Ireland’s Áine O’Dwyer has treated us all to a beautiful voyage. It’s a voyage that sails through the golden harps of sunshine and through the thick sludges of pitch black terror. Arching over all, like an intricate, entangled vine, is an excited beauty, apparent from the start, as her harp sparkles like the finest of jewellery, encrusted with diamonds. Enrobed notes are just as majestic as they are vulnerable. Anything as beautiful as the harp would tend to have an opposite reaction, an enemy in cause and intent; something enslaved to jealousy, enraged as to the innocence of the sound. As such, the beautiful, delicate melodies of the harp are always open to a potential attack stemming from her rival.
Anything bright or startling is so cohesive that it plays out like one, continuous movement. It’s a dramatic journey that has humble, harp origins – a princess enwrapped in a cloth of innocence – but by the end, a shocking shift in power has taken place.
Áine O’Dwyer has played harp on Piano Magic and United Bible Studies, to name only a few. The successor to her organ-driven, improvised etudes, appropriately titled Music for Church Cleaners, Anything bright or startling? is awash with drama, separated by individual acts of bravery, endeavour, struggle and, ultimately, a conclusion of blood-red violence.
Circling like a carousel, her harp carries a dusty, twinkling melody-box inside a plastic horse; one that used to carry a soldier into battle, eternal in a frozen, stuffed grin. As fragile as can be, her voice, at once swishing through the air and cutting it as if it was a blade, is always reassuring to behold. Her lyrics are musical poems – in fact, they could be poetry itself – ‘Falcon’, the opening piece, was at first conceived as a poem, mirroring poetry and lyricism as one and the same. Her prose captivates, rich in 15th century language and as susceptible as a candle flame – as vulnerable as the harp herself. You could hear the still intake of breath, if the music had not already taken it from you, lovingly displacing your regular rhythm as you stop to admire her beautiful, resonant playing. Notes seem to vaguely sparkle, somehow born with an antiquated, dusty tone, and yet very contemporary in their luminescent phrasing.
A continuous stream of notes shimmer out of her harp, apricot-coloured in tone and dynamically sensitive to the situations surrounding her. Like unfolding a favourite book of long ago, as a kind glow of moonlight filters in through the windows, her melodies seem to breathe out the past traditions and scars of battles won or lost, heroines that were rescued (and not just by an Italian plumber) and the spirit of past centuries. Once upon a time, tales were told of tall castles that hung suspended in the sky, as well as over the green, distant lands – and maybe, just maybe, a dragon or two soared high above on scaly wings.
Áine’s atmospheres skirt the celtic tradition, flying above the smoke-scented burning leaves and wooded forests and towards the evening, tinted with dusk drenched folk. The rising cloud of ashen smoke could’ve emanated from the fiery breath of such a creature itself. Streams of beauty flow over her lyrics like a discovered river, ready to extinguish the fire of danger, but the occasional cry uncovers a rocky past, snaking through the grassy banks.
You look like you’ve seen a ghost.
Her deeply evocative textures are created by notes that leave wide circles, like pebbles thrown into the rhythm of the sea, displacing the original pattern so as to create further splashes; surely, there isn’t a more relaxing sound than that of the breathing waves, taking in their own rhythmic pulse as the foam swells, replacing what was once your breath with the fresh, renewed breath of the sea. After this slowly fades out, the musical notes seem to have replaced the original ocean with an image all of their own; the tide comes in, as a flurry of notes carry shipwrecks to the shoreline of lost war and wrought emotion, before resolving in a gust of high wind.
From one progression to the next, her music shifts into almost baroque territory, where the minor is the mournful king, sitting alone on a rusty-bronze throne. An air of stark foreboding settles over the music, like dust collecting on the pristine strings. Nothing can remain as it is, and the cry of the enemy grows louder with every minute. It’s night, the day before your date with history.
Her voice, prose-like and prominent, pierces the delicate harp; a cry of power nestled into the palace of a dying crown. Her vocals never surrender to the dark as the organ gathers around the throne. Her lyrics, once comforting and draped over the instruments as a protective layer, are now wrought with a deep, mysterious cry that increases the tension ever more. The compelling coda unleashes the consuming organ, shrouding everything bar her angelic voice in a thick ink of black foreboding surrounded by swords. The departure and new direction is stunning, and completely unexpected. The major thirds have fled, out of sight.
Her harp was once queen. Now, she is dethroned in a state of delicate, horrific beauty, defeated by an onslaught of organ toned drone. Bright, and startling, this erases all that ever was, creating a new order and replacing the old way – the princess isn’t saved this time. Her final breath is as prolonged as the ocean’s exhale, only polluted by an oil spill. As you can see, the atmosphere has flipped.
The kings of old have passed – long live the new Queen.