Shelagh Honan was commissioned by Clare County Council to create a large outdoor installation as part of Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann. The Ennis-based artist spoke to Joe Ó Muircheartaigh about the inspiration behind what is ‘Passage of Sound’.
Passage of Sound
ACCLAIMED film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky believed that art couldn’t be explained from a purely intellectual perspective, but instead had to be felt on a personal level. And the Russian went further by saying that films weren’t made to be logical, but had to be instinctual.
Visual artist Shelagh Honan is a disciple of the same doctrine and has always tried to approach her work in a similar way – it’s all about going on instinct and the work being deeply personal and drawn from personal experiences, her own journey as an artist as much as life’s journey that finds expression and inspiration in her work.
The challenge she set herself was to stay true to this course when commissioned by Clare County Council to create a large outdoor installation for Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann 2017.
“My brief was Irish music and dance and it was left open to me how I would interpret that through my own work,” she reveals by way of introducing ‘Passage of Sound’, a projection installation that can be seen from the Club Bridge in Ennis on every night of the Fleadh.
“It started off with a blank page,” she concedes, “because I had never worked with Irish music and dance before. I’m steeped in it in the sense that it’s all around me in Clare and I love it, but it had never featured in my work up to this.
“It was a challenge to think about that and embrace it because I would normally work in experimental way with film. To have to try and articulate something meaningful relating to traditional music and dance within a cinematic narrative was a challenge and an interesting one,” she adds.
That’s when her own experiences and inspirations kicked in, as the Ennis-based artist defaulted to her musical influences and interests that she picked up during her travels.
“All I knew starting out was that I wanted to use the landscape,” she reveals. “I wanted to bring music into the landscape. I took as a starting point a very early experience from my travels as a younger woman.
“Israel was one of the places I lived. While I was there I was invited to a very unusual wedding in Jerusalem, it was a very unorthodox ceremony. We spent a few days in woods and there were a lot of musicians there and many young people.
“What was imprinted on me from that experience was the sound of flutes, flutes ringing through the woods in the outdoors. It opened up the whole nature of the woodwind instrument to me and how it belonged in that acoustic space.
“That was the beginning of the idea from me – it was in my subconscious for all those years I suppose and it was the starting point of Passage of Sound for me,” she adds.
Closer to home Seamus Heaney’s hauntingly evocative, ‘The Given Note’ (Port na bPucaí) was another point of reference. It was her own journey through music from the woods in Israel to the wilds of island life around the Blasket Sound on the Dingle Peninsula.
“It’s the way Heaney talks about the islanders returning from Inisvickillane,” she says, “with one of them hearing the strange sound that he followed on his fiddle with the famous line that ‘he got this air out of the night’, ‘out of the wind of mid-Atlantic’ and that ‘it comes off the bow gravely, rephrases itself into the air’.”
All of this informs ‘Passage of Sound’, with the starting point for the project being Shelagh’s “response to the sounds or experiences” that one encounters in the landscape.
“That was the why around it,” she says, “so after that it was about trying to stay true to those principles in creating a piece for Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann”.
THE result is a 22-minute audio-visual film that explores the relationship to the living landscape through the traditions of Irish music and dance. It is this cinematic narrative through the ‘Passage of Sound’ that crosses the fields, the woods and over the mountains and down to the sea.
“In terms of scale and time it was one of the more ambitious pieces I’ve undertaken, but it was a great opportunity,” she says. “I was very fortunate to have worked with Clare County Council and Clare Arts Officer Siobhan Mulcahy in this, in that they created the platform for me to undertake this project,” she adds.
“Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann is a major celebration of our traditional arts and culture. Clare County Council is delighted to have the Fleadh in Ennis for a second occasion in 2017 and sees it as a tremendous opportunity to promote the arts and creative sector,” says Noeleen Fitzgerald of Clare County Council.
“Working with the support of the Western Development Commission this specially created video installation will be a focal point of Fleadh 2017 and will be a fitting complement to the ambitious programme of concerts and events put in place by the Fleadh Executive Committee,” Noeleen adds.
“The first thing I had to do was set about finding a cast of characters and people to work with on the project,” says Shelagh. “I was fortunate to find a flute player from Quin, Kevin Ryan. He was with me in the project and is a main character in the piece, while also featured are noted accordion player Conor Keane from Ennis, sean nós dancer Mary Caldwell from Miltown Malbay and a piper from Dingle, Emer Daly.
“Kevin and I began filming at dawn in the woods outside Quin. That’s where you see his character starting out on his journey through the landscape and then you see him crossing the Burren, up over Mullaghmore and from there the footage goes over Mount Brandon into Baile an Lochaigh where we meet the piper and finally to Brandon Creek,” she adds.
This journey, both artistically and logistically has had key input from a host individuals, Marty Custy and Paddy Comber, who have provided huge assistance in allowing their property to be used for the project, and businessman Michael Vaughan onto whose building the film is being projected.
“A huge amount of people have been involved in making this happen,” says Shelagh. “For instance there were also others who were involved in the production stage who were crucial. People like well-known choreographer from Limerick Dr Mary Noonan, who advised me on many elements of the project, and sound engineer Dr John Greenwood, also from Limerick.
“Sound is a very important element in this whole process, using ‘Foley’ sounds like the wind whistling through the trees, water, crackling fire, heartbeat – all without a single line of dialogue – creating a mood that would allow us engage with a character in the scene. Kevin Ryan’s haunting musical score can be heard throughout the piece that features his own composition, ‘Maggie Ryan’s Dream’. Conor Keane’s composition ‘Johnny Connolly’s Waltz’ also features.
“I believe that sound should be used very carefully. The visual experience has to exist on its own and sound has to exist on its own as well – you don’t use one to prop the other up. They need to compliment each other and it’s those kind of ideas that would have informed my work a lot.
“It goes back to the whole idea of plucking sound out of the air. The idea is crossing the landscape like in Port na bPucaí and encountering of music and in this case dance along the way – I had originally thought of these musical encounters as ghost-like apparitions that the main character encountered as he crosses the landscape. One is left to surmise whether these figures are real or imaginary.
“I think the result is a much more an atmospheric piece rather than a symbolic piece. It’s about image and sound and place creating an atmosphere so that it is communicating emotion through image. Atmosphere and mood are central to the whole thing.
“Colour is used to communicate this and I was fortunate to work with Alecsandra Rydzkowska from Poland as a second editor in colouring editing and second camera operator. I wanted to make something that was atmospheric that would take the viewer on a journey. I used different techniques to do that, where the viewer becomes aware of the passage of time,” adds Shelagh.
“The support of this type of initiative by Clare County Council and the Western development commission is a direct acknowledgement of the creative sector in the county and the potential for enterprise development within that sector,” says Noeleen Fitzgerald.
“The Council has no doubt that the Passage of Sound installation will capture the imagination of the public and significantly add to the overall community celebration over the nine days of the Fleadh,” she adds.
“As an artist it is a huge audience to have,” says Shelagh. “I have no way of knowing how people will engage with the work. I think it is something that some people might look at an move on, or it might capture their imagination and they might return to it on another night. People might also want to engage with it on line to in a different and quieter way.
“The whole idea of projecting film onto the architecture around Ennis is fascinating to me. I think it allows the public to engage with artwork on their on terms in a public space without being in the confines of a gallery.”
With hundreds of thousands floating around this space over the course of Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann week it couldn’t be more public as Passage of Sound is brought to the people.
It will be worth a look.
* ‘Passage of Sound’ by Shelagh Honan will be projected from The Club Bridge in Ennis from after 10pm to Midnight of every night of Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann 2017.