Back in 1649, Oliver Cromwell's army stormed the city of Drogheda. The defenders were a mix of English Royalists and Irish Confederates. They had declined to surrender when Cromwell arrived, so Cromwell's army massacred them. Some of the defenders barricaded themselves into St. Peter's Church; Cromwell's troops set fire to the building, burning to death those inside. Cromwell wrote back to London that one of those inside cried out: "God damn me, God confound me; I burn, I burn".
I found myself in the same church, now restored, at the beginning of May. As part of some crazy arts festival taking place in Drogheda, well-known minimalist composer Terry Riley was in town, with the musical aspect of the festival being focussed on his work. Please bear in mind that I am a total slackass who did not take any notes, and that this was all some time ago, so my report on the event now is going to be a bit sketchy.
The performance stated with Riley playing away on a piano while doing funny vocal noises. This all reinforced the sense of Riley as the crazy hippy of the classical music world. Then he played some piano while his son Gyan (or Norbert, as some unkindly dubbed him) played on guitar. This section was not popular with everyone, though I recall enjoying it.
After an interval, Riley was joined by the Crash Ensemble (now seemingly without the one of them I met at a wedding). First they performed a piece with the grandiose name of 'Loops For Ancient-Giant-Nude-Hairy-Warriors Racing Down The Slopes Of Battle'. I gather this was somewhat inspired by the landscape in that part of the world, the nearby megalithic sites with their spiral patterns, and stuff like the Gaelic legend of the Táin Bó Cúailnge (much of which is set in those parts).
This was relatively short, and followed by the main event – a performance of 'In C'. This is one where a certain knowledge of how the piece works musically helps in its appreciation. Basically, Riley wrote the music as a series of modules. The musicians (who can be playing any instrument) all start off together playing and repeating the first module. When any of them wants to, they can move on to the next module. And then on to the next. The piece ends when all the musicians have reached the last module and played it together for a bit. So the overall piece will be a bit different every time it is played, even though it is a composed piece where the musicians are playing the notes they are told to play. It is like improvisation and robot musician music, together at last.
Of course, fascinating concepts can make for less than exciting music (isn't this what people say about Schoenberg?). In this case, though, the music delivered the goods, with 'In C' turning out to be a shimmering, hypnotic, sorcerous mass of music. I found myself being transported to another dimension of consciousness by it. I recommend it strongly if you ever get a chance to see it performed. The one downside was that it maybe went on a bit, perhaps because some of the Crash Ensemble were not keeping up and staying too long on the early modules. In an of itself this would not be a bad thing, in that the piece was very enjoyable to listen to, but it did mean that we did not get out to the delightful pub across from the church before closing time.
The great lesson I learned from this concert is that music festivals are way more crack if they are focussed on composers you can get to show up to your festival. I reckon that the Living Music people should tell any composers that if they want to be the star of their festival then they had better be prepared to show up. Basically, it is way more fun to applaud a work if the composer is there to smile back at you.
The more general lesson I learned is that Drogheda, and county Louth generally seems bizarrely to be a hotbed of interest in contemporary music generally. They are bringing over some funny Estonian lot in September to play more crazy music (while I will be in Amsterdam, sadface). The good folk of the Louth Contemporary Music Society are also piggy-backing on the next Living Music festival to get Arvo Pärt up to press the flesh there next year. I almost wish I lived in Drogheda (its signal lack of restaurants would rather put me off the place, though).