Crash Ensemble Interview: “Keep pushing the boundaries of contemporary music.”

crash ensemble

Crash Ensemble play Cork on September 16th as part of the Sounds From A Safe Harbour festival.

What is Crash Ensemble? Something pretty special. Founded twenty years ago by composer Donnacha Dennehy, it is a collective that aims to create and play some of the most adventurous and inventive music of the modern age. Their current project is titled CrashLands. It is an endeavour that has commissioned new works from 20 Irish and international composers. In turn these works will be performed in the most unusual rural settings across the country.

We spoke to Neva Elliott McGinley, visual artist and CEO of Crash Ensemble, about this ambitious project, the importance of moving forward and breaking tradition, and the future plans for CrashLands.

Overblown: You’ve been taking your recent live performances out to some unusual rural locations around Ireland. Why is that?

Crash Ensemble: Crash have been out on tour this summer with CrashLands, a series of ten concerts throughout Ireland in iconic rural environments; islands (Long Island, Cork, Inishbofin, Galway) a lighthouse on Arranmore Island, Donegal, Kilkenny Castle, the gothic ruin of Duckett’s Grove in Carlow, the domestic splendour of Holywell House in Carrick-on-Shannon, Aistear Park maze in Mountshannon, Co. Clare, the 7th century Cashel Cahergal Ringfort in Co.Kerry, and Spike Island, the monastic island turned prison off the coast of Cobh in Cork.

Overblown: The project is CrashLands, which features new work from 20 Irish and international composers. Where did the idea from the project come from?

Crash Ensemble: The group had our twentieth birthday coming up this year, and like any birthday thoughts turned to the party and who to invite.

We asked twenty composers, who have worked with us over the years or who we wanted to work with to write us new pieces for our birthday.

We then had these twenty birthday candles from Peter Adriaansz, Gerald Barry, Ed Bennett, Linda Buckley, Seán Clancy, Ann Cleare, Tansy Davies, Donnacha Dennehy, Roger Doyle, Amanda Feery, Michael Gordon, Andrew Hamilton, David Lang, Paul Lansky, Kate Moore, Nico Muhly, Naomi Pinnock, Kevin Volans, Jennifer Walshe and Julia Wolfe.

So we had to come up with the cake…

We wanted to really make the most of our birthday commissions, for our home audience but also our international audience. The idea for CrashLands came from thinking about how to create magical experiences for the birth of each piece and how we present ourselves as an Irish new music group with an international following.

We decided to hit the road and premiere the works around Ireland in these outdoor sites, creating boutique experiences for the live audience but also amazing music videos for an international audience. For that we were joined on the tour by filmmaker Brendan Canty (Feel Good Lost), sound engineer Bob Jackson and crew, to film each concert, and create a behind the scenes documentary.

To up the ante just that bit more we invited the bilingual poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa to travel with us; to create a new work in response to the music, the locations, to Crash, which she reads from at each gig.

Overblown: Are there any of those performances that stand out as memorable? Why?

Crash Ensemble: All of them are memorable in their own way. In each space the audience receive a very different experience; sitting on picnic blankets, grass covered hills and cliff edges, with their family/friends/dogs drinking coffees or beer, watching the sunset, sunrise, beam gloriously from cotton wool tufted blue skies or huddle from the threatening gloom.

The first CrashLands was on Long Island, West Cork. We performed on the edge of a cliff with the sun setting behind us. The audience came over on the ferry, and when that sold out they took to their own boats and kayaks to make sure they didn’t miss out. Sea birds were whirling around our heads, the audience stretched out on the grass around us and the sound of the lapping waves intermingled with the music.

The second performance was on a beach on Inishbofin Island off the Galway coast, with crew shifting a spaghetti junction of sand coated cables each time the tide crept close enough to nip our heels. After an evening whirling around the island in the back of a hiace van, pints and tayto dinners we performed a second time in the community hall to locals including school and creche children, some of whom had their ride-on plastic tractors and donkeys commandeered by the entertainment…

There was the 5am concert start at St Patrick’s holy well in Clonmel, the audience drifted down the flights of stone steps by the light of mobile phones, a procession of electrical fireflies. Early risers gripping coffees, late-to-beders swigging from cans, and curious cows drawn by the music, peeling off in canters at each burst of applause. Audience members creating their own pilgrimage, standing feet and legs in the icy well waters, breaking pain barriers to coup the vaunted health benefits.

Overblown: The aim of the project is to break freak of tradition. Why is that important to you?

Crash Ensemble: It really important to the ensemble to keep moving forward to keep pushing the boundaries of contemporary music. Contemporary music is about the new and the next. We don’t just want to play existing repertoire or even commission new work, we look at who we work with how we present work and engage with audiences. We accept tradition but use it as a foundation to embroider over or deviate from.

Overblown: The tour is drawing to a close at this stage. How do you feel about that?

Crash Ensemble: There is some relief it planning gigs where don’t have to keep checking the weather or ask if there is an electricity supply! But we will also miss it, it’s great to play together so often and be challenged – by the music and by the context. Most of all I think we come away with a feeling of near in-vince-ability. No stage, no power, no roof? No problem…

Overblown: The performances and project have been well received in a number of major publications. How gratifying is that?

Crash Ensemble: It’s great of course! There can be some hesitancy from audiences in engaging with new music. Of relegating it to the ‘hard stuff’ silo.

We’ve tried to switch the focus from feeling you have to know something about the music before you can listen, to coming to an event for the experience – have a good time, create a memory. Hopefully that has and will introduce people music they like, love and want to listen to more of.

Its great to get the media coverage, it might perk some interest of those who couldn’t make it and they will turn up at the next Crash gig, listen to us on spotify or check out the videos from the tour.

If we are being adventurous perhaps some listeners will be to and climb on in with us.

Overblown: What’s next for Crash Ensemble?

Crash Ensemble: CrashLands hasn’t ended yet!

Soon we will be heading into the studio to record all twenty works for an album which comes out in 2018.

This winter will see the release of the CrashLands tour videos on CrashLands.ie.

In November we perform all twenty works from CrashLands mover two nights at the National Concert Hall, Dublin, with the tour films and readings from Doireann Ní Ghríofa.

You can find out about all that and our other upcoming gigs, recordings and adventures at crashensemble.com

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