Over the last ten months or so, composer Ronan Guilfoyle’s blog Mostly Music has been exploring, among other topics, the challenges of contemporary jazz composition. One of the really interesting things about his posts is the real-time glimpse we get into a working composer’s mind. Over this short span, Guilfoyle has given us his thoughts on: written vs. improvised music; how short-form jazz compositions can avoid triteness; the effective integration of solos into extended pieces; the constraints of writing music for film; and, most recently, composition that is about something rather than purely abstract.
This last post was written just after Guilfoyle completed Fiasco, a musical reaction to Ireland’s economic collapse and a companion piece to 2007’s Terms and Conditions Apply, his angry reflection on Celtic Tiger overindulgence. The new work, which the Guilfoyle-led group Métier performed last October in its capacity as Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown Jazz Ensemble in Residence, takes a different approach. Unlike Terms and Conditions Apply, which used visual and audio elements to help make its point, Fiasco relies on music alone to convey a response to political events. As Guilfoyle says, ‘With instrumental music, the outcome, in terms of what you’re saying and what the audience is hearing, is not as clear cut. It’s definitely riskier.’
So does the risk pay off? In abstract musical terms, absolutely. Whatever the inspiration, the resulting five-part piece is full of drama and musical tension, with a complex structure that takes full advantage of the band’s formidable skills. From the simple, ominous opening of ‘Devil’s Triangle’ to the ironic, circus-like musical gestures of ‘The Expense Account Merry-go-round’, Fiasco progresses with a compelling narrative force, brightened along the way by passages of lyricism, swing and bristling fierceness. Guilfoyle has always been adept at writing with specific performers in mind, and this sequence never fails to use the right voices at the right moments, from the powerful unison lines of sax and guitar, to the oblique piano voicings, to the unerring rhythmic partnership of bass and drums. At times the writing is detailed and meticulous; at others it opens up to passages of free improvisation, which this band executed powerfully.
The challenging programmatic goal is equally successful. Fiasco supports Guilfoyle’s contention that a composer can ‘make a very strong statement using just pitch, harmony and rhythm, and without recourse to speech and sight’. Tension, harshness, agitation and calmness are all used musically to suggest corresponding emotional qualities. Similarly, humour and disapproval are unambiguously evident in certain passages. Yet the art lies not simply in reflecting feeling and event at minor musical points, but in orchestrating effect across a meaningful structure and achieving a unified emotional response from an audience that is consistent (if not exactly parallel) with the composer’s intent. At this deeper level, Fiasco works really well. I could choose many examples, but performance of the fourth segment of the piece, ‘Priorities’, featured a passage of stately ensemble playing followed by a Guilfoyle bass solo which together transcended musical effect and, in a forceful aesthetic statement, suggested a general but intense concern at what has gone wrong in contemporary Ireland.
Above all, Fiasco was just great to listen to, with a dark, late-Miles-Davis feel that combined abstract passages, terrific solos and seductive grooves. And it’s nice to know that the political crisis we’re all suffering through has led to something positive.
Published on 1 December 2009
Kevin Stevens is is a Dublin-based novelist and writer on history, literature, and jazz.