The legacy of composer and musician Seán Ó Riada looms large over the cultural life of the country, in a way few other artists or performers’ bodies of work may ever do, from compositions and arrangements that brought the Irish musical tradition into new life in the 1960s, to the Ceoltóirí Chualainn ensemble that gave a start to members of The Chieftains, setting the pace for the folk revival.
That legacy bears deep connections to Cork city and county - in 1963, Ó Riada was appointed lecturer of music in University College Cork where he continued his modernising, institutionalising work, and moved with his family to Ballyvourney, thereafter establishing Cór Chúil Aodha, a male voice choir, while turning his hand to church music, including two settings of the Irish Mass.
His connection to the area endures long after his passing in 1971, including the broadcasting and musical work of his son Peadar, who presents the Bonn Óir Seán Ó Riada annually to promising young musicians on his Raidió na Gaeltachta show, ‘Cuireadh Chun Ceoil’.
It’s fitting, then, that a visit to Cork is in order for Dublin electronic musician and composer Neil O’Connor on December 16 at PLUGD Records, to perform pieces from ‘Nomos: O’Riada Reimagined’, an album released under his Ordnance Survey moniker that sees the former Redneck Manifesto member follow in O’Riada revolutionary footsteps - taking O’Riada’s work and radically reshaping it into new forms, much as the the man himself moved between two worlds.
"I suppose I kind-of scrape along the borders of what would be maybe popular music, and contemporary music, experimental or whatever it might be. I think that kind of classification blur sometimes is problematic, because people don't really know how to approach working with it.
“I've worked with the Contemporary Music Center in Dublin in the past, but because it's not traditionally scored music, I think that can be an issue in terms of some entities and outlets that don't really know how to approach it. I've been in bands as well, I've played a lot of live music primarily. So I think that's a problem, and there's not really a pigeonhole for it just yet - maybe it's to be built."
The titular reimagining of O’Riada’s work falls under the remit of spectral music - wherein O’Connor visually analysed the sounds created in recordings of pieces from the ‘Nomos’ suite of compositions, seeking frequencies beyond the intended melody and accompaniment, and looking for sounds from which start building new music of his own.
“Spectral music is very much about the very, very small components of sound. You might play a note on a violin, say 'A' for example, and because it's acoustically produced on an instrument, it will produce the note 'A', but it will also produce other not-as-evident notes around that, called partials. Let's say you played 440Hz on a low 'A' on the violin, that might also contain 490Hz, 510Hz. All those areas around that main note are called partials.
“What you can do is use a piece of software to kind-of get a picture of the sound, that turns it into something called a spectrogram. That allows you to see the sound, and you can take out those notes, and use those notes for your own generation of music, to make your own song of that.”
It’s a radical departure point from an already-trailblazing body of work, and the end result fulfils its stated remit, carrying vague echoes of the familiar, in name and content, while moving slowly around the worlds of ambient music and avant-garde sound.
O’Connor gets into how spectral analysis both served as a foundation for the process, and presented unique opportunities for further layers of improvisation and composition.
“I was arranging them on modular synthesizers, it was by hand, it's a hardware generation. I would dial in a track at 400Hz, that tone, and put it through different types of effects, to then abstract it from that sound, then all those sounds and become the basis of a composition. They're all grown from scratch, essentially.
“Then, at a later stage, once the sketches of the songs were in skeleton form, I would then add more instruments. I asked David Murphy, who's a Cork-based pedal steel player, to come in and play over it, and I also added some Steinway grand piano - that was just live improvisation, reacting to those pieces.”
While it’s one thing to take partial notes and use them as a departing point, it’s quite another to approach some of O’Riada’s greatest works, including ‘Mise Éire’ and his arrangement of Turlough O’Carolan’s ‘Tabhair Dom do Lámh’, so ingrained as they are into the fabric of this country’s very culture, and mine their sonic fringes for the basis of inspiration and creation.
How did O’Connor feel about the heft of Irish music history as he was deconstructing it?
“I've played to challenge myself and the genres that I work in, through different approaches, and I think O'Riada did that in the 1960s, where he was looking at European classical music, and traditional music, and looking at that kind of fusion. I'm certainly trying to fuse different approaches in my work. I'm certainly not known and cherished by the nation (chuckles).
“As a composer, because I do write a lot of composed music, too, and I've written for string quartet I've written for large ensemble, I did a PhD in composition in Trinity, I have quite a large body of scored music, as well. Spectral music was my PhD area, certainly in terms of electronic music production, so I'm trying to bring those worlds now into the Ordnance Survey project.”
The album is performed live on Saturday, December 16, at PLUGD Records, Coal Quay, Cork City. Tickets are sold out, but vinyl copies of the album are available in-store, or at https://www.plugdrecords.com