Ordnance Survey at the Fumbally Cafe on Friday June 6th, 2019
If anyone knows the difficulty of finding an audience in modern music, it’s Neil O’Connor. He’s been producing adventurous and consistently excellent work for over 20 years, but has always seemed just a little out of time. His last release as Somadrone, 2018’s ‘Wellpark Avenue’, flirted with dreamy pop without surrendering to its simplicities; his latest as Ordnance Survey dives deep into delicate ambience just as Ireland’s gone mad for guitars yet again.
Worldwide, there’s an increasingly large audience for music that explores the frontiers of sonic space, with labels like Music from Memory, Frozen Reeds and Modularfield charting different paths through it. However, at home O’Connor releases his own records and is still a musician’s musician. Tonight’s crowd in the Fumbally is small, but in it you can spot a handful of well-known electronic artists waiting to hear the man play.
Before we get there, we’re warmed up ever so gently by Teatro Sin Fin, a duo of Thomas Haugh on dulcimer and hurdy-gurdy plus Note Productions head honcho Matthew Nolan on guitar and what looks like the world’s biggest pedalboard. Their undemonstrative drones would be a perfect backing to a short film. However, without any compelling visual element tonight, the effect is much less engaging.
There are many ways to experience music that eschews narrative or dramatics: lying down in the Ambassador as Sigur Ros play ‘Svefn-g-englar’; in a dope-fugged cloud as Massive Attack drag ‘Exchange’ out over 10 minutes; in increasing discomfort as the volume and dissonances of a Phil Niblock installation threaten to dissolve your very bones.
But in a space where rows of seats face an elevated stage, there’s an expectation that the performance is going to involve some kind of visual exchange. We look; the performers do things that demand observation. Tonight in the Fumbally there’s a lot to hear, but visually nothing much happens, and it happens a lot.
Take David Kitt. The burbling rhythms of his improvised instrumental set are undeniably interesting. But listening to them while seeing him make small adjustments to his modular synth has all the allure of watching your dad trying to program the Sky box. Worse, he’s in darkness for most of it, so the visual experience is reduced to the nodding brim of his baseball cap floating against the illuminated backdrop.
It says something then, that when O’Connor takes the stage and sets his modulars in motion, what we hear more than compensates for what we don’t see.
On record, ‘Relative Phase’ is music of extraordinary subtlety and textural sophistication, in some places evoking the Talk Talk of ‘Laughing Stock’, in others seemingly combining Ligetti and Vangelis. Don’t believe any lazy writing that compares it to the work of Philip Glass or Steve Reich; there’s nothing minimalist about the variety of sounds it deploys.
Perhaps because of the difficulty of rendering that variety of sounds live, the set tonight is a short one. Its electronic components are much more prominent than on record, as O’Connor is joined by Gareth Averill on modular synth. And with Seán Mac Erlaine on bass clarinet, we hear real performances, not just sequenced playbacks of the album.
But it’s over all too soon. Give this man a festival slot, an imaginative staging, a thousand watt backline and a little more time, and you’ll really hear something. Until then, put ‘Relative Phase’ on repeat and allow your musical horizons to be expanded.