'This piece is about the Ireland we live in now' Liam Cagney uncovers Oscailt a new commission by Jennifer Walshe coming this September

Jennifer Walshe - composer and vocalist

Image: Jennifer Walshe - composer and vocalist

The future has a way of sneaking up on you. One minute you’re strolling down a country lane, absently staring at the green pastures. The next, with surprise, you realise those pastures are actually a cinematic green screen, and they have always been a green screen, only we didn’t notice, and that we are all actors improvising in an ongoing movie whose script seems to have been lost. So it can feel at times anyway, in our startling, mediatised world.

For over a decade, the composer and performer Jennifer Walshe has been exploring in depth how technology relates to twenty-first century Ireland. In Oscailt, a collaboration with the performers and improvisers Panos Ghikas, Elizabeth Hilliard and Nick Roth, Walshe continues to develop the themes touched on in brilliant earlier projects like Grúpat, Aisteach, The Site of an Investigation and Ireland: A Dataset. As is often with Walshe, the composition is multimedia and it combines a notated score with structured, text-directed improvisation. This time, elements of the work have been developed in collaboration with school students, Ireland’s new digital natives.

This piece is about the Ireland we live in now,’ Walshe explains, highlighting that that country is ‘an electrical landscape.’ Here is Irish music for the age when Meta has global data centres near the Hill of Tara, legendary seat of the High Kings of Ireland. These data centres, as well as housing our Instagram posts and WhatsApp messages, are information reservoirs used to train the artificial intelligence (AI) that’s rapidly reshaping the world. In other words, Ireland is at the crest of the digital wave, and through art we can explore what that means.

In Oscailt, artefacts of Irish culture – Irish dancing, traditional music, the architecture of Newgrange – are pulled into a vortex of creation, acting like text prompts for an AI programme; the output is a musical work of heart, vision, and humour. Lights fade up and down between the sections. Video is displayed behind the performers in a multimedia spectacle. Electronic sounds alternate, interact and merge with acoustic instruments and vocal sounds, and school students collaborate with the musicians in generating sounds onstage. Through this, Ireland once again takes on a mythic air, only now its myths are of the future rather than the past – the everyday sci-fi of our digital era.

After a brief introduction setting the mood for the evening, the performers draw our attention to the electromagnetic field (EMF) that pervades our environment. The EMF is responsible for light and electricity, and says Walshe, it ‘is like living in an invisible dance party made of electricity and magnetism that surrounds us all the time’. The performers use the Ether microphone, created by the company Soma, to translate the signals in our everyday environment – radio frequencies, phones, computers – and make them audible and indeed musical through a Bluetooth speaker. Walshe has in the past collected sounds from around the country: the hum of phone masts in Leitrim, or the hissy crackle of data cables at Ross beach in Mayo. During Oscailt, the performers seek out EMF sounds within the venue, making each performance a unique site-specific event. Roth’s saxophone’s drone melds with the EMF sounds, and Ghikas and Walshe digitally manipulate the results.

In the next section, we learn of the Irish Prehistoric Internet. Thousands of years ago, it connected the mountain Sliabh an Iarainn in Roscommon to distant nodal points like Knocknarea in Sligo. But how did it work? Alongside this story, sounds are excavated of our more recent ancient computer world: Nokia ringtones, floppy disk scans, Windows ‘95 log-on jingles.

The cutest and most profound medium of them all is, of course, the cat. Now, the cat becomes our avatar for learning about artificial intelligence and machine learning. In her recent groundbreaking composition A Late Anthology of Early Music, Walshe, collaborating with machine learning specialists CJ Carr and Zack Zukowkski, trained the neural network Sample-RNN with hours of her voice singing, then mapped the results onto the evolution of Western classical music from Ancient Greece to the Renaissance. Here, the topic of machine learning is explored visually, musically and in feline ways. Sampled kitty-sounds abound.

Like a mundane morning routine following surreal dreams, this is followed by the performers intermittently picking up and folding laundry, as Hilliard sings in Irish about a robot doing a similar task. Walshe’s song ‘An Róbat’, taken from Trí Amhrán for voice and piano, was composed using AI. Walshe fed the computer a repertory of Irish songs, from Ina Boyle and Charles Stanford to Enya and Stiff Little Fingers, then worked with the results to compose this lyric ruminating on our surreal reality. In accompaniment, the other performers use tuning forks. Tuning forks struck by wooden mallets emit specific notes. However, when we strike the fork and put it against an object – a ping-pong ball say, or in water – we can ‘see’ the soundwaves in how the physical objects respond to the fork’s vibrations.

Ireland has long been a place of scientific and technological development. Next, we learn of the Leviathan telescope built at Birr Castle in 1845 by William Parsons, the 3rd Earl of Rosse (during a time, of course, of great trauma for the county). Over swirling, cosmic sounds – bubbling retrofuturistic oscillations – voices sing lines taken from ‘Earl Rosse’s Observations On the Nebulae’, in which Parsons set out some of his astronomical observations.

We are then whisked off to one of Ireland’s most recognisable landscapes, the Giant’s Causeway. The performers create an ambient sonic backdrop by swirling boomwhackers (long cylindrical tubes), playing with tuning forks, and tip-tapping with other percussion. Hilliard narrates the Giant’s Causeway’s history, both real and mythic, and we are shown images of the Causeway at a remove from those we see with our naked eyes. Afterwards, Walshe describes to us the logic of AI and how it relates to those ever-the-same, ever-different basalt columns by the sea in Antrim.

Another song follows, ‘Nuafhocailt’ (New Proverbs), also from Walshe’s Trí Amhrán. Hilliard sings absurd AI-generated proverbs (a sample: ‘Fás féasóga thar cait an fhuath’: ‘Grow beards over the cats of hatred’) in long, major-key phrases over rapid-fire piano backing. In accompaniment, Ghikas, Walshe and Roth electronically manipulate the sound and add electronic sounds of their own.

As we come towards the end of this journey around Ireland, a tidal wash arises of data flows and soundwaves. Slinkies, Morse code, sound tubes, hydrophones: soundwaves from these create a texture over which Hilliard and Walshe sing snatches of melody. The lyrics commemorate how Ireland became a major node in the network of global information transmissions. This began with the first transatlantic telegraph cable, which came ashore at Foilhummerum Bay, and endures in the fibre-optic cables these days spanning the ocean and connecting the world’s countries. As the music crescendos, it becomes as a turbulent weather system, a metaphor perhaps for the pressurised electronic atmosphere within which, in the twenty-first century, we find ourselves.

Oscailt ends with the beautiful song ‘Something That is Continuous’. The music is based on a sequence of two chords repeating over and over in the instruments, while the vocalists sing an expressive, poignant melody. This is accompanied by a video about smartphones and Irish teenagers – the eternal and the ephemeral conjoined as always.

‘Where do we end and where does tech begin?’ asks Walshe towards the end of Oscailt. It’s a question, paradoxically, as old as history. If technologies are media, and if media are environments, it is through technologically savvy works like Oscailt that we can come to better understand our everyday lives.

by Liam Cagney

Oscailt by Jennifer Walshe, perfomed with Elizabeth Hilliard, Panos Ghikas & Nick Roth will have its world premiere at Dublin Fringe Festival, on 19 September, in Dublin, to continue touring to Kildare, Limerick, Cork and Mayo until 26 September.