Kirkos ensemble, made up of some of the country’s most promising young musicians and headed up by composers Sebastian Adams and Robert Coleman, are one of the most exciting propositions on the Irish contemporary classical scene. Their ongoing Blackout series, which began in May with a performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, is collection of multi-sensory concerts performed in total darkness. Accompanying each performance is a meal made up of elements intended to enhance the experience of listening to their expertly selected pieces. The second in the series will showcase a collection of new pieces by Irish composers written in response to the central piece, Steve Reich’s Different Trains.
The title of Reich’s piece refers to the trains used to transport European Jews during the Holocaust at the same time that he, then a young American Jew, crossed his continent, from New York to Los Angeles, between his separated parents. It features heavily an array of sampled voices describing these journeys as well as other concréte sounds – trains, sirens – against a typically strident Reich arrangement.
We sat down with the men behind the series to talk about the thematic strands that run through all the shows, the difficulties associated with performing in the dark and importance of presentation in contemporary classical music.
Could you tell me a little about how Kirkos came to be?
Robert: I guess Sebastian is the founder. Three years ago, I was in first year in the Royal Irish Academy of Music and Sebastian was in second year and he had the idea to get a concert going of new music being produced there and played by students of the academy. We grouped together a lot of the composers in the academy and anyone that was interested in getting a concert together. Kirkos was born out of that.
Was there an impetus to go out on your own as a response to the feeling that there was a space for a greater focus on contemporary music?
Sebastian: Yeah. There was a teacher-led ensemble in the Academy at the time. What always happens when teachers try to organise students though is the students feel that it’s work, so, it was hard for them to get anything done because of that and they got a bit fed up of it. I’d been thinking for a while that there were too few opportunities for people to get their work played in concert, in the Academy or elsewhere.
R: I suppose as a young composer what you always want is to see your work performed, so the more opportunities to do that the better. The only way you can really grow as a composer is to hear your own work. People talk so much about pieces that they’ve never had performed and they just sit in the drawer.
S: It doesn’t really feel like a piece until it’s performed in a way.
R: Yeah, it doesn’t feel like it’s lived properly. It’s still in the infant stages. Nothing has reached maturity until it’s been played for an audience.
How did the Blackout series come about?
S: Well it’s kind of a multi-stage idea in that one of the very first concerts we did was a prototype for the Blackout gigs. which through a conversation I had with the violinist Colm O’Brien, he had the initial idea. We were in Belgium and we’d both been drinking exceedingly strong Belgian beers so I’ve no idea which bits I came up with, if any! We managed to make that happen within a few weeks of the idea. We performed the Messiaen piece [Quartet for the End of Time] from Blackout #1 at that.
Do you think it’s easier to win people over to music they might otherwise have little engagement with when you present it in a different way like this?
S: Absolutely. The audience we got at the first Blackout was completely not a ‘contemporary music’ audience, which is great. The music we’re performing is so emotionally rich and full of things that people who aren’t familiar with classical music can easily engage with. All those elements can be better accentuated in a non-traditional environment.
What is the thematic line between the pieces being performed?
S: Well both pieces are kind of a comment on WWII, but the interesting thing is that there are similarities but also big differences in terms of perspective. The Messiaen piece was written during the war when he was being held in a prison camp. Despite that obviously being a horrendous experience, the piece is hopeful, he was certain God was going to get him out of it and that’s the main message of that piece. Even though it’s incredibly dark music it’s never hopeless.
R It’s always got a certain glimmer of faith or hope.
S: Exactly. Though it never really gives you a redemptive moment so to speak it’s almost implied throughout the piece. Then the Reich piece is more backwards looking. It’s written after the fact by somebody who knows he was lucky not to have been in that situation. In the vocal samples used you hear people who have gone through the Holocaust and even though the music is lighter the subject matter is much less hopeful. Then the third piece, which is something I’m composing now, is musically darker, like the Messiaen.
To what extent did these other pieces inform the compositional process of your work?
S: Oh, hugely. We had the other two pieces set in stone since last June and I only started working on my piece two or three months ago, having thought about it for the previous nine months. Stylistically, it has a lot of the Messiaen in it, which is uncharacteristic for my music. I’m very much seeing the three concerts as a cohesive form, the dark first part, then the lighter middle and then another dark part to end it.
It must be an interesting experience, writing a piece almost as a response to the pre-existing pieces it’ll be viewed alongside.
S: Yeah, it is interesting. I decided very early on that I wanted to make it almost impossible to play the piece outside the context of the Blackout series. There’s going to be a lot of things in there that will only really make sense in the context of the concert and then in the wider context of the concert series, which is interesting… and probably foolhardy!
R: That all feeds into our central idea of making each performance, or series of performances, special in their own right.
So how did you settle on the pieces you chose?
R: Different Trains was definitely a piece we wanted to do for a while and once we thought of the Blackout concept, it fitted. Then we started thinking of other pieces that fitted with that, so the Messiaen was obviously a good one.
S: Then we couldn’t think of anything for a while until I was like ‘Hang on a minute, nobody’s playing any of my pieces!’ [Laughs]. Also, as part of the concert we also have new pieces in response to the larger ones. So for the Messiaen we had four pieces by Irish composers who had all written them with that central piece in mind, which worked out great. They were a brilliant, complimentary set and really set things up nicely for the Messiaen work. Obviously, that approach doesn’t work for a new, unheard central piece, so we programmed pieces that work within the broader theme of the series and then those pieces inform my writing, and everything is really threaded together.
It’s really fascinating that all the pieces throughout the performances are in conversation with one another. Where does the food element fit in?
S: The food is a vital part of what we’re trying to do. Ideally, the music and the food should enhance one another. People are suggested to eat different parts of the food at different times. Vania Ling, one of the people we’re working with on the food side of things, had been reading up on this Cambridge research about how certain foods can be enhanced by various musical motifs. For example, high violins enhance sweet tastes, or that cello sounds make bitter tastes more pronounced. Basically, she thought of foods that would match each movement of the Messiaen and between her and Kevin Powell, who runs Gruel Guerrilla, they started thinking about foods that grow in the dark, as an abstract link to the whole theme of the series. She was also exploring scents that work with the music. Another way that these ideas tie together is that Messiaen had synaesthesia, he heard everything in colour.
R: We’re trying nod towards that blurring of the lines between senses.
Kirkos Blackout #2, presented by Ensemble Music and featuring performances of Steve Reich’s Different Trains and food from Kevin Powell and Vania Ling, takes place on Friday 12th and Saturday 13th of June at the Royal Irish Academy Music at 10pm each evening, tickets costing €25.
Words: Danny Wilson