In the Presence of Potts

Sam Comerford, Ultan O'Brien and Neil Ó Lochlainn

In the Presence of Potts

The premiere of Neil Ó Lochlainn's new suite 'Tairseach', inspired by the music of fiddle player Tommie Potts, took place at Solstice Arts Centre on 26 May. Brendan Finan reviews.

There’s intimate, and then there’s the words the audience was told picking up our tickets for Tairseach (meaning ‘threshold’), the new suite by Neil Ó Lochlainn, which was performed at Solstice Arts Centre, Navan, last Friday: ‘The performance will be taking place on the stage, and you’ll be sitting on the stage.’ Ó Lochlainn was performing himself, swapping between double bass and traditional flute (such an unusual pairing that at first glance I mistook the latter for the bow of the former), with members of his group Cuar – Ultan O’Brien on fiddle and viola, and Sam Comerford on saxophone.

Ultimately, joining the performers on stage is little different from the closeness you get in a smaller venue, like a small church or a pub. Or indeed in Kirkos’ Unit 44, which was the last time I’ve seen this little space between performers and audience. But it creates a sense of ceremony around the closeness. When the performers are ready, the curtains don’t open before the audience, they close behind us.

The work was built by Ó Lochlainn on his own work with The Liffey Banks, Tommie Potts’ landmark 1972 fiddle album, finding distinct fragments and phrases to build his own suite around. He, O’Brien, and Comerford then spent a week-long residency together honing and defining the material. The result is a 50-minute textural suite in four sections, a series of soundscapes shifting between the three performers and five instruments.

So I’d find it a stretch to call this a traditional suite, although it did incorporate some traditional tunes. It was rather in the vein of musical adventurousness, a willingness to adapt and incorporate and change. In building it, Ó Lochlainn looked to Potts’ innovative spirit in the context of traditional music – his interpolation of quotations from nineteenth-century classical music and jazz riffs in his reels, for example – and it was the spirit of innovation and eclecticism of influence that informed the construction of this work, as much as the notes of The Liffey Banks informed the material of it.

Fragments of traditional tunes
The group didn’t play from sheet music, but their work together paid dividends: the music felt coherent and directed. Though it was figured out in advance, there’s a sense of improvisation in the way it manifests, a result of the process of its creation. At the beginning, the bass and viola hold a drone at a seventh while the saxophone drifts in a solo derived from ‘The Fisherman’s Lilt’ above it. The effect is reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s
Taxi Driver score, with the slow sensuous saxophone drifting over the strings. Seventh intervals are a prominent feature throughout, and often the derivations of Potts manifest like snatches of jig or reel on a detuned radio. There are elements of abstracted jazz – almost unavoidable when combining the plucked bass and the saxophone – and extended techniques associated with the Wandelweiser collective too. But again this is all of a piece with Ó Lochlainn’s view of Potts as a kindred spirit in eclectic musical assimilation.

It’s of a piece, too, with Ó Lochlainn’s own style, and his dreamy approach to musical material and development. It’s easier to identify influences in his sound than to pin it down to a specific genre of its own, but the spirits of atmosphere and exploration are there. A long bass riff might repeat a dozen times under snatches of saxophone and fiddle melody, before adding or altering a note.

There were passages in the suite where the exploration of small motivic ideas was almost hypnotic, or the textures surprising and compelling. In these moments, the connection to The Liffey Banks was sometimes hard to discern, but there was always an intellectual awareness that Potts was there, somewhere; the raw material. For me, this created a somewhat disjunct experience at times, my mind wandering from the music in the moment in search of connections it knew were there. But a recording of the suite, scheduled for release later this year, may allow more opportunity for exploration than a single performance.

For all the liminal space that it explored, I found myself longing for the music to touch down, and it did coalesce beautifully at times. The end of the first section seemed to pull from the aether the reel ‘My Love is in America’ on flute and fiddle with the saxophone giving the bass a level of punch. It was in later sections that the music of Potts could be more readily felt, as tunes like ‘Rakish Paddy’ were played more or less straight through, though still reharmonised and dreamlike.

There’s a wonderful series of videos online of Potts being interviewed by Micheál Ó Súilleabháin. In the last, Potts plays ‘The Star of Munster’ and speaks of (to put it in more modern terms) his drive to alter and develop the music that came to him. The drive in Tairseach is similar, taking the music that came before it and exploding it, kaleidoscopically, for examination from many angles simultaneously. This is music in homage and celebration of Potts, and while Potts’ music may be hard to discern at times, his adventurous spirit is always clear.

For more on Neil Ó Lochlainn’s work, visit For upcoming Solstice Arts Centre events, visit

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Published on 1 June 2023

Brendan Finan is a teacher and writer. Visit

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