This was a piece pulled together from email interviews with the founders of Ergodos, Benedict Schlepper-Connolly and Garrett Sholdice, and a number of Ergodos collaborators. The occasion was the release of their album inspired by Bach’s ‘Ich ruf’ zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ’, called I Call to You. Wonderful, wonderful album if you haven’t heard it. It was also the 20th anniversary of the first time I was ever published in Hot Press, hence the opening. I enjoyed this piece – I admired their vision and palpable restless energy.
I’ve been writing about music for twenty years this month and I don’t remember a time that new Irish music was more independent, energised or interesting than it is now. (Though the mid-90s lo-fi boom, as immortalised in Daragh McCarthy’s The Stars Are Underground, was really something.)
Part of the reason for the current flourishing is the decade-long decline of what used to be the standard music business model. Bands once made a dozen copies of a demo, sent them off, and waited, fingers crossed, for a label to register interest. In the Bandcamp era, that seems quaint; weird. Why would you wait? Your music just gets out there, to stand and fall on its own. By now a generation of musicians has emerged that has no experience of anything other than independence, and self-released Irish albums are some of the best of the last five years.
Accompanying the increased availability of all genres of new music is a liberating indifference to genre itself. You don’t have to go far back in time to find strict battle lines between, say, punk and prog; you were not allowed to not like both. By law. Now, interviewed for this piece, the composer, multi-instrumentalist and Ergodos collaborator Seán Mac Erlaine says: “At a gig, in the moment, there is no such thing as genre. Musicians and listeners know this. Genre is really a marketing tool.” For me, reared in the aftermath of the punk wars, Mac Erlaine’s declaration still sounds a little unnerving – and I am still not listening to Pink Floyd. But I’m getting there.
Ergodos is a music company in existence since 2006 that is dedicated to releasing records and staging performances and dedicated to dismantling illusory barriers between different types of music. Founders Garrett Sholdice and Benedict Schlepper-Connolly are both composers from a contemporary music tradition, but Ergodos’ last two releases are I Call To You, an album-length reconfiguring of a 17th century Bach choral prelude, and Seán Mac Erlaine’s Long After The Music Is Gone, which is spacious, modern, meditative woodwind music rooted in improvisational jazz.
Ergodos, along with the like-minded Journal of Music (edited, as it happens, by Benedict Schlepper-Connolly) exemplifies an attitude that is joyously present in new Irish music: that the spirit of the music, rather than the strictures of style, is what matters.
So, Ergodos release a Bach album and a Séan Mac Erlaine album; Mac Erlaine plays in This Is How We Fly with Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh; Caoimhín works both with Peadar Ó Riada, of Cúil Aodha, and Doveman, who produces the albums of half of hipster New York. And we get from 400-year old German baroque to Séan Ó Riada or David Byrne in about four moves, and seamlessly; without even blinking. This, I would suggest, is the genius of new Irish music.
For this piece, State conducted an email conversation with the following Ergodos allies: Benedict Schlepper-Connolly; Garrett Sholdice; Seán Mac Erlaine; Michael McHale (pianist on I Call To You); and Kate Ellis (prolific cellist, co-artistic director of the Crash Ensemble, and curator of the monthly Kaleidoscope Night of new music). I also got a comment from Donnacha Dennehy, composer among other works of the acclaimed Grá Agus Bás, who is also co-founder of the Crash Ensemble and a mentor of some years’ standing to both Garrett and Benedict.
We discussed the origins of Ergodos, the state of contemporary music in Ireland, the DIY attitude required of musicians today, and the sacred and secular beauty of Bach.
State: I Call to You is a record of instrumental music and songs inspired by the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. More specifically, it’s an album of music inspired by Bach’s piece ‘Ich ruf’ zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ’ (‘I Call To Thee, Lord Jesus Christ’); the tracks that are not actually interpretations of that piece are named for lines in the German text of the song.
Garrett Sholdice: The text of the song actually pre-dates Bach’s music. Bach often used Lutheran hymns such as ‘Ich ruf’ zu Dir’ as basic material for his compositions. So Bach’s organ chorale prelude ‘Ich ruf’ zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ’ — the piece we based our album around — is an elaboration of a hymn of the same name, the words and music of which were written by a Lutheran minister named Johann Agricola around 200 years prior to Bach’s composition.
I wondered what it was about that particular piece by Bach that led you to choose it as a starting point for this project.
GS: It’s an incredibly beautiful piece — it just hits you. For me, it’s like a place you can get inside. The music is constructed such that there are three voices singing — a high voice singing the original hymn tune by Agricola very slowly, a middle voice simultaneously singing these more fleeting quasi-arabesque figures, and a low voice propelling everything along steadily. Each voice is constructed with such elegance, and the way in which the voices combine is so perfect, that you feel like the piece contains endless nourishment.
The album eases the listener in with a relatively straight reading of ‘Ich ruf’ zu dir’ by Michael McHale, although less ornate than you expect from Bach keyboard music; then moves away to somewhere more abstract and unfamiliar over the following pieces, then back to Michael’s beautiful, stark, hollowed out rendition at the end.
GS: Yes, my transcription of the Bach that opens the album is consciously restrained. I wanted to present the music that I love as vividly as possible — although there are a few subtle personal touches. And my “hollowed out” arrangement at the end was an attempt to present what I hear (feel) as the essential elements of the music nothing more.
Michael McHale: I was very impressed by [Ergodos’] work for the I Call to You album – the way in which the tracks all link and unite creates an expressive arc that is most impressive, and as a result the album as a whole adds up to much more of the sum of its parts. The Bach chorale prelude is most touching, tinged with melancholy. I simply wanted to perform it as simply and as naturally as possible, allowing the music to breathe and to create a background atmosphere of absolute stillness, which I felt served the music well.
I hadn’t heard it to my knowledge till I heard I Call To You, but ‘Ich ruf’ zu Dir’ is actually quite a famous piece — used recently in Michael Haneke’s Amour, and not so recently in Tarkovsky’s Solaris and the 1931 version of Dr Jekyll and Hr Hyde.
Benedict Schlepper-Connolly: Interesting that you mention Jekyll & Hyde. I haven’t seen it and didn’t know ‘Ich ruf’ zu Dir’ was used in that. However, the Tarkovsky film is where we first encountered the tune and I think a lot of our association with it is tied up with some of the images used in it (that wonderful floating scene with the close-ups of the Breughel painting, for instance). Amour came out after we recorded the album, but it’s a beautiful film. There’s certainly something timeless in the tune itself that has caught the ear of Bach, ourselves and these various film directors.
I wondered also what it is about Bach himself that you are drawn to. I first properly encountered Bach when over the space of one weekend in 2005 I had two salutary experiences: one, a conversation with a friend who said that Bach had a spiritual depth that almost no other music has; and two, I read Anthony Lane on Bach’s St Matthew Passion in a film review in the New Yorker. Lane wrote of being reminded of the “grave and devastating function” of the St Matthew Passion: “It has become, for too many of us, a concert piece, or something dignified to put on the CD player at the end of a fissile day. Suddenly… I heard it again as a Passion: the drama of Calvary, stern with lamentation.”
GS: That’s a great quote. For me, Bach is, at a basic level, the music of a certain really important part of my childhood. I received my earliest musical training as boy chorister in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. We sang Bach occasionally, but his organ music was a constant element in the atmosphere. So Bach is just in the blood. The vast repertoire of his music has been a consistent touchstone for me. I have certainly felt “devastated” by Bach — in the sense of feeling speechless.
I think I understand what your friend meant by “spiritual depth”. Despite my first encounters with it, in a cathedral, Bach’s music doesn’t operate for me in terms of religion. Of course, religion (specifically the Lutheran religion) was hugely important for Bach and it is an important context within which to view his art. I would not describe myself as religious in the least, although various religious musics have and continue to be important to me. The best way I can put it is that, for me, Bach’s music goes way deeper than religion. It transcends dogma.
This album is very clearly an album of sacred music, explicitly so. The music was written 400 years ago, at a time that the church had a very different place in society. Have you a view on the place or role of sacred music in a secular society in 2013?
BSC: As it happens, neither Garrett or I is even baptised, and though we’ve both been very influenced by sacred music, neither of us has taken an interest in the literal sacred meaning of the hymn ‘Ich ruf’’ zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ’. We were also selective about the fragments of text we used, and on occasion left out reference to ‘Herr Jesu Christ’ altogether. I don’t think our secularism should limit our enjoyment of music written for sacred purposes, and I would suggest that there is much of the sublime that is expressed in works such as ‘Ich ruf’ zu Dir’ or, on a grander scale, Bach’s passions, that is as arresting to a non-believer as to a Lutheran of the day.
State: Could you talk about what drove you to set up Ergodos in the first place? Your website describes the first Ergodos release, Dubh (2010) as being “about a certain generation of Irish composers, a generation that is finding its place between tradition and the modern world”. That makes Ergodos sound like an effort to allow a generation of artists to find a voice; like the ethic behind the 80s post-punk labels, or Irish indie labels in the 90s. No-one else is putting this work out and it should be heard; so we’ll do it ourselves. Does that ring true?
GS: Yes, I think that does ring true. Myself and Benedict started presenting concerts together when we were both studying music in TCD around 2005. Our composition teacher, Donnacha Dennehy, was a big influence. As director of his own group (the Crash Ensemble), he was a terrific model for us as someone who was taking control and putting his music — his aesthetic — out there. He wasn’t waiting to be discovered. Donnacha would actively encourage those of us studying with him to form our own groups, put on our own gigs, and to support each-other in doing so.
Donnacha introduced myself and Benedict to the music of James Tenney, an American “experimental” composer. A few months before Tenney died in 2006, myself and Benedict helped to bring him to Trinity to lecture and attend a concert of his music that we were organising. Tenney was part of this so-called “American maverick” tradition of really doing it yourself — forming ensembles, putting on concerts, creating a context for the art. We were enthralled not only by Tenney’s immersive, minimal music, but by his attitude. While he was in Dublin, amongst many other things, he imparted the following aphorism to us: “Do what you have to do, and do it soon.”
State: It’s occurred to me as I read around the subject that I don’t have a clear idea just what Ergodos is. My understanding is that it’s a company that produces performances and recordings, and beyond that I’m not sure where everyone else fits in — your collaborators.
BSC: Your confusion is understandable, because Ergodos has had many different manifestations since we started it in 2006. I suppose at the heart of what “Ergodos” is as a company, endeavour or even aesthetic, are the interests of Garrett and myself at any given time. We started as an annual music festival (“The Printing House Festival of New Music”) and that itself was part vehicle to get our own music out there as well as a way to present other music and musicians that interested us — that has basically remained a guiding principle.
Since we started Ergodos, we’ve developed a number of different layers of activity, manifested in a production company, a record label, a performing band. Ergodos Musicians, as a group, is equally amorphous, often changing personnel, size or character based on the particular direction in which Garrett and I want to bring it. The groups started as a kind of in-house band for one of our festivals, but since then we’ve worked to give it a life of its own.
I should also say that our collaborators, from composers to performers, are integral to the whole operation. Much of our music is written with specific performers in mind — I love to write for the lower register of Michelle O’Rourke’s voice for instance — and we feel that the composers we work with again and again are kindred spirits, on a related musical path besides being close friends.
Lastly: Is contemporary music in Ireland right now in a good place?
Sean Mac Erlaine: Well, this throws us into the genre question. ‘Contemporary music’ [is] itself a meaningless phrase – “music made today”; [it] stands for a genre growing out of the classical canon but left deliberately so open so it can include the enormous breadth of what people are creating, in a world where any meaning that might have held genres in isolation is quickly falling away.
BSC: Insofar as I think contemporary music exists anymore — that is some kind of composed music coming out of a European classical tradition — I think you could say it’s a vibrant culture. But I think one of the more interesting things about musical life in Ireland is how open listeners are to various kinds of music and music from all sorts of backgrounds without creating very strict definitions of them. Something like the Kaleidoscope monthly series in Dublin, where a jazz trio will play right after an early music consort, is emblematic of this attitude I think.
Sean Mac Erlaine: I totally agree with Benedict on that. People have absolutely no problem with the idea of cross-genre. That might be because at a gig, in the moment, there is no such thing as genre. Musicians and listeners know this. Genre is really a marketing tool. At a concert, people hear music and they evaluate it on these terms. Nobody hears ‘rhythm and blues’ or ‘contemporary jazz’. In Ireland, the audiences are very sophisticated — everybody has heard everything, so in a way with an open mind, this leaves a level playing field, where, of an evening, people are receptive to really diverse music.
Kate Ellis: Kaleidoscope is like a musical playground showcasing Irish and international musicians, with performances that range from the latest electronica music to the earliest found manuscripts. This month for example we have the cellist Bill Butt playing a solo sonata by Bach followed by the Congolese guitarist Niwel Tsumbu playing some of his own compositions. The commonality between musicians and the music played is actually the quality of musicianship.
BSC: For composers, I think the outlook is generally positive in Ireland, because there are opportunities there to find the time and space to do your work, even if there isn’t much money going around at the moment. There is also a strong and supportive community among composers. The recession, amid its many horrors, seems to have also brought people closer together; musicians sometimes joke about the recession that they didn’t have as much to lose in the first place.
Donnacha Dennehy: I think that what Ergodos, and others like them, are doing is great. It shows a new energy in contemporary music in Ireland. They are not simply waiting around passively. They are acting in a way that contributes positively to the culture. Ben and Garrett were born composers and that was abundantly clear to me when I first met them. I am so happy that they are following this direction and leaving an important imprint.