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Sonic Deep Mapping: an Interview with Dr Niamh O'Brien


Dr Niamh O’Brien is a harp player, composer, and singer from Kildimo-Pallaskenry in Co. Limerick. She has performed in Ireland, Europe, and America, as a solo artist, and with a number of established traditional groups, including her own group, Hoodman Blind. Since 2017 she has been active in audio and radio, working as an editor and producer with the award-winning Grey Heron Media and The Irish in New York Oral History Project. Her current compositional practice combines traditional, folk and electronic music, with radio and audio arts. In 2021 she was the winner of a Rising Award at the prestigious HearSay International Audio Arts Festival. She has a BA in Irish Music from the University of Limerick and an MA in Irish studies from the University of Galway, with which PLaCE International happens to have a long connection through Dr Nessa Cronin.


 Iain Biggs: Niamh, can I start by thanking you for agreeing to this interview. You recently successfully completed your PhD project - Sonic Deep Mapping: Sounding a Shannon Estuary Community – at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, University of Limerick, funded by the Irish Research Council. Your doctoral project seems to me unusual both in its approach and its scope. Can you begin by telling us why you wanted to work on the project where you did?


Niamh O'Brien: During the second half of the first year of my PhD we started making things as little experiments. It was actually during COVID, so I couldn't go very far. And that's what first led me down to the estuary. So, the interest started when I knew I wanted to focus my work on the idea of place, and I wanted to look at a place in my locality. I knew the estuary was an interesting space for me. I had connections and ideas already of local people who I knew would be interesting and possibly interested. And even connections to schools and things like that, that I could see, so I could see a way of things happening. But bigger than any of those things was this internal tension. I felt that there was a challenge in looking at my local area, because although I loved it very dearly, I didn't really imagine it as a culturally inspirational place. I always knew that it's where I was from, lots of family and friends locally. But in terms of my work as an artist, all that happened away from this place. I'll always remember the first time we went to the Aran Islands, and I was like: ‘Oh, this is my place, this is where I'm supposed to be’. So, I liked that that kind of tension was there and that I knew I was going to have to address that. And that's always a nice place to start from, knowing that it was going to challenge me to look at this place a little bit more closely.


Iain: Right. So, briefly, what did the project actually involve?


Niamh:  There were two creative projects as part of the research. The first was a sound installation I created called ‘Ecotone’, a sonic journey to Kildimo-Pallaskenry. That installation happened in four stages. The first was all about gathering. I went out into the community with my microphone interviewing people and got passed from one person to the next to the next. I also did interviews and different kinds of projects with two local schools. And I recorded lots of background noise in places and then edited those sounds. This was where my radio background came in; paring back conversations to find the bits that really interested me and excited me, creating these little vignettes of people and place.


Then there was a composition stage where I was creating new music, new melodies, and unearthing old poems and songs and setting them to music. Then I designed an installation where people could come and hear this score that I had created, using my own music and the material I had gathered, so all of that was edited together. I invited people down to the pier, which is the point of access in the local area to the Shannon estuary. It's also the only public space where people just come to walk or just sit in their car and look out over the water. You can see across to Shannon airport. So, I had the installation there because it was the space for people to be outside and walk around. Also, I hoped I would just catch maybe random people who didn't know what was happening. The installation design involved using an FM transmitter to broadcast the audio I had created and people came and they could tune in and hear Ecotone, which I played on a loop over two days. I kind of timed it with the tide. So, from the time that the tide was out to when it came in, people came and they tuned in their car radios to the frequency 105, or they listened on radios I had placed around the pier, mostly people came and chatted, because they because they were waiting to hear someone they knew on the audio. Some people did listen along as well and had a cup of tea and signed the visitor's book. So that was the first creative project that I made.

And then, about a year and a half later, for the second creative project, I focused in on music in the local area. And so the kind of preparation stages for this project were slightly different. I did record some conversations with people, but I focused in on music and searching for local musicians and recording them where they normally play. And in the case of Kildimo-Pallaskenry where they normally play is at home, usually alone in their kitchens, or some of them gather together to play. Some of them play with family members, others play with people from out of town. I rehearsed with these musicians and recorded that process. We also held a number of house concerts and I recorded those too. So those were kind of the base materials for an online FM broadcast that I held on New Year's Day called ‘Old Road Radio’. And it was structured like any radio show, but all of the material came from local people. So, there was some interview pieces, some about local music, some about other things. I had about seven or eight tracks that I had recorded from local people and that was the music that was shared. So, people tuned in from all over the world and watched it, as it was live-streamed. I was also broadcasting that on FM, but due to some technical difficulties, unless you were sitting in the front garden, I don't think you would have heard it, but it was still going out on that medium as well. So those were the two key creative projects. And then, I was drawing on a lot of different literature and doing autoethnographic writing, and drawing out reflections and conclusions from that work.

Iain: Before you began the project, your expertise was primarily as a musician and composer. How did you come to choose multidisciplinary deep mapping as the approach to work with?


Niamh: Well, I came across it very randomly. I just picked up a book in the library that I thought looked interesting. At that point, I had decided that I was going to focus my practice on place and telling stories about place. But I really fell in love with the idea of deep mapping for a couple of reasons. Firstly, immediately, because of the idea of layers. I responded sonically in my mind to that because I like to use a lot of layers in what I make with sound and especially sounds from different places happening at the same time. We're a big radio household, everybody in my house when I was growing up had a radio on all night and everyone had a different station on. So, sometimes, if I got up in the night and was standing between two rooms, I always loved that you'd hear these two different worlds going on. So, that kind of layering of different places was always in my mind as something that would be fun to explore. And even the physical layout, in my mind, how I edit is a layering of sonic spaces. I bring a listener on a journey through these different sonic layers. So, it was just a really exciting framework to use. I was also interested in the idea of mapping as a creative form. Mapmakers are creative people, they're artists you know, who go out into the world, and they gather and explore and excavate place, but then they remake it in their own image. I believed that that was what I was going to do and if I call it deep mapping then maybe there's a certain license there as well. So, it was about how broad it was as well, the just the variety of projects I was coming across that align themselves with deep mapping. That interested me and excited me as well.

Iain: Music, including your two sonic artworks, along with interviews and story-telling, played an important part of your project. Can you say something about the role of each of the strands within the deep mapping project as a whole and how you wove them together?

Niamh:  Well, I suppose firstly, getting the voices of local people was really important to me and one of the most exciting aspects of the project because I just love the sound of people's voices. And it's so powerful to hear people tell their stories in their own voices. And something I had come across in sound studies was maybe the lack of people. And there is, you know, quite a lot of sonic work about place that is just focused on environmental sound, which is lovely, and which is important. But it's always crossed my mind: ‘who's there’? ‘Who's living there’? And when I thought of doing a project about Kildimo-Pallaskenry, just have the sound of place would have depressed me. That's not what the place is, we're not going to learn anything about Kildimo-Pallaskenry without people saying things like: ‘this is what this building is’. So that, I suppose, was the role of the voices there. And to get a sense of place from people's humour, the way they conversed with each other, the way they disagreed or argued, or had the craic, or sang songs, that was important.

And then, in terms of the music and the composition, I suppose it played a couple of different roles. In some moments, it was my voice in the piece. And what was coming out are the songs and tunes that I felt reflected it appropriately, you know, and that's a very personal thing. That's kind of hard to explain. I would play a chord and go: ‘yeah, yeah, that's right’. You know that's like a correct representation of this place. Then I quite liked drawing upon the kind of historical sources and the writing as well, things like the story of Shannon. Because they're all valid versions of place. And deep mapping and sonic artworks gave me a way to move through them, and to layer them on top of each other and have them contrasting or echoing each other in a way that I really enjoyed. It felt like a journey, moving through these different voices of place. Both of the artworks were linear, they moved from point A to point B. That allowed me to take a listener by the hand and go: ‘now we're listening to this. And now we're coming back down, and now we're hearing this’. The various sonic strands all played different roles. But did they respond to each other and make sense within that one journey? I think so, yeah.

Iain: You’ve argued, and I’d agree, that your project encouraged people to listen to their surroundings, to value their local soundscape and to find both beauty and value within it. Also, that it brought them into the realm of emplacement, place-making, and connection. You’ve also said that you’d like to continue the project if possible. If you’re able to do that, what are the biggest challenges you think you’re likely to face, other than the obvious one of finding funding and which groups within the community do you feel have been under-represented so far, and how will you try to draw them into the project? Also, what do you feel a sonic approach contributes to deep mapping broadly understood?

Niamh:  I suppose the biggest challenge is maintaining interest and energy. At the moment, I'm hoping to do one broadcast there on New Year's Day and so far I've been successful! When you set the bar nice and low, and if I can achieve that once a year, I think that's pretty good going. Something that comes to mind as a possible challenge is maintaining my own artistic vision. Because, obviously, you want more people to be involved, and you want this to be about the community and maybe in a year or two this will grow and I'll hand it over and it will be someone else's journey to take. But it's finding those people and it's also maintaining it. What I like about Old Road Radio is that it's not a normal radio show and there are parts of it that are unusual, and out of my own creative language. You know, using these different areas and maybe unusual sounds. So I think maintaining that is important to me. Which feels like a selfish non-community-artist thing to say. But it's something that came up a couple of times in the work, I suppose. There is value in being the local artist with your own vision and your own particular way of doing things. So, on the one hand, wanting the project to grow and more people to be involved, but at the same time maintaining your own voice and that and the original vision that I had. Yeah, to keep that going.


Iain: Sorry to interrupt, but in a way it's about keeping the project fresh, isn't it? Keeping it from becoming something predictable and obvious. That fits in very well with what Cliff McLucas says about deep mapping, that it has to stay open. It either finishes because people run out of time, or money or effort, or else it doesn't. You think when we spoke before you talked about wanting to include people who were not sort of at the centre of the community? How do you have any thoughts about how you might set about doing that?


Niamh: I think, from my experience of audio and radio projects, that to do good work in community radio means working with different volunteer groups, and cold calling as well on people. It can be a hard sell, when you're arriving up with a microphone and a pair of headphones, all that equipment, especially for people for whom English is not their first language. So my belief is that actually this work has to start in other schemes in the community, bringing people together physically to get to know each other. You know, from what I've seen in other communities, what I think would be brilliant in Kildimo-Pallaskenry is a ukulele group! And there’s the Irish Country Women's Association that’s regaining its foothold and holding events like that. Unfortunately, we don't have a community space. I mean, the Community Centre has been planned for about 50 years now. So, it's difficult when you don't have those first steps, even things like cooking groups. I'm hoping in the next year to hold small events like that. There's a big group of Ukrainian people living back the road. I go to a dance group and that brings a lot of migrants and new arrivals together because it's not about language, we're just going to learn this dance routine together. That's why they get a really big draw. So, I think it has to start in other spaces like that. And then, maybe, welcome to the ukulele group and I'm going to record this now and you guys can hear it on this broadcast on New Year’s Day. It's those kinds of primary steps that have to be taken to gather those voices. The schools can be great as well for people to know who you are. So, I definitely hope to run another schools project during 2024 for the 2025 broadcast. If the children of new arrivals know that this is on, they can all watch it together. It’s slow progress, unfortunately, because that's the way to let people know that this is happening.


Iain: I think you're absolutely right. In the deep mapping project we did in Cornwall we found that we needed an excuse, a stalking horse, and once you’ve been around enough and become part of the wallpaper people stop worrying. But again, I guess the problem is just finding the time to keep things going. But I think that's exactly the right approach to take. So, the third part of this long and complicated question was, what do you think your sonic approach your emphasis on sand brings to the idea of deep mapping broadly understood.


Niamh: I suppose it's opening up deep mapping to another art form. I think sound is really appropriate for deep mapping because of the layering and the journey I was talking about earlier. You can bring people into a close and intimate space - hearing somebody speaking in your ear is an intimate act. There’s closeness there, when you can really interrogate the kind of contrast and connections that are between people. There's also the different performance opportunities that are there with sound and music. And it excites me that a deep mapping project can happen while we physically shared the same space. So, another layer of the deep map itself is the fact that we are sitting listening together at a time and a place is another layer in this deep mapping. I loved that, that when we were together listening to ECOTONE or Old Road Radio, that the sounds were playing and we were there together listening. It just keeps growing with that kind of togetherness. I think it offers that the shared performance space, the physical, the shared space together, and the different layers.


Iain: That's interesting because it goes back to the idea of durational performance, to Mike Pearson, Michael Shanks and Cliff Lucas. But obviously, if you're all listeners, rather than performers and audience, it's a slightly different thing, isn't it? I like what you're saying, this idea of being a community together in a space without that differential between audience and performer, even though you are the performer in a way. Which relates to my next question. It seems to me that the project drew quite directly on certain cultural attitudes relating to the social role of traditional music in Ireland, perhaps particularly in the West. Would you agree with that? 


Niamh: Which cultural attitudes?


Iain: Well, when I had a fellowship in Galway at the University, I arrived, knowing nobody. Well, I knew one person, but I had no contacts. And I found out I was sharing an office with this musician. And it was obviously her office, but she’d cleared a space for me and left me her email address. So, I emailed her and thanked her for doing that. She emailed me straight back and said: ‘we're playing at such and such a hotel tonight. Come along, it'd be nice to meet you’. So I go along to this little hotel, just outside the city, and gradually people come in, unpack their instruments and start to play. And the whole feeling is not formal, it's just a bunch of friends who’ve come together to play. And it turns out they're all very good musicians, they've come from all over, some of them been working in New York. And as the evening goes on, other musicians come and sit in, and some are invited to play. Then there's a pause for people to get more drinks. The woman sitting next to me she's a civil servant whose dropped in because she’s heard on the grapevine there are people playing. And when musicians come back, she opens up her bag and takes out her dancing shoes, puts them on and she just dances unselfconsciously. That would never happen in England, not in a million years. And it seemed to me that there was a kind of acceptance it the local culture - that that sort of participation is as natural as turning on the news on the television. It seemed to me that you were tapping into that culture, which seems specific to Ireland, perhaps particularly in the West, something to do with the role of music.

Niamh: I’m a traditional musician but I didn't necessarily get my music from Kildimo-Pallaskenry. But that kind of openness and this idea of shared notes, is really key. In terms of finding spaces, and pushing myself into spaces, to learn what the shared notes are, because in traditional music, when you're starting off, you have to push yourself into the sessions a little bit and go: ‘Hey, I know a couple of these tunes, so I'll play along’. Then I'll learn the other ones for the next day. It's all about finding commonalities. And there's some people who will be leading, it's their responsibility to go: ‘Well, if I play this set now, most people will know that, so I'll get everybody involved. But I'll also have a couple of people in mind, and we'll pick some special tunes for them maybe’. But in Kildimo-Pallaskenry what I found was that instead of thinking let's all be really good purist traditional musicians, I decided to ask: ‘Well, what's the traditional music of this place’? Because it wasn't actually traditional music. It was stories about the GAA, about the history, different musical genres, songwriters. In this project, these became the shared notes, became the tunes. So, when I spoke to someone, I could go: ‘oh, yeah, I heard about him. And this happened to him’. So, we're now playing the tune together, because we both know what we're talking about. So yes, I think it was about searching for the traditional music of Kildimo-Pallaskenry but what I found is that that wasn't really music at all. That was talk. And it was humour. The house concerts were a kind of strange experience, because we're not used to that openness, really, of bringing people in, you know, we're not a place of music really, even though we've loved musicians living there. But after one of the concerts, we finished and we were sitting around having the tea in the coffee, and one of the house children came in, and he was talking about a match that he'd been at, and that this happened. And then all this talk came out, and everybody had something to say about it. And I was like, well, in my mind, that's actually the music here, because that's something we all share. We all know what he's talking about. This is a very comfortable space for us to be in. So yeah, it was interesting about finding the project was in a way about finding a traditional and traditional repertoire that actually wasn't music at all.


Iain: So, it’s very easy for the music to slip into that kind of acceptance, openness, curiosity. And there's the other thing that I have a very strong sense of from Ireland, the enjoyment of a kind of banter, a kind of back and forth, which is a little bit like improvised music. I take my glass and my friend's glasses and put them on the bar. And the barman looks at me and says: “Are you trying to put me out of a job”? And I'm expected to make a witty response. And then we'll go back and forth for five minutes before I'm able to order the next round. That kind of enjoyment of the exchange.


Niamh: And it's the familiar as well. I found that people loved hearing the stories they already knew. I mean we love playing the same tunes over and over you know. The repetition and the familiarity and, like you're saying, these roles we play, when we bring the glasses to the counter, we're going to have to do something here. I've done it fifty times before, but it doesn't matter because we're sharing that.


Iain: When we spoke before you were thinking about doing other kinds of projects, maybe to do with farmers if I remember rightly. Have you got anywhere with that?


Niamh: In the same way that I paid attention to Kildimo-Pallaskenry, I’m hoping to turn my attention to farms and farming. I'm fascinated by them and there is a lot of emotions around farming at the moment, you know, in Ireland and everywhere. But it's interesting to me, because in the same way that traditional music is held up as a core of our culture, so is agricultural life and the small farmer, and we're in the process of that changing very rapidly and having real implications on rural life. So yes, I'm interested in exploring the kind of the tensions in that world and the characters and the stories and also the lightness, you know, not just for focusing on the serious issues that are at hand, but also by recording the people as they are every day on their farms. And their interactions with nature, with the land, with their animals, with other farmers, with history, with family lines. There's a lot of emotional pull there so I want to bring this practice that I have, of sound and story, the installations and events and the audio, and focus on and the stories of farmers, particularly the small farmer who is disappearing.


Iain: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about that I’ve not asked you?


Niamh: I suppose something that I didn't talk about much but certainly has had an impact is my own changing relationship with place. By the end of the project, it had transformed my relationship with Kildimo-Pallaskenry, which was interesting, and has also reshaped how I think about where I might live in the future. Different things are important to me now and as a professional artist I'm more interested in finding places of amateur art making, amateur music, as community spaces, which I wouldn’t have paid as much attention to four or five years ago. So that's interesting and exciting for me, not necessarily a different value system, but drawn to different things in place due to the fact that I had to dig, to excavate and find a kind of belief in those communities and how important it is to be part of and to offer something.


Iain: That's a nice thought to end on. Thank you very much.



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