Cathy Desmond talks to Liam Byrne, who is to bring the sound of the viola da gamba to Kilkenny as part of the city’s arts festival.
LIAM Byrne made an unusual musical choice growing up in the US. While most teenagers picked up a guitar, Byrne’s instrument of choice was more Renaissance than rock’n’roll.
“I discovered the viola da gamba at 18. What drew me to it was the incredibly beautiful and resonant sound that was very malleable.”
For ‘Inside Voices’ Byrne will be installed with his viol over four afternoons in Talbot’s Tower at Kilkenny Castle, where he will perform a piece of Baroque music for just one member of the public at a time. Each ‘audience’ is allotted five minutes and the first afternoon is already fully subscribed.
Byrne spent a week similarly occupied inside Trajan’s Column at London’s V&A Gallery in 2015.
“The inspiration was to give the public a perspective on Baroque music that they don’t normally get. Usually the music is heard in a concert hall with the audience sitting in the dark and musicians on stage but that isn’t how the music was originally performed.”
Byrne observes that in modern life we experience musical intimacy as we create private musical worlds for ourselves through music heard digitally on headphones.
“I wanted to go back to more human roots of musical expression. It won’t be intimidating I’m not Marina Abramovic,” he jokes. “It’ll be an opportunity to share a musical experience in a beautiful space and the acoustics in the tower are incredible.”
The viol family flourished during the 16th and 17th century. A chest of viols was the box set for home entertainment in well-to-do Elizabethan households. Byrne describes the viola da gamba as being like a cross between a guitar and a cello. It’s fretted and held like a cello and played with a bow. The instrument has enjoyed a resurrection with the growth of the early music movement and in 1991, Tous Les Matins du Monde, starring Gerard Depardieu threw a cinematic spotlight on the instrument.
For his solo gig at Rothe House, he includes some pieces from that soundtrack with new pieces by contemporary composers. The instrument is in vogue both with classical and popular artists. Damon Albarn and Elvis Costello have written for it. Byrne cites a piece by British composer George Benjamin, Upon Silence in 1989 as being pivotal in spring boarding a new phase of writing for the instrument.
“It is exciting that the instrument is getting to exist not just as a historical curiosity but a powerful tool of expression in its own right.”
Byrne is joined by American viola player, Nadia Sirota for a late night performance of contemporary work. The programme features the premiere of Tessellatum by Donnacha Dennehy, which incorporates electronics with Dennehy’s customary energetic pulsating style. All three are leading lights of Bedroom Community, an international collective based in Reykjavik dedicated to new music.
“What is most exciting about the emerging new wave of musicians is that we’ve all worked in a wide variety of music environments and bring experience of working with orchestras and rock bands. Both Nadia and I have played in dingy dive bars and fancy concert halls and it is kind of the same thing.”
Pressed for other highlights choices at the festival, Byrne says he hopes to catch Quatuor Mosaiques and fiddle player, Martin Hayes. “There are fascinating parallels between Martin’s approach to playing traditional Irish music and the way 17th century music is constructed. I’ve learned a lot about old music by watching him play.”
Liam Byrne performs at Inside Voices, Talbot Tower, Saturday and Sunday –Friday 18/Saturday August 19. Free but ticketed.
Marble City Sessions Solo at Rothe House on Monday and with Nadia Sirota at Set Theatre next Wednesday.
And with Crash Ensemble and Sam Amidon at St Canice’s Cathedral on Thursday next.
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