Neil O’Connor is a composer, multi-instrumentalist and electronic musician based in Dublin who has been releasing music under the Somadrone moniker since the late 1990s while also working with Irish rock bands such as The Redneck Manifesto and Jape. Initiated in 2018, Ordnance Survey is a new collaborative project which sees the musician blend his electroacoustic soundscapes with the sound of contemporary folk, classical and jazz musicians such as Linda Buckley, Kate Ellis and Sean MacErlaine on Relative Phase (2018) or the Crash Ensemble, Dónal Lunny and Lankum’s Cormac MacDiarmada on Ampere (2020).
Constrained by the pandemic regulations and unable to invite collaborators into the recording studio, Neil O’Connor turned to field recordings captured around Dublin over the years as well as various snippets from national television and radio archives to imagine a moving sound map of the capital city. Field Work was released digitally and as a limited vinyl edition on his own Scintilla Recordings label on 15 November 2021 last.
Commonly used by composers scoring for cinema, chiming instruments or twinkling minor piano chords tend to trigger nostalgic associations with a recent past. Several tracks on the album feature chiming piano, including the opening “Earlsfort Terrace April 1991”. As well as that, as a psychedelic collage of ambient electronica, distorted vocals, saturated keys, trip-hop drums, snippets of public announcements or TV commercials and various field recordings, Field Work is replete with sonic effects all pointing to a vague past.
The use of tape allows me to time travel and be obscure in relation to its recording date – Neil O’Connor
Emulating the conventional research methodologies of historians or archivists, all song titles point to precise locations around Dublin city (“Earlsfort Terrace”, “Connolly Station” or “Drumcondra”) or nearby coastal locations (“Sandycove Beach”, “Sutton beach” or “Howth”). However, dates are very approximate and only mention a month and a year. In other words, are the memories real, a figment of the recording artist’s imagination or a mixture of both?
This is precisely where Field Work takes on a fascinating parallel trajectory and enters the realm of hauntology, a concept introduced in the 1990s by French philosopher Jacques Derrida which embraces both history and philosophy and has since permeated popular culture and music.
Discussed at length by British authors like Mark Fisher or Simon Reynolds, hauntology in the field of electronic music involves a manipulation of nostalgia and a retro-futuristic exploration of shared memories through sampling and electronic collages. If Scottish electronic duo Boards of Canada are probably the most recognised exponents of the genre, UK’s independent Ghost Box record label has been on the forefront of psychedelia, ghostly pop and vintage electronics exploring an imaginary future since 2004.
Neil O’Connor’s 2018 Wellpark Avenue under the Somadrone moniker was already an homage to the sound Broadcast, another seminal British electronic/psychedelic pop band ploughing a similar furrow. On Field Work, the multi-instrumentalist offers an Irish perspective on what is primarily a fairly recent British phenomenon. Snippets from a female sean-nós singer recorded in West Kerry in the 1950s or from the RTE television archives for instance are sampled into the mix. Even through words or melodies are beyond recognition, these nevertheless add to an eerie familiarity for Irish listeners which is already triggered by the vintage photographs or VHS footage in some of the accompanying videos on YouTube or Twitter. Then the entire ambient project is also animated by the ghost-like sounds of faint voices, footsteps and someone whistling.
Partially recorded in Dublin’s National Concert Hall studios, Field Work channels the same energy as the recent collaborative compilation In the Echo: Field Recordings from Earlsfort Terrace. As well as that, by sharing its title with a famous poetry collection published in 1979, Neil O’Connor has allowed himself ample poetic licence to imagine an uncanny musical map of an age-old city through the futuristic prism of experimental ambient electronic music.