Icelandic and Irish united by gamelan

A novel collaboration at the Midsummer Festival will see Amiina work with primary school students from Cork for a unique concert, writes Nicki ffrench Davis

GAMIINA, presented by Cork Opera House as part of Cork Midsummer Festival, promises to offer everything one might hope for in a festival show.

It’s a one-off performance by an international group featuring new material. It’s also a community collaboration with children who benefit from a 12-week preparation before taking to the Opera House stage. And it’s a first-time performance for Cork’s newest professional music ensemble.

For Cork Opera House director Mary Hickson it’s the culmination of several years of development. “I suppose this is something that’s been boiling for a long time and this is the right moment for it to happen,” Hickson says. “It started when I was with the Dun Laoghaire Festival of World Cultures. I was always fascinated with the music of Iceland, mostly the music of Sigur Rós.”

The sextet Amiina started life as a string quartet who performed regularly with Sigur Rós. “I invited them over to play the festival. I’m always trying to give opportunities for artists to engage with each other, so they collaborated with Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and Donal Dineen. When you bring artists that way you get so spend time with them and talk a lot and get to know them.”

In 2010 Hickson got Arts Council funding to travel with a group of artists to visit Amiina in Iceland to spend more time and play music together. “I then invited them to Cork Opera House to play for the jazz festival in 2011 and they all hung around for a few days. I wanted to show them the creative energy in the city.

“When I told them that we had a Javanese gamelan orchestra in UCC, I swear to God, they lost the plot,” Hickson remembers. “They said ‘Oh my God can we get up there?’ It was very obvious that they had had internal conversations about gamelan. So I brought them up and we spent an afternoon in the Seomra Gamelan and I showed them round the instruments and we were playing away together. They asked could I get them back to Cork to spend more time with it.” The seed for Gamiina was sown.

Hickson had regularly played Amiina’s music to her own two children. “There’s something really accessible for children in their music, it’s playful and ethereal,” she says. “Then I started thinking that there’s maybe something in the gamelan for children. I thought about how easy it is to play to begin with. It’s easy to just walk in and get straight into it once you can hold a rhythm.”

She approached the 6th class students from Cork Educate Together school with a video made by Amiina inviting them to join a project. “I wanted them to learn the principles of the gamelan orchestra, but rather than learn the Javanese music to interpret the music of Amiina,” Hickson says.

The children have 12 weeks playing the gamelan for a few hours every Friday. “They’ve worked up three interpretations of Amiina’s music. Last time I visited it was very emotional to watch them do it. They’re improvising, adding new elements themselves, they’re really engaged.

“It’s really special for the kids. The concert will happen in their last week of primary school.”

A special ‘foursquare’ website has been set up to showcase the project and each of the children. “The show is on the 24th of June and there’s 24 in the class, so since June 1st we’ve been celebrating a child a day,” Hickson explains. “They all got diaries on the first day which are full of stories and doodles, and pages from those are going up on the website along with videos of the children.”

The videos are made by Ambiguous Fiddle, film-maker Chris Murphy and Sean Phair in West Cork. “They are working with a view to releasing a documentary of the whole process. They are also creating visuals for the show itself of the children playing and walking around the city that will be projected while they’re playing.”

Amiina arrived back in Cork on Saturday and surprised the children with a visit to the Educate Together school on Monday to meet them for the first time. “Amiina have over a week with the gamelan which they’ll enjoy. They will compose their own music with it,” Hickson says.

The icing on the cake is that the concert will be the first performance for a nascent professional gamelan ensemble in Cork. “Mel Mercier at UCC had been talking about the possibility of activating a professional gamelan ensemble and we’d hoped to make it part of the show.

“We kind of decided we didn’t have the money to do it. Then four weeks into the process of preparing for the concert Mel and the UCC Gamelan were invited to perform at the Southbank Centre.” The performance is part of Gamelanathon, 32 gamelan events in July at the centre.

They asked the professional group that was being brought together for Gamelanathon if they would perform for Gamiina. “Every single one of them said yes. We haven’t a name for the ensemble yet but we’ll need one in time for the concert. Amiina sent us some motifs they wanted us to play around with and we have three three-hour rehearsals with them. It feels like it’s all meant to be,” says Hickson.



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