Emma Coulthart

Live – New Music from Ireland (Emma Coulthard)

Cath Barton travelled to Chapter Arts Centre to witness a St Patrick’s Day performance from flautist Emma Coulthart, in which she presents a concert of Irish music in partnership with CMC.

It was reported in January of this year that, after a ten year gap, Ireland would be reopening its Consulate in Cardiff. This is a move to ensure that whatever happens with Brexit, political and economic ties can be maintained between Wales and Ireland. It is also important as regards cultural ties, and at a concert of new music from Ireland held at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff, Linda O’Shea Farren from the Contemporary Music Centre, Ireland, welcomed the new Consul, Denise Hanrahan, who will shortly be taking up her post.

The concert was curated by the prolific commissioner of new music, Cardiff-born and Dublin-raised flautist Emma Coulthard, who wanted to present something other than the “usual expected greenery” in celebration of Irish music for St Patrick’s Day. Performing herself, with and alongside composer/performers Jenn Kirby and Benjamin Dwyer, she presented a programme of fresh and exciting new music.

Emma Coulthard opened her set with One Minute for St Patrick, written by Frank Corcoran for the occasion. She described it as “a piece to chase the snakes away”, which it surely would have done, had any been lurking in the corners of the theatre at Chapter Arts. Fergus Johnston’s Planxty (2018) was also written for Coulthard, and includes recorded and sampled sounds from her playing, leading to a fascinating aural wandering (one of the possible meanings of the word Planxty), including what she herself described as sounds like “ants typing on the surface of Jupiter”! It’s a playful piece, in contrast to the dark drama of Benjamin Dwyer’s Crow from Scenes from Crow (2010), which is based on Ted Hughes’s poetry of the same name. This piece requires the use of a glissando headjoint on the flute, giving an extra dimension to its voice.

The flute set was completed by the world premiere of John McLachlan’s Filament 1, a work in the tradition of Berio’s single instrument Sequenzas, and the UK premiere of les oiseaux rêvent dans les arbres (2011), containing echoes of Debussy and Honegger.

Swansea-based Jenn Kirby composes for voice and electronics. There was, in her performance of an extract from The Phonetics Project, a – perhaps unplanned and unforeseen – dance element as well as her exploration of the voice. Kirby told us afterwards that she was using equipment from an on-line golf game, material which enabled her to manipulate sound in several ways at once. Hence, as she drew the lines out, up, back and round about, the emergence of the dance!

Kirby’s other piece, Take a Trip, was an apparently light-hearted Ziggy Stardust-esque robot song containing a serious message about the difficulties of communication and need for tolerance. Food for thought.

The third set was devoted to Benjamin Dwyer on guitar, the pieces all his own compositions apart from the UK premiere of John McLachlan’s mesmeric Sympathetic Strings (2017) for guitar and tape. Dwyer demonstrated how virile an instrument the guitar can be, from the crisp sounds of his Etudes (2008) to the different voices which emerge by ‘deconstructing’ the instrument through division of the fret head, in an extract from KnowingUnknowing (2019), a work recently launched in Dublin. Works for prepared piano are not uncommon, but who knew the prepared guitar could be equally interesting?! Here, as in Jenn Kirby’s work, there are visual elements to the performance. I was particularly engaged watching the way in which the hands work separately in Etude No 6 – African Print, with its neat concluding riff of the right hand on the wood.

This concert of new treasures concluded with a third world premiere – HAG from SacrumProfanum, a larger work in progress by Benjamin Dwyer, for flute and guitar. In this Emma Coulthard’s flute is the Sheela Na Gig – the Hag of the title –  speaking out, angry, rejecting the male gaze. The piece requires the player to vocalise as she plays, in what the composer himself admitted are ‘unreasonable’ ways. He, on bowed guitar, behind her and facing the other way, provides a jagged landscape against which the flautist and her instrument raise their voices. It proved a most powerful piece.

Illuminated by the short post-performance conversations between MC Linda O’Shea Farren and the performers and composers present, this concert was a beautiful present from Ireland to Wales and demonstration that our musical links are alive and strong.

Cath Barton’s debut novella, The Plankton Collector, is published by New Welsh Review under their Rarebyte imprint.