Live Reviews: The Dumbshow

JJ Smyth’s, Dublin / 12 August 2007

In 1963, 22-year-old Frank Zappa played a concerto for bicycles and pre-recorded tape on ABC Television’s Steve Allen Show. Booked as a novelty act (and as an opportunity for the host to make jokes at the young composer’s expense), Zappa did not allow network philistinism to shake his sense of purpose. ‘Playing’ the bikes by blowing into their tubular handlebars and striking them with bass bow and drumsticks, he fashioned a memorable musical statement unlike any heard on American television, before or since.

The Irish composer Seán Óg has also written for bicycle, performing his OneManBike for modified bicycle and improvised electronics at last year’s Dublin Electronic Arts Festival. Like Zappa, he appears to have a fascination with non-traditional sources of musical sound and highly percussive textures. And he brings a forceful mixture of irreverence and seriousness to his projects, trusting that audiences will provide the openness required to support meaningful performance.

There were no bikes played when Seán Óg, Shane Lattimer (guitars), and Michael Harding (percussion), collectively known as The Dumbshow, performed two sets at JJ Smyth’s on August 12. But the music was free-spirited and adventurous all the same, with kitchen utensils and brown paper bags enhancing more conventional instrumentation. Several of the pieces were suites of short, meticulous passages, loosely bound and usually freely improvised. Others were extended improvisations played over repeated guitar figures or electronically looped patterns of sound.

When he isn’t manipulating electronics, Seán Óg plays soprano sax and bass clarinet, instruments that, in the jazz tradition, are valued for their richness of tone and modernist vocabulary. Aware of this tradition, Seán Óg can use his reeds to good atmospheric effect, and The Dumbshow had several moments of lyricism, all the more powerful in the context of the group’s commitment to free playing. Lattimer’s ‘Uiop’, for example, had Monk-like angularity and a fascinating blend of lines that floated delicately throughout the composition.

For all its atmosphere and ideas, The Dumbshow’s music did feel a little too careful at times, and risked failing to raise the audience to the level of intensity such challenging music demands. The audience didn’t have much to hang on to, and most of the energy in the room seemed to be on the bandstand. As Michael Harding occasionally demonstrated, his drumming can create a powerful groove, but the band chose to use his kit more as a third improvisational voice than a rhythmic base, so the emotional engagement created by what Ronan Guilfoyle calls the ‘pulse’ of jazz was often sacrificed.

That said, it is refreshing to hear young musicians taking risks and pushing the boundaries – the principal way, after all, of broadening tradition and questioning assumptions, so essential in all musical endeavour – and The Dumbshow is an encouraging example of the spirit of innovation current in Irish contemporary music.

Published on 1 September 2007

Kevin Stevens is is a Dublin-based novelist and writer on history, literature, and jazz.

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