REVIEW: Aidan O’Rourke and Kit Downes at Heath Street Baptist Church, Hampstead

Kit Downes, Aidan O'Rourke
Photo credit: Ariane Todes

Aidan O’Rourke and Kit Downes
(Heath Street Baptist Church, Hampstead, 24 April 2018. Review by Dominic Williams)

The origins of this project are simple, if extraordinary. Scottish author James Robertson wrote a 365-word story every day for a year and published them in a volume called 365. Scottish fiddler and composer Aidan O’Rourke wrote tunes inspired by the stories, one a day for a year. He enlisted Kit Downes to accompany him, mainly on harmonium, in the studio and on this tour. (As Downes subsequently wrote 52 piano pieces for right-hand only in 52 days (LINK), this kind of thing may be contagious). On some gigs Robertson also read some of the matching stories, but here they were read by the musicians and two guests.

What could a combination of stories, fiddle and harmonium possibly sound like? Ivor Cutler? John Cale? Penguin Café Orchestra’s Music for a Found Harmonium? Answer: none of the above, of course. The domestic settings of the stories do draw comparisons with Cutler’s Life in a Scotch Sitting Room (he lived in Hampstead as well). Robertson does not have Cutler’s whimsical fantasy , however, and is much more interested in the emotional ambiguity of small domestic events.

Musically, Aidan O’Rourke is a Gaelic fiddler who has constantly absorbed other influences, including jazz, in a way that erodes musical boundaries rather than tearing them down. This is not punk. He has a long list of innovative folk collaborations to his credit and has been writing for non-traditional instruments and voices as well, so this is not a one-off change of tack. As a performer, he is obviously a great talent and a pleasure to see and hear. I am just sorry I do not know enough about fiddle playing to do him full justice.

Kit Downes is best known to jazz listeners for his piano trio albums, but he arrived here fresh from two albums of organ music and a collaboration with Josienne Clarke, the folk singer. The choice of harmonium allowed him to draw on his organ playing influences – church music, folk tunes and Maurice Ravel – as well as jazz. It also filled the role in Gaelic music usually taken by bagpipes or accordion. So he could explore different styles of accompaniment – sustaining the same left hand chord for several bars to mimic a drone, doubling the melody, or ornamenting with right hand runs. In between, he added a huge range of harmonies and shading of textures and tone that took the pieces well away from a traditional interpretation. There are two YouTube versions of Do People Still Do This? featuring O’Rourke playing with Downes and with Atlantic Arc Orchestra, a more traditional line-up, that show exactly how much the accompaniment changes the piece.

A common generalisation is that in Gaelic music the melody carries the structure of the piece and the accompanists fill in, whereas in jazz the chords generally carry the structure and the soloist improvises on top. The pieces we heard were varied and inventive in approach. The players took turns to start and lay down the structure. Some of them broadly followed a folk structure, were played from memory and sounded largely traditional. Others had written charts and classical composition elements. Downes played one piece on the chapel’s battered upright Bechstein that had a strongly- marked chord progression – music for a found piano, perhaps. Overall you have to admire O’Rourke as a composer for being so prolific without resorting to repetition or minor variation. In 365 works, it is a reasonable guess he had a few off days but the pieces we heard (which were often not introduced by name) were of a consistently high standard.

The PR describes this music as “sparse” and I could use other off-putting adjectives like “esoteric” or “demanding” but I don’t want to put you off. Was it good? Yes. Did I like it? Yes. This music is new and unusual and it might take a few listens to get under its skin, but the effort will be well rewarded. The CD/book stall was doing brisk business at the interval, so it seems the rest of the audience would agree with that.

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