All is Well

August 25, 2014

Photo: Ross Costigan

Well, the 41st Kilkenny Arts Festival is in the rear view mirror; Pentalum has been deflated and packed off to its next destination and you’re 90% less likely to stumble across Sam Amidon singing in a historic garden around the city - so here’s a few parting thoughts.

I didn’t write anything yet about the series of talks across the Festival – topics ranged from the plight of the Irish demesne to Irish foreign affairs to medieval stone carving. It was an eclectic selection. Without doubt, the most colourful speaker was Lady Antonia Fraser who spoke with Roy Foster about the art of the historical biography. When Foster preceded a question with “As a woman of the left and a feminist…”, Fraser sharply retorted “What are all these labels being put on me, am I a supermarket?”.

Unsurprisingly, given the Pakenhams' political pedigree, the conversation veered into politics. Fraser asserted that a good politician requires the right balance of idealism and ambition; without idealism you shouldn’t be in politics and without ambition you won’t get there. Too often people have one without the other. The Diplomatic Coffee Club with Seán Ó hUiginn at the 16th century Hole in the Wall on the final morning of the Festival offered further political insights. Ó hUiginn is now retired from a forty-year career in the Irish Foreign Service, having served as Ambassador to the United States, Germany, Italy, Saudi Arabia and Denmark and played a central role in the evolution of the peach process. As a former Foreign Affairs civil servant himself, Festival Director Eugene Downes was well versed in what questions to ask and tactful enough to ‘disremember’ certain privileged information when questioned from the floor. The insight to that early phase of the peace process was fascinating, and somewhat prescient with the subsequent attention it has received in recent days following the death of former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds. Ó hUiginn told of how John Major had complained about his involvement to the then Taoiseach indirectly. Major then sent an envoy to meet Reynolds to personally convey his dissatisfaction with Ó hUiginn. Reynolds' ingenious and amusing response was to have Ó hUiginn as the note taker in that meeting, which must surely have made the British envoy’s task terribly uncomfortable. A question from the floor asked what advice Ó hUiginn would give about the conflict between Palestine and Israel: the universal maxim that the powerful are never entirely powerful, and the weak are never entirely weak.

Throughout the Festival I heard many longtime attenders remark that the Festival had returned to its musical roots, particularly with regard to classical music. There was a palpable sense of endurance and triumph as The Heath Quartet rose to their feet at the conclusion of the final Beethoven quartet in their ten-day concert series at St John’s church. On Thursday night they had also joined seventeen other resident Festival musicians on stage at St Canice’s for s t a r g a z e’s performance of Terry Riley: ‘In C’, which demonstrated the pinnacle of musicianship.

The Festival Finale on Sunday night featured combined members of The Gloaming, This is How We FlyGhost Trio and Laghdú with Bill Frisell, Doug Wieselman, Kate Ellis, Sam Amidon and poet Billy Collins. Martin Hayes, who co-curated the Marble City Sessions, was Fear an Tí for the night. At the outset he described the musicians present as "an extended web of friendship and mutual respect". Indeed, this captured what for me was the most important and unique characteristic of the Festival. Since the great Dionysia, festivals have been about creating a rare shared experience in a limited time and space. Too often artists are shipped in and out of a place in little over 24 hours. By accommodating as many artists in residence as possible over the ten days, Kilkenny rose above most festivals and offered an opportunity for collaborations and spontaneity that was clearly as exciting for the artists as it was for audiences. With the emergence and debut of several new musical projects, it became clear that, as Hayes says, something is afoot. Appropriate then, that the Festival concluded to Amidon’s ‘All is Well’.

-Dylan Haskins

Photo: Ross Costigan

Love and Death

August 16, 2014

The subject matter covered in Billy Collin’s poetry reading at the castle Parade Tower this evening ranged from house pets to breakfast cereal, there was even a poem about choosing the subject matter for a poem.

All poems are about love and death, he tells us. However, young adolescents always think they can come up with a new subject matter which no one has thought of – themselves. Later, he reads an affectionate love poem from a parent to their adolescent daughter:

To My Favorite 17-Year-Old High School Girl

Do you realize that if you had started
building the Parthenon on the day you were born
you would be all done in only two more years?
Of course, you would have needed lots of help,
so never mind, you’re fine just as you are.
You are loved for simply being yourself.
But did you know at your age Judy Garland
was pulling down $150,000 a picture,
Joan of Arc was leading the French army to victory,
and Blaise Pascal had cleaned up his room?
No, wait, I mean he had invented the calculator.
Of course, there will be time for all that later in your life
after you come out of your room
and begin to blossom, at least pick up all your socks.
For some reason, I keep remembering that Lady Jane Grey
was Queen of England when she was only fifteen
but then she was beheaded, so never mind her as a role model.
A few centuries later, when he was your age,
Franz Schubert was doing the dishes for his family,
but that did not keep him from composing two symphonies,
four operas, and two complete Masses, as a youngster.
But of course that was in Austria at the height
of romantic lyricism, not here in the suburbs of Cleveland.
Frankly, who cares if Annie Oakley was a crack shot at 15
or if Maria Callas debuted as Tosca at 17?
We think you are special by just being you,
playing with your food and staring into space.
By the way, I lied about Schubert doing the dishes,
but that doesn’t mean he never helped out around the house.

Billy Collins

It’s easy to see why Collins has become one of America’s most popular poets. Self deprecating and humourous, he brings an unpretentious humanity to the discipline. The punch lines of many of his poems evoke hearty laughter, but his real mastery lies in their subtle aftertaste.

-Dylan Haskins

Music Fit for a Cathedral: The Gloaming

August 15, 2014

Photo: Ross Costigan

The Gloaming playing St. Canice’s Cathedral has been one of the most anticipated facets of the Kilkenny Arts Festival programme for months. The combination of the unique 13th century ecclesiastical setting and excitment of a rare opportunity to see The Gloaming perform live, ensured an early sell-out.

This is my fifth time to see the Gloaming.The infrequency of their live performances makes them a band worth traveling for. Apart from a few repeated anecdotes, musically no two shows have felt the same – be it their performance at the Céiliúradh event at London’s Royal Albert Hall in April, the Derry edition of Other Voices  in February, or most memorable of all; Union Chapel in London for their album release last January, where the room heaved and the stage nearly took off in a collective frenzy of foot-tapping and head-shaking.

As the lights dim and the stone effigies of knights and bishops recede into the shadows of St. Canice’s, Martin Hayes, Iarla Ó Lionáird, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, Denis Cahill and Thomas Bartlett take to the stage and open with Samradh, Samradh, a song first documented in the 18th century about Bealtaine, the beginning of summer. As they move on to Song 44, an arrangement with elements as old as this venue, one by one and without any fanfare, they’re joined by a series of American guest performers; Sam Amidon, Doug Wieselman and Nic Gareiss.

Amidon, a childhood friend and regular collaborator with Bartlett, and Wieselman have appeared in separate Secret Garden Music slots over the course of the week. Both momentarily brought out the sun to large gatherings in the historic gardens of Rothe and Butler Houses, respectively. Their addition compliments the group in unexpected ways.

Although only born in 1986, Nic Gareiss has spent 20 years studying shoe-sounds and the disparate international roots of American traditional dance. The percussive results of this are a revelation, with subtle scratches building to more pronounced steps, a dance equivalent to Ó Raghallaigh’s distinct brand of fiddle-playing. The two perform together as half of This is How We Fly, who, incidentally, will also appear on Saturday night at the Set Theatre. This is the first time Gareiss has performed with The Gloaming, adding a thrilling percussive and visual display to their now established set.

Bartlett’s piano playing is more expressive than ever, and towards the end of Opening Set, rises to a thunderous exchange with Hayes’ fiddling. Every time I hear The Sailor’s Bonnet, Hayes seeks out a new crevice in the tune, a previously unexplored nook. He precedes it by telling of how he had initally thought little of the popular tune until he came to teach it to a class and, playing it much slower than usual, came to hear a new beauty in it. Judging things too hastily can be dangerous, he warns.

At Other Voices earlier this year, I asked Ó Raghallaigh how when dealing with source material that is often hundreds of years old, they can transform it into something that feels fresh and exciting:

“We just do what we do. I play music because it’s in my bones and it needs to get out and if I’m playing on my own or with Mick O’ Brien, in quite a traditional environment or an environment like this, the same music is in those bones. The same music is trying to get out and you can’t stop it, it’s going to get out and all we have to do is let it. I’m not trying to make it new and exciting, that music is new and exciting because every single time we play it, we’re not playing something old, what we’re doing is …we’ve kind of got the seed of the idea of that music and we send down roots deep into the genetic material of where we’ve come from, this old music that goes back hundreds of years and we pull this up through our veins and out through our instrument, or whatever it is we play, and it comes out fresh because it is, it’s alive. Every time we play, be it traditional or contemporary, it’s alive there and then. It’s new by dint of us being at the absolute finest point of creativity where it’s razor sharp, where you’re not rehashing something you’ve practiced, you’re there, and of course it’s fresh. That’s the whole thing of being creative.”

Another new project from Ó Raghallaigh, this time with fellow hardanger fiddle player Dan Trueman had its debut in Rothe House on Thursday. Unbeknownst to them I’d heard a preview through my hotel room wall earlier in the day. So unique is the sound of two hardanger fiddles in this part of the world, there was no question who was responsible. The duo toyed with calling the project Gollywhopper, but wisely settled on Laghdú instead. The word means lessening, and while this is a perfectly appropriate description of their approach to a tune, the range of sounds they extract from the instrument is much broader than convention. It was via Trueman that Ó Raghallaigh was introduced to the eight string hardanger fiddle after, of all things, attending a particle physics accelerator laboratory in September 2000. Both play the so-called hardanger d’more fiddle, a modified ten string version by Norwegian maker Salve Håkedal and of which there are about nine in existence. Three of them are in Kilkenny this week, the other played by Cleek Schrey as one third of Ghost Trio with Iarla Ó Lionáird and uileann piper Ivan Goff. Ó Raghallaigh’s droning ten string hardanger is a core part of what has become The Gloaming’s sound, making the emergence of Laghdú something of a full circle for him.

With an encore performance of Saoirse, adapted from Seán Ó Riordáin’s poem about individuality, freedom and fitting in with the small town tribe – The Gloaming bring the evening at St. Canice’s to a close. Mulling on the words of that poem, I think about how this group of musicians have all ploughed their own furrows and in doing so created something that now feels like it has a communal importance, and like all great art, an inevitability.

-Dylan Haskins

Air Abounds

August 14, 2014

Photograph by Ross Costigan

Yesterday I posted about Beethoven’s arrangement of Irish airs, today we feature the two largest installations at this year's Festival, both of which are both formed by that other kind of air – the invisible gaseous one.

For six hours every day (eight on weekends), a strange bulbous structure emerges on the prim lawns in front of Kilkenny Castle. While its shiny silver and brightly coloured skin resembles a dramatically oversized plastic child’s toy, its volumes are more akin to 19th century Iranian bazaar architecture. This is Pentalum, the latest touring construction by UK-based Architects of Air who have been creating luminaria like this since 1992. It doesn’t take much persuasion to entice a crowd to a giant inflatable maze and Pentalum seems to be every bit as popular as last years Miracoco structure.

With a last glimpse of daylight and shoes left at the door, entering Pentalum is an immediate change of environment. The combination of David Bickley’s ambient soundtrack and being immersed in natural light transformed to red, blue and green creates ethereal sensations. Adults wander, enthralled, while children bound corners into dead ends and try to figure out where to next. The designer, Alan Parkinson, has used a pentagon as the template for the main structural elements, and the entire conception is a celebration of the beauty of geometry.

Eschewing any apparent geometrical forms, but equally gaseous, are Canadian artist Max Streicher’s cloud forms. Streicher has attempted to bring the Outside In to St Mary’s Hall. Unlike the looming grey forms passing over the city as I duck into St. Mary’s Hall, Streicher’s clouds are all white, and made of light materials such as paper and nylon, hand-stitched to create these seemingly arbitrary organic forms. Suspended within the nave and transept, their purity contrasts with the patchwork paint, brick and stone fabric of the building’s walls.

Like many of the events at the Festival, the venue is as much of an attraction as the programme. Before the insertion of additional floors and partitions during the 1960s conversion to a parish hall, this was St Mary’s Church, the original parish church for the castle and a central presence in Kilkenny for over 800 years. When the church was deconsecrated in the 1950s it became disused and was later offered to the OPW. Bizarrely, the OPW argued at the time that it could only take ownership of the church if the roof was removed! Instead, it was converted and partitioned, a fate at least reversible and far better than that offered by the OPW. In 2009, Kilkenny Borough Council acquired the church and began a process to transform it into a new McCullough Mulvin-designed museum for the city, conserving the historic graveyard and removing all of the later partitions within. The first phase of preparatory works have been completed and a visit to the Outside In installation is the only chance to see this historic building stripped back to its bare volume.

-Dylan Haskins

Beethoven’s Irish Songs

August 12, 2014

Photograph by Ross Costigan

Irish airs end up in all sorts of places. Dropping into Cleere’s pub for a late bite on Monday night, I arrive mid trad-session. The young woman working behind the bar comes around to the perch by the door where the musicians are gathered and starts into Red is the Rose, a pretty ballad which shares its tune with The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond. That same air pops up unexpectedly and rather discreetly in a section of American indie band Vampire Weekend’s 2013 single Unbelievers.  Earlier that evening I had sat in the grandiose Long Gallery of Kilkenny Castle for The Irish Songbook – a performance of Beethoven’s arrangements of traditional Irish airs set to lyrics by the likes of Robert Burns, Thomas Moore and Oliver Goldsmith.

As the programme notes inform us, Beethoven composed more folksong settings than works of any other genre, and of these he arranged more traditional airs from Ireland than any other country. The account of how, as leading composer of the day, he was commissioned by Scottish collector and publisher George Thomson, who then commissioned other popular poets of the time to write the lyrics, reads like some sort of early 19th century hit factory.  Unfortunately these songs weren’t to achieve the same popularity as Thomas Moore’s contemporary Irish Melodies, perhaps as the appropriateness and quality of the lyrics were deemed ill-fitting for the music. The late Irish baritone Tomás Ó Súilleabháin (1919-2012) sought to make amends to this situation and shortly before his death completed a new edition, replacing the original lyrics with texts by Thomas Moore and Robert Burns. It is this edition which is performed tonight by mezzo-soprano Alison Browner, tenor Eamonn Mulhall, soprano Aoife O’ Sullivan, baritone David Howes and accompanied by The Fidelio Trio.

The opening song When I Was a Maid, with lyrics by James Kenney and performed by Alison Browner, warns of male deception of young maidens and how a mother’s advice to heed same is eternally destined to fall on deaf ears:

"When the honeymoon’s past,
The lovers forsake us, the husbands remain."

It’s set to an old air known alternately as Kitty Tyrrel or Caitlín Triall, the very same air used for the popular heartbreak ballad about losing a love to another - The Lambs on the Green Hill.

The concert is brought together with The Fidelio Trio’s impassioned performance of a Beethoven Piano Trio in D major, Op. 70 No. 1 (Ghost). The resumption of songs in the up-beat second half is less impassioned, though still accomplished, as the singers wear the lyrics lightly, sharing an occasional smile with the audience during some of the more humorous lines.

The evening proceedings are watched over by a cast of Ormonde family members from centuries past, whose faces adorn the walls of this 19th century picture gallery. Like the portraits of Hogwarts Castle in Harry Potter, it only takes a squint to imagine them nodding along in approval.

-Dylan Haskins

All Set for Tempest

August 9, 2014

Back in 2011, Electric Picnic’s Mindfield line-up featured a young and upcoming performance poet from south London. This was my first introduction to Kate Tempest. It was the summer of the London riots and we were both taking part in a panel discussion on that subject. As I and the other panelists opined on some of the issues involved, Tempest instead turned to the audience and asked if they would mind her responding with a poem. Her words were pithy and her delivery powerful, and the poem expressed more than any of us could.

Fast forward to June of this year – I’m standing at the back of the Jamaican-themed Rum Shack at the Glastonbury festival. A crowd of 800 are packed into the venue, with several people literally hanging from the rafters. An MC is on stage building the excitement and anticipation:

“I say Kate, you say ‘Tempest’ …Kate”

The crowd repeatedly and emphatically returns the call of “TEMPEST!” as the young poet from south London arrives on stage with her band to perform songs from her new show Everybody Down.

With her debut novel set to be published by Bloomsbury next year and a Ted Hughes Award for innovation in poetry under her belt, Tempest is a multi-talented proposition. Everybody Down is her first album, and is released on the Big Dada record label, making her label mates with the likes of Speech Debelle, Roots Manuva and Young Fathers.

Tonight is the Irish premiere of Everybody Down and likely the only chance to catch her in Ireland this year. Come 10.30pm, the Set Theatre will go off – if you’re wise you’ll be there, though swinging from rafters is not to be advised.

-Dylan Haskins

Heath Quartet begin their Beethoven Quest at St John’s

August 8, 2014

When you pass from the afternoon rain into Kilkenny’s former Augustinian priory of an August day, there’s plenty to be thankful for.

There’s the 13th century church of St John’s, which was once referred to as ‘the Lantern of Ireland’, owing to the beauty of its gothic windows. Cromwell, being of a generally unappreciative disposition towards many things, both inanimate and living, left the place in ruin after the siege of Kilkenny in 1650. Religious use didn’t properly resume there until 1817, when the Lady Chapel of the priory was reroofed and became the Protestant parish church of St John’s.

Now though, there are more immediate pleasures to be savoured, in the shape of Beethoven’s complete quartets, here performed in a 10-day cycle by the Heath Quartet (UK) as part of this year’s Kilkenny Arts Festival ‘Beethoven Quest’.

We begin with Opus 130 in B flat, with the alternative, shorter finale Beethoven was encouraged to write by his friend and publisher Matthias Artaria, as the original (which will be performed on Sunday 17th August) was too confusing for audiences.  It was also the last thing he ever composed.

The Heath Quartet arrived in Kilkenny on Thursday night, fresh from a performance at BBC Proms in London’s vast Royal Albert Hall. This is just the third time they’ve performed the full cycle, the last being at Edinburgh three years ago.

Sitting in Cleere’s the night before their first performance in the Marble City, they discuss the physically demanding nature of playing the cycle over ten consecutive days and the stamina required from each of them. I’m already impressed by their focus; they abstain from the pints of stout being poured beside them, so I’ve every faith in their ability. They’ll need it for the revised Opus 130 finale: although shorter and viewed as less imaginative than its predecessor, it’s more challenging to play.

The cycle of quartets are not performed in chronological order. Instead, the arrangement offers contrast between the early and late works. The Opus 18 quartets are mixed in with the Opus 59 ones; it dramatically demonstrates the evolution and ambition of Beethoven as a composer.

Many punters are opting to stay the distance for this ambitious musical journey, which builds towards a finale on Sunday 17th. For those dipping in and out, for one concert, two or ten, ducking and weaving among Beethoven’s finest work within the medieval walls of St John's is a glittering reward.

-Dylan Haskins

Dylan Haskins on board as guest blogger for 2014 Festival

August 7, 2014

We're delighted to welcome broadcaster and curator Dylan Haskins as our guest blogger for Festival 2014. 

Dylan presents coverage of the Other Voices series for and co-hosts the bi-monthly culture podcast Soundings with Irish singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan. The podcast is produced by the Sony Award-winning team behind Dermot O’Leary’s BBC Radio 2 show. Since 2009, Dylan has presented and reported on television and radio for RTE and BBC.

Dylan has been involved with 'DIY' initiatives since he was a young teenager running the Hide Away Records label and organising all-ages gigs with his friends. From there he became a proactive organiser and voice in Irish culture and arts. He has worked with Project Arts Centre in Dublin since 2004, most notably directing Roll Up Your Sleeves, a 2008 documentary about do-it-yourself counterculture, and in 2009 founding the collectively run arts centre Exchange Dublin. He has sat on the Project board of directors since 2009. In 2011, while still an undergraduate at Trinity College Dublin, Dylan stood as an independent candidate in the Irish General Election. He is currently a member of the Science Gallery Leonardo group and in 2012 he was Curator of Talks & Critical Events for Dublin Theatre Festival. 

Announcing further Kilkenny Arts Festival programme highlights!

May 27, 2014

In advance of our full programme launch 17 June we have just announced three more highlights ranging from one of the greatest musicians of our age to ancient sounds and epic stories from the first millennium! View our latest blog post below in the link below for full details.


Kilkenny Arts Festival 2014 First Festival Announcements

April 7, 2014

We're delighted to announce this morning the first of our festival highlights for 2014!

Check out the video for festival highlights which include a ten day lunchtime concert performance at St. John's Priory from Heath Quartet who present The Complete String Quartets of Beethoven as part of our Beethoven Quest this year; Barry Douglas and Camerata Ireland return to the festival following last year's success to present The Complete Piano Concertos of Beethoven as St. Canice's Cathedral; Shakespeare's Globe Theatre Company are making their way to the Castle Yard this August with Much Ado About Nothing and traditional Irish music supergroup The Gloaming will perform at St. Canice's Cathedral on Wednesday 13 August.

Tickets for all highlights are now available to book online - see here for events pages and booking details - with special bundle prices also available for the Heath Quartet shows.

Tell us your thoughts - tweet @kilkennyarts or use the hashtag #kaf14