Seán Mac Erlaine is a Dublin-based reed player, composer and electronic musician who has released two solo albums to date, Long after the Music is Gone (2012) and A Slender Song (2014), both on the Ergodos record label. He is also a master improviser who thrives on eclectic and multi-disciplinary collaborations. Over the years, the musician has performed live concerts or scores for silent films, new commissions or site-specific multimedia installations either as a solo artist, through collaborative projects, with This is How we Fly or with Bottlenote Music, a Dublin-based collective he co-founded and dedicated to the promotion of artists working in improvised music today.

Back in April and November 2016, as part of the duo series organised by Note Productions, Seán Mac Erlaine staged two concerts with guitarist Eivind Aarset and electronic musician Jan Bang respectively – two Norwegian leading lights in the realm of Nu Jazz and ambient live electronica. Both collaborations sparked a recording session in Oslo and a new album. Music for Empty Ears was released on 25 May 2018 last in download and Vinyl formats on the Ergodos label.

Seán Mac Erlaine - Music for Empty Ears (2018) - Artwork © Distinctive Repetition
Seán Mac Erlaine – Music for Empty Ears (2018) – Artwork © Distinctive Repetition

In addition to their own solo work, Jan Bang and Eivind Aarset have between themselves shared the stage or the recording studio with several international artists such as Nils Petter Molvaer, Arve Henriksen, Tigran Hamasyan, Dhafer Youssef, Sidsel Endresen or veteran musical visionary Jon Hassell. Both also share with Seán Mac Erlaine a unique approach to composition and sound design.

As an electronic musician, composer and producer, Jan Bang more or less pioneered the concept of live sampling in the early 1990s whereby a live musician (as opposed to a vinyl record) provides the input to the sampler. Hence a natural inclination to work with jazz improvisers or singers.

Eivind Aarset tends to use his electric guitar as a keyboard or a synthesiser, thus steering more towards sound sculpture, ambient drone and effects rather than traditional accompaniment or soloing.

Seán Mac Erlaine has also long integrated live electronics into his music by processing his own output live on stage or in the studio using custom-built patches, delay and effect modules.

In a way, all three musicians approach each session like sound-effects artists going into the studio with an assortment of props and implements to reproduce ambient sounds and thus enhance the audio quality of a full-length film. The stage is silent, the canvas is white, the tape is blank. But each will bring along their own stockpile of musical tools to fill the empty space and the “empty ears” of the audience.

The titles “The Diplomat III” or “The Alchemist III” suggest that several versions of the songs were recorded in the studio, but that only one take was preserved.

Seán Mac Erlaine goes into the studio with his electronic devices and a wide range of single-reed instruments – an alto saxophone, a clarinet, a bass clarinet – as well as chalumeaux (the Baroque ancestor of the modern clarinet) or a bawu (a Chinese free-reed instrument) which can be heard on “En Fetelle Mai”.

As a ‘samplist’, I collect sounds that may become useful in other situations. It´s much like collecting sand shells without knowing how to use them – just keeping them because of their pure beauty. Jan Bang

The keen listener will actually revel in recognising sound samples from the Jan Bang’s miscellaneous collection of sounds across recordings from all the musicians he has been involved with over the years – the thumb piano heard on “Shake and Sigh” for instance.

The wonderful title of the new record can also be understood at another level of meaning. For the first time, a recording by Seán Mac Erlaine features two songs by Galway-based singer Sadhbh Ní Dhálaigh who has never recorded professionally before. On “The Melting Song”, the subtle ambient backdrop and percussive loops, the hushed vocals intertwined with mellifluous saxophone lines strike a perfect balance between classic jazz and forward thinking electronica. As a “première” from Sadhbh Ní Dhálaigh, this is an arresting performance.

Resuming his exploration of the traditional Irish sean-nós repertoire initiated in 2012 on Long after the Music is Gone, the musician revisits “An Buachaill Caol Dubh”, a lament made famous by uilleann piper Liam O’Flynn.

But as jazz improvisation is also a two-way conversation, listening to Seán Mac Erlaine also implies a relaxed mind, “empty ears” on the part of the listener and a readiness to be swayed by new sounds. As suggested perhaps by the cover artwork, Music for Empty Ears is an experiment in filling an empty space with sound vibrations from different sources: guitar-based textures, reeds, found-sound samples and voice. What takes place at the intersection of these oscillating waves is a treat for the ears.