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FESTIVAL REPORT: Open Ear
Robert Barry , July 26th, 2018 12:16

Quietus arts editor Bobby Barry heads to a remote island off the coast of County Cork for the annual Open Ear festival of unusual sounds. "I trust the island," a mysterious soul tells him

By the time the first concert began, the island was already cloaked in a thick mantle of impenetrable fog. The only remaining indications of the coast, barely a few feet behind the stage, were the big pink signs warning, "Danger: Cliffs", along the grassy perimeter.

Slinkily dreamy and woozily cyclic, the first act of the festival, Dream Cycles, more than lived up to their name. Alone on stage, wrapped tight in a purple fleece against the cloying cold, Jenn Moore layered lullaby-like vocals over minimal beats. Every impact a pop or a crunch. Every song a melancholy patchwork of earworms interspersed with field recordings that might just – with their hubbub of small crowds, the chop of waves, the chug of a motorboat – have been a travelogue of Moore's journey, here, to Sherkin Island.

As she played, I thought back to my own journey here. The heavy thud of my Ryanair flight on the runway at Cork setting every infant onboard crying. A two hour drive in a car full of friendly strangers, through an increasingly bucolic landscape of grazing ruminants, signs pointing off to some model railway or fairy village, gardens bearing statues of the Madonna. The crowd of eager festival-goers in the port at Baltimore with their heavy packs and gauzy turquoise attire. The one village shop, the last I would see for several days, yet almost uniquely bereft of anything I might find useful over the weekend bar an Irish Oaty flapjack and a plastic bottle of Coke. The choppy boat ride across unforgiving seas to an island with no shop at all. Just a pub, a hostel, a long-ruined medieval friary, a sparse scattering of houses, and – another van ride down the island's single road, flocked by heather and jaggy bays – the Open Ear Festival itself, a sprawled encampment of teepees against the cliffs over North Shore.

Why was I here? I asked myself – and not for the first time that day. Why had I left the warmth of wife and home to travel for hours in cramped quarters only to arrive at this craggy island festival where I knew no-one and had few expectations? I would not have to wait long for my answer.

It started with a faltering high-pitched drone, like a tentative fissure to another world, teased from the brim of a half-filled wine glass. Áine O'Dwyer's 'Imaginary Organ' – a piece, she explained, to be played in the absence of access to any real pipe organ – is soon augmented by her gentle fluting of breath over the brims of a succession of small bottles, the song of an apothecary, making fragile little chords, never quite tonal but always sweetly harmonic.

As the piece progressed, these notes would be overblown like shakuhachi or Berio flutes. Glasses, struck, became bells. And O'Dwyer read from a prayerbook she claimed to have found in one of the many churches where she has made her performances space. There was no god, no portended son in the words she whispered. This was a "ceremony for the body", she claimed, a murmured seduction or funerary rite or maybe both at once. And we were all invited to join in for the refrain: "yea, take the power / your own / yours alone."

Only a few tentatively muttered along. But between Dream Cycles and O'Dwyer and the night's final performance, I watched the festival slowly stir and come alive. The disparate groups that had spent the day assembling tents and pottering about, sipping their first drinks, were now suddenly a community. Drinks were shared with strangers, conversations struck up, friendships found, as we all huddled together under canvas. And for a little while, whether we were willing to chant along or not, we were all Áine O'Dwyer's faithful flock, her rapt congregation, entranced by this singular magic.

My memories of Steven Stapleton's 'sleep concert' that Thursday night are thin and sketchy, filtered through the haze of hypnopompia. I lay sweating in a borrowed sleeping bag on a navy blue airbed amongst around thirty-odd other, similarly kitted out people and a far greater population of moths and other small flying beasts who gathered on the tent ceiling in the brighter spots of Stapleton's projections, where naked bodies swelled and danced, blurring into flames. I dozed fitfully to the sound of a heavy low-mid throb and scratching-crumbling percussive textures presided over imperiously by Stapleton himself in black peaked cap and pointy beard behind a suite of CD decks. The fever of dreams insistently pervaded moments of wakefulness and reality itself took on a pulsing smear.

The one abiding moment of clarity came around four AM, when I was woken suddenly by Stapleton's own shouted voice. "Shut the fuck up," he yelled, to whom I know not. "This is my fucking concert and if you don't like it, piss off." By this stage in the game, the word 'concert' was being employed in its very loosest sense, since Stapleton was delivering this harangue from his own airbed, a few feet from mine.

A little over half an hour later, the music simply came to an end, leaving only the sound of Stapleton's snoring to complete the set.

Walking back to my accommodation from the festival site in the blue-grey light of early dawn, I reflected on this idea of the sleep concert, of music to sleep to, which over the last few years has been developing into a strangely widespread thing. Maerzmusik's Long Now concerts at Kraftwerk, Berlin, and Max Richter's eight-hour gigs at the Wellcome Collection and the Philharmonie de Paris; albums by figures as diverse as microtonal drone artist Orphax and internet-native bubblegum android Poppy.

Why has this become such a thing in its odd, vague melancholy, its weaponised acceleration of Satie's musique d'ameublement? Music not to listen to but to lull, intended – presumably – to permeate its audience's dreams somehow. Its roots might lie in hippie happenings and CIA mind control experiments, in new age yoga music and self-help hypnosis tapes. An oddly totalitarian genre: demanding one specific response from its audience. There may be many ways to dance, but only one way to sleep.

I was staying in a cottage some half an hour's walk from the main festival site, down a grass-tufted bóithrín past the Jolly Roger pub. As a result, that walk across the island, from south-east harbour to Northern Shore, became an abiding feature of my time at the festival – and in some respects, one of its highlights. It thrust upon me the chance to acquaint myself with Sherkin's peculiar topography, taking me down narrow roads under a canopy of trees before suddenly opening up to breath-taking coastal views on both sides. Rocky coves punctured by dramatic shale outcrops. Lemon chiffon sands stretching lazily out to shore.

It was on one such walk that I suffered the fall which would so colour my experience of the rest of the festival. Marching home at speed through unlit lanes after a particularly energetic set of clattering, cascading Chicago footwork beats mixed by Dublin DJ Don Rosco, I missed my footing on a stray bit of grit and hit the deck pretty hard. Recovering myself quickly, I was nonetheless left grazed and tender all down my left side, with a severely bruised thigh and a cracked rib or two. Dancing to anything – beyond a basic foot tap or shoulder shrug – was now basically out of the question. Even sitting down – especially sitting on the floor, hunkering down as most others were on the grass of the site – became something of a procedure, unusually complicated and potentially wince-inducing.

It was also on one of these regular island-spanning walks that I first encountered RB, who was to become my privileged interlocutor for the remainder of the festival.

RB had become something of an Open Ear regular, having performed at its first iteration two years ago and been unable to resist the temptation to come back to the island for every subsequent festival. From talking to others at the festival, it soon became clear to me that my new friend was far from alone in this compulsion to return. When I asked if it was a particular act on the bill that urged his reappearance this year or just some general trust in the curators' choices, he replied enigmatically, "I trust the island."

RB was rather more inclined than I had been towards the whole sleep concert concept – and Stapleton's performance, in particular. For him, what he regarded as an attempt to bypass the conscious mind of the listener and directly stimulate the natural alphawaves of the resting brain tapped into a seam of high modern musical mysticism stretching from Alexander Scriabin to the late works of Karlheinz Stockhausen and the 'sound plasma' of the pioneering Romanian spectralist Horațiu Rădulescu.

He shared these insights with me over cans of warm lager at the back of the main festival marquee after what we both agreed was one of the best concerts either of us had seen in months, by the improvising duo Rainfear. Featuring the near-octopean drumming of Dubliner David Lacey with keys by former Force Inc. and Mille Plateaux recording artist David Donohue, Rainfear were quite unlike anything I had heard before, somehow reminiscent of both the gleefully spastic electronica of early Goodiepal and – as RB pointed out – the duo recordings of Max Roach and Anthony Braxton.

Donohue spent the gig hunched over a pair of old Yamaha FM synths, spitting out bursts of such sharply articulated bass that it acted more as additional percussion. He craned his neck forward, birdlike, eagerly looking for cues from Lacey, who – by contrast – effected a poise so blithely removed from the whirlwind taking place between his hands, the drumkit, and the various implements that he would impose between the two, as to appear positively disembodied. And yet the rapport between these two players, as they coursed through intensities too wild to be contained by line or metre, was like witnessing the birth of some new symbiont, all limbs.

We lost track of each other, RB and I, soon after that. Whether I went to the toilet or he went to the bar, back beneath the marquee, the coalescing of the early evening crowds conspired to defer our reunion and I was left to stalk the festival grounds alone. As I wandered the perimeter, I called to mind RB's earlier pointed reminder that "there are no police, here, on the island."

Every music festival must already, and inevitably, resemble its antecedents in carnival. The grinning spectre of heterotopia and the temporary autonomous zone haunts every gathering of tents and sound systems. But here, far indeed from the everyday urban machinery of discipline and surveillance, that light-headed sensation feels especially potent. A murmur of lawlessness pervades the air here, its roots running deep in the ground beneath our feet.

It was some time later – lost time, fugue time – that I felt myself called back to the marquee, like many others, by the repetitive thud of a lone bass drum. Sharp, cholera dry, relentlessly insistent. On the stage was Copenhagen resident and Fluf Records boss Tuuun, mischievous and bespectacled. Over the kick, he toyed with a left-right fader, drilling out high-pitched bip… bip… bip-bip-bi-bibibibbbbbbi-bip…bip… … … bip… bip-bip, fucking time gleefully as if the clock hands themselves were drunk, dancing.

It was a set so minimal as to seem positively spartan: just a kick and that skittering beep and then, somewhere in the background, some vague rumbling, something sinister, not fully there. In the next track, a snare was added, trap-like, nothing more. Slowly, other elements stole their way in, each as subtly discombobulating as the last. "He's adding just one thing at a time," RB remarked, suddenly at my side again from out of nowhere. I found myself jabbering on about Ligeti's Musica Ricercata, its incremental accretion of new pitches, its composer's express desire "to build up a new kind of music starting from nothing", and the stabbing piano on the soundtrack to Eyes Wide Shut "like a knife in Stalin's heart." RB conjured filmic images too, but he saw not the dark corridors and side streets of Kubrick's swan song, rather the bleak expanse of the desert: "Imagine," he said, "a western, soundtracked by this music!"

I crossed paths with RB just one more time that weekend, on the Sunday afternoon, up at St. Mona's Church. Built in 1831, St. Mona's is the island's lone voice of Catholic authority: stations of the cross carved in wood upon the walls; stained glass windows in orange and purple; fresh flowers on the altar; Ikea desk lamp poised on the lectern; little photos of the Pope on thin card, to be handed out, insisting (somewhat pointedly in a part of Ireland that voted overwhelmingly to repeal the eighth amendment) that "every child deserves life." Here we took our seats, and waited, some chatting amongst themselves, others still too deep in recovery from the night before to speak. They chatted still when the first exaggerated breaths of the Tonnta vocal ensemble stole into the room.

There were five of them, seated and scattered amongst the audience with nothing to identify them as performers. The heavy breathing drifted into hummed and then sung tones, chosen intuitively, gradually filling the space of the chapel and making the walls sing in turn. The gentle hubbub of conversation quickly dissipated amidst the swell of sung voices keening long vowels. Slowly, the singers rose from their seats and joined together in the middle of the room. And with that, the improvised 'sound bath' halted and switched gear quite suddenly into a choral motet by Thomas Tallis.

I was reminded of a piece by Edward Henderson, 'I Did and I Didn't', that I once saw performed in a bombed out church in Peckham. It had similarly began with performers unidentified and unannounced, seemingly random notes suddenly broken off into – not Tallis, this time – but The Beach Boys' 1964 hit single 'I Get Around'. But somehow Tonnta's use of the Tallis struck me as too eager and too obvious a plea for transcendence. It felt, somehow, pat, almost glib. But RB, after the concert, was enthused. For him, the transition from the quasi-pagan ritual of the 'sound bath' to the renaissance liturgy of Tallis was only too apt – almost subversive – considering the composer's well-known association with the Elizabethan occultist John Dee.

I would have liked to discuss these ideas further with him, but RB was in a rush to catch a lift off the island and back to the airport. For a moment, I was jealous: I still didn't know how I was going to get home myself and every time I pored over public transport timetables looking for abstruse routes back to Cork, someone would laugh and say, "oh, you don't want to trust those." I had been given assurances by various festival organisers that a lift of some sort would be forthcoming. But nothing was confirmed, and whoever it was that had last made me these promises seemed to keep disappearing. Still I felt it a shame that RB was not there to see LAIR, a set of gloamy, shuffling drones performed by a woman in an embroidered niqab with a 13" titanium alloy MacBook Pro. I felt sure he would have appreciated its strange chthonic energies and not-quite-of-this-world digital sonics.

The clouds finally broke that day and I felt my skin roasting in the sun's glare to the DJs playing downtempo beats in the back garden of the Jolly Roger. I still didn't know how I was going to get to back to the airport.

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