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Linda BUCKLEY (b. 1979)
From Ocean’s Floor
Ó Íochtar mara (From Ocean’s Floor), for voice, ensemble and electronics (2015) [21:46]
Fridur, for piano and electronics (2015) [12:02]
Discordia, for percussion and electronics (2018) [11:17]
Haza, for string quartet and electronics (2016) [14:29]
Kyrie, for voice and electronics [9:50]
Exploding Stars, for violin and electronics (2011) [8:17]
Linda Buckley (electronics)
Iarla Ó’Lionáird (voice); Isabelle O’Connell (piano); Joby Burgess (percussion); Darragh Morgan (violin)
Crash Ensemble
ConTempo Quartet
Rec. 2016-19
Gaelic texts and translations for Ó Íochtar mara included
NMC D258 [78:17]

This is a seriously impressive disc. I note that it was listed among The Guardian’s top ten folk albums of the year for 2020, an accolade which reinforces my view that genre distinctions within art music (whatever THAT might mean….) become ever more redundant. As it is I certainly hope such recognition attracts more listeners to Linda Buckley’s simultaneously discomfiting and alluring music. I wanted to use the word ‘singular’ to describe her work – in fact the piece that lends the album its title employs the distinctive talents of the extraordinary sean-nós (“old style”) Irish singer Iarla Ó’Lionáird, a mesmeric performer whom I have previously encountered on disc performing Grá agus Bás, a hypnotic work for singer and ensemble by another Irish composer, Donnacha Dennehy (Nonesuch 527063-2, accompanied again by the Crash Ensemble). I would argue that Buckley’s piece is even more affecting although it’s actually more austere in its use of drones and in her limiting of the instrumentarium to a string quartet. In any case the five other works on the disc provide ample evidence of an original thinker whose music owes less to Bang on a Can-type post-minimalism than Dennehy’s (I certainly don’t mean this pejoratively); it seems to derive much more of its grit from traditional Irish influences.

Ó Íochtar mara (From Ocean’s Floor) is a song-cycle comprising four movements; the singer is accompanied by a string quartet and the composer’s own electronic manipulations. Christopher Fox’s opening gambit in the booklet is to cite the late Irish musicologist Bob Gilmore’s conclusion (from more than a decade ago) that Buckley’s work tends towards the “ecstatic”. I suspect most listeners to this music would absolutely concur. Listening to this luminous, touching sequence for the first time, her imaginative use of the drone to anchor the swell and texture of the music throughout immediately brought to my mind the spirit (if not the letter) of those wonderful Sequentia recordings of Hildegard of Bingen; the first two settings are slow-moving affairs although the vocal lines, which are masterfully delivered by the honeyed voice of Iarla Ó’Lionáird, incorporate ornamentation of remarkable subtlety and ravishing beauty. The string textures are simple and comforting. The four Gaelic texts, which span some 1400 years, each present writers’ responses to significant personal loss and seem to address personal approaches to grieving. In the third song Gealach agus Grian (Sun and Moon) Buckley provides a drone sound apparently derived from one of the milking machines on the family farm. This is the most spacious and contemplative of the settings, Ó’Lionáird weaving his elaborate magic above the frozen string and electronic timbres which only rarely (and always tellingly) stray from immobility. The concluding panel is a setting of Caitlin Maude’s poem Aimhréidh (Entanglement) – Buckley’s music is at its most ‘marine’ here – the emotional impact of the text amplified by Ó’Lionáird’s whispered speech at its two key moments. Buckley’s genius is in this remarkable cycle lies in the crafting of something genuinely new and strange from instrumental and synthetic resources that are far from unfamiliar. Her adoption of the sean-nós style (and the Gaelic tongue) in Ó Íochtar mara helps to bind the listener to the distant past and strikes one as utterly unaffected and sincere.

In Fridur (The Icelandic word for ‘peace’) consonant chords are bathed in delicate haloes of gleaming, frost-white electronics. At first the music seems calm enough, it projects ‘otherness’ yet sounds most attractive; roughly a third the way through the piano part builds in mobility and variety, apparently finding the confidence to negotiate the frozen landscape. Fridur strikes me as being as much a study of light as it is of inner or outer states. In its final section the pianist’s rapidly repeated notes struggle to keep up with the mandolin-like shimmer of the electronics; low octaves provide a pedal and suggest an ever-broadening landscape. The crashing octaves beneath the atmospherics in the closing bars are both monolithic and noirish. It is played with commitment and relish by Isabelle O’Connell.

Discordia is scored for a strange percussion instrument called a Canna Sonora -Fox describes it as a set of “vertical aluminium rods (stroked with) rosin impregnated gloves”. The first half of the piece inhabits a radiant, extra-terrestrial soundscape which might conceivably have been produced by a completely updated BBC Radiophonic Workshop. It’s certainly difficult to detect where the weird sonorities of the Canna Sonora end and the electronics begin. Buckley roughens the textures gradually from the halfway point which effects a decidedly more urban, industrial feel, an apparent allusion to the composer’s temporary residence in New York (during her Fulbright scholarship) in late 2016 when the US election dynamic was turning decidedly populistic and ugly. The massive, synthetic sounds may be harsh, but they’re compelling and not unattractive.

Haza (Hungarian for ‘home’) was written at around the same time to a commission by the ConTempo Quartet for a recital work to be placed alongside Bartók’s Fourth Quartet. The title is a reflection on the Hungarian composer’s unhappy, homesick final years in the Big Apple. though the sound of Haza suggests no obvious link to Bartók until its closing pages. The slow string chords that inhabit much of Ó Íochtar mara turn up here too. The piece adopts a tripartite form – in the first section ‘Wonder’ Buckley meshes great waves of breathy electronic sound with glassy textures before shards of high string notes hover above the sound picture in ‘Float’. When the quartet sound is liberated from the electronics in the closing ‘Rise, Home’ section a rawer, brittler timbre emerges whose mildly Bartókian trappings are gradually shed as Haza skips inexorably toward an abrupt conclusion.

Kyrie pits a sprawling cavernous glassiness against the composer’s own voice, which emerges seamlessly from the synthetic backcloth and is absorbed back within. It’s an arresting arc of technological potential which certainly sounds magnificent, although it strikes me more as a study or experiment than as something which bears weightier emotional significance.

In Exploding Stars, the final work on this generous NMC survey, a folk-like arpeggiated violin line opens proceedings before more mysterious and sombre material competes to drive the piece. In time the electronics begin to dominate whilst Darragh Morgan’s occasional glides and leaps suggest folk fiddling. The repetitions in Exploding Stars might superficially hint at minimalism, but its music actually seems to be in a constant state of flux. Peculiar knockings towards its denouement sound ominous, and the piece ultimately assumes a grandeur which was unsuspected at its outset, and which presumably alludes the vastness of the night sky.

The performances of each of the solo performers and ensembles on this disc suggest a profound sense of commitment to this composer, whilst NMC’s sound is outstanding – since hearing the disc I have acquired the Hi-Res files which offer one of the most compelling electro-acoustic experiences I have ever had the pleasure to hear. Christopher Fox’s notes are characteristically helpful and devoid of empty flattery. I greatly look forward to hearing much more of Linda Buckley’s music in the future. She certainly merits her place amongst the current generation of talented Irish composers which includes Deirdre Gribbin, Ed Bennett, Jennifer Walshe, Gerard Barry and Donnacha Dennehy. The Emerald Isle is suddenly building a formidable reputation in the new music firmament. A rival for Iceland, perhaps?

Richard Hanlon

1-4 Ó Íochtar mara: Iarla Ó’Lionáird (voice), Linda Buckley (electronics), Crash Ensemble
5 Fridur: Linda Buckley (electronics)
6 Discordia: Joby Burgess (percussion); Linda Buckley (electronics)
7 Haza:, Linda Buckley (electronics)
8. Kyrie: Linda Buckley (voice and electronics)
9 Exploding Stars: Darragh Morgan (violin), Linda Buckley (electronics)

Tracks 1-5 and 7 rec December 2019 at Hellfire Studio, in Dublin, Ireland.
Tracks 6 and 9 rec October 2019 at All Saints Church, East Finchley, London
Track 8 rec in November 2016 in an apartment in Brooklyn, USA



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