Under the Island: A Compilation of Experimental Music in Ireland 1960-1994 – CD/digital (Nyahh Records 2023)


This compilation is a multigenerational exploration of fringe recordings by Irish artists and the result of very deep digging into the dertritus of recorded sound. Some of these people I’m well aware of… others are completely new to me. I have a sweet tooth for noise and occasionally like to delve into difficult musical ideas but always chase them with utterly orthodox flavours of music – balance is the only logical way to put this work in perspective and anyone who claims to only listen to this sort of stuff is either lying or a dead-souled pseudo-academic pox best avoided.

The earliest contribution here dates back to the turn of the 1960s – Anything I know about Desmond Leslie’s audio work is from Agnes Bernelle’s book THE FUN PALACE. This isn’t much, but it’s enough to demonstrate that he was experimenting with sound in Ireland in the same decade that most of the international pioneers of electronic audio, tape music and sound collage were making radical strides. Leslie’s recordings were licensed for a series of six now heavily collectable sound library 78s, and subsequently used for low-budget sci-fi and early Dr Who episodes. Esoteric Sound Poem (From the soundtrack for “Death of Satan” 1960) is a fascinatingly primitive piece of soundtrack and plays out pretty much as you would expect with a title like that ( this was previously released on Leslie’s MUSIC OF THE FUTURE compilation). Given the domestic tech that’s available now, the value of this in its time and place is inconceivable – Verily, these were the cavemen of electronic music.

Roger Doyle’s – Tape Piece One (1971) is a fragmented prototype of ideas and structures later employed on his first and third albums (The second, THALIA, is an outlier, even by his standards). Bits of captured sound, radio, voice and tape seizure make for either compelling listening or high annoyance depending on individual faculties. My exploration of Doyle’s noise began in the 1990s with RAPID EYE MOVEMENTS and went backwards and forwards through this oeuvre, so this makes perfect sense (in so far as it is supposed to) and, as something new to my ears from this period in time, is pure gold to me.

David Cunningham was the first name that jumped out to me on this track listing. As guessed, it’s the same David Cunningham that later made 3 wonderfully divergent albums as The Flying Lizards. UI 58 (1976) is the first early work of his that I have heard. This is a 4-layered tape loop of short keyboard notes – it sounds like a dying toy organ – There’s a basic pattern to all of this but structural analysis is immaterial to whatever ears this lands in – it’s a strangely compelling composition for what little content it presents.

Seán Ó hUiginn’s Flostic (1977) is apparently a piece “for Mouth, Dental Floss, Elastic Bands and Oven Rack”. It’s three minutes and eleven seconds long and I don’t have much to add. There’s little information here…. Would context make it better?… probably not.

“Look! I’m Running!” (1977) by Daniel Figgis is a sellotape and cassette deconstruction of a kitchen band rehearsal (the sleeve notes use the word “scullery” rather than “kitchen” but I refuse to get drawn into such lexical imperialism!). The recording is about as base-level DIY as you can get and nods to teenage enthusiasm and creativity with limited tools rather than a revelatory result. Figgis later employed tape loop experiments to greater effect during his stint in the Virgin Prunes.

I first heard Nigel Rolfe’s ISLAND STORIES album in the 1990s and was fascinated that something so wonderfully devoid of any potential listenership (apart from random weirdos) would be released by the same label that was pushing airplay singles by the Blades and Aslan in 1986. Apart from that, I think of Nigel Rolfe in terms of art actions… burning wooden chairs on gloomy beaches and covering himself with red dust. Important work! Lake and Waters of Sorrow (1979) is described as filling a bodhrán with milk, blowing rose petals across the tensile surface – essentially some mumbling, a Sean-nós crone and a bodhrán beat deep in the mix – sounds horrible on paper but it’s a haunting and effective piece.

Noel Molloy’s Ashes to Ashes Excerpt (1980) is basically a segment of the 1979 papal mass at the Phoenix Park played backwards. As this is a frequently sampled charity shop record, anyone who has looked for useful soundbites in its grooves will recognise it instantly, and it doesn’t work outside of whatever original context this treatment was intended for.

Olwen Fouéré is an eternal presence in Irish theatre but I first became aware of her when I found a battered copy of the Operating Theatre 7” AUSTRIAN in the 1990s. A quick skim over Discogs suggests that work with Roger Doyle is the extent of her recorded output, so it’s no surprise that The Pentagonal Dream Under Snow Excerpt (1986) was an Operating Theatre production – although it doesn’t appear on any official release. The lightly vocoded treatment and performative delivery of this piece is about as Laurie Anderson-tinged as it could be, but the worded content is more of a poetic thing and nothing like Anderson’s blissful cynicism.

It has to be said that Music for an Electric Hurling Stick (late 80s) is the greatest track title here by a long shot, so I hoped that it wouldn’t disappoint content-wise. Danny McCarthy’s live recording from the Trickle Arts Centre is just what it says on the tin… A Hurley with strings and pick-up. Because of amateur recording, this comes across as something ghostly from a much older ethnographic field trip – The disappointment is that this ends too quickly.

Giordaí Ua Laoghaire is forever associated with his ancient musical endeavours in Cork because the reek of nostalgia is more potent than that of progress for some reason. When I see his name, I immediately think of the woefully under-appreciated 1990s masterwork CIDDY HALL by Nine Wassies From Bainne – Listening to An Pocaide (1989), I recognise some of that same disjointed musical thought process, even if this is a short and unrelated piece for guitar. This dashes from rockabilly strum to Frippertone to Zappa noodle to trad whatnot with a pretence of careless afterthought, but the acuteness and wit are hard to disguise.

Fergus Kelly is a visual artist with a fairly sprawling discography of improvised noise. Foreign Bodies (1991) is an industrial drone piece with samples of Turkish music in the murk of the mix. It’s difficult to expand upon this in a descriptive sense but I’ll be digging further into this world.

The Shit’s sole cassette album, “THIS IS NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, THE OLD MEN DANCING IN THE TREES”, was a neighbourhood cassette classic to me when it came out, and although it didn’t travel far, I’d be hard pushed to find anyone exposed to it back then who wasn’t obsessed with it’s 18 untitled observations. This track, Little Geography (1992), was originally Untitled 2 – It’s a track choice that captures the spirit of The Shit in one short soundbite, but also barely scratches the surface of a goldmine of lo-fi creativity. There was also a remix album, THE ITSH – THE SHIT REMIXED. This was heard by around 4 people. The original recordings are highly deserving of an archival revisit in their own right. Glorious stuff!

About 28 years ago, I interviewed Burning Love Jumpsuit for a fanzine I published. They were a dubious and reticent bunch who would sporadically pull an all-night recording session and come out with a cassette release in the morning. I owned several of these cassettes once upon a time in the last century, so their output is very familiar to me. Praise the Eyes of Satan (1994) is typical of their output at this time – extensive samples of dialogue and tape loops. Later the music became more beat-orientated and moved away from the valuable DIY randomness of the early cassettes.

John Carson & Conor Kelly’s Evening Echoes (’93 – ’95) seems to be an edited version of a longer piece that was released on CD in the mid-1990s. This is a weave of street samples, old-school newspaper sellers and traffic sounds, and probably could have done with another layer to it content-wise. I keep thinking that it’s going to do something fantastically skewed like Steve Reich’s early tape works but it never does. Not sure why it took 2 people to come up with this.

Recordings of this nature always have a trail of artistic theory and intent attached to them – I’m more interested in the immediate result of the sound and don’t necessarily need to know what’s going on under the hood, so I’m probably not the best person to do a theoretical deep dive and get those ideas structured into sentences anyone in their right mind would want to read. Fortunately, this is done quite conclusively by Mr. Dave Clifford in the extensive sleeve notes of the CD.

Under the Island: A Compilation of Experimental Music in Ireland 1960-1994 succeeds in its commendable research to find a thru-line where one doesn’t/shouldn’t really exist. A small number of these artists are aware of or have worked with each other. Most are in a vacuum in terms of cultural symbiosis or suggesting any sort of ongoing experimental music lineage or scene – some are fascinating, others, I never need to hear again.

This is released on 16/10/2023

Get it here…

Something else from Nyahh Records…

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