13 Vices

Composers Brian Irvine and Jennifer Walshe find inspiration in Mihail Chemiakin's Russian sculptures of grotesque figures representing adult vices

The artistic pairing of Belfast composer Brian Irvine and Dublin composer/singer Jennifer Walshe on 13 Vices is a mouth-watering prospect. International critical acclaim has greeted pretty much everything that either of them has turned their hands to, in equally diverse, eclectic fields.

From music for contemporary string ensembles, orchestras and youth choirs to music for radio, film, dance and inter-disciplinary projects, Irvine and Walshe share a passion for musical exploration and the risks that such adventure entails.

The seeds of 13 Vices were planted seven years ago when Irvine led his globe-trotting, genre-bending Brian Irvine Ensemble to Russia.

‘I came across these sculptures by Mihail Chemiakin in Moscow,’ recalls Irvine. ‘They’re a collection of slightly grotesque figures, each representing a particular adult vice that is damaging to children. I thought it would be interesting to compose something based loosely around the idea. That was the springboard.’

The vices that Chemiakin based his figures on include alcoholism, prostitution, theft, ignorance, war propaganda, child labour and poverty. Some of them are quite interesting,’ says Irvine. ‘One of them is called 'For Those without Memory', one is called 'Irresponsible Science' and another is called 'Indifference'.’

Though Irvine’s initial inspiration came from Chemiakin’s bronze sculptures, Belfast’s first ever Music Laureate and Walshe bring their own imaginations into play to a considerable degree.

‘It’s certainly not a literal interpretation of Chemiakin’s sculptures,’ adds Irvine. ‘I thought it would be more interesting to explore vices in general and there’s an awful lot of them out there,’ he says laughing. ‘It’s almost never ending.’

There are, explains Irvine, three main components to 13 Vices: composed music, improvised music, and spoken word/singing. Tying all together is Irvine, who brings his highly personal conducting methods to the party when 13 Vices premieres in The MAC, Belfast on April 8 before touring to Derry, Drogheda, Dublin and London, presented by Moving on Music.

The composed music is performed by the Red Note Ensemble, the internationally renowned Scottish string ensemble whose dedication to new music, emerging composers and innovative performances spaces makes it a perfect fit with Irvine and Walshe.

Irvine describes cellist Robert Irvine, violinist Jackie Shave and violaist Max Baillie of the Red Note Ensemble as ‘three string players of exceptional quality'.

About 80% of the music the Red Note Ensemble performs in 13 Vices is composed, reveals Irvine, which leaves tantalizing wiggle room for personal interpretation. The real business of playing on the fly, however, falls to three stalwarts of the UK’s improvised music scene: saxophonist Paul Dunamall and bassist Paul Rogers – both frequent collaborators with Irvine – and percussionist Mark Saunders.

Dunmall and Irvine have worked together in duos and small groups for 30 years, while Dunmall has also played in similar intimate settings with Saunders. Irvine is clearly excited by their creative force. ‘They’re really amongst the very best at what they do. They are three of the most incredible improvising musicians you could care to hear.’

For Irvine as conductor, the key when pitting composed and improvised music together is one of balance. ‘The challenge is always to know how far to let the improvisation develop. That uncertainty is what also makes it so exciting.’

Walshe, for her part, sings and reads texts related to the various vices explored musically. ‘She has a file full of texts and for 'Irresponsible Science' she might read a text on the beauty industry, for example,’ relates Irvine. ‘It depends where the music is going.’

In a sense, 13 Vices can be seen as a socio-political work, a tag that Irvine accepts readily enough. ‘Yes, you could say so. We explore themes that resonate throughout society and effect many people.’

Irvine is keeping his cards relatively close to his chest with regards to the precise subject matter in 13 Vices, though it is clear that the ensemble has a deep well of source material to draw on.

Where Chemiakin highlighted 13 heavyweight vices for his sculptures, Buddhism recognizes over 100: apathy, the absence of shame and embarrassment, anger, jealousy and tight-fistedness may be lesser evils but all are frowned upon.

And, in age of self-absorption in our mobile phones and opting to tune out by tuning in on our headphones, the vice of distraction discouraged by Buddhism is all around us.

How many of these themes will play out in Irvine and Walshe’s collaboration remains to be seen but distraction shouldn’t be an issue for audience members who attend 13 VicesThat said, those of a curious and open-minded disposition will likely get more out of the performance than those who come simply expecting a jolly time.

‘As with much contemporary music not everyone will like it,’ acknowledges Irvine. ‘A lot of people are only comfortable with music they are familiar with.’

In that sense 13 Vices may force some people out of their musical comfort zone. Others will relish the leap into the unknown. Irvine, however, is confident of one thing: ‘With such incredible musicians involved something interesting is sure to happen.’

13 Vices begins at The MAC, Belfast on April 8, before touring to the Great Hall at Magee, Derry on April 9, Drogheda, Dublin and London.