Quiet Music Ensemble | The Mysteries Beyond Matter

CD Notes:

night leaves breathing | David Toop
Shadow Lines | Alvin Lucier
The Mystery Beyond Matter | Pauline Oliveros
hand tinted | John Godfrey

About Making the Recordings on this CD
About the CD cover artwork
What is QME?
QME History
QME Performer Biographies

Life on the Forest Floor - exclusive interview with David Toop


night leaves breathing | David Toop | 20'03''

(This is the original programme note, written for the premiere at the Quiet Music Festival 2008)

This composition emerged out of a period in which I was listening closely to sounds at the threshold of audibility and contemplating the atmospheres that can coalesce when rooms and homes are very quiet. The slightest disturbance is magnified to a point where it becomes impossible to distinguish between one’s own slight movements, internal sounds and breathing, or the creak of a floorboard downstairs.

I tend to read late at night in bed, and in the stillness I hear my wife’s breath as she sleeps, very quiet, and the snores, snuffles and louder breathing of our small dog. One night the dog’s snoring became so comical that I fetched my digital recorder, though it seemed that every time I placed the microphone close to her nose she would tone down the noise. I also became very conscious of creaks in the house as I crept about, trying not to wake anybody and this made me think a lot about childhood fears of strange sounds. Our kitchen floor creaks to a very high standard of virtuosity, so I recorded that as well. These were my starting points - the dog, the floor, my own breath, a book (a fine old copy of De Montaigne’s essays edited by Hazlitt).

But there were leaves as well, and I was thinking about my eureka moment one night in spring a few years ago. Sitting in my garden I became conscious of an extremely low-level but insistent noise. As I listened harder, I realised this was the high-frequency crunching made by snails and slugs eating the leaves of my plants. Taking the dog for a walk in the mornings I have become well read in the nuances of leaf sound: underfoot (or should I say under foot and paw); blown by breeze or wind; or simply moving and flexing as atmospheric conditions fluctuate within subtle gradations.

The title of the piece is a little bit like Eats Shoots and Leaves, which has two meanings dependant upon punctuation, but night leaves breathing has four meanings that I can find (if we use leaves as a term for the pages of a book), and more if I include those that are personal and secret. I composed it during a time when I was looking intensively at Dutch 17th century genre paintings. Many artists of that period - Rembrandt, Maes, Dou, Vermeer - depicted people engaged in quiet or silent activities, such as peeling fruit or vegetables, reading, writing, sewing, listening, pouring milk, sitting, sleeping. My intention was to create conditions through which the musicians and audience might become that quiet person, doing not a great deal other than being engaged in the act of close listening and so allowing themselves and each other to enter a state of finely tuned sensation. For the musicians it’s a little more complicated. You are required to sound out (to borrow the phrase that Danny McCarthy once gifted to me) your place by various means, through a form of directed improvisation. As the night leaves, so you can breathe again.

David Toop, 2008


Shadow Lines | Alvin Lucier | 14'30''

Shadow Lines is the latest in a series of works by Alvin Lucier for solo and instrumental ensembles in which players closely tune long tones in order to produce audible beats —bumps of sound—that occur when sound waves coincide. The closer the tuning the slower the beating; at unison no beating occurs. The composer is fascinated by the idea that pitch can create rhythm.

During the course of the performance an electric guitar, cello and double bass slowly sweep up and down, scanning the interval of a major third. As they do so, a clarinet and trombone play single tones against the sweeping waves creating audible beats that continually slow down, stop and speed up as the string tones approach, pass through and leave the sustained wind tones.

Shadow Lines was commissioned by The Quiet Music Ensemble, Cork, Ireland. The title was taken from the novel The Shadow-Line: A Confession, by Joseph Conrad. It was completed on May 19, 2008, in Middletown, Connecticut.


The Mystery Beyond Matter | Pauline Oliveros | 23'38''

Composing The Mystery Beyond Matter for QME:

Since QME likes to play long pieces, I decided to make a piece with no beginning and no end. This way they could play until their hearts were content. There is an ever changing drone that at least one player keeps going. The drone is played in a simulated reverberant space. The timbre of the drone is always evolving. The drone may be anything from a single tone to noise of wide spectrum - always quiet, always making shapes.

Other players enter solos over the drone, sometimes alone, sometimes overlapping one another. The mystery is how and when to begin and to end.

Pauline Oliveros 3 March 2015


hand tinted | John Godfrey | 12'41''

Programme Note: I became intrigued by the idea of a ‘tinted’ soundscape. The idea comes from an old photography technique in which monochrome photographs were coloured by hand. In this piece, I tint with electronic and performed sound three soundscapes. The recordings were made by Karen Power in Si Phan Don and Luang Prabang, Laos in 2013. This piece was completed in January 2014 and premiered shortly thereafter.

What fascinates me about this is that the subject and content of a tinted photograph remain unaltered, but even the slightest tint makes us see them differently. It has a subtle yet profound effect on the way the photograph makes us feel about its subject, and so offers us a new way to see it; we gain a deeper perception of the photograph from the experience. I guess things like the effects in Instagram alter the way we see photos too, but the unsubtle nature of the alterations makes it feel to me as if the picture is being forced to be something else: the filter, rather than the image, becomes the thing.

I have become very interested in super-minimalist material. The work of Eliane Radigue has recently been a major influence. I wondered what would happen if I asked QME to improvise with something very small; in this piece, we choose between a few pitches on which we improvise using only vibrato. Sustained sine tones at the same pitches and extended delays allow us to use the vibrato to produce all kinds of effects, from subtle beating between tones to texturally dense clouds centred on the main pitches. The result sits far in the background, colouring – tinting – our sense of the soundscapes to the fore.

John Godfrey 28.02.2015

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About Making the Recordings on this CD
by John Godfrey, QME Founder/Director


David’s night leaves breathing is a quintessential QME piece - in fact, this piece has had a great influence on the shaping of the band as it is today. The ‘score’ is a recording to which we improvise; there’s nothing written, although we had some wonderful rehearsals with David leading up to the premiere in 2008 during which he shaped our understanding of the piece and our place in it.

As we play in tandem with the recording - counterpointing it, melding with it, influencing its affect - it, in turn, shapes us. It is an ‘inductive’ piece, in that it invites us - and the listener - into its unique sonic environment: we are part of that environment but we also explore its extent, push at its edges, drag in new possibilities. You might think that playing to the same soundtrack for 6 years (we’ve played this piece a lot!) might get old, but David’s track is astonishingly cast to leave a lot of space for us. Somehow, the piece sounds different, feels different, every time we play it. I marvel at that, because it’s a very difficult thing to do. I chose the word ‘cast’ very deliberately, because to me the piece seems to have the multiplicity of that word - it is cast like a statue, unchanging and distinctive, but at the same time it casts light onto the soundscape we will make together; it casts us each as characters in its sonic play; it casts itself into the realm of sonic possibilities as if scattering seeds.

What you hear in this recording is a single take. We took four takes in total, and this is the one that seemed most suitable for a CD. The others are very different, and each is interesting, but a factor that I was concerned about is that recordings committed to disc need to survive repeated hearings. Both David and I felt that this performance sounded thoughtful; it is more restrained than the others, but somehow more ‘inside’ the piece too.


Recording Shadow Lines was a lot of fun. The way it works is that the two wind instruments play steady tones - sometimes alternately, sometimes overlapping - while the three stringed instruments play long, slow slides. In fact, these slides are REALLY slow - one semitone every 54 seconds. That’d be OK, except that you have to keep doing that for nearly 15 minutes… It takes quite a bit of stamina to play Double Bass at any time, but you can imagine what it took Dan to keep this up on his bass! Both bowed strings had to keep that nice smooth slide going, keep the bow seamless, keep their tone as good as it can be - it’s all physically demanding. For me on the guitar, it was the opposite: I was using Ebow and a glass bottleneck slide - there was almost no physical effort involved at all, but it weirdly became all about that for me too. Staying totally relaxed while moving at that sort of glacial pace is a fabulous discipline.

Because of the way the piece works, it’s also impossible to multitrack it or to edit. It depends on the physical interaction of the sounds in the space, so if you multitrack it you remove one of the most physically intense parts of the experience. You can’t edit it because three instruments are continuously sliding, and of course we can’t absolutely guarantee to be at exactly the same place (and I do mean exactly!) in our slide at any given moment from take to take. So this meant that there was only one way to record the piece: do complete takes with the whole ensemble, as often as we could. Dan really couldn’t play the piece more than once at any given sitting, so we recorded it at widely-spaced slots in between recording the other pieces, but he’s an amazingly dedicated performer and we managed 4 good takes for this CD before his hand had had it. So what you’re hearing here is totally ‘live’: there are no edits, no drop ins. I didn’t even mix volume changes: this is exactly as we played it.

I was reminded again and again, as I selected the take we would use and worked on it, how much incredible variety and beauty there is in a piece like this, which seems superficially to be only about ‘one thing’. But actually, in this performance there’s a huge amount of light and shade, which happened all by itself. In other takes the changes of mood and colour happened in different places; each take has its own character. We may upload one of those other takes at some time in the future, just so you can see what I mean. This piece takes enormous discipline and self-abnegation to play well - we are each locked into something very very precise and unyielding - yet at the same time, once you accept the limitations, it becomes incredibly rich, expressive and human. It is always a privilege to play this piece!


Any Oliveros fan is going to know the first Deep Listening album, the one recorded in the Fort Worden (now Dan Harpole) Cistern, a huge, disused underground water tank in Washington State. It has a reverb that has a distinctive and beautiful sonority, and is 45 seconds long. The digital simulation of that reverb by Jonas Braasch in 2012 has opened up a whole new way of creating pieces for Pauline.

Many people think that a piece ought to have a score, or - like David’s night leaves breathing - maybe a sound track to play to: something fixed. But this piece has neither: what it has is a collection of possibilities. The players each have control of a number of ‘spaces’: that is, simulated acoustics and various kinds of processing. There’s a Drone space - with three acoustics - and a Solo Space, with a set of effects Pauline has derived from her Expanded Instrument System. We play sustained materials in the Drone Space, and occasionally select the Solo Space to play - you guessed it - solos. The latter are not necessarily the kind of solo you would encounter in jazz or rock, but simply things that stand out from the drone space. Imagine a foggy day: the drone space is like the drifting tendrils of mist and the shapes half-seen within it, while the solo space allows us glimpses of the things that step out of the fog for a moment into clearer vision.

So how does this piece guide us? Not through a score, or through lengthy instructions, or through a recording: this piece is about what the spaces do to our sounds. The piece creates certain possibilities, which we then explore. What we actually play is improvised: there are almost no specifics given about what we play - only how we use the spaces. We can control the spaces using footpedals - this allows each of us to inject our sound into whichever space we want to use and to change some of the parameters of the solo space - but WHAT we inject into each space is completely open.

Sometimes, this feels like trying to dance confidently on egg shells - some of these spaces have huge reverb times, and sometimes they echo what we did for 10 minutes or (much!) more. Make a mistake, and it could come back to haunt you many times over. Press the wrong pedal, and you can create a crude, ugly mess of sound sliding inartistically into the depths. But Pauline’s philosophy about this is Texan: if you screw up, cope with it. Of course, you can’t be too conservative either, because then it gets boring. So here’s the trick: don’t mess up. But take risks. Don’t do stupid things. But be inventive. Try things out. Don’t whine if it goes belly-up.

The performance you’re hearing here is one of 4 we did. Like the Lucier, it’s a one-take job: there are no drop-ins, no help from other takes. It doesn’t work to do this, anyway, because we get a real sense of pace when we play: how the group dynamic is working for that particular run. If you try to mix ‘n’ match, it doesn’t work, and anyway this is a piece about exploration, about projecting oneself into the soundscape and reacting to what happens; it’d make nonsense of the recording to fake a ‘better’ run.

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About the CD cover artwork

The CD artwork for The Mysteries Beyond Matter is a collaboration between the Quiet Music Ensemble and Farpoint Recordings - a subdued visual composition that embraces mysteries contained within the music whilst unlocking further layers for the listener to experience.

This delicate balancing action between the compositional elements (seemingly weightless and temporarily frozen in time) where each component of text and image is gently restrained, weathered and tinted, so as not to overpower another. A construct tethering on the edge of being.

And yet if this temporary pause should somehow be disturbed, these elements would surely tumble into each other in resultant chaos. This finely calibrated composition posits a quiet contrast to the weightiness of the textured paper stock, and the varied and slight imperfections of its foldings, its paper memory embodying the flux and flow of the sonorities within the compositions.

Anthony Kelly 27.02.2015


What is Quiet Music Ensemble?
John Godfrey, Founder/Director

I believe in music that does not shout. Our society’s music and other media increasingly depend on aggressive tactics to grab attention: music is amplified to the point of pain and employs countless processing techniques to create ‘punchier’ sound. Whether that sound is actually interesting is secondary to the illusory need to compete. We are surrounded by screaming media, and we are losing our ability to listen. We are losing our ability to be still, to hear patiently, to hear without needing also to be superficially entertained. These easy thrills lead nowhere except into a tug-of-war inside our awareness: it is as if these media are so afraid of being ignored that they try to shout down all others, and the cost is the loss of our ability to be aware of anything else, just as a spotlight obliterates vision outside of the tiny area it selects for attention.

I believe in music that is invitational. It does not need to shout to grab our attention, because it does not assume that attention is warranted. If someone wishes to listen, then (s)he will hear. Music can be about exploration: performers and audience alike choose their path. The music need not decide it for you. Most music ‘tells’ the listener where to direct their attention: certain parts of it are made salient (a melody, for example) and are made, therefore, to seem more important. But I am not the first to realise that if we focus our attention too closely on what seems ‘important’, we fail to observe all the other richnesses that are happening at the same time. If we create music that eschews such hierarchies, then all parts of the music - and the sounds around it - become equally worthy of attention, and thus each listener is enabled to create their own unique path through what is to be heard.

This is not a new philosophy: these ideas are at the heart of John Cage’s thought and music, and are reflected in many forms of music that came after him. But in my experience, there are not that many performers who understand it well enough to succeed in playing it; I suppose this is not too surprising, given that music is usually considered to be about ‘self-expression’, rather than experiential, and so a performer must give up that which is central to the act of performing. Most performers (including myself) feel the compulsion to add something to music, especially if that music appears to have very little in it. Alvin Lucier has often complained that performers try to make his music ‘more’ interesting by adding gestural elements (such as crescendos). Doing so gets in the way of his music, and ends up making it considerably less interesting: to perform Lucier, it is essential to remove as much of yourself from the practice as possible. Performance of Cage’s music is often even more difficult, and I have seen many examples of performers who have interfered with it in the well-meaning, but ultimately doomed, attempt to wrest ‘more’ out of it (which in this case means reaching for more conventional musical values that are, quite simply, irrelevant).

Does Cage expect us to be a machine? Does Lucier? Absolutely not; no-one is naive enough to believe that we can (or should) stop being human. We learn about ourselves through the discipline of placing ourselves aside, providing we realise that this is a matter of degree, not an absolute. Music arises from the attempt, and - perhaps most importantly - so does creativity.

The primary form of quietness for the musicians is a strange balancing act: we create sound, and in that process necessarily call upon the internal desire to make. But in many of the pieces, we do so in a context in which we have limited control over what, finally, results: we put sound into a notional space in which the performance exists, but it is then subject to a metamorphosis which we cannot direct. This ranges from the fact that we create sound in a context where no-one leads (so what results is created by cooperation within the group) to the extremes of electronic processing that are used in Pauline Oliveros’ The Mystery Beyond Matter, in which the content of our sonic choices now can remain in the sound environment for tens of minutes, potentially hours. We create in a context in which we also must accept. Similarly, we incorporate architectural space into our performances; the space shapes our sound, and so we balance what we create with what is created between us and the space.

I wanted to create a group of like-minded creative musicians who were willing to tackle these ideas together, and I have been very lucky in finding Dan Bodwell, Ilse De Ziah, Sean Mac Erlaine and Roddy O’Keeffe. Each is an outstanding musician is his or her own right. They hail from different musical backgrounds and genres, and each one has made exceptional creative contributions to music in Ireland. I feel privileged every time we play together.

Quiet Music Ensemble aims for quietness in many senses: hushed, restrained, tranquil, secret, unrevealed, nonacquisitive. And the reason for this is that I believe we listen better when sound does not insist on our attention; when it simply is, and we have the choice to engage with it. And when we have the time and space to listen with intent, we realise that the depth of sound is unknowable, and we encounter the beauty of the ineffable. Cage nicely described listening to experimental music as becoming a tourist in the sound. I prefer that to listening to music that insists we join the guided tour.

John Godfrey 28.2.2015

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QME History

Quiet Music Ensemble was founded in 2008. To launch it, the Quiet Music Festival was held: it took place at the Glucksman Gallery, University College Cork, 30 June – 6 July, and consisted of the 18th Annual Deep Listening Retreat, taught by Pauline Oliveros and her team, three evenings of experimental and improvised music, public talks, an instrument-building workshop facilitated by Seeded Plain, and a day-long marathon of new experimental music and film, performed by Quiet Music Ensemble and Pauline Oliveros. The Festival was co-directed by Sarah O’Halloran.

Over the next few years, QME performed both small and large-scale concerts, including a 5 ½ hour marathon concert for the closing night of the 2009 Dublin Electronic Arts Festival. The ensemble headlined the Hilltown Festival of New Music in both 2011 and 2012, and 2012’s ‘Sonic Vigil’, an annual free-improvisation event in Cork. Also in 2012, QME curated and took part in a 4-hour, multiple-ensemble, continuous concert of late works by John Cage, in association with RTÉ and Triskel Arts Centre. In 2013, QME gave the world premiere of Jennifer Walshe’s Dordán at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.

QME has been broadcast on a number of occasions by RTÉ lyric fm. In October 2010, the programme ‘Nova’ dedicated its entire show to live performances and interviews with QME and Toop. In 2012, extracts of the Cage event at the Triskel were broadcast. In 2014, the ensemble gave the world premiere of Pauline Oliveros’ The Mystery Beyond Matter live-to-air on Nova.

Quiet Music Ensemble has performed music by artists from many different disciplines: it does not restrict itself to composers. QME has commissioned new works by David Toop, Alvin Lucier, Mark Applebaum, Juraj Kos, Jennifer Walshe and Pauline Oliveros. Many composers and other artists have written for the group, including Christopher Fox, Karen Power, Martin Iddon and the visual and sound artist Danny McCarthy. It has also premiered countless pieces by composers, sound artists and visual artists from Ireland and abroad, and has created workshopping and performance opportunities for early career composers.

QME is also very active as a free improvisation group, and has worked with improvisers from Ireland and elsewhere, including David Toop and Pauline Oliveros, and musicians from a range of genres, including the renowned sean nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird.

We’ve been very lucky to have two wonderful managers over the years: Aisling Ryan and, currently, Anna Murray. Miracle workers, both, who work behind the scenes, above and beyond the call of duty.

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QME Performer Biographies

John Godfrey
Director, Electric guitar and DSP

I have been a composer, a performer, and a promoter of contemporary art music for more than 25 years. My praxis deals with composing, performing and listening as inseparable and often homologous acts; I am primarily interested in music in which such distinctions are minor or absent. I compose music for instruments, for electronics, for installations and for collaborations.

My compositions have been performed by a variety of renowned ensembles in significant venues, and have been broadcast in much of Europe, North America and Australasia. Many appear on CD: labels include Cantaloupe, Farpoint and Decca Argo. Current compositional interests include spectral, spatialised and interactive soundscapes; Experimental Music; compositions as inductive performance environments; liminal acoustic events as musical material; dreamhouse.

I have been an active professional performer and promoter of New Music since 1989, when I co-founded the cutting-edge group Icebreaker in the UK. In 1997, I became a founding member of Ireland’s Crash Ensemble, which has toured in Europe, USA and Australia and records for Nonesuch Records. (www.crashensemble.com).

In 2008, I established Quiet Music Ensemble, a group dedicated to experimental and improvised music. Since its formation, QME has performed in many festivals and high-profile venues in Ireland, commissioned a large number of new works, and gave the world premiere of Jennifer Walshe’s DORDÁN at the Huddersfield Festival of Contemporary Music 2013. In April 2014, QME delivered the world premiere of an especially commissioned work by Pauline Oliveros live to air on Ireland’s national radio broadcaster, RTÉ. In May 2015, QME will work with Karen Power to present a new work at the daadgalerie, Berlin. QME’s first CD, The Mysteries Beyond Matter will be released on March 6, 2015: it contains world premiere recordings of Toop’s night leaves breathing, Lucier’s Shadow Lines, Oliveros’ The Mystery Beyond Matter, and my own hand tinted.

As an improvising musician, I have worked with many of Ireland’s free improvisers and Sound Artists and performed with renowned exponents such as Pauline Oliveros and David Toop.

I have directed numerous New Music events in Cork. 2008’s 4-day Quiet Music Festival was dedicated to Experimental Music and featured appearances and new pieces from many of the world’s leading figures in the genre. In 2012, I curated a major celebration of the late work of John Cage, in association with RTÉ lyric FM and Triskel Arts Centre, Cork.

I have been a lecturer at University College Cork since 1992, where my specialist areas include composition, performance, history and aesthetics of contemporary music, and music technology.

Dan Bodwell
Double Bass

Daniel Bodwell studied classical double bass at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA, and jazz double bass at the Hochschule für Künste, Bremen. He is a founder member of the New York based Micah Gaugh Trio with Kevin Shea. He currently performs with Mary Coughlan, the Nigel Mooney Quartet, the Francesco Turrisi Trio, Julie Feeney, the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, the RTÉ Symphony Orchestra, the Quiet Music Ensemble and the Crash Ensemble. Recent recordings include Nigel Mooney's 'The Bohemian Mooney', Nina Hynes' 'Goldmine', Linley Hamilton's 'Taylor Made', Ian Wilson's 'Double Trio', Francesco Turrisi's 'Si Dolce e il Tormento', David Lyttle's 'True Story', Vyvienne Long's 'Caterpillar Sarabande', the Dubliners '40th Anniversary', and Donnacha Dennehy's 'That the Night Come' featuring Dawn Upshaw.

Ilse De Ziah

Ilse de Ziah is a cellist, arranger and composer. In 2014 she released her music film, Living the Tradition - An Enchanting Journey into Old Irish Airs, with filmmaker Maarten Roos. This won best feature length documentary in the Eerie International Film Festival. She is the principal cellist of the City of Cork Symphony Orchestra, founded the Scarlet String Quartet, gives solo cello recitals in Ireland and abroad and has been playing with QME for 5 years. She performed as actor/musician in award winning theatre shows in Cork and London and has played and toured with many international performers including Nigel Kennedy, Russell Crowe and Micheál Ó Súilleabhain. She has composed film music for the European Space Agency, many dance and short films and composes and publishes solo cello music for her online store http://playcellomusic.com. In 2010 she published the book and accompanying CD Irish Airs for Solo Cello. “The rich harmonics of Buachaill ó'n Éirne in Ilse's playing seem to make every word of this wordless performance speak a special music to us” (Tomás Ó Canainn)


Sean Mac Erlaine
Clarinets, Chalumeau, Voice

Seán Mac Erlaine is a Dublin-based woodwind instrumentalist, composer and music producer, recognised as one of Ireland's most forward-thinking creative musicians. Seán's works intersects folk, free improvisation, jazz and traditional music. He also collaborates with a range of non-musical artists particularly in theatre and radio. An accomplished saxophonist and clarinetist, Seán holds a PhD in music (practice-led research around customised live electronics in solo woodwind performance), a first degree honours Masters of Music (Jazz Performance) and a Diploma in Jazz Performance awarded by The Guildhall School of Music, London. Seán maintains a busy performance schedule in Ireland and internationally working with a hugely diverse range of musicians and artists reflecting his own versatility and interest in cross-platform work. He has performed with leading musical figures including Bill Frisell, David Toop, The Smith Quartet, Hayden Chisholm, Lisa Hannigan, Frank Gratkowski, Ronan Guilfoyle, Iarla O'Lionaird, Damo Suzuki and many more. He has also performed as a special guest with Detroit techno legends Underground Resistance and The Gloaming. He has performed his own music at many festivals such as i & e festival, The Dun Laoghaire Festival of World Cultures, DEAF, Bottlenote Festival, Cork Jazz Festival, Bray Jazz Festival, Foligno Jazz Festival, Linköping Folkmusic Festival, Celtic Connections, Dublin Fringe Festival, The Dublin Theatre Festival, The Kilkenny Arts Festival, 12 Points! and The Venice Biennale.

He is the recipient of many awards including Music Network's Young Musicwide Award, Cork Jazz Festival Best Young Irish Artist Award, Best Production at The Irish Times Theatre Awards 2010 and Rough Magic Advance Programme. He is a founder member of Bottlenote, a collective of creative musicians working in improvised and new music (www.bottlenotemusic.com). Seán can be heard on over 30 CDs and his work has been released on several international labels. His work has been supported by The Arts Council / An Chomhairle Ealaíon and Culture Ireland. Fascinated by performance and movement, he is also a qualified, practicing teacher of Alexander Technique in Dublin.


Roddy O’Keeffe

An honours graduate of both the DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama and the CIT Cork School of Music, Roddy O’Keeffe is one of the original members of the Dublin-based New Music group, Crash Ensemble, founded in 1997. As well as Crash Ensemble, Roddy works as a freelance player, and has performed with both the RTÉ orchestras, the Orchestra of Saint Cecilia, the Irish Film Orchestra, Quiet Music Ensemble and many other professional groups. Roddy is an Assistant Lecturer at the Cork Institute of Technology School of Music.

Alexis Nealon
Sound Engineer

Alexis Nealon is an Irish born sound engineer with years of experience with electronic and acoustic music, in both the studio and in concert. Recent projects include Lorcán MacMathuna's “Preab Meadar” album project, QME's live performances and recordings, and Corn Exchange Theatre's “A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.” He runs his own project studio and provides location recording facilities. He has toured across Europe and further, and taught guitar and I.T. Alexis works with Qlab/Wavelab/Nuendo/MaxMSP/Reaper/Kontact software and RME/Eventide/DPA/Neumann hardware. With a background in music appreciation and guitar performance, he holds a Masters from T.C.D. in Music + Media Technology.


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In 2009 John Godfrey – composer, performer and artistic director of QME – conducted an exclusive interview with David Toop. Toop, a renowned author, improviser, visual and sonic artist, joined the ensemble on 31 October 2009 in Filmbase as part of their DEAF09 (Dublin Electronic Arts Festival) appearance. Toop gave a talk about his work, took part in improvisations and participated in the performance of his first-ever concert-piece, night leaves breathing, which was written for and commissioned by Quiet Music Ensemble in 2008.

When we first spoke about your piece for the Quiet Music Ensemble, night leaves breathing, you said that the concept of ‘quiet music’ was a very important part of the creative process. Can you tell us a little about your reaction to that phrase?

It’s a question of how we listen, or why we listen. Is listening a thin layer of sensory input devoted to speech interpretation, music appreciation, survival and a little bit of comfort noise, or is it a primary means of locating the self, hearing the self, and connecting the self within the environment through which the self passes? Once you start to really listen with intent, then the world gets louder, not necessarily in its decibel count, but the field of awareness grows and so admits information that was otherwise peripheral. I’ve been listening to a lot of quiet music in recent years, as an experiment but also for personal preference, and what is strange is that the more I listen the louder it becomes, as if the significance of its pauses and reticence grow more full in perception. I very much like what the French music philosopher, Vladimir Jankelevitch, had to say about this in Music and the Ineffable. He reverses the normal idea that noise is an island within silence and talks about silence as an interruption to continuous noise:

“Silence was the backdrop suspended under Being. But now, it is noise that constitutes a sonorous foundation, suspended under silence. And this continuous pedal point, this obstinate fundamental bass skewered by momentary silence is indeed more imperceptible than the sound of the sea: it lasts our whole life and accompanies all we experience, fills our ears from the time we are born to the moment we die. As an interruption, a momentary lacuna that mars the noisy animation of Becoming, silence blossoms through voids that interrupt a perpetual din.”

Certain composers and musicians have a predilection for quiet; they are shadowy figures caught in the folds of official music history. Mompou is an example. I just discovered the piano works of William Grant Still and in their quiet fluidity they show an interest in sound as a haunting. Always it comes back to the idea that forms can be conjured out of quiet. Alberto Manguel writes about silent reading in his wonderful book, A History of Reading. We think of reading as a naturally silent activity that must be defended against modern clamour, but as Manguel points out, the first regulation requiring scribes to be silent in monastic scriptoriums date from as late as the ninth century. Many dogmatic Christians were suspicious of silent reading, because it allowed private reflection unguided by orthodoxy and the conformity of the group. Reading aloud is an airing, literally, and in the private space of the silent reader, heresies can breed. Quiet music, similarly, can open a gap in the continuum of orthodoxies, the noisy animation of becoming, to enable another version of becoming, a charm (to use Jankelevitch’s expression) though which the listener is able to discover the imperceptible.

Dear David
Thank you for that fascinating answer! I’d like to follow on from its premise, since the questions of ‘how’ and ‘why’ we listen are so intimately bound up with questions of ‘when’ and ‘where’ we listen: the context so often determines, or at the least colours, our listening behaviours. Cage’s 4’33″ was originally conceived for the context of 1950s ‘art-music’ concert-going traditions; it has since become habituated into other traditions, but it was initially predicated on the hows and whys of listening in a ‘classical’ concert. I loved the dream about Elvis you describe in Ocean of Sound, and particularly the comment that you realised the Elvis you were hearing was ‘fake’, not because he was to be heard in the unlikely company of DJ Mixmaster Morris, but because his loafers were scuffed. In the dream, his voice was amazing, yet this sonic reality was under question because of his dirty shoes.

I’m sorry for the long preamble! Here’s what I’m getting to… Many people may not realise that your piece for QME, night leaves breathing, was the first commission for a ‘concert piece’ you had received. Writing a piece for such a context always begs a great number of questions, but of particular relevance is the fact that concert music is expressly designed to be listened to with intent; not only that, but concert pieces are traditionally framed with silence in what might be conceived as a sonic ritual, the intent of which is to emphasise the ‘substantiveness’ of the work by contrasting it with its ‘empty’ opposite. Was there, thus, a qualitative difference in the way you conceived of this piece compared to your other sonic works, and if not, why not?

I would also wonder whether the necessarily artificial concert situation with all its rituals and social overtones ever truly creates a “charm… through which the listener is able to discover the imperceptible”, a journey which is, arguably, only truly experienced by each individual at their own choice and in moments of open awareness; this is one reason why QME events are mainly not in the form of a standard sit-down concert (you can’t ritualise the personal…). In terms of the ‘authenticity’ of sonic experience, therefore, are conventional concerts, in fact, always bedevilled by dirty shoes?

Hi John,
The dream about Elvis was a genuine dream, fairly faithfully recorded, as I recall, and when I read it back now I realise it was a form of composing in itself. At that time – 1993 or whatever – I was thinking a lot about the juxtapositions of music that were possible and imagining a world in which the outer limits of my interests, my passions, might be compatible within a ‘field of sound’. Perhaps Elvis represented one extreme, as an icon of popular music. In those days I was occasionally given the opportunity to DJ and I used to play an a capella doo-wop track from Japan – “Blue Velvet” by Tats Yamashita – over various ambient tracks. It always sounded indescribably beautiful – very David Lynch, I suppose we would say now – and an ideal of some sort. There are obvious political parallels, or implications, for this sort of utopian ‘composition’ – can such a society exist, or even a listening context, for such inclusive listening? The answer is, for a bit, sometimes, but not for long.

It is true that the piece you commissioned was my first commission of this type, a very welcome and pleasant surprise but problematic in some ways, and that encouraged me to think very hard about what I could do with the situation. I tried to make a piece that was in context with my interests of that moment, which included microsonic listening, sound and fear, sound and the uncanny, the fine details of an everyday listening environment, and representations of silence and listening in 17th century Dutch genre painting, or indeed the history of painting. In one sense, the intent is to open up the field of listening within the performance environment, so that an audience might become increasingly conscious of their own breathing, their own presence, and that is a central focus of my solo performances these days. There’s always crosstalk between my various activities. But it also attempts to focus intently on the playing of the piece, which is what you’re asking me about here. The piece asks for a mix of concentrated, exclusive listening and scattered, discursive listening. Maybe that’s asking too much! I was very influenced by the gestalt psychologist, educationalist and art theorist, Anton Ehrenzweig, in the 1960s, when I was a teenager. His ideas – particularly in The Hidden Order of Art – about the gestalt of listening, of scanning across detail within the field of listening while remaining closely focussed on the whole have made a lasting impact on the way I think and work. It is, of course, the way in which everybody listens, but I’m asking for an intensification of the process with this piece – night leaves breathing – but it grows out of the listening practice of my daily life.

Can it be transported to the concert hall, and can it work as a kind of ‘charm’, as Jankelevitch puts it? Mostly, the rituals of concert going are tiresome (I don’t go out much any more), and if I’m giving the opening to curate, then that’s the starting point: how can we make this different? How can we open up time and this particular space, wherever and whatever it is, to the charm? My answer is that there is no definitive answer, which is the opposite of the 20th century approach when certain composers believed that dedicated ‘experimental music’ concert halls should be built. Can you imagine an architecture that flexible? But it’s one of the biggest challenges of the moment – how to present new sound work, of any type, not just music, when the majority of conventional spaces available for this purpose are entirely unsuitable? Find the right space and already you have at least a proportion of the charm. The rest depends on all the other elements.

Best David

Dear John,
An addendum to my previous answer. I woke up early this Sunday morning, before 6.00am, came downstairs and wrote you an answer. After a few hours work editing my new book I then went back to bed and fell asleep. I had another dream, in which I was collaborating in some way with Edmund de Waal. I don’t know if you’re familiar with his work. He’s a ceramicist. He makes (mostly) white pots, vessels, whatever, and exhibits them as installations of multiples. I think my subconscious had created for me a performance environment – similar in some ways to the classic Greek theatre in which the voices would be amplified by resonating vessels. I was also writing this morning about the flutes made from swan and vulture bones that were found earlier this year in the Hohle Fels caves in southwestern Germany. They were estimated at being almost 40,000 years old. Thinking about that experience of making a breath sound like that, piercing and tremulous, in the darkness of a cave on the first known musical instruments, really grounded this question of the space of performance. I guess my dream grew out of that.

Dear David,
You referred above to an ideal of “inclusive listening”; could you say a little more about what this concept is to you?

In particular, I’m fascinated by your take on the various types of ‘open’ listening that have been posited in the West, going all the way back to the Futurists, and the apparent difficulty that we in our culture seem to have with it. For example, the Futurist Russolo invited us to experience the modern city with “our ears more open than our eyes”, and yet interestingly was still unable to resist the challenge of mimicking and organising the sounds he heard into groupings analogous to those of the orchestra, subjecting them to meters, and imposing upon them tessitura and shape. Even Cage struggled with this: his recognition that it was desirable to allow sounds to simply be themselves in order to truly hear them manifested itself in an ongoing (and not always successful) struggle to find ways to eradicate the ego from the compositional process.

The idea that one might listen without judgement, without jumping immediately to categorise and organise, is one borrowed from Eastern philosophy, but could it be that the Zen ideal of the Mind as no Mind is not achievable in the West? I can’t help wondering whether we are actually too acquisitive: how many of us take vacations to exotic places and then spend the entire time taking photos (canned holidays) rather than fully experiencing ‘being’ there?

All best,

Dear John,
I’m just looking at a reproduction of Caravaggio’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt, painted c. 1595. What he shows is a female angel playing the violin. Joseph is holding up the music for her to follow – “How fair and pleasant you are O loved one, delectable maiden” from the Song of Songs, set by Noel Baulduin. The notation is clearly visible, though as Catherine Puglisi points out in her book on the painter, Caravaggio doesn’t show the words, so except for the patron who commissioned the painting and those literate in musical notation, this sub-text of the scene would have been obscure or inaccessible. Madonna and Child sit to one side, both fast asleep. There’s an interesting contrast between the ground on which Joseph sits, which is stoney (he is rubbing one foot on top of the other to stay awake), and the lush vegetation in which they sit, tall grasses, climbing plants and then behind them, fields, forest and distant hills. Just behind Joseph is their donkey, very close to the centre of the action, its nose up close to the violin and the music.

The scene is visual, but because of Caravaggio’s vitality of style, the drama he brings to foreground and depth, light and movement, I ‘hear’ the painting very clearly and it encapsulates the dilemma of this conflict between the symbolic and the abstract in listening. There is a deep symbolic language within the painting, which would be very clear to those versed in its vocabulary, and the more accessible symbolic levels which allow anybody to understand the basic story, yet the words of the song are absent. We read the painting at various levels, and hear music without words, also hearing the complex ambient sound of the scene.

What does all this have to do with Russolo? Well, Marcel Duchamp didn’t think much of the Italian Futurists – he felt they were just urban realists, a banal version of the ruralists, and I tend to agree. For all their rhetoric of the future, they were often still stuck in the past. Cage’s dilemma was that he loved consonant music – the prepared piano pieces, or “In a Landscape”, are simple but lovely. You might say that the ability to compose, and the desire to do so, immediately draws a composer into shaping any material according to their personal template, and so their conception is not so different from Caravaggio – a melody, perhaps, along with the sound of grasses and leaves, the breathing of a donkey and two sleeping people, the slight friction of small stones under bare feet (a composition I’d enjoy hearing).

For me, it’s a productive dilemma and not necessarily one that should be resolved. The oddity and irrationalism of juxtaposition is what fascinates. Piero della Francesca also showed this startling closeness of angel musicians and animals, as if through this strange inter-species music the interdependency of opposites – high and low, beauty and ugliness, rough and smooth – is asserted. Perhaps the problem is our reliance on texts, words, seeing and touch as the true measure of reality, even reality itself. In such a world, sound without association, or sound as sound and not as symbol or vehicle, becomes difficult to comprehend, which is why so much music is discussed in terms of its words, the performers, its social or political significance, its theories and themes, and so on, until there’s no more room to think about the effect of the sound. A melody means ‘nothing’ unless it corresponds to an existing melody, yet its impact can be devastating - this is as true of a violin melody as the complex melodies of grasses waving in the wind. In evolutionary terms there must be constant pressure on us to identify sounds and their sources – are the grasses waving in the wind, peacefully, or is the wind the precursor of a storm, or are they disturbed by a predator, a lover, a snake?

We can’t, and probably shouldn’t detach ourselves from such associations, but for a composer, or an improviser, another choice exists: should some of this material be allowed to decide for itself how it fits within an overall event structure? Personally, I use accident and unpredictability – often I play an instrument at the same time as using a computer. Clearly, I can’t really control two devices as effectively as one, so stuff happens that I’m not expecting, or can’t easily control. I don’t like to wrestle it all into submission. I’m not sure if these ideas of ego, or zen, are still helpful. Yes, it’s an issue of the self and identity, how individuals define the self and how much the integrity of the self has to be maintained and even defended. But I never suffered a serious illness from having a sonic event take me by surprise during a performance! It simply makes me anxious that difficult moments will take place, or destabilises me when they do, but too many contemporary compositions, and improvisations come to that, seem to avoid such difficulties and so they offer only a feeble kind of consolation. Sound always asks questions of the attentive listener – what just happened, where did it come from, what produced it? To smooth that spirit of enquiry out of sound seems to be a corruption of its nature.

Best wishes,


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