So, how was it for you?
A question being asked with more and more frequency as we move back into a world of social interaction, gatherings and public live performance. The events of the past 18 months (or lack of them) have been challenging for so many, and this cautious re-awakening brings with it many concerns about logistics and need versus want, but it also brings retrospective analysis of the time itself, how we dealt with long periods of isolation, quietude, economic uncertainty and the unpredictability of the global situation.
For artists, musicians, dancers and performers, the whole point of live performance is the immediacy of being in a room with other people, doing the thing. How to navigate the loss of that threw up many questions and dilemmas, not all of them solvable with PUP payments and a hastily assembled YouTube video.
These questions were a recurring theme when I spoke with the three world class musicians Úna Monaghan, Iarla Ó Lionáird and Kevin Murphy, who are finally about to get on the road together on this sixteen-date Music Network tour. Needless to say they are excited to be in front of live audiences again, but also reflective, their excitement qualified by the parenthesis of the past year and a half. All have used that time wisely and creatively, out of both economic necessity and having a lot of time on hand.
For Úna, a gifted harper, composer, sound engineer and astrophysicist, the challenges were complex. With many performing opportunities cancelled, she, like many others felt compelled, and in some cases, was expected, to turn to creating video content in order to remain ‘productive’ and to satisfy certain commission briefs. “But I’m not a video maker. Sure, I was happy to do it in one respect, and I’m glad there is a record of what happened during that time, but I’m not skipping through the flowers, thinking it gave me a whole new perspective on things. I feel for the real video artists.”
The studio has been a refuge for Iarla Ó Lionáird, and he is happy to be releasing a new album with Steve Cooney over the coming months. “It’s been a long winter though, and I think records that come out of this period will reflect the effect it had on people”. He values the interaction that he, Úna and Kevin were able to enjoy during two brief windows between lockdowns, and the opportunity to witness creative processes unlike his own. “All musicians are complex, and I find it fascinating to work with people who have their own angle on the creative process. In The Gloaming (the band who have achieved the nearest thing to trad superstardom in recent years) we have become used to how it all works, so this is a great chance to re-engage with the creative juices”.
Cellist Kevin Murphy has also managed to remain busy and focused, working on tunes, writing soundtracks (including for a forthcoming documentary by Anja Murray on Ireland’s natural world) and upgrading his knowledge of recording technology. But that brought its own sense of frustration. “I sometimes found it a bit depressing, not knowing when this would be all over, and wondering what’s the point? I have all this new material, I know it works in my head, but I have no place to try it out in a live situation. Hopefully the hounds will be released shortly and we’ll find out!”
All three musicians have a very deep well of experience from which to draw, and their willingness to search and challenge their own identities is a crucial part of their conversation. They have been sharing ideas and investigating a variety of material, from the traditional to found sounds, field recordings, poetry, abstract electronic soundscape and improvisation. Iarla observes how others can help you realise the potential of your own source material, and how new life can be breathed into work by the collective engagement of the participants. All three were comfortable bringing ideas to the table, and commenting on them, and all three were clear and unequivocal that now is the time to be brave, to be vulnerable, and to not fall back on some formula that already exists.
And this would be a good time to mention you, The Audience. In all the conversations with these three musicians, they returned again and again to how much they are looking forward to performing in a room with real people. How the lack of audience has been stultifying for the development of their art, and how the interaction, communication and energy that a live audience generates simply cannot be replicated by a laptop. Iarla again reflects on how in his own background of sean-nós, the performer would shun audience interaction, but that he now,
in his own practice, finds it a source of nourishment. “I often reflect that over the past ten or fifteen years, Irish people have become superb audiences – they go very deep into the experience of being in a room with music, of allowing themselves to communicate in a profound way with the performer. I love that and I have missed it.”
We have all missed it. Welcome back.