James May revisits Crashlands, the project by Crash Ensemble that saw the acclaimed new music ensemble fulfill their 'ambitious mission to reimagine the presentation of contemporary classical music in Ireland'.
In September of 2019, Dublin-based Crash Ensemble wrapped-up their 20th-anniversary celebrations with the release of CrashLands, a two-disc collection of commissioned works released on their Crash Records label.
In those 20 years, Crash established themselves as among the most significant contributors to contemporary classical music in Ireland, not just through the quality of their performance but in their penchant for innovative collaboration and support of Irish composers. The album highlights this two-decade effort with 19 pieces written for their 2017 anniversary; Jennifer Walshe's visually stimulating but mostly silent Pale Dogwood & Rose Quartz rounds out the list to 20.
The record comprises works from the Irish and international scenes' leading composers, including Bang On a Can co-founders Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe, and veteran Irish composers Gerald Barry and Kevin Volans.
Though the album is stylistically and generationally comprehensive, it’s somewhat unbalanced. This is not for want of musical engagement—it’s simply clear that some composers didn’t rise to the occasion of the commission.
There are, however, excellent moments throughout the album. Donnacha Dennehy, who founded Crash Ensemble 20 years ago, opens the album with Canons and Overtones, a swirl of his spectrally informed minimalism. Ann Cleare’s fiáin is a blur of string glissandi (for string trio, electric guitar, and electric bass) demonstrating the keen sonic attention that made her the first Irish composer to win the Ernst von Siemen’s prize in 2019. Amanda Feery’s Vultures digs out a cavernous space with simple but effective percussion, while Dutch composer Kate Moore’s minimalist Music Box makes mesmerizing use of orchestration.
But what is truly interesting about this album is the larger project it represents. In 2017 Crash took these pieces well outside the NCH and around Ireland, making stops at such "venues" as Inishboffin and a gothic ruin in Carlow. The performances saw audiences seated on lawn blankets or adrift in kayaks, cradling beers and coffee while the occasional bovine spectator ambled in a field behind.
Poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa accompanied the band, writing and reciting a new poem at each of the 10 locations, and the whole intimate endeavour was beautifully captured as both documentary film and music video series by Brendan Canty.
CrashLands is as much this tour as it is an album. It’s the ensemble’s willingness to sacrifice a grand piano for an electric keyboard and the presence of buffeting wind and bird calls in a live video, captured as documentation of the ways 10 new audiences heard contemporary classical music. Crash understands that a concert has dimensions beyond the performance and that scraping away the extra-musical scrapes away the collective experiences that build community. They are positioned to interrogate assumptions about sharing art with new audiences, and thrive on this interrogation.
Taken as just a collection of pieces, the CrashLands release is a handy sampler of New Music skewed towards the post-minimalist style that served as bedrock in the ensemble’s early years. But that unfairly sticks to the surface of Crash Ensemble’s ambitious mission to reimagine the presentation of contemporary classical music in Ireland.