Jennifer Walshe - Ireland: A Dataset (Dublin, 2020)
National Concert Hall, Dublin - 2020
Jennifer Walshe, Robbie Blake, Bláthnaid Conroy Murphy, Elizabeth Hilliard, Simon MacHale, Nick Roth
NCH Livestream - 26th September 2020
You couldn't really define what Jennifer Walshe does as opera, but you would find it hard to box her into any neat category other than, in the broadest terms, 'contemporary music'. Certainly her work is primarily vocal, spoken word narrative, conversational fragments and vocalised sounds, but so too are the operas of Robert Ashley. As hard as Walshe is to pin down, her latest work Ireland A Dataset, composed as part of Dublin's National Concert Hall series Imagining Ireland, is as close as she comes to opera in the Ashley style, but perhaps more for the manner in which she explores broader subjects in a very distinctive and deeply personal way.
Even without her own direct participation in the performance Ireland: A Dataset is a typically rich and varied piece - or an assembly of thematically connected smaller pieces - from Jennifer Walshe. Written and directed by the composer, the piece was a winner of the Female Commissioning Scheme created by Sounding the Feminists last year, and it turns out to be an ideal piece for the National Concert Hall to stage in its world premiere performance under lockdown conditions without a physical audience present for their live-streamed Imagining Ireland series. It's partly an essay, a narrative with visual imagery, musical accompaniment and projections, with radio-drama routines performed by a vocal ensemble standing at microphones.
Walshe herself categorises Ireland: A Dataset as a 'radiophonic play', which in reality is no more accurate or fitting a label than opera. What it is - and what it can't be anything else but - is very much in the familiar and distinctive character of a Jennifer Walshe piece. Even in a subject on as grand a scale as considering what we think of as Ireland in the 21st century, the subject can't help but be filtered through her own sensibility, her own 'dataset', if you will. And as such, that's something that always presents interesting, insightful, humourous and slightly disconcerting observations.
Walshe of course recognises not only the unique quality that she has to offer, but also the limitations this presents as well. She is such a self-aware performer and experimental composer that she can even play on this element, and in the case of imagining Ireland, she recognises that any attempt to define Ireland is going to be limited to the material you selectively choose to work with. Or to put it in computer or business terms, the results you get are very much determined by the dataset you employ.
You could go back thousands of years to gather a broad historical set of data, but in terms of where a modern image of Ireland starts, Walshe chooses to open Ireland: A Dataset with something that still appears to still have relevance in terms of exemplifying Ireland or Irish culture; Robert Flaherty's 1934 film Man of Aran. Over elemental radiophonic drama like foley sounds of rubbed rock, scratched wood and breathed winds, her narrative points out that the film is not a documentary as it was originally claimed to be, but a docu-fiction, using real people in staged and over-dubbed scenes. It's a strong image to start out with, one that explains the limitations of source material for her dataset, showing that the modern idea of Ireland is partly a fiction, developed for the gratification of tourists but also to satisfy our own self-image of what we want to believe is Ireland.
Walshe's use of modern technology and experiments with musical composition and AI technology throw up some further amusing and intriguing ideas on the idea of datasets. By feeding relevant material into a computer, the AI programme is able to create "new" generic compositions by Enya, The Dubliners, Riverdance (telling selective dataset choices in themselves) and with the assistance of PRISM (the Centre for Practice and Research in Science and Music organisation at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester), even creating a new piece in the sean-nós traditional music style. These pieces are then performed live on stage by the vocal ensemble Tonnta and saxophonist Nick Roth.
Blending musical, narrative and dramatic artforms could certainly bring this under the umbrella of experimental opera, but I doubt anyone, least of all Walshe is concerned about what label you put on it. Ireland: A Dataset is mainly about ideas, taking into account the limitations of recorded history, art and culture as a reductive measure or indication of national identity. Any such outlook will also inevitably be filtered through one's own experience, memories, education, culture and be subject to limitations imposed by the fictionalisation of ideas, corrupted and shaped to fit preconceived notions, none of which are real, but which once expressed nonetheless become 'real'. How much is Ireland a theme park or World Expo construct? At what point do the iconic landscapes of Westeros from Game of Thrones or the Planet Ahch-To from Star Wars become inseparable from their actual filming locations in the north of Ireland. Both exist and are real and fire the imagination in all kinds of ways.
Ireland: A Dataset doesn't have Walshe's singular delivery but the performance of Tonnta in the live-streamed world premiere broadcast by the NCH is superb, very much capturing everything that is humorous, direct and thought-provoking about Walshe's own gently acerbic and satirical style. The mix of humour and satire reminds one of Robert Ashley mostly in the routine/sketch of American tourists hash-tagging their visit to the Hill of Tara on social media. The piece flows wonderfully from section to section, managing to touch on a range of emotions and ideas, building up an impressive if necessarily limited dataset of all things Irish and perceived as Irish.
Opera, music and live performance has been going through challenging times under the COVID-19 lockdown, but there have been a few creative artistic responses to it and few as timely as this work by Jennifer Walshe. Not only is the consideration of what constitutes national identity highly relevant in these challenging times, but her approach is testament to the kind of progressive and adaptable skill set that musicians and artists are going to need - that Ireland as a nation and other countries are going to need - now that we have a whole new dataset to factor in.