The 65th Wexford Festival Opera saw Wexford, once again, scrubbing up, tightening the bowtie and “puttin’ on the Ritz”. With the Wexford Spiegeltent Festival starting close to two weeks ahead of the festival fireworks on opening night it meant that the fun went on for that much longer.
While the Autumn festivities that so enlivened Wexford may now be nothing more than a bunch of memories and fading arts page reviews the glow from those memories will shine bright for many a day.
It was not just on the big stage that one witnessed outstanding performances. The band Clang Sayne served up a truly memorable gig at the small and intimate Fusion Café on the last Friday of the festival.
Formed by songwriter, singer and guitarist Laura Hyland in London in 2008, Clang Sayne are a genre-defying force of nature. Laura’s vision undoubtedly drives this quartet, yet it is the synergy of four uniquely talented musicians that delivers in the end. Multi-instrumentalist and former Riverdance soloist, Carolyn Goodwin plays clarinet/bass clarinet; composer and improviser Judith Ring (PhD) plays cello; composer, bandleader and Fulbright Scholar, Matthew Jacobson, plays drums. All contribute to vocals.
Music so malleable as this makes categorisation difficult. Is this new nu-folk? Americana? Sure, they use the medium of the folk ballad to tell a story. But take away all sung words and the music itself tells the story. Indeed, the voice is frequently treated as simply another instrument in the mix.
When those voices rise above the maelstrom they do so to great effect, combining blissfully in ethereal union. The contrast of moving from stark plainchant to spine-tingling four-part harmonies fairly takes one’s breath away. The fact that, somewhere in between, you are likely to find yourself rocked by an all-hands-on-deck percussion-heavy storm of sound adds to the effect.‘Curse You, Mocking Moon’, with its sonic musings, sets the mood for the evening. It praises and berates the moon, ebbing and flowing, building to a crescendo of confusion and lunar madness before the grip is loosened and order restored.
In ‘Blackbird’, the wood of Judith Ring’s bow hops, bird-like, across the strings. To a ripple of softly strummed strings Laura sings, from the heart, “Sorcha come home, I missed you this Winter”. Add low, sonorous clarinet, gentle wash of percussion and three part harmonies. “I’ve been to see Charlie … She’s doing well despite all.” Absent friends. And what of the blackbird? ‘The Blackbird of Derrycairn’ is a poem by Austin Clarke in which the bird tells Patrick, with ‘throat rejoicing from the hawthorn” that ‘knowledge is found among the branches’. “The blackbird in the poem is a friendly, comforting force that tries to lure Patrick from his studies and his lonely dark cell,” explains Laura. “In this song the three characters (myself, my sister and Charlie) are all somewhat stuck in our respective ‘lonely dark cells’, and hence the summoning of said bird.” It is worth noting that the demons sent to test Patrick as he fasted on his western hill took the form of blackbirds!
The apocalyptic ‘Oh, Water Rising’ tells of the plight of a farmer faced with deluge after deluge of torrential rain: “The water, the water keeps coming”. The song, from Els Dietvorst’s film ‘The Rabbit and The Teasel” might well be a parable for our disconnect with the land, how far we have strayed from the soil. “Once it was said that we gathered nectar, naked in gardens, greener than pastures, without question to reason or purpose.” The ominous mood throughout suggests that we continue to move further away from the idyll of that first garden.
This is music as a living, organic thing. Songs of yearning, songs of loss, songs of introspection, songs of love, songs of life. One minute bleak and hard as a cold November wind, the next transcendent and joyous as the first breath of life.
‘Shipwrecks’, which is to feature in another Dietvorst film, has a mysterious and haunted air throughout. Funereal opening harmonies with tempestuous, swirling brushed skins and all manner of creaks and barely-there clarinet give the song an other-worldly feel. The vocals merge plaintively with the instruments to heighten the effect.
‘Lady Grey’s Allotment’ is, arguably, the biggest song of the evening. Opening quietly, it develops into a swirling, swooping epic. The power of Hyland’s writing shines through with lines like “Tricksters, troubadours and thinkers / Mystify me with your musings”. This song, more than any other on the night, suggests that she may be cut from the same cloth as the late John Martyn.
‘The Round Soul of the World’, the title track of the forthcoming new album and the last of the evening, builds with rush of sounds, stark harmonies and cross-chanting before the tension breaks and dissonance is dispelled.
Clang Sayne will, in all probability, never bother the pop charts. The reason is simple: what they do goes way beyond the business of simply making music. Scenarios are conjured from sparse sounds, detail and colour follow, layer upon layer. Nothing is rushed. The silence itself speaks volumes. At one level this is storytelling at its best. Look deeper and it is nothing less than a conjuring into form of the soul of the Earth, a cathartic exercise in self-realisation.
A special word of praise for the talented pairing of singer/guitarist John Browne and multi-instrumentalist “Whistling’ Alan Dwyer who opened for the band. They delivered a scintillating and hugely entertaining set of folk songs and trad tunes.