Monday, 21 December 2009

Music for the solstice

Cúinne an Ghiorria by Colm Mac Con Iomaire formed an interesting sound track to this year's winter solstice. The fiddler began his musical career with Kíla and is also a member of The Frames. His solo album draws on traditional influences but with distinctly Philip Glass-type moments that often gives a contemporary classical feel.
Loops of sound gradually mutate and overlap to create a hypnotic soundscape with sometimes just the barest hint of a traditional air.
It reminded me at bit of Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh's album Where the One Eyed Man is King where he also stripped back all flourishes to create contemporary-sounding pieces that often had a mere passing nod to tradition.
Mac Con Iomaire's former band Kíla were involved in a project earlier this year with French composer Bruno Coulais which is being tipped for an Oscar.
The Secret of Kells is the soundtrack to an animated feature film. Kíla take second billing to Coulais but and the contribution is mostly as backing musicians.
The album combines elements of Irish trad with contemporary classical and monastic chanting to create an intriguing soundscape.
At times it reminded me a bit of Zbigniew Preisner score for the film Three Colours Blue and at others it was pure Kila.

Cancer Ward by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

The title and subject matter are sure to put off many people from this novel and they would be right as there are quite a few grim moments in it. Despite that it is an immensely rewarding read that left me feeling quite humble.
Cancer Ward is set in a hospital in Uzbekistan in the 1950s which was a Soviet Republic at the time.
It is told from the point of view of various narrators - patients, doctors and nurses - but mainly from the perspective of Kostoglotov, a fictional version of Solzhenitsyn. Like the author Kostoglotov is a former soldier who was sent to a gulag and then on his release in to exile where he developed cancer.
The other patients in the hospital form a cross-section of society in the far-flung outreaches of the USSR. A party apparatchik (Rusanov), an idealistic young communist and various ethnicities are all laid low by various forms of cancer and thrust together in the same ward.
The novel can of course be read at a symbolic level, with the hospital seen as a microcosm the USSR and the cancer that runs through the patients a manifestation of the sickness of society. It is just after the Stalanist era and there has been a relaxation of the harsh laws that saw dissidents like Kostoglotov imprisoned and exiled.
Rusanov, carries a guilty secret that he has only ever spoken of to his wife (he is suffering from a tumor in his throat. Twenty years earlier he had denounced a man and his wife who had shared an apartment with him and his wife because of a minor domestic dispute that resulted in his neighbour being sent into exile. Rusanov feels no guilt for what he has done but is alarmed with the new liberalisation that is taking place that will allow exiles to return.
Despite his illness and the fears of death that it brings he feels little empathy for his fellow sufferers and resents sharing a ward with them.
As a party member he fared well in the Soviet Union and lived a life of privilege. In a society that is supposed to be classless he looks down on the peasants and ordinary workers around him.
Kostoglotov challenges the communism that has been allowed to develop and says that under a true communist system the woman who cleans the hospital ward would be paid the same as the doctors who treat the patients. A statement that outrages the party member Rusanov.
Solzhenitsyn prose ranges from the pure unrelenting description of cancer in its various forms and how it eats away at the limbs and organs of the body to the poetic as gets inside the deepest fears of those who have been striken by the disease. The treatment in the 1950 often entailed bombarding tumors with x-rays with little thought for the collateral damage being caused to adjoining healthy parts of the body. Surgery was also often used, cutting out piece of the body and affected limbs.
There is great sense of time and place for those who lived in the sprawling USSR at that time.
Cancer Ward is as much a history lesson (with excellent but never distracting translator's notes) that helps the reader contextualise what is happening and explain some of the more obscure references.
Solzhenitsyn is superb on how the disease totally redefines the lives of those who are suffering from it, how they move from a before (they were diagnosed) with cancer to after it. How the disease defines their lives and how what they took for granted before suddenly assumes an almost magical and precious quality, that even the banal experiences of everyday life (even for a prisoner and political exile)are suddenly worth savouring.
This is not an easy novel to read but that is not an excuse not to read it.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Horslips -The Odyssey Arena, Belfast

There was trouble at the Odyssey Arena in Belfast last night. Trouble With a Capital T. Almost 30 years after they played their last proper concert at the Ulster Hall in Belfast (immortalised on the live album The Belfast Gigs) Horslips were back.
The hair, beards and glittering costumes that the band favoured during their early days in the 1970s were replaced by sensible clothing but the sound was still unmistakable.
Trouble With a Capital T, Dearg Doom and Sword of Light – rock songs built upon traditional Irish airs were all given a blast.
Also in the set were the more mainstream Man Who Built America, Furniture and the all-out rocker Shaking All Over.
My own particular highlights of the evening ware Charolias from The Tain and good 20-minute section from The Book of Invasions.
Four of the original line-up were on stage – Tyrone-born Barry Devlin on bass and vocals, Johnny Fean on guitar and vocals, Charles O’Connor on mandolin, fiddle and vocals, and Jim Lockhart on keyboards and flute.
Original drummer Eamon Carr, who still works with the band but not on stage, was replaced by Fean’s brother, Ray.
All are superb musicians, Fean in particular seeming to casually flick along the fretboard to draw out some extended but never-dull guitar solos.
Charles O'Connor, the only Englishman in the band, is also a superb multi-instrumentalist, switching between, fiddle, mandolin, concertina, slide-guitar and ad a share of the vocals.
Devlin is laid-back and affable and Lockhart's keyboards and flute gave them that distinct edge that makes their sound so unique.
Horslips built a huge loyal following in the 1970s by bringing Celtic rock to the ballrooms of Ireland including the north where few other rock bands dared to come because of the Troubles.
The Odyssey Arena audience seemed to be a cross section of those who are now in their fifties and sixties who were there first time round and younger fans, ranging from teens through to early middle age who until now only knew the band through their recorded output.
The after-show party (oh the privileges of journalism) was quite a civilized affair that had the feel of a cocktail party rather than a post-gig knees up.
It was interesting to see journalists, DJs and TV presenters all queueing up with the privelege ordinary punters who managed to get in to have their photo taken and gather autographs with the band.
On the way out I saw Eamon Carr standing deep in conversation with someone. How weird must it all have been for him to see the band he is such a central part of playing without him behind the kit?