“As to the church organ itself, it seemed almost like a sample machine, like it could tap into sounds from different eras.”
Áine O’Dwyer is an Irish musician based in London whose recent double album of improvised organ music, Music for Church Cleaners vol. I & II, is a modern minimalist magnum opus of the highest order. With a background that combines Irish traditional music and contemporary performance, she has created a multi-layered, exploratory, and experiential work that begs questions of historicism and the social proximities of the everyday, as well as the presumed nature of records themselves. An erstwhile member of Irish free-folk band United Bible Studies, Áine recently travelled from London on her own (as she prefers) to perform a solo organ concert at the First Unitarian Congregational Society in downtown Brooklyn, courtesy of Issue Project Room. We met a few times during her stay in New York to discuss her work, touching on topics like Saturnalia and failed doomsday prophesies, punctuated along our way by Himalayan food and pay-what-you-wish spaghetti and beer.
Keith Connolly Firstly, congratulations on the success of Music for Church Cleaners, which just went into its second pressing with London-based MIE Records. To my ears, it’s a great record on multiple levels. Can you tell me a bit about its realization?
Áine O’Dwyer The sessions were recorded in 2011 at St. Mark’s Church in Islington. At the time, I was consciously looking for church spaces and had been involved in an exhibition at a church in Dalston, during ordinary time—meaning time that happens outside of ceremony. Serendipitously, when I came upon St. Mark’s for the first time there was no one in there apart from the sacristan, who noticed my presence as I was leaving and followed me out. She asked if everything was okay, or if I needed anything, and I told her, wishfully, that I’d been admiring the organ, really wishing I could play on it, but thinking that nothing at all would come of it. It’s still unclear to me whether at first she thought I might be some kind of wayward faith-seeker, which was not the case. But we ended up exchanging numbers and eventually came to an arrangement. I was given a slot to come and play there on Saturdays, along with the added “instrumentation” of the sounds of the church being cleaned, which was also scheduled to happen each week during my designated time, all of which really excited me. I had been making visual art performances at the time, and I was becoming browned off with my own practice. Although I was always involving a sound element in those performances, I was really yearning to explore the idea of sound as a vehicle of thought in relation to the themes I was interested in, and this opportunity gave me a chance to do that.
KC So you treated these sessions as exploration—going in, for example, without a score.
AO Yes. But I do believe in invisible scores, and also relating to the space in which you play. A lot of my earlier background had been in accompaniment, along with other instruments, and a lot of the time I’d have improvised accompaniment. Everyone that I’ve played with in the past has been a window of education for me, a window of knowledge.
KC Including the church cleaners at St. Mark’s?
AO Yes, including the church cleaners at St. Mark’s.
KC So it could be said that Music for Church Cleaners is as much an unconscious collaboration as it is an incidental performance for a captive audience?
AO There is a feeling of entrainment that happens quite a bit throughout the record. You get little slaps that happen in time with the music, and things I never could have planned or discussed with the cleaners beforehand, just things that happened creating an environment or an atmosphere, which in turn gave me an added awareness of my surroundings while playing. At points, I had intended to play for them, and then sometimes I was making music about them. And aside from the punctuated points where the sounds of their actions actually intercept through the music, I had an awareness of their presence, or non-presence, throughout the sessions.
KC There is a particularly vociferous exchange, which is a recurring element in the final sequence.
AO That is the voice of Shirley, the sacristan who had initially invited me. I was inclined to hold onto some notes for a long time, particularly notes of a bass nature in the lower register. She is responding to this, which is interesting to me. I like to imagine that she had experienced a kind of shock to her nether regions. (laughter)
KC The record, at certain points, sounds like a field recording or surveillance tape, for me calling to mind Charlemagne Palestine’s Jamaica Heinekens in Brooklyn or Graham Lambkin’s Amateur Doubles. Were you your own recordist?
AO Yes, which is something that carries over from my other practice, where I have typically been my own documentarian. There is a bit more of an intimacy with the space when you are on your own.
KC The sense or idea of space seems important to this work, as a church organ is typically a site-specific instrument, each with its own history of use in that particular place. How does this affect your approach and experience of the instrument?
AO I guess the first place to start would be my own body, what I carry around with me, my memory, and in the case of Music for Church Cleaners this definitely comes into play. As to the church organ itself, it seemed almost like a sample machine, like it could tap into sounds from different eras or different times. It was kind of like a time machine, for me. I find that some instruments have the capability to do that.
KC You are not primarily an organist.
AO I definitely wouldn’t call myself an organist. I’d find it hard to call myself a harpist even, really. But I do play the harp. I guess I started when I was eleven. I was taught by a nun, then after leaving the convent by a local teacher in Limerick City. I had particular frustrations with the harp, but continued on and got to experiment with it, collaborating with different people in the experimental field and free-folk scene in Ireland, and that helped me to envision something beyond tradition. I am not scolding tradition at all, but it is nice to see beyond it, and see the limitless possibilities, or at least try to. When I was younger I used to play at various events, christenings, weddings, funerals, all that sort of thing, sometimes in castles, for people eating dinner. It is kind of common in Ireland for a harpist to play at these kind of things. On some of these occasions I would have the opportunity to improvise and create a kind of ambient music, which itself becomes another kind of accompaniment. I like the idea of musique d’ameublement, or furniture music as Satie defined it, functioning as accompaniment.
KC Do you find that traditional elements creep into your organ improvisations?
AO The music comprising these volumes was kind of confessional in a way, and there were lots of influences that kind of came out unintentionally, from remembered hymns I couldn’t name to Turlough O’Carolan, the blind Irish harpist, to Boards of Canada… As with all improvised music, you come upon something and you follow it. Also, I was always interested in slowing down Irish music, allowing for the melody to become elongated. Because the melodies are beautiful, and they are in touch with something other than ourselves, in touch with the land, with nature.
KC Some, perhaps, even older than the church.
AO Yes, definitely. At the time of the recording I was reading Mikhail Bakhtin and researching Saturnalia and the idea of carnivalesque, and how the pagan beliefs and practices overlapped with the early church. The images on the album jacket are from a reliquary casket, fifth century Gaul, from the time when the early Christians were cleansing the area of pagans. You can see both Christian and pagan vigor in the representation, intermingling, with the images of the two thieves from the crucifixion surrounded by animals.
KC Do some of the titles of the pieces on the album also refer to these researches?
AO They do. “The Feast of Fools,” for example. Part of the idea behind the festival of Saturnalia is the overthrowing of the dominant society and introducing a sense of chaos, almost of chaotic comedy. Also “The Little Lord of Misrule,” with the idea of a child becoming the person who leads, or the priest. Another theme that Saturnalia touches upon is the apocalypse, again an overthrowing or the coming of a revolution, the coming of Saturn. During my time recording at the church and in my research I came upon an evangelical preacher named Harold Camping, who had made a prediction that the world would come to an end on May 21, 2011. I happened to be in the church on that day, and realized that his prediction was not happening. I made a piece dedicated to him in homage, “Harold Camping’s Lament.” I find that there is a great sense of comedy in failed predictions.
KC Having been a member of United Bible Studies and producing Music for Church Cleaners, there might seem a preponderance of church-related or (dare I say) Christian content or subtext to your work. Could you explain a bit this relationship?
AO In the case of United Bible Studies, this was not my work, per se, and the band already had their name when I became involved. Having been brought up in a country and a culture that is heavily ruled by its religion, there is a conflict within me, and I am still trying to correct myself from this kind of conditioning. I think everyone is conditioned by some sort of oppression. The best thing you can do is to try to be aware at all times of where you come from, and where your situation has brought you. The history of the church in Ireland is very patriarchal, and the church becomes a symbol or seat of that experience, so I suppose my work is a subversion of that, in a way. A true love is not possible within the strictures or confines of such a hierarchical system. I am more interested in a spirituality without ideology, if you know what I mean.
KC You had mentioned a recent interest in and exploration of keening.
AO I was asked to make some music for a film that was based in Kabul, and I wrote a song based on Aeschylus’s Persae, which was a lament. At the time I had done some research into Persian lament, and I found some connections with Irish music, and the Irish lamentation, or keening. You can find many connections between Indian ragas and the Persian or Arabic and the Irish and Celtic music, with the emotion conveyed by the rising up and down between notes, to convey mourning, which interests me.
KC Interestingly, one of the earliest known examples of tape music is a recording of the Zaar ceremony by the Egyptian composer Halim El-Dabh in 1944. A pagan trance religious ceremony for the healing of madness not dissimilar in aspect to Haitian Vodou, though matriarchal. Legend has it that El-Dabh dressed as a woman to gain access to the ceremony to make the recording, the sound of which today is still quite extraordinary.
AO All of these of course standing back from the West or Westernized music, or tonalities of the keyboard, and from Bach, etc.—closer to the animal, a different kind of emotion.
Portions of this interview were broadcast on WKCR fm New York on November 11, 2015. Special thanks to Tommy McCutcheon.
Keith Connolly is a founding member of the No-Neck Blues Band—a seven-piece improvised-music collective—and a contributing editor at BOMB.