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Breathmark: a unique and immersive experience

Writing.ie | Magazine | Interviews | Poets
Rory White

By Rory White

Breathmark is a sonic art piece born out of curiosity, tradition and technology. The oldest records indicate that the performance of poetry in Gaelic Ireland was normally accompanied by music, providing a point of continuity with past tradition while bolstering a sense of community in the present. Music would also offer, particularly for poets writing in English from the eighteenth century onwards, a perceived authenticity, a connection with an older tradition perceived as being untarnished by linguistic and cultural division. From the early bards who travelled early Ireland’s roads setting words to harp accompaniments to collaborations that attempt to move the listener beyond words into pure melody, poetry and music are in near constant dialogue on the island of Ireland.

The idea of the poetry reading is usually associated with family occasion party pieces, the more academically inclined book-in-hand lecture style readings or the putatively less ‘literary’ forms of performance poetry in the context of the poetry slam. Developments in audio technology allowed, for the first time, a more avant-garde approach to the connection between poetry and music which was intrinsically linked to developments in the world of contemporary music. Henri Chopin’s ‘sound poems’ find new meaning for the poetic voice by using tape recorders to manipulate the intelligibility of the words. Luciano Berio’s ‘Thema (Ommagio a Joyce)’ recorded and manipulated a reading of a page of Joyce’s Ulysses to produce a work radically akin to the sound poets’ experiments in deconstructing speech. Steve Reich’s ‘It’s gonna rain’ and ‘Different Trains’ used out of phase tape loops of documentary style voice recordings while blurring the lines between voice, music and technology. Laurie Anderson achieved huge commercial success with ‘O Superman’ while also furthering the complex matrix that exists between the embodied poetic voice, music and audio technology.

The thread between the poet and the musician in Ireland survives these 20th century explorations through works like Poet and Piper, a collaborative album between Seamus Heaney and Liam O’Flynn. Breathmark lies somewhere in between. Using the poetic voice to drive ambience effects within the music such as reverberation and delay feedback in an indeterminate way, the poetic voice affects the echo chamber of the music in a unique way each time you hear it. This creates the Breathmark effect – the poetic voice leaves an imprint on the composition of the music. The indeterminacy is created using randomised low frequency oscillators that guide the scope of the manipulations while using the poetic voice as the driving force.

The musical accompaniment also leans between two worlds, blending elements of traditional Irish music such a drones and melodies from Irish airs with more contemporary classical elements such as bouncing col lengo (using the wooden part of the bow) and circular bowing techniques.  Focussing the space needed for these manipulated ambience effects to ring out was a pillar upon which the musical ideas were developed. The music is also without meter or time signature, instead preferring to ebb and flow through the natural rhythm of the speech. Decidedly relying on the natural rhythm of the poetic voice blurs the relationship between the musical and poetic sounds, allowing for this relationship to be streamed out together, rather than having the voice contained by the development of the music.

Featuring poems and readings by Paula Meehan and live musical performance, Breathmark now steps out in front of an audience. Relying on the same intertwined connections that have been developed, Breathmark presents a unique and immersive experience that explores a new context for poetry and music.

(c) Rory White

The first performance of Breathmark will take place in the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin on Thursday 19th March at 6pm.

Rory White is a composer, musician from Dublin. Growing up studying classical music – playing the cello from age 5 in a household full of dedicated classical musicians for siblings – Rory gradually began to move away from the classical canon, instead preferring to busk on Grafton Street with his electric cello and loop station, take part in trad sessions around Dublin, and hang out in recording studios with bands and singer songwriters.

Early experiences with traditional Irish music fusions such as recording with John Sheahan (of the Dubliners) on his 2008 album The Marino Suite as part of Young European Strings Chamber Orchestra and getting to play in the National Youth Orchestra of Ireland with uilleann piper Liam O’Flynn and pianist/composer Michael O’Suilleabhain as soloists focussed Rory’s sights on the musical heritage of Ireland and the artists who continue to develop this tradition in our contemporary world. A chance opportunity to write and perform music as part of a poetry programme recorded live for RTÉ in 2016 lead to Rory hearing Paula Meehan reading her poems for the first time. Struck by this experience and coupled with an already fostered appreciation for words on the page, Rory pursued the possibility of a collaborative project with Paula that would use technology to explore a new connection between poetry and music, and so; Breathmark was born.

Rory is also a founding member of Glasshouse Ensemble, a new music group based in Dublin that is committed to supporting Irish artist’s across the contemporary and traditional worlds of Irish music. As a freelance musician, Rory has toured with bands such as Bell X1 and German electronic artist Christian Löeffler. As part of Irish composer Éna Brennan’s solo project Dowry, which combines traditional Irish and experimental musical styles, Rory has played across festivals in Ireland, including Other Voices festival in Dingle.

As a composer and sound designer for commercial music, Rory has worked for studios in New York and Dublin and has had his work featured in advertisements for company’s such as Jameson, Nike, and across exhibitions in the visitor experience of the Empire State Building.

Paula Meehan, poet and playwright, was born in Dublin where she still lives. She studied at Trinity College, Dublin, and at Eastern Washington University in the U.S. where she was a teaching fellow in the MFA programme. She has spoken at, and her work is studied in, universities in the United States including Yale, U of Virginia, Stanford, NYU, Boston University, EWU, Washington University, amongst many others. Her publisher in the US is Wake Forest University Press . She regularly hosts seminars and poetry workshops in Dublin for visiting undergraduate and post graduate students from the US as well as from other countries.

She has written plays for both adults and children, which have been performed at the National Theatre (The Abbey) and many other theatres in Ireland, in the UK, in the US, as well as in translation in other European countries.

Her seven award winning poetry collections have been translated into French, German, Galician, Italian, Japanese, Estonian, Spanish, Macedonian, Greek, Chinese, Portuguese and Irish. She has received the Butler Literary Award for Poetry presented by the Irish American Cultural Institute, the Marten Toonder Award for Literature, the Denis Devlin Award for Dharmakaya, published in 2000, the Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry from the University of St Thomas  in Minneapolis in 2015, the Society of Authors’ Cholmondeley Award for her most recent collection of poems, and the PPI Award for Radio Drama.

She was honoured with election to Aosdána, the Irish Academy for the Arts, in 1996. She was Ireland Professor of Poetry, 2013 – 2016, (the Irish Poet Laureate) and her public lectures from these years, Imaginary Bonnets with Real Bees in Them, was published by UCD Press in 2016.

She collaborates frequently with musicians, Irish and international. Her work has been scored for voice for many choirs. Musicians as diverse as folksinger Christy Moore,  avant garde composer John Wolf Brennan, and traditional composer Colm Mac an Iomaire have used her poetry and she regularly performs live with musicians.

Dan Mulhall, distinguished Irish Ambassador to the US, regularly tweets extracts from her poetry and she has been hosted at the Embassy in Washington and the Consulate in New York and has taken part in many cultural visits representing Ireland. She has performed on official state visits of our President Michael D. Higgins to China and to Greece.

Forthcoming from Dedalus Press is a major Selected Poems, which will survey her collections of poetry to date. This is due for publication in the autumn of 2020.


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