In Conversation: Áine O’Dwyer & Mark Harwood

Áine O’Dwyer. Photo by Mark Harwood.

Mark: I’m not going to do a sit down and just ask questions…

Áine: Thanks be to God, that just kills me. Speaking of death, can I get a lighter?


Did you get out on the weekend?

What did I do? Oh yes! I did, I went to Epping Forest.

Ah, I’ve never been there. How crazy is that.

It’s gorgeous, gorgeous.

At this time of year it must be nice.

It’s really lovely.

It’s on the end of the Central Line?

You can go different routes but we got out at Loughton.

I don’t even know that.

It doesn’t matter which route you go but go left eventually.There’s a line that runs… a road that goes through the middle. A lot of forest, walks, a meadow.

People go there? Like Hampstead Heath or the Hackney Marshes?

Yeah, but much more sparse.

You’re out of the city?

Well not completely out of the city, but less popular. Definitely less popular than Hampstead Heath.

Hampstead Heath is always busy with humans.

[Metallic clang.]

It’s funny about Hampstead Heath, the times I go, I find myself sitting in the female pond area and it’s always jammers and it doesn’t really bother me. [Irish accent]

These different places in London that have different atmospheres, like Hackney Marshes is so different to Hampstead Heath and that’s why I’m excited to go to Epping Forest as I know it’s going to be a different atmosphere again.

I think it’s quite magical… [Phone rings in the distance] I think it’s just being surrounded by trees, you know, and space. I’ve had some nice experiences there. The other one’s Richmond Park.

Yah, deer. Again, I’ve never been.

Really? You have to go.

Everyone mentions the deer. Who doesn’t like a deer?

Oh dear oh dear… Hello John [Chantler].

[Laughter] Sorry we’re late. [Metallic thud]

No-one’s fault.

You’ve got a bit of a job ahead of you. [Laughter]

I’m going to roll a spliff first and I apologise in advance, like now for instance.

I’m enjoying Laphroaig, what are you drinking there?

I’m having a porter… There’s a blackout in the office, a band about to soundcheck but we’re going to do it [the interview].

What’s the band called?

Ah, it’s a band, an act called Unica Zurn. I know the name as I know the human called Unica Zurn but I don’t know what Unica Zurn the band sound like. But I like Charles Bullen, he’s supporting. I’m a big fan. Great human, etc.

Umm. [Metallic clang.]

[At this point it becomes clear that the metallic clang that appears every now and then is actually the resonance in the recorder when Mark (with his lifelong nervous jitter) knocks the table. It’s a super nice sound, not representative of reality at all. Mark realises that he can play around with this discovery by recording on different surfaces and plans to do so, but not yet.]

I’m going to a little opera on Saturday at the Copeland gallery, in Peckham. I have very few details besides knowing the costumes quite well, they are quite animalistic, totem-like.

Your friend’s a costume maker.

Yeah, she does a bunch of different things and the last thing she made was a series of wedding dresses for female wrestlers.

Wedding dresses for female wrestlers?

I don’t know much about it bar the costumes. [Laughter]

You seem proud of yourself as you are going to encounter something else in the world, outside of forests and…

JOHN: …churches.

Churches John, we mention churches.

ÁINE: [A sound that starts as “no” before shifting into “ugh”]

“Drones in churches, ladies and gentlemen.”

[A collective no-ugh combo]

I get out a bit, as you know, probably too much so I should stay in.

[Realises this is not the best road to go down and smoothly shifts the topic to books]

I’m reading a really nice book at the moment.

A book published last year by a writer from London called Grief Is The Thing With Feathers. Max Porter, Grief Is The Thing With Feathers. The title borrows from Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is a thing with feathers”. It’s about grief, of course. It’s great, dark, sad and funny.

I was in a bookstore recently and I just read two pages in the bookstore and it was really easy to read and it was so funny, I just bought it as it was so odd and I knew straight away, this is something… it’s really good. And that’s what I’ve been doing this week.

The writer is a clever human.

Plenty of them. That’s nice.

[Pause. Distant chatter holding no value as no words are heard. Clang.]

I listened to your new record. Which is really nice. The voice one. Which was recorded in…

[Clicks fingers]

The Brunel tunnel shaft.

Brunal what?

The shaft of the Brunel tunnel. It’s a large metal cylindrical structure and by its own weight sunk into the ground. And by doing so it allowed Brunel to begin the process of digging, underwater. And yeah it’s got a museum there, a little shop where they sell books about Brunel and the 1800’s, and… Oh, it’s the spliff!


Oh great! Cool.

And so how did you get access there? To record in there?

[Inhales] Well I just approached them. There was a woman whose name I can’t remember right now and she was putting on little concerts there at the time, in 2013, and the first thing I did there was an album launch and commemoration for the six men who died during the construction of the tunnel. They drowned to death.

Which album launch?

Anything brighter starting… anything bright or startling? And then after that I went back – whoops! [Hands back spliff but it rolls off the table. Laughter] I went back and in exchange for some voluntary work in the bookshop and museum I got access to the shaft, so it turned into a type of residency.

Ah, OK. Was that after hours? When they let you in?

Various times. It was a really nice setup. I lived quite close, so it was just a matter of getting in through this tiny metal door. It was about a metre in length. So for people to get access to the shaft, you had to crouch down and go through this tiny door and then down a scaffolding staircase.

Alice in Wonderland style. So how big is it inside?

The shaft itself is 50 feet underground and it’s 14 feet above the trains and it had this square window, which is not there anymore, they put these new stairs in quite recently and closed up the hole. It’s quite different now but at the time there was a square window on the ceiling which would let another feed of sound into the space.It was really nice. Then there were all these other things making sounds at random intervals, the pump was still there, making sounds.

Mechanised sounds?

Yeah, kind of breathy sounds at times and machine-like at times.

When was this?

I started visiting towards the end 2013, 2014 and in 2015, I recorded during the summer solstice.

But there’s harp on that recording as well, so you were able to take that into the space?

At one time I tried to take the larger harp which was a bit of an ordeal, I needed others to help, but I have a smaller harp which can fit in when you turn it sideways and then just push it in and follow in yourself. A lot of the time I played with all the lights off so you just get the shadows of light coming in from the ceiling window on the top of the shaft where there’s a beautiful garden. At the time I lived in a room with no windows, so the space reminded me of this cave-like feeling, only it sounded much better acoustically.

In 2014 I visited the space one evening with a group of singers. I was interested in capturing acoustic decay with a chorus of similar pitches and slow moving glissandi thrown around the space. The recording devices were placed in three different locations around the shaft. We used a simple movement in order to throw our collective voices, one can hear this on the track entitled ‘hounds of hades’. At times, our movements drew out the sounds.

So the records I’m releasing, Locusts and Gegenschein also incorporate vocals and we were recently talking about how you were making the voice blend with the instrument.

Yes, losing the voice in the instrument. Moving it into an indistinct place where the voice may sound at times like an organ and vice versa.

You have been playing around with organs, and I laugh when I mention it to friends but you are just playing the organ and at the start of Locusts, well Bach could have done this as you are not doing anything but playing the instrument, but it sounds more like Xenakis’ electronic works with the frequencies you conjure.

It’s nice to have the chance to dislocate sound sources. And the section which you’re talking about feeds into microtonal sound. [Pause. Distant voices.] Yes, I like the idea of losing myself in the instrument at times, with disembodied voice.

Does it feel like that because of the space, as the sound travels so far?

Well, um…

Or because you exist under the eyes of God?


You know, it’s a collective mass which does not have consideration for the self.

I like to think about the death of the author or performer or a musician within the performative setting. It all comes back to the idea of allowing things to happen, creating an environment, an organism. In a collaboration with space, there’s a type of intimacy at play.

So you are playing church organ in Sweden?


I liked the idea of this show in Brighton, I wasn’t there but I know you played in a church which did not have a functioning organ.

Yeah, that was fun. I was thinking about mimicry, making myself invisible at certain times, playing from behind pulpits, curtains, or playing the piano quite loudly in order to reach other tones. I wanted to play with various dislocations of sound sources and also with the tight frames of focal performance.

And then you played this church in Stoke Newington which had a working church organ and you also had access to the bells.

Yes I did. The bells and the organ, another quite interesting space and I found other things to play with. That was a fun space, as opposed to this large vast thing I found it more intimate. More kind of homestead, medieval. More immediate. It had different crosses of history in there also, one section of it, the left wing, got bombed during the war and the other part, the right wing existed during Elizabethan times.

Ah, so what I saw as quaint was actually something much larger that got bombed.

The left wing did, yes.

So you go in before and research the space?

[Honking outside] Yeah, as best as I can. I mean it really depends on the situation and different venues or people have different types of flexibility. It’s a funny thing, this is a funny thing, for roving art forms dealing with different spaces and trying to avoid the transactional. How do we negotiate, etc.? It’s always different and it always brings new results. The pipe organs are all so individual and my ears are the most important thing here. I wouldn’t necessarily use the word research. I would be more inclined to say experiential and gaining knowledge through experience. In relation to performance I guess you and I have a similar approach in disrupting.

In disruption, certainly. I guess lately when I perform I like playing with the environment and whatever I find in the space when I arrive for soundcheck. I think it’s fun for me to just walk in and incorporate things laying around the environment. Things which have no pre-planned meaning or context… oh, hey!

[A man in a GOLD CAP enters. He is known in the social zone where both Mark and Áine are positioned]

GOLD CAP: You know me bruv.

Yeah I know you, you say that every time.

GOLD CAP: Come on bruv. Let me work for mine, check it out, check it out.

[He raps:]

Everybody loves my words and I’ll tell you why
I’m like the nice dove angel light, trust
When I come down I wanna bring a number of peace
You know one thing I hate is all the destruction
And the burn the beats
Everyone wants to talk about rap, guns

[ÁINE joins in] Toxic fumes

GOLD CAP: I wanna talk about sword and blood
You know the only thing I think about is peace

[Mark starts playing percussion on the metal table. We got rhythm.]

GOLD CAP: Put the weapons down

ALL: Toxic fumes

You know
The small angel

ALL: Toxic fumes

[Metallic clang. The rap ends.]

GOLD CAP: Is there any way you can help me with some small change

ÁINE: I was playing along with you.

That was a solid performance tonight, I’ve got to say.

GOLD CAP: I’ve changed a lot, I want to bring more peace than war.

I’ve noticed that you have got less angry.

GOLD CAP: I’m tryin’, I’m tryin’. Cheers! [He smiles and leaves]

ÁINE: Aww.

‘Improvisation in performance.’

Nice, that was so nice.

Yeah he’s cool, and it is true he used to be much more angry and he’s much softer and nicer now.

Brilliant. He had a very nice smile.

[Mark attempts to resume the conversation but struggles to recall the exact details of a quote that he had read earlier in the week regarding performance. To spare the reader further confusion, this section of the transcript is replaced with a copy-paste of the quote in question.]

IRENE REVELL: [Posted January 23 at 6:08pm.] “During one of the many improvisational sessions of the Group [Ongaku], Shiomi threw a bunch of keys up to the ceiling for a change of mood. Unexpectedly, the keys’ rattling sound became an interesting music. While trying to create a sound of the same strength in equal intervals by controlling the timing and strength of throwing the keys, she suddenly realised that she was not creating sound for sound’s sake anymore; she was now concentrating on the very action of throwing keys. She felt herself liberated from the realm of sound and released into the realm of action.” (Midori Yoshimoto on Mieko Shiomi.)

I like to do things that really hover on not really being music. Where we kind of people play it is generally always perceived as a musical concert, whether or not a note is played. I really want to explore non-musical components within this enforced musical frame.

Yeah, I like to think about this and to question not just what music is but what the space is between the performer and the audience, and coming to a place where they question it too, without walking out.


Or even if they do walk out that’s quite a nice expression also.

Yeah I don’t mind if people don’t like it, it’s honest. It’s not bad at all.

Yeah, it’s quite nice. It’s quite a nice sound you know: “Pssss ssst,” “Excuse me,” whispering and you know, the quiet footsteps. Tap, tap, tap, tap tap tap taptaptap thudthudthudthudthud! [Laughter]

Oh so you have had the slow start pit-pat turn into quick getmeouttahere flee-thud have you?

Ha ha!

I’ve never had that. Mine are always silent when they leave, they are silent until they get on the bus when they leave my shows.


But yes, the divide between audience and performer is a funny one.

Yeah, even if there is no money involved there’s a type of transaction or an unspoken hierarchy at times.

Yes, there’s many positions there I am never too fond of. I don’t think things should be presented as being ‘amazing’ or whatever so I don’t want an audience to come in thinking this is going to be amazing as it instantly creates a fog between the two. Nothing should be like that, we should just observe things and move on.

Yes. ‘Experience.’

Yes, experience, exactly.

[Abby enters. She is super happy with herself as she just went for a swim at the London Fields Lido. It is mid-winter and close to freezing temperatures. The Lido in question is outdoors and is open at night.]

ABBY: I feel like a superhero!

We are doing an interview. I’m going to run inside and get a drink so sit down and ask some questions. Would you like a drink?

ABBY: Porter.


ABBY: Porter you clown. Water? Pah!

Áine? Laphroaig?

ÁINE: Deadly.

ABBY: Someone’s been treating you well.

ÁINE: It’s the magic tab card.

ABBY: You ever been swimming in winter at all?

ÁINE: Yes, once I took a dip in the Atlantic on New Year’s Day. That was icy cold.

ABBY: In Ireland?

ÁINE: Very very icy.

ABBY: As a ceremony?

ÁINE: No, it was with my boyfriend at the time and we thought it would be a good thing to do, so we did, ha ha.

[A conversation ensues about the fractured conversations you hear from the edge of the pool when returning from doing a lap. The example given was ‘Derek’ and one cannot be sure what the situation was with Derek but each lap provided another part of the tale of Derek whilst being impossible to assemble in total.

Abby then also asks about the recent show in Stoke Newington that we had broached earlier. She mentions Áine stacking the chairs and says that was really a nice moment, especially with the shadows it produced on the walls.]

ABBY: It felt like the pews had been reconstructed and I was like, woahh…. And I was thinking the clergy would be freaking out.

[Áine laughs. The temperature is dropping, it’s cold, London cold, not Warsaw cold sure, but as cold as London tends to be cold.]

ABBY: I took a couple of friends of mine who have never been to anything like that and they were like, “It was beautiful, for about 30 minutes.”

ÁINE: [Laughs] “And then…” Yeah, durational performances, ha ha.

ABBY: Yeah a friend of mine can never get through a whole book. She is like, “I love reading but I can never finish a book.”

ÁINE: Right.

ABBY: And you know Italo Calvino, he writes about the seven types of readers and one of them is the one that never finishes a book…

ÁINE: Yes, ha ha.

ABBY: …and they will just finish the story in their own heads. Which is quite nice, I thought it doesn’t matter. So long as you have read a bit, and had a nice idea from it…

ÁINE: Yeah it’s true. I often read the first pages of books if I am in a bookstore or library and just have a wander, with an hour to kill.

[Mark re-enters.]

Did you ask her questions about her birth? Which Michael Jackson album she prefers, the first, the second or even maybe the third, BAD. Maybe it wasn’t so.

[Polite laughter ensues.]

ABBY: Do you practice your singing?

ÁINE: What’s practice?

Do you practice at all?

ÁINE: I play. I play music. You know.

ABBY: I’ve got a good line there. “She plays music.”

ÁINE: I play music, sometimes.

[Abby leaves. The cold is setting in.]

I’m not sure what is actually required here so we can…

…do anything.

[Mark makes a point that churches are easy to access now as they are looking for means of income.]

Do you think that 50 years ago you could run around churches doing what you do?

Yeah, I guess the fun is taken out of this a little bit.

Oops! Sorry. I did not mean like that, ha ha. This could be read as me saying it’s a cheap schtick you have going, some kind of pound shop sacrilegious nonsense.

Well has it gone past the stage of sacrilege? I don’t know, has it? These ideas are held strongly in people’s minds still. And even if it were, I guess it would change over time, if I am still alive in 2040, 2050, maybe it would become more… or less… Who knows? It would just become a further perspective into the past, which really depends on a lot of things.

I guess the church changes with every epoch or whatever. Can I ask you explicitly, why churches?

Yeah, it’s not just churches. I do play in different spaces but lately it’s usually a show for pipe organ and these instruments are largely housed in churches. The acoustics are always of interest to me, the architectural and ideological frame. A church space helps to dislocate that segregation between performance space and audience space. The organ is often placed unusually and often to the audience’s backs or side view. For me, a church is more like a space without a stage and its environment acts like an invisible score, tapping into memory where the personal inner worlds can seep out or in.

And in a way an organist is anonymous in a church. You don’t necessarily go to church to see the ‘legendary’ organist play.

Yeah, well if Messiaen was playing I would definitely go to the church to see him.

Sure, of course, but if you enter a church the organist is just a means of producing sound, it’s just about the music/sound. Not being philosophical but when you go in it’s… God-like, it fills the space, it’s enormous.

Yeah, true. And it can play the building, it has the potential to resonate the pews with certain frequencies, so in that sense, the God-like sound can be made visible or felt. This type of play isn’t placed in the repertoire of church music of course.

[Pause. Silence. Neither speak.]

Your turn next, ask a question.

Let me see…. You’ve used the scream quite a bit.

Ah yes, that’s true. Definitely. I think every concert I’ve played in the last two years managed to elicit a scream from either myself or the audience. The last one being in Cornwall on Halloween. At one point I just turned to the audience mid-set and clicked my fingers and said “Scream!” and they all instantly screamed which was amazing. Really fierce and fun. People love screaming and often I find laughter follows. The scream for me is the Yoko Ono thing, it’s just a pure raw thing. It’s great. Pure expression and comedy also. For now anyway… I was saying to you that:

Áine O’Dwyer performs twice for Second Edition on Saturday 11 February. First at Tyska Kyrkan (The German Church) and then later at Fylkingen.

Mark Harwood runs Penultimate Press and makes music as Astor.

Abby Thomas is the archivist at Cafe OTO.