Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Music of the white silence

On December 14th 1909, explorer Ernest Shackleton was in Dublin, lecturing at UCD about his ‘Nimrod’ Antarctic expedition. Next week, exactly 100 years on, composer Michael Holohan will commemorate the moment with a new piece of music theatre

LANDSCAPE HAS BEEN a major theme for Michael Holohan. It may seem an odd thing to say about a composer, but as a long-time resident of the Boyne Valley, he has written a good deal of music which evokes the rivers, forests and ancient burial sites of this part of Ireland. He has also woven the contrasting natural materials of classical and traditional music into a seamless whole in such works as The Road to Lough Swilly , for string orchestra and uilleann pipes. Over the years, too, he has worked with many poets, among them Paul Durcan and Seamus Heaney, to craft a distinctive blend of words and music. Even this experienced musical traveller was quite startled, however, when he was asked by the National Concert Hall to write a new piece evoking the enormous pristine spaces of the Antarctic.

On hundred years ago this week, the explorer Ernest Shackleton gave a lecture at University College Dublin. He had just returned from an epic journey to within 114 miles of the South Pole, the furthest south any human being had ever travelled. Holohan’s new composition would, it was hoped, recreate the excitement of both the Nimrod expedition itself and the atmosphere of Shackleton’s December 14th lecture, given in a room which was once part of the medical faculty at UCD and which is now part of the NCH complex.

“We’ve put something together that’s a little bit varied and a little bit interesting,” says Holohan. The evening will feature one of the explorer’s relatives, Jonathan Shackleton, who will give a slide-show based on his visits to the ice. Poets Peter Sirr and Joe Woods will read poems about the Antarctic, and there will also be readings from the 1909 Irish Times archives about Shackleton’s lecture, along with some rare archive recordings of the explorer’s own voice. But the centrepiece will be Holohan’s new composition, Where a Single Footprint Lasts a Thousand Years .

“I got the title from a poem by the New Zealand poet, Bill Manhire,” he says. “It’s an amazing image. Mind you, I’m not sure whether, with global warming, it still holds true. But one thing I read about the Nimrod expedition was that when they were coming back, they were sometimes able to retrace their trail because their footsteps were still there on the surface of the snow, even though they’d walked 700 miles.”

He describes the piece as a slice of music theatre. It will feature actor Donal O’Kelly as the voice of Shackleton and others. “I worked with Donal on a show about Hugh O’Neill, called Running Beast , in 2007,” Holohan says. “I’ve also worked a good deal with Simon O’Dwyer of Prehistoric Music Ireland, and for this piece he will again be playing a range of really interesting instruments. One is a whistle made from the ulna of a swan. Another is a flint rattle with sea urchins in it, which are, he tells me, five million years old. And he has some wonderful Bronze Age horns. I’ll also be playing gongs and all sorts of things.”

Prehistoric instruments, tied to the earth in an immediate kind of way, have an obvious role. But for a composer who has never been to the Antarctic, was it a formidable challenge to translate into sound the white landscape we associate with the South Pole?

“Well, I’ve never been there myself, but of course we all make journeys in life,” says Holohan. “Maybe that’s why stories of the Antarctic fascinate us so much. But according to what I’ve read and what Jonathan has told me, there seem to be two things that are constant about journeys in that region and that would strike you musically. One is absolute silence. Absolute. Silence that you could, nearly, be terrified by. And the other thing is that suddenly, out of nowhere, you can have a wind come up and howl and drive you insane. So you have this contrast between silence and the sudden eruption of meteorological conditions. I have a little surprising instrument to create that contrast. But I’m not going to reveal it until the night.”

HOLOHAN’S OWN JOURNEY as a composer started when, as a teenager studying the piano, he began to write his own pieces at the keyboard. Some of these have been collected on a CD, just released, called Fields of Blue and White . Holohan says he’s delighted with the CD, beautifully recorded at St Peter’s Church in Drogheda, and with its soloist Thérèse Fahy.

“I’ve written piano pieces throughout my life as a composer, and they’ve always had a relevance to my life,” he says. “I mean, some people have a diary; I wrote piano pieces. So you have The River , which is about the Boyne; there’s Carving the High Cross , about the person who might have carved the cross at Monasterboice; there’s Dawn Mantra , which is set in the village of Baltray and is a meditation on a dawn theme on the sea marshes.”

Much of Holohan’s musical inspiration, he says, has come from the archaeology, history and poetry of Co Louth. “I’ve set poetry by poets from the area, such as Susan Connolly. Another collaboration I really enjoyed was A Snail in My Prime with Paul Durcan, which integrates Newgrange with a love poem. We made it into a radio piece, which won the Celtic Music Prize at Quimper in Brittany. It also used a lot of ancient instruments. Exotic percussion has always fascinated me – I don’t know whether it’s because my father played the drums, so we always had drums in the house. He played in céilí bands, and I remember him practising at home.

“Also, for 30 years he worked as a flour miller – he was the foreman in a mill at Usher’s Island, on the Liffey – and he used to spend a lot of time at the docks inspecting the flour which was being imported. You’d never know what he’d come home with. One time he brought home a set of blocks that he bought off some sailor – four small wooden blocks in the shape of skulls. Another time he had an oriental carved cymbal. I think that’s where I started to hear that sort of percussion.”

During his formative years as a composer, Holohan studied with such contemporary masters as Berio, Boulez and Messiaen. He also studied archaeology alongside music at UCD. It all widened what was already, he says, an eclectic set of musical horizons.

“Back in the caves, 25,000 years ago, they used all kinds of things to make music,” he says. “And what I find fascinating in my work with Simon is that the low notes of the Bronze Age Irish horn can actually sound very like a didgeridoo. These wonderful drones that the Irish instruments can produce seem to me to represent a tone in a landscape. In a way, it’s similar to how the Australian aboriginal peoples used to recreate their landscape with the Dreamtime. I suppose that’s what I’ve been thinking about in composing the piece about the Antarctic – that the Antarctic is somewhere in us all. That’s what I find fascinating about it. At the end of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein , he leaves ‘civilisation’ and goes out into this bleak landscape, which is just like the Antarctic. I wonder if that’s what was in her mind. And when you think about the Ice Age, which formed our own landscape, the closest we can get to imagining that is the way the Antarctic is now.”

MEANWHILE, FOR HIS next work he’s travelling in a different, and considerably warmer, direction. “I want to write an orchestral piece, which I haven’t done for a long time,” he says. “I was commissioned by the Office of Public Works to write a piece called Leaves of Glass when it restored the curvilinear glasshouses in the Botanic Gardens. Now the palm house has been restored. Growing up in Drumcondra, I’ve always loved the Botanic Gardens, and that house has a fantastic history – Wittgenstein even wrote some of his philosophy there – so it would be wonderful to write a companion piece to Leaves of Glass .”

Holohan even has a working title. “I was talking to the keeper of the herbarium, Dr Matthew Jebb, and he told me about a friend of his who went out to the rainforest to look at the palm trees. And in the night-time this explorer-botanist woke up completely terrified. There was this really strange music. He thought either he was dreaming, or somebody was going to kill him. When he woke up properly, he realised what it was. The leaves of these gigantic palm trees became like giant marimbas – their long, spiky fronds were touching each other in the wind and creating notes. So my title is The Palm Trees Are Singing . That’s the notion at the moment. Of course, it could all change . . .”

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