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2019 Highlight: a scintillating Calum Gourlay springs into life

At the beating heart of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and long since in residence with Thelonious at the Vortex in Dalston, Calum Gourlay is the John Ore of the UK scene and he is mining some rare gems on New Ears released on Ubuntu this …

Published: 3 Dec 2019. Updated: 18 months.

At the beating heart of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and long since in residence with Thelonious at the Vortex in Dalston, Calum Gourlay is the John Ore of the UK scene and he is mining some rare gems on New Ears released on Ubuntu this week.

Gourlay says: “This project brings the experience I have gained from my two-and-a-half-year big band residency at the Vortex, London into my own quartet. This band has all the energy, sound and colours of a contemporary big band but with only four members.”

“The idea for the quartet came from my big band in residence at the Vortex Jazz Club. I write a new work each month for every gig. It’s hard to start a piece from scratch: I usually have a shell of an idea in place so I can write something. Occasionally, I workshop sketches hoping they will translate into an arrangement. With this approach, I experiment with form & instrumentation. With the quartet it was fun and easy to write things for trombone & tenor to play together. Helena [Kay, tenor sax], Kieran [McLeod, trombone} and James [Maddren, drums] have been important musicians in my big band so I began to think this could be a great band in its own right.”

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Happy Days, Enniskillen

From 2014. Walking down Church Street on the island into the Hollow, the harsh light of morning on the first day of the Samuel Beckett festival, the sight of actor Adrian Dunbar leading a funeral cortège, the pallbearers wearing theatrical make-up, …

Published: 3 Dec 2019. Updated: 8 months.

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From 2014. Walking down Church Street on the island into the Hollow, the harsh light of morning on the first day of the Samuel Beckett festival, the sight of actor Adrian Dunbar leading a funeral cortège, the pallbearers wearing theatrical make-up, the director of Catastrophe summoning the revenants, in Fintan O’Toole's phrase, that inhabit Beckett’s work, to roam, was striking. In the remains of the day later by way of contrast the sounds of Stockhausen in the tenebral repose of St Michael’s church summoned spectral imagery of a different kind.

Next day there was an almost vaudevillian air to the tender French language production from Theatre NoNo of Waiting for Godot at the Ardhowen theatre. But the heavens opened as we sat in the auditorium, and back in the town later water coursed down the streets to the river for the rest of Friday night as the Gavin Bryars ensemble, Yurodny, and the Crash Ensemble joined forces to perform Bryars’ ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’ at the opening concert.

The festival was affected a little by poor weather conditions during the first weekend with Roaratorio: An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake particularly suffering. Inside, though in the snugs of Blake's, safely back on the island, the Finnegans reading (the connection between Joyce and Beckett a significant logical strand this year) warm and dry.

Tractors on the anti-fracking run from Belcoo thundered around the town causing traffic gridlock for a while on Sunday, a welcome piece of noise. As the protesters made their point Terry Eagleton gave a talk at the South West College, the famous Marxist literary critic, speaking on the subject of political Beckett. A questioner in the audience wondered if Eagleton could comment on Catastrophe, a big draw at the festival this year. With its overtly political context and dedication to Václav Havel this was a good question but Eagleton said he couldn't remember the play. The small reminder later on exiting the venue was provided by the white bus containing the audience on the way to the secret location for Catastrophe thundering past, destination unknown.

Monday dawned bright and beautiful, and it was an early start at the Ardhowen theatre for Words and Music, a 1961 piece initially written for radio with music by Morton Feldman performed by the Crash Ensemble, Adrian Dunbar and the great Belfast actor Ian McElhinney sat with their backs to us, the piece cloaked in mystery, the pair lost in translation the music the only amanuensis interpreting through the densest of aural fogs.

Krapp’s Last Tape in German later in the week with the first appearance on an Irish stage by the formidable screen actor Klaus Maria Brandauer was funny and skilled, his stagecraft with the banana and tape, eternal symbols of the play, and mastery of silences, so powerful.

On the final Saturday and Sunday, BBC Radio 3’s The Essay recorded some programmes introduced by Marie-Louise Muir for later broadcast, with, among the speakers, actor Lisa Dwan talking interestingly about performing Not I, while writer Fintan O’Toole delivered a talk on the themes of mortality and death in Beckett’s work. Like Eagleton, O’Toole made the point that Beckett was not a nihilist, and certainly celebration of Beckett as a writer aware of the human condition in all its universality was the overwhelming impression to come away with from this quite extraordinary festival. Stephen Graham