Finding New Musical Passages

Conor Scullion

Finding New Musical Passages

In a new series of columns, Peter Rosser writes on changes in the music scene in Northern Ireland

The city’s hearthache is over. This needs qualification: the city’s heartache is almost over, for the time being. Standing in Belfast’s market district on the corner of Cromac and May Streets with Magennis’ Whiskey Café on your right – the scene of a recent, infamous, bloody murder under the shadow of the law courts – you will see a passage opening up for the creative musician.

Where once there were blockages now there are arteries; the city planners and architects have been working long hours, removing the paraphernalia, the barriers, road blocks, security huts, even the police stations, of the past. The new pedestrian walkways mean that visiting the Waterfront Hall no longer feels like an out of town experience, and from its main entrance you can now look through the city, through Donegall Square, and on to the hills of West Belfast. The city is relaxing and this is good news for those whose trade is communication.

The passage itself is a short one, no more than seven minutes on foot from the markets to the heart of the Cathedral Quarter where the city’s live music scene has found a new dwelling. As you move down Cromac Street, past the brand spanking new citadel of labels – the Victoria Square Shopping Centre – and veer left alongside the Kitchen Bar and towards Skipper Street you will find a couple of siblings, Muriel’s Café Bar and The Spaniard with its Salvador Dali demander: ‘Eat, Drink, Think’. The openings during the last eighteen months of these small venues means for the performer (jazz, traditional and other) only one thing: experimentation. As vulnerable to the moods of the mob as any stand-up or orator, the musician can’t overly insult a small group of, say, 15 people; or if they do, well, let’s say they may be involved in something truly worthwhile.

And then onto Hill Street and the Black Box, the charity-run God-send of a venue that has prompted musicians to rethink their craft. A multi-functional performance space with an adjacent café/bar area for more intimate happenings, the Black Box offers an alternative to the strict exigencies of the pub scene. The space has opened up possibilities to rejuvenate communicative links within the music community. Take for example Carousel and its comrade-in-arms Das Vibicsexytime. The latter is a regular Friday night open jamming session, the former a more substantial quarterly gig that has caught the imagination of the locals and offers a challenge to those who want to venture to Belfast from across Ireland or from Britain.

Carousel found itself at the centre of the Cathedral Quarter Festival recently and was forced to turn away a hundred or so punters, such was the interest. For Carousel think Later…with Jools Holland, but without the strictures and egos of television. It’s in the round, of course, and invites contributions from all musicians (contemporary music or ‘classical’ practitioners are eagerly awaited) and from film and video artists, magicians and comedians. Unlike Later… performers are encouraged to work together, improvising across the audience; and again, unlike Later… the audience, far removed from the sidelined celebrity-speckled TV crowd, is here a throbbing, drinking, absorbent and vocal organism, as much part of the vibe as the acts themselves. 

The last Carousel featured Nashville singer/songwriter Korby Lenker, alongside Donal and Conor Scullion, instrumentalists on strings, keys, dobro, Burnt Fingers on audio sequencing, and visual artists contributing live sketching and sculpture and textile arts – to name but a few. It’s interesting to hear the event’s organisers on what they do and why they do it in Belfast. Kris Stronge and John McGurgan are local singer/songwriters who in previous generations would have practised their art elsewhere, in Dublin or Liverpool (from where McGurgan has recently returned), or in London, but now feel that there’s a scene in Belfast that may be able to match their ambitions. The heavy conservatism of the old guard, the crusty generals of music provision and of media outlets who have been compromised by the claws of money – advertising, public, or license fee – are still in place, but the smaller venues of the Cathedral Quarter offer a network of spaces that holds promise.

In that last Carousel the exchanges between the performers were fascinating to hear and the evening restored faith in the possibilities of the rhetoric of non-verbal sound and of gesture. There was commentary, competition, cheeky retort, all forms of vital communication, but overall there was playful, understanding, value-adding, intelligent support. And how important this mutual support between artists is. I’m reminded of a 1975 ‘Interview with Myself’ by Saul Bellow who bemoans the isolationism of his fellow practitioners: ‘How nice it would be to hear from a writer. But no such letters arrive… Haydn’s relations with Mozart were of this generous, affectionate kind. But when large creative opportunities are lacking, there is no generosity visible.’

The scale of creative opportunity in Belfast today is difficult to gauge, but everyone is hopeful, everyone sees the promise, and Carousel, at least, offers this visible generosity. So, the challenge is set to all readers of JMI – musicians, artists, writers and the like: come play.

The next Carousel takes place on Sunday September 21st at the Black Box, 18-22 Hill Street, Belfast. Das Vibicsexytime continues most Fridays at the same venue. For more information write to guitar [at]

Published on 1 July 2008

Peter Rosser (1970–2014) was a composer, writer and music lecturer.

He was born in London and moved to Belfast in 1990, where he studied composition at the University of Ulster and was awarded a DPhil in 1997. His music has been performed at the Spitalfields Festival in London, the Belfast Festival at Queen’s and by the Crash Ensemble in Dublin.

In 2011 the Arts Council acknowledged his contribution to the arts in Northern Ireland through a Major Individual Artist Award. He used this award to write his Second String Quartet, which was premiered in 2012 by the JACK Quartet at the opening concert at Belfast's new Metropolitan Arts Centre (The MAC).

Peter Rosser also wrote extensively on a wide range of music genres, with essays published in The Journal of Music, The Wire, Perspectives of New Music and the Crescent Journal. 

He died following an illness on 24 November 2014, aged 44.

comments powered by Disqus