Sean Phair is a music fan and video professional; he hides behind the moniker Ambiguous Fiddle.
On December 4, at precisely 4.44pm, the show in DeBarras began. A vintage reel to reel tape player occupied centre stage, surrounded by hanging installations all based around the number 44. The audience made up of 44 curious heads waited patiently, having already dug out their coppers and paid the four euro and forty four cent entry fee. Until finally rewarded; the tape snapped on and the reel began to whirl.
This was the apex of the 44 suite a musical collaboration of numeric proportions, spanning four years between Clonakilty-based composer Justin Grounds and Kanturk playwright Ralph Mexico, collectively known as the Underground Liberty Village.
Despite my intentions, I was unable to make the show, so to appease my curiosity, I spoke to Justin and Ralph about their experimental project to try and shed some light on this cloak-and-dagger event.
JG: “The 44 suite was a concept for a record that Ralph had come up with – and then commissioned me to create. It was to be undertaken over 44 months, and 44 pieces of music were to be made, each one being one minute, one second long – so the whole record would end up being exactly 44 mins 44 secs.”
RM: “Lyrically, the album is saying its ok to be uncertain. The lines ‘aching in mirrors’ and ‘time is running out’ each appear in more than one song. With The 44 Suite, we swung for the fences with a desire to create something of grace and beauty.The project was a true collaboration between RM and JG, and later Dan Guiney who did the music for the last four songs.”
Both Justin and Ralph have stacks of collaborations respectively under their belts. Justin, a founding member of the Clon Bike Festival, who can often be seen around Clon riding his bike with a violin slung over his shoulder, most likely on his way to a gig or a music lesson; leads community music groups, youth orchestras and is also as a key member of much-loved musical groups Fir Beag and The Vespertine Quintet. Ralph’s experience is more rooted in theatre with several plays currently in the works, he also presents a weekly music radio programme ‘Transmission’ for Atlantic Radio and is co-founder of Indexilism Records. But this project was quite different from other collaborations as Justin enthusiastically explains .
JG: “Aidan had written all the titles for the pieces, and the lyrics for 22 of them, which contained key words and an abstract paragraph with either his conception of how the music would sound, or instructions to me as to how to make it. He delivered four of these to me each month in the first year or so, and then I worked sporadically on them in between other projects. It’s definitely the longest project I have ever undertaken, and was really fun, as each piece really got me out of my normal work headspace and encouraged me to be really playful. Some of the pieces found their sound by the limitations I experienced – like if I was away travelling, I would just have my violin and a few electronic bits of kit and then on a free afternoon I’d sit down and record stuff wherever I was. My trusty OP-1 (portable synthesizer) proved to be really handy! Other pieces were very intentionally tied to places and times – like the final piece called ‘Long Wave’, which is a minute of me sweeping long wave radio frequencies on the beach at Long Strand on June 4 at 4.44pm!”
Most of the pieces were recorded digitally with elements re-recorded and passed through tape and then finally pressed to vinyl. The projects delicate blend of both digital and analogue recording processes are in part down to Justin’s love of analogue, instilled in him while studying music recording at university.
JG: “I studied a degree in electroacoustic composition 15 years ago and got to make music on old analogue tape machines – I’ve been smitten ever since and have put together a studio in my house that combines old analogue gear with digital. I love using tape as it is so tactile and everything is in real-time so much more immediate. It also sounds really warm. But digital is super handy for editing and sound processing and I love building max patches to create weird loops. So I use the best of both worlds.”
However despite the audible benefits, this multi format process was not without its challenges. In particular due to their decision to create the record on vinyl as Ralph states.
RM: “Massive delays at the pressing plant meant the vinyl albums were not delivered on time for the launch in DeBarras also even though we only required 44 records the minimum number of albums that a pressing plant would run off is 250. So we had to pay for 250 double albums with gatefold sleeves to be pressed.The pressing plant in Sheffield immediately destroyed 200 and posted us 50 copies. We will ceremonially destroy six copies, meaning there is only going to be 44 copies in existence forever.”
Even towards the end, there is no shortage of creativity and the lads have taken these setbacks in their stride. Allowing them to continue it’s legacy that little bit further as Ralph explains.
RM: “Throughout 2018, 44 people will be invited to buy a copy of The 44 Suite for €44.44 each. Nobody can request a copy of the album – you have to be invited to buy one.
When the 44 copies of the album are with 44 different people, then The ‘44’ project will be over.”
You can find out more about The 44 Suite absolutely nowhere online. However you can follow and support these prolific creators in various other ways; by tuning into Transmission Ralph’s weekly radio show online at www.atlanticradio.ie or keep up to date on many of Justins music and community based projects at www.patreon.com/justingrounds and perhaps if you reach out to them and ask them nicely (like i did) they will give you some answers.