Boats and planes droning through the landscape on a bright June afternoon. Much later, exhausted and footsore, flushing urinals echo in the bowels of The Barbican. It's all there in detail, all its precise texture imprinted across the spooled magnetic tape for endless retrieval. Now transferred to the digital domain for greater longevity. The cassette a memory tablet, deteriorating over time.

September 1986: returning from an achingly slow and frankly depressing three months in a live-in bar job in London, wearing a black three-piece suit bought on the King's Road and recently scalped with my first number 1, Mother does her best to disguise the shock when this rather grim, funereal figure appears in the hall. She probably thought I looked like a Belsen escapee. And possibly I did.

Subsequent enquiries from friends into our family's welfare always included the phrase "..and Fergus got his head shaved, but apart from that, everything's fine ". Mother, so typical of her generation (b. 1925), could never stand to see my hair cut short, especially not such a brutal crop as a number 1. As far as she was concerned, I always had "such lovely hair", and, back in the day (as it seems aeons ago from my present perspective), I sure had a fine head of jet black hair.

The slideshow was always part of recounting travel experiences in our family, and, in my innocence (and enthusiasm for my subject of enquiry), I sat my parents, eager for entertainment, through a few rolls of bleak wastelands photographed on a day long tramp through industrial zones stretching from Battersea to Stratford. All unpeopled. As if the the city had been vacated. Accompanied by recordings made around these areas.

They pretended to be interested (bless 'em !), but when I think back on it now, in fairness to them, they must have found it depressing, and somewhat perplexing. What an earth could he find of merit in these miserable places ? Why are there no people ? Completely at odds with their notions of travel experience. I had no interest in shots of picturesque landmarks, people, or anything like that. Rust and ruin was (and is) my idea of beauty. Travel - real travel - was in the tradition of the flaneur: following my nose, finding out by getting lost. Staying well off the beaten track. Marathon solitary jaunts. Dehydration. Blisters. Psychogeography as city's imprint on muscle and bone.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006


Gable & steeple
Originally uploaded by Lubert Das.
I've always been attracted to unpainted concrete in what would be referred to as 'period' residential architecture, the period covering the decades 1930s - 1960s. There's something very... reassuring about it. Solid. Wartime austerity. Deeply melancholic and grimly beautiful. No poxy paint jobs. No colour conflict. Uniformity across multiple units.