Photos: Bríd O’Donovan
Time was you would be trekking over to the Barbican in London to have the pleasure of this kind of triple bill (in fact, the Transcendentalists tour called to the Barbican Hall the previous night). But a different programming wind blows through Cork these days (to go with the new May mistral we’ve been getting used to lately). In fact, in the case of all three of these artists, this was their second visit to Cork within the space of a year. As a result, a few hundred people were present in the theatre stalls, the upstairs being closed.
You could take a slightly cynical view of the tour billing, imposing, as it did, a mode of listening on the music. However, the fact that all three artists reside on the same label (130701, an imprint of FatCat, virtually the original promoter of the field of post-classical), as well as the strong curated feel to this label, helped to keep marketing gimmicks far from the mind.
Dustin O’Halloran was first out – swapping the main Opera House stage this time for the Half Moon, where he appeared in January with A Winged Victory for the Sullen, review here – accompanied by a string quartet (three women, one man, three dressed in black, one in non-conformist floral print). My vantage point in the front row meant that the hushed opening was almost drowned out by the electrical hum from the stage. That quickly ceased to be an issue though as O’Halloran unrolled the stately, emotive and brilliantly measured piano pieces from his last studio album Lumiere.
Apart from the majestic Steinway, support came in the form of an abstract, flickering screen, some additional ghostly atmospherics from O’Halloran and the wonderfully delicate, swelling dynamics from the strings. As in January, O’Halloran’s magnetic stage presence was a major factor in the success of the show (if the genre needs a poster boy, it need look no further than his bearded good looks). I was reminded that the man is largely self-taught on the instrument and his emotional playing style showed exactly how much he feels the music. It was also telling that he introduced these instrumental pieces as “songs”, a sign perhaps of the depth of that feeling and how tangible. A timeless, ageless, swooning soundtrack to…romance?…life?…the universe?…all of the above? I could have happily sat there and wallowed in the beauty of it all night.
Hauschka was next out and his first act was to put the piano to a use not intended by Steinway & Sons. He spent a number of minutes during the changeover with his head under the bonnet attaching assorted chains, sticks and tape treatments to the piano strings. The result, when he began playing, was to return the instrument firmly to its place in the percussion family – melodies were muted at the expense of squeaks, rattles and hums. He was also joined by Samuli Kosminen , from the band Múm, on drumkit and various electronics.
After an endearing intro, when he assured us that the piano would come to no harm (“they always still like me when I am leaving”), he and Kosminen laid down a set of infectious dance grooves, in a lovely, playful semi-improv fashion. The tunes developed more and more of an electronic feel as they went on (at one point, they created a distinct air of Talking Heads’ ‘Drugs’, from the Fear of Music album, with percussion swells and crashes). Kosminen made a handsome contribution to the overall sound, ranging from a loose jazz style, to driving krautrock beats fed through a Loopstation.
Back at the mike for a final preamble, Hauschka introduced ‘Radar’, the opening track from his current, and brilliant, album Salon des Amateurs. He explained that the album title is the name of a club he frequents in his hometown of Dusseldorf, a place he goes to dance. They proceeded to map out the tune’s jerky backbeat, a busy rhythm but somehow clean at the same time (with room for an added warped, slowed-down-drugged-out section). As a closer, it was a perfect summary of the gig – very groovy, dance music for head, heart and feet, and superbly engaging.
Icelandic composerJohann Johannsson took the stage with the returning string quartet to close the night, with what seemed like (more or less) the same set he played in Triskel Christchurch during The Reich Effect festival last year. At first, he struck a very different tone to his predecessors – cold and melancholic, a stereotypical northern European music, you might say, with long, held string notes and barely there atmospherics. Johannsson himself also cuts a serious, almost stern, figure onstage, a complete contrast to O’Halloran’s charisma. However, as the faint rumbles and drones took hold, alongside spare, miniature piano phrases, you couldn’t help but be dragged under.
The most striking thing about this set was the perfect control of dynamics, the weight of the arrangements. When electronic beats joined with the surging power of the strings, they still managed an intriguing air of suspense. The melodies, of course, would also break your heart.
Closing with the haunting ‘Odi et amo’ from the Englaborn album, an ode in Latin with sampled robot vocal and keening violin, brought the point home. If Dustin O’Halloran plays romantic, there’s something existential about Johann Johannsson. Possibly even transcendant.
This was an outstanding night’s music, something that everyone there will be talking about for a long time (signs on, the merch stall was doing brisk business afterwards, with O’Halloran and Hauschka holding court in jovial fashion). An absolute triumph.