Bristol New Music Festival 2022 Review: Aine O’Dwyer’s ‘Song of Place’

By John Vandevert

What is our relationship to music? Do we know what music is? Have we listened to the world around us as we probably should? When was the last time we just stopped and began to “hear?” Questions like these draw us out of our realities and into realms of musicking that seem entirely foreign to the conventional methods of listening that we may think are normal when attending a concert—sitting in our seat, staring blankly ahead, clapping when need be, staying silent, and then leaving with a feeling of aesthetic pleasure. But the beauty of contemporary composers is that convention be damned. The era of music-as-knowledge is upon us. Composers are no longer obligated to create in a certain manner and stringently adhere to formulas, and the previous and current centuries have ceaselessly attempted to bring art back home.

Over half of music’s lifespan has been spent under the hand of external influence, and it is only since the 19th century that this ephemeral art has escaped. It has just recaptured its autonomy and/or redistributed its subordination to powers outside the realm of people and put it back into the hands of nature. During the 2022 Bristol New Music Festival, ideas on what opera could be in the contemporary decade arose. Irish musical artist Aine O’Dwyer and her improvisational street opera “Song of Place” is a valiant attempt to bring music to the people by making music that comes from the people, belonging to no one, yet composed by everyone.

Who is Aine O’Dwyer?

O’Dwyer is an Irish experimental musician from County Limerick whose artistic arc from fine art to musical began after she became disillusioned with, as she puts it, the “critiquing, critiquing, talking” of institutional art theory. Instead, she wanted to explore the diaphanous realms of the organic, the unmediated, and the natural. This is to rediscover a state of consciousness ignored because of theory-oriented alternatives. The best way to do this was to transcend the plasticity of fine art into the realm of the profoundly momentary art form of music. She has expressed her fondness for improvisation and what she calls “invisible scores,” which are a solely conscious roadmap of pre-planned ideas of sound combinations.

These, however, remain susceptible to the ever-changing nature of a performer’s mindset when colored by externalities like venue, colleagues, and time of day. At present, O’Dwyer’s oeuvre of work spans a full decade and eight full-length albums. Her magnum opus “Music For Church Cleaners Vol. I And II” (2015) is a 17-track journey of pipe-organ incidentalism-qua-meditations recorded at St Mark’s Church in Islington. The work was described as a kind of minimalist opera where spectator intrusions and organ bellows meld together to elicit complex emotional states like thoughtfulness, warmth, and mischievous wit.

With her education in fine art, she is highly sensitive to how sound can influence and is influenced by the temporal-spatial universe around it. O’Dwyer is a composer for whom life begets the finest musicalisms. Her work strives to bring our senses back home by challenging the idea of a dichotomy between life and art, the space of performance and space as performance, sound versus music, cause and effect, and perhaps even the hierarchy of beauty—music’s worthiness to exist based on subjectively determined value. O’Dwyer noted her musical philosophy centers on “holding space as extension-of-instrument.” Yet, this urge to sympathize with the world around us is a “found-sound” rejuvenation of music’s formalist absurdity drawing inspiration from the theatrical displays known as “happenings,” that emerge from within O’Dwyer’s work. Hints of standard practices and place-specific soundscapes combine with contemporaneous stories, inviting us to hear something far grander, loftier, and more effectively human than the terms “new music” or “experimental.”

“Song of Place”

On a beautiful Saturday morning on the festival’s third day, O’Dwyer’s improvisational street opera entitled “Song of Place” was presented on a grassy open space with a giant poplar tree in the neighborhood of Easton, Bristol, an unassuming venue for new music. O’Dwyer’s opera centered on the “comings and goings of daily life” and the sublime stories and narratives that can be drawn from a heightened awareness of these quotidian occurrences. As O’Dwyer writes, “small gestures of the mundane are celebrated,” all of which culminate to form “the natural found composition,” which can never be truly replicated again. The attendees, sounds, weather, choreography, and sentiments are all impermanent and in flux. Knowing your work will never be heard again could be quite a harrowing feeling. And yet this street opera provided a glimpse into the heart of opera proper, stripping away the histrionic outer shell to reveal the very human interior. In “Song of Place,” humans interacted with humans whose experiences were as momentary as the sounds they created and the characteristics they personified.

Is “opera” the right name to use for such a work? Its deviation from traditional operatic performance seemed too extreme. When the end arrived, a story by an Easton resident provided a much-needed context, and having talked with O’Dwyer afterward, “opera” seemed the perfect term. In operatic compositions, there is a need for the continual evolution of narrative and musical genetics, along with a sensible balance between expectation displacement and predictability, in order to avoid inadvertent alienation of one’s audience.

All of that was on display in “Song of Place.” O’Dwyer constructed the work into seven “movements:” Listening Music [Aria or air of the street], Welcome Music, Shower Music, Turn Everything On, Railing Music, CAR MUSIC, and Poplar Music. Each movement was time-based, much like many 20th-century avant-gardists, including Cage and Stockhausen. The “movements” were about ten minutes each, although these were not well-established in practice and organically occurred within each other’s designated listening zone. Undulations of sounding realities greet audiences with conversations, bird calls, incidental classical music from a parked car, the shrieks of exuberant children, instruments like singing bowls and pots, and even a bottle on a string pulled by a spunky child sporting a mohawk. There was a microphone that children used to vocalize nonsensical during the opera, yet their joyful sound was infectious.

It wasn’t noise but music without the baggage of notation, pre-planning, class-based shackles, and the obdurate demands of performance practice and quality. It was funny, too, since the opera itself felt like a rapturous play.

One of the most prominent aspects of the opera was that the line between performance and life, performer and observer, and purposeful sound versus incidental sound were all obfuscated. It became increasingly difficult to know what was actually a part of the performance. However, as O’Dwyer noted in our post-performance conversation, this was entirely the point. The venue was a small rectangular patch of grass tucked behind homes off the street, and the same sounds could’ve been heard moments before outside this performance-life binary. What had changed were the contexts, not the sounds. When positioned as the focal point of the performance, they became something. They become a spectacle to watch, and it is this that defines what O’Dwyer tried to do with the 425-year-old genre of opera.

Play with Expectation

Opera audiences usually expect overtures, acts, choruses, and a dramatic ending. In O’Dwyer’s work, this was not only presented but subverted, as her “movements”—more accurately “acts”—blended together and created a feeling of timelessness; temporal linearity eschewed for a natural capricious and peacefully volatile sonic texture. It was difficult to expect or predict what was to come despite having an itinerary, and as a result, temporality was disregarded to make peace with the dynamic surreality of feeling time instead of knowing time. But the greatest dichotomy of the event was between the lively anticipation of sound—the waiting before the performance—versus the expected sounds—such as the 13-iteration communal song “Aw! I see you.”

O’Dwyer’s production was something incredibly revolutionary and praiseworthy, a testament to the power of listening, responding to our environment, and the captivating beauty of being present without conditionality attached. Unfortunately, O’Dwyer’s technology had not performed as expected—she expressed some elements were not properly working, and her structure had not been maintained. She finished early, and her “movements” were not clearly defined.

It’s good that composers are willing to rediscover old tricks. As the performance clearly showed, the imprudent idiom “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is just dead wrong. What O’Dwyer conveyed was that it is never too late to rediscover the present, as in each moment. Stopping to take in our surroundings, our role in them, and the sublime entanglement of immediate reality with the grosser realities, we are more able to live. What O’Dwyer has done is turn upside down the devotion to the conventional structures of opera—if only for a single hour.


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