In 2014, the Model Arts Centre in Sligo commissioned Irish contemporary traditional septet Ensemble Ériu to write new music during a two week residency. The Model is home to the Niland Collection which includes 42 paintings by Irish artist Jack Butler Yeats (1871 – 1957). Composed as a response to the paintings held there and elsewhere, the suite consists of eight new pieces. Recorded in 2015, Stargazer was released on 1st July 2017 on Dublin-based label Diatribe Records in association with Raelach Records.

Ensemble Ériu - Stargazer (2017) - Artwork © Max Franosch
Ensemble Ériu – Stargazer (2017) – Artwork © Max Franosch

Recorded at the same time as Ensemble Ériu’s second album Imbas, Stargazer marks a clear creative departure. If the majority of the band’s repertoire to date introduced contemporary arrangements to traditional tunes or recent compositions by others, all tracks are newly composed with the writing credits equally shared between both co-leaders Neil Ó Loclainn and Jack Talty.

The brother of W.B. Yeats, Jack B. Yeats was born in London and spent his early childhood in Co. Sligo. Starting off his career as an illustrator for magazines and journals, he gradually began using oils to depict West of Ireland landscapes and characters, sports scenes, circuses, horse races or scenes from the Celtic mythology.

The new compositions on Stargazer refer to “Johnny Patterson singing ‘Bridget Donoghue’ (The Singing Clown)” (1928), “Eileen Aroon” (1953), “Singing Under the Canopy of Heaven” (1953) or “The Sea and the Lighthouse” (1947) among others.

Once again, the broad instrumental palette of the septet allows plenty of colourful combinations, endless permutations, exquisite harmonies and subtle counterpoints. The suites are also arranged into much longer progressions with plenty of space between the different sections.

Almost opening like a Charles Mingus record with a single line on the double bass (Neil Ó Loclainn), the first track of the album “Silvanus/Bowsie” introduces all members of the band one after the other – Maeave O’Hara on marimba, Matthew Jacobson on percussion, Paddy Groenland on guitar, Matthew Berrill on clarinet, Jack Talty on concertina and Jeremy Spencer on fiddle.

On the delightful “Eileen Eile, well ah”, Maeve O’Hara trades for the first time the marimba for its close cousin the vibraphone, tilting the balance a lot more towards jazz with a dynamic concertina/bass clarinet pairing at the start while subtle touches on the guitar embellish the theme throughout.

Elsewhere, “A Summer’s Evening” hints at the slow air “Amhrán na Leabhar” and “Fear an Bhogha” concludes the opus in ecstatic fashion as fiddler Aoife Ní Bhriain joins the septet for an impressive coda.

Stargazer evokes of course Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” whose 10 movements are based on drawings or watercolours from architect and painter Viktor Hartmann while the music of Claude Debussy or Maurice Ravel is also strongly influenced by the impressionist painters.

But the abstract album cover design by London-based graphic designer and artist Max Franosch perhaps echoes a more recent and similar approach to the creative process. American composer Morton Feldman’s “Rothko Chapel” (1971) is a 25mn piece written for chamber choir, viola, celeste and percussion as a tribute to the abstract paintings of his dear friend Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970). Located on the grounds of The University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, the Rothko Chapel is a purpose built octangular non-denominational space designed to host 14 paintings (including 3 tryptichs). As a new piece of work, “Rothko Chapel” also reflects the intimate contemplation space where the paintings are kept.

To a large degree, my choice of instruments (in terms of forces used, balance and timbre) was affected by the space of the chapel as well as the paintings. Rothko’s imagery goes right to the edge of his canvas, and I wanted the same effect with the music – that it should permeate the whole octagonal-shaped room and not be heard from a certain distance. Morton Feldman

More than a musical comment on Jack B. Yeats’ paintings, the Stargazer suite mirrors in a way the wider context of the Niland Gallery but also the surrounding rural landscape of County Sligo where most of the work emanated from – a new “territory” perhaps for the Co. Clare-based and influenced ensemble.

The album takes its name from an eponymous watercolour by Jack B. Yeats depicting a jockey on horseback oblivious to the road ahead but gazing at the evening landscape and celestial sphere – an apt image for an ensemble animated by a genuine sense of musical wonder and already adept at reaching well beyond the horizon of the traditional Irish music idiom.