An Exploratory Suite Inspired by Achill

Neil Ó Lochlainn

An Exploratory Suite Inspired by Achill

The group Cuar, led by musician and composer Neil Ó Lochlainn, has recently released its second release, 'Umhaill', featuring Ultan O'Brien, Sam Comerford, Colm O'Hara and Pádraic Keane. Adrian Scahill reviews.

This is the second CD from Cuar, a project/collective that in their own words ‘explores chamber composition and improvisation within the framework of Irish traditional music’. Led by flute and double bass player Neil Ó Lochlainn, the band has a different and more expansive ensemble on this recording (the original featured Matthew Berrill and Aoife Ní Bhriain). This time, Ó Lochlainn is joined by fiddle and viola player Ultan O’Brien, saxophonist Sam Comerford and Colm O’Hara on trombone. All three are composers in their own right, as well as being regular collaborators, improvisers and performers across the contemporary music scene. 

Umhaill is named for an area around Achill and south-west Mayo, associated with the Gaelic Uí Máille (O’Malley) clan. Conceived as a suite, it was written by Ó Lochlainn during a residency at the Heinrich Böll Cottage on Achill, although the recording was made in Miltown Malbay. Most of the titles refer to places on the island, and this evocation of landscape is underlined through the austerely beautiful archive images of Achill used on the CD case (these are sourced from the National Folklore Collection). Less obvious within the context of the suite is the connection to ‘Ríl Elba/Ríl Sotta’ (although both might refer more obliquely to islands in the Mediterranean), and the inclusion of an air version of ‘Johnny Seoighe’, a song written during the Famine, and indelibly linked to Carna in Conamara. Nonetheless, the song’s theme does fit with the general mood of the CD, and aligns with how the images of a rather desolate landscape – bringing to mind the island’s Deserted Village – might prime the listener’s expectations. 

These are amply met by the opening ‘Gob a’Choire’ (‘Achill Sound’), where bleakness abounds in the slow opening duet between saxophone and trombone. Heard on its own initially, it is repeated over a deep, richly textured drone, cut from the same fuzzy cloth as those on Lankum’s The Livelong Day. This drone texture becomes progressively more stochastic as the duet explores new ideas, with overlapping lines and dialogue, until a more definite scale figure emerges. This itself develops into a stable motif with a pulsing cadence, which is suddenly heard on its own without the drone at the end of the track. It is an intriguing opening in its avoidance of obvious gestures, at times noirish with traces of jazz, at other times suggestive of a grander, more ancient music.

Frayed intonations
The second section, the substantial ‘Béal an Átha Salaigh’, juxtaposes melodies in single-jig rhythm with sparse, halting, frayed intonations from trombone and bass. As with the opening, the bleakness of these derives from their imperfections and grainy timbre. The single jig is not cast in a standard form; it unsettles through unusual angular melodic shapes and irregular phrase lengths. After a passage where the two parts combine, the tune and its accompanying harmonies fragment, first becoming single utterances and then fading to leave only the noise typical of extended techniques – scrapes, breaths, pops and clicks. The arc of the piece is provocative in its deconstruction of the full texture, denying the listener the more usual ‘return’ of the original material. The composition and its execution are effectively disquieting, but I also felt that the materials were stretched very thinly here over almost nine minutes. 

These two tracks act as a template for the other sections; ‘Dumha Gort Thoir’ revisits the more static form of the opening, with a free-rhythm solo saxophone over a drone. ‘An Sliabh Mór’ begins with a gravelly bowed double bass, a backdrop to Ultan O’Brien’s melodic outbursts. Like fragments of a forgotten air, or the sudden dips and swoops of a bird of prey, these drift over the heaviness of the bass. Again, these elements dissolve into other-worldly sound effects, heralding the nacreous harmonics of the coda. 

Two somewhat lighter tracks (or sections) follow. ‘Dumha Acha’ is a slow reel/march in more familiar modal territory, O’Brien’s viola shadowing Ó Lochlainn’s flute lead, before the introduction of a clever ostinato bassline that has some unexpected twists. The longer ‘Ríl Elba/Ríl Sotta’ begins with another free-form prelude, before the fiddle fragments develop into a reel rhythm. Even when the rhythm of the reel becomes established, any regular structure is again avoided in the melodic line. The individual melodic cells have echoes of Clare fiddle music, and, in its improvisatory quality, the music of Tommie Potts. The penultimate section, ‘Johnny Seoighe’, again brings O’Brien to the fore, with a version of the tune that is slightly different from the usual sung versions. 

The final section, ‘Cuan na Coime’, is the most substantial and features Pádraic Keane on uilleann pipes. This has a more minimalist-inspired introduction and backdrop, featuring a long section of solo viola ostinatos, although these have irregular rhythms and frequent pauses. There is very subtle pointing of this by bass and wind before a second idea on flute enters. The ostinatos and the flute melody rarely connect or fully sync, but at the same time they do fit together in inhabiting the same modal space – the drone-notes also help to suture the parts together. About halfway through a jig rhythm appears on pipes and flute. Like the earlier manifestations of dance tunes, its unorthodox shape, its circling around a limited set of intervals, keeps it in a liminal state between ‘ostinato’ and ‘tune’ – it never percolates down into something that could be extracted for a session jig, yet couldn’t be described either as a set of disconnected phrases. 

Is there something symbolic in the album’s concluding with a solo uilleann pipes air? There seems to me to be a certain (loose) trajectory whereby the more overt language of contemporary art music and jazz becomes de-emphasised as the suite progresses. But to analyse the piece in these terms may be misguided – an unproductive exercise in listening for traces of genre or style in a performance that inhabits a space beyond these. While it’s hard to fully escape from, it seems reductive to be endlessly sifting and sorting this music into generic silos. 

Aside from genre concerns, Umhaill is deeply expressive and features much excellent and committed playing from all musicians. As a suite, it is resolute in following through its artistic vision and creating a coherent and challenging sound. Perhaps this coherency is also a flaw though; while there is a lot of rewarding music on this release, it is sometimes limited in its range of colours, and too often reprises similar textures and structures across its different sections to work as a piece in its entirety.


Subscribe to our newsletter. 

Published on 1 February 2023

Adrian Scahill is a lecturer in traditional music at Maynooth University.

comments powered by Disqus