The sweet sound of a West Cork homecoming inspires Ballydehob's Muireann Levis

After getting reacquainted with her childhood home of Ballydehob over lockdown, musician and sound-artist Muireann Levis is expressing her “relearning” of her surroundings with a special sonic installation along the rivers that flow through the village. MIKE McGRATH-BRYAN finds out more. 
The sweet sound of a West Cork homecoming inspires Ballydehob's Muireann Levis

For those of us who were homebound at some stage or other during the Covid-19 lockdowns, circumstances necessitated an examination of the places in which we grew up. Childhood bedrooms gave perspective on growth, quiet surroundings away from the city provided cause to slow down and unpack pre-Covid lives, while those hailing from rural Ireland became reacquainted with the natural and developed idiosyncrasies of their surroundings. 

Muireann Levis, one-time shoegaze/dream-pop vocalist and current multi-instrumentalist/sound-artist, experienced this while flitting back and forth between her native Ballydehob and Glasgow, where she has recently finished an MSc in Sound Design and

Audiovisual Practices.

For an artist pre-occupied equally with the everyday and the radical, one world has bled into another with the creation of ‘Inbhear’ (‘Estuary’), a special sound-art installation that places field recordings and manipulations of natural sounds along a rowing exploration of the rivers that feed into the West Cork village.

“The idea kind-of came to me from a few different angles. For lockdown, I came back to Ballydehob, and my childhood bedroom window looked out onto the estuary. It's something I'd seen everyday, as a child and of coming back and seeing it regularly again. I just realised that not a lot has changed, but some things have changed about it.

I thought it'd be really nice to try and provide myself an opportunity to relearn about the area

“And I was just like, 'god, you know, just been there my whole life and how much do I really know about the estuary, this quiet presence that's always been there?'. So I thought it'd be really nice to try and provide myself an opportunity to relearn about the area, and to explore the water that flows into it, and basically makes this estuary that I see every day.

“[It was also] informed maybe by what I had been studying, as I've been exploring field recordings, but even previous to that I'd always been very interested in... where I am, you could sometimes hear people down on the pier, up in their garden, at home, people playing the radio, or sometimes there's a family that play trad sessions across the water, and you can hear that carrying and I'm just like, 'god, how the sound influences the local landscape, just people's presence and how it just informs your immediate environment'.”

Participants in the installation go two per boat, and row in the area near the estuary’s dominating Twelve-Arch Bridge, where sounds recorded and manipulated by Levis play through speakers placed at different intervals on the journey, evoking the fullness of the area’s nature and soundscape, rooted in Levis’ adult revisiting and perspective.

It’s no mean feat, but Levis has had assistance from the community - including Ballydehob Jazz Festival, who are co-promoting the piece ahead of further announcements for the near future - in helping create a piece of work intended to place Ballydehob in an artistic context.

“The speakers are going to be a six-speaker surround-sound system. And now, honestly, we're still in the middle of figuring that out. I have an amazing sound engineer, Sandra O'Mahony, who is helping me with that. She's a fantastic sound designer, she's associated with the [Ballydehob] Jazz Festival, they are helping me with the production of this.

“I wanted to put speakers out there on the water, just to allow people to actually go into the composition itself. They will be a part of this landscape that I have recorded, they'll be actively involved in this, just even whether it's the chat that they have, it will be the movement of the water, it will be the people on the banks, and the people in the park because it's next to the playground as well.

“So putting it there, the composition is continuously being made. It's quite sculptural, so there'll be a lot of movements between all the speakers, to help people get into the sound a little bit more, I'm hoping.”

 A man watching the World pass by from the twelve arch bridge in Ballydehob, West Cork. Picture Dan Linehan
A man watching the World pass by from the twelve arch bridge in Ballydehob, West Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

With days to go to the first journeys being undertaken from next Thursday, and the technical aspect of an ambitious project resolving itself, Levis is understandably nervous, but excited for how the project is coming together - gathering her thoughts on desired outcomes, and the purpose of the piece.

“My main motivation was, for people to take a moment to appreciate listening, I think it's something that we really need, y'know, an important part of human life. I'd love to give people an opportunity to maybe do that in a context that they wouldn't normally - we put in our headphones or we go to a gig, but this is maybe slightly different.

“And also, I want people to have fun. I think joy is such an important thing, and so I'm hoping that giving people a joyful, fun experience. The village is beautiful. and rivers are very important part of the identity of it, and I'm hoping going forward that we just recognize how beautiful this area and any village around the country, any part of the country, you know, to take a moment to recognize how important it is to appreciate it and hopefully that they'll take that further.

“We have a lot of work to do with the climate, we really need to be protecting things and being engaged with our environment, and hopefully this will be in the back of people's minds be like, 'oh, yeah, we have something precious that we need to protect here'.”

With the pall of lockdown having passed over us, with any luck, this parish has been lucky enough to report on artists getting back into the swing of things in the live context, and after taking a bit of time to come to grips with post-Covid life, Levis’ mind is on the next step for herself in that regard.

"[It's] going to be performance, I suppose because of lockdown, because I've been studying, I've just been sitting behind a computer for the most part the last while and that's been wonderful, I've been learning a lot, but I think it's taking me a little bit longer to get out of the lockdown lifestyle than I anticipated.

“The installation was maybe a way for me to bridge that gap of like putting work out into the world in real time, not just online, and now I'm going to try and really get back into into performing and developing a new performance technique, based on everything that I have been doing the last few years, because last time I was performing it was with a guitar, or just a voice or a tambourine, or a theremin, even, so now I need to get back into doing that, but also maybe slightly more electronic components. Then gigging!"

The ‘Inbhear’ sound installation happens in Ballydehob from Thursday August 11 to Sunday August 15 - more information on departure times and tickets for boat trips can be found at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/inbhear-sound-installation-tickets-384019291037.

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