Crash Ensemble at the Studio, National Concert Hall, on 24 November 2017

Once upon a time, the Crash Ensemble was the newest thing, fresh and raw, a new group dedicated to new music. That was twenty years ago. Not given to nostalgia, rather than revisit that opening concert in the darkness of the Beckett Theatre all those years ago (with its Roger Doyle, loads of amazing Louis Andriessen, and the raucous premiere of Donnacha Dennehy’s Junk Box Fraud), Crash heads out. The summer was spent zigzagging across the country, giving short, free, outdoor performances in festivals across rural Ireland in a project called CrashLands.

Marking twenty years by commissioning twenty composers to each write a new piece, to be premiered, bit by bit, across the summer, the CrashLands project also called on filmmaker Brendan Canty and poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa, with the fruits of this cross-media endeavour soon to be put online for everyone to see, and we see something of their work tonight. To mark the actual anniversary this week, Crash now brings it all together with a pair of concerts in the NCH Studio, sharing the twenty new pieces across two nights. We get along to the first of these.

There’s a sense of a niche happening, even of performance art, to the concert, with its lack of printed programmes and a delayed entry into the venue. After a few words from Dennehy, poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa reflects on the atmosphere of the CrashLands tour, recalling a field of shy heifers nearby observing when the group played at Clonmel’s St Patrick’s Well. Obligingly, the opening piece’s title carries this feeling of surreal pastoralism forward as we listen to Andrew Hamilton’s Music For Donkeys Who Like Music. The stark, shofar-like, blasts of its opening section make for an appropriate summoning gesture, before the music slides eclectically into the direction of swing dance-band territory.

Other highlights include Peter Adriaanz’s Crash Codes (the only conducted piece, here directed by Malachy Robinson), its morse-code-like repetitions on high-pitched instruments gradually making way for the presence of the broader piano-led ensemble; or the quirky brilliance of Paul Lansky’s Audacity, mixing a heavy rock-band vibe with Brittenesque high string and woodwind textures. A moment of beauty is ushered in with Linda Buckley’s Chrysalism, a gently incisive and reflective work: its organic, iridescent groove offers the solo violinist a rare opportunity to shine. Somewhat more moody and unrestrained is the (appropriately-entitled) Fiáin by Ann Cleere, a superb piece which keenly matches amplified instruments with electronic media, creating visceral—even underwater—effects, and a deeply engaging soundscape.

The concert closes with Ed Bennet’s Accel…, its vibrant minimalism and clean textures (including fabulous trombone glissandi) giving a pulsating dynamism on which to close. As a birthday celebration, this moment in the Crash Ensemble’s increasingly busy calendar offers an opportunity to re-examine ways of performing and reflect on the vibrant state of new music-making. At the same time, though, this sequence of short pieces—amuses-bouches of sorts—is curiously understated and well-contained, as if the time for rebellion has passed and been exchanged for something more… cultivative? To take up the image of Buckley’s chrysalism, is this a sheltering from the storm beyond, or is something waiting to emerge?



Andrew Hamilton: Music For Donkeys Who Like Music

David Lang: Super Chill

Roger Doyle: UX1/UX2

Peter Adriaanz: Crash Codes

Sean Clancy: Eleven lines of music slow down and eventually

Paul Lansky: Audacity

Linda Buckley: Chrysalism

Michael Gordon: Cake

Ann Cleere: Fiáin

Ed Bennett: Accel