The haunting sounds of centuries of history

When composer Ian Wilson performs in Cork this weekend, he will do so on a wonky organ and his music will echo down the centuries, reveals COLETTE SHERIDAN
The haunting sounds of centuries of history

MUSIC MAN: Ian Wilson is looking forward to making his debut as a musician in Triskel Christchurch

THIS is a time of great celebrations for one of Cork’s most eclectic and historic music venues.

Triskel Arts Centre has just turned 40 and is also celebrating the laying of the foundation stone of its main auditorium, Christchurch, 300 years ago.

To mark the milestones, it has commissioned composer Ian Wilson to write a piece for the venue’s 140-year-old TC Lewis organ. Ian will perform Eidolon, this Saturday, November 24, at 8pm.

He has a long relationship with Triskel. Many of his compositions have been performed at the venue by choirs and quartets, and sometimes he conducts there.

But this will be the first time Ian will perform at Triskel. He says that the organ at Christchurch, which was installed in 1878, needs costly repair work but has a special quality.

“It is playable and was used at the Jazz Festival. I started to explore the organ a few months ago. I found that because it needs a bit of work, there are things happening with it that wouldn’t normally happen with an organ.

“It has two keyboards and a number of stops. I found that the lower keyboard, even when all the stops are closed and there shouldn’t be any sound, makes some very strange ghostly sounds which are quite beautiful and unlike the sounds that an organ normally makes. It really attracted me.

“With different combinations of keys being pressed, you get ethereal harmonies. I’ve really enjoyed exploring that. I want to give the audience an experience of the organ that they wouldn’t normally get.”

The piece’s title, Eidolon, is a Greek word with a number of meanings “but the one I’m interested in is to do with spectres and ghosts,” says Ian.

He has been researching the Christchurch building. The current one was preceded by a Christchurch on the same spot that goes back to the year 1050.

Over the centuries, a number of important events have been held or witnessed there. These include the coronation of pretender to the English throne Perkin Warbeck in 1497, the marriage of writer, Edmund Spenser to Elizabeth Boyle in 1594 and the siege of Cork in 1690, to mention just a few.

Ian’s music will reflect the venue’s history, with, for example, a suggestion of celebratory music for the famous wedding that took place there.

IN CONCERT: Saxophonist Cathal Roche
IN CONCERT: Saxophonist Cathal Roche

He says it’s difficult to describe his music. “My piece for the organ at Triskel is all about exploring the sound and colour and different combinations of notes. It’s an experimental piece.

“Sometimes, when people see the word ‘experimental,’ they think the music is going to be awful. But what I’ve composed is a piece that’s meant to be gentle and is almost a contemplative exploration of this particular organ. For me, the sounds are beautiful. I’m really only interested in sounds that I find attractive.”

On the night, Ian will be joined by the duo, pianist Izumi Kimura and saxophonist, Cathal Roche, said to be the only duo in Ireland equally at home in contemporary classical and improvised music.

They will perform Possession, composed by Ian. It’s based on songs from around the world and it combines folk songs and improvisation. “It’s one extreme of what I do, working with jazz musicians and improvisers,” said Ian, “it’s very lively and accessible.”

His main concerns are the environment and politics.

“In so far as you can deal with these issues in music, I’m undertaking a couple of large scale environmental pieces in Laois and Sligo.

“There will be recordings with people who have knowledge of the subject I’m exploring.

“I’ll make a soundtrack which will end up including little fragments of speech.

“Last year, I did a piece of work on bees which involved recordings of their habitats.”

Ian has also set three recent poems by contemporary American poets to music. “The poems are a reaction to and a reflection on their concerns about the election of Trump as well as the rise of fascism and nationalism.”

SET TO PERFORM: Pianist Izumi Kimura
SET TO PERFORM: Pianist Izumi Kimura

Brought up in Carrickfergus, Ian has been living in Cork since 2011.

“Cork is great,” he says. “There’s a lot going on in theatre and jazz. But the live music scene is kind of weird in Cork. There are a lot of gigs for bands that you’d get in any other town.

“And there’s a small and vibrant sound art scene involving Danny McCarthy and Mick O’Shea and the Guesthouse. They do fantastic work. I’ve played with them and toured with them last year.

“But the thing that Cork doesn’t really have is a regular contemporary classical music scene. Only Dublin and Belfast have that.”

However, Ian is full of praise for the Triskel Arts Centre’s director, Tony Sheehan.

“There’s a lot more classical music going on in Triskel now, thanks to Tony. But in Cork, there’s nothing regular from living Irish composers.”

Trying to make ends meet as a composer is challenging, says Ian.

“Ireland has the lowest per capita income for artists in the whole of Europe. It’s good to see that the Arts Council has had a 10% rise in its budget this year. But it’s still difficult for a lot of artists.”

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