- 02 Jul 19
Politicians come with promises to solve it, world leaders (and even some UK politicians) are only beginning to release that it exists, and a satirical Twitter account posts tweets in its name. The Irish border has, in recent years, become a news bulletin, a political football, a trading dispute, and has led to countless promises and threats.
And yet there seems to be a dearth of knowledge about the actual border itself. By that I don’t mean the politics of it at any given moment, but the topography of the border, the cultures around it, and the people whose lives are affected by it.
In response to this, Ryan Vail & Elma Orkestra (Eoin O'Callaghan) – two artists who live in Derry – released their musical mediation, Borders, back in June. It’s a beautiful affair, combining dense electronic beats with classical music and ethereal vocals – all making for evocative soundscapes.
At their headliner at the MAC in Belfast, they’ve coupled their music with compelling visuals. They open their set with the second track from the album, ‘Am I Sad’, which includes a monologue from former Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon who – with his wizened tones – speaks plain, disillusioned truths, acknowledging that “borders imply limitations”. The song combines light piano flourishes with dark, deep synths. It sits in-between chaos and optimism.
The next track, ‘Arrival’ plays out as footage from the Irish coastline repeats in the background. The song is a seven-minute long pulse which crescendos gradually. It also features this subtle vocalising strain which comes from the ether then disappears back to it. Without lyrics, the song seems to speak of perennial, timeless things – the innate desire to explore, migrate and settle; the impossibility of taking natural landscapes – in all their variety – and drawing lines through them. The footage on the screen shows what I imagine to be the Derry/Donegal border by the coast. In it, waves buffet against the rockfaces and appear not to care which jurisdiction they’re in. In this wide-lensed context, the limiting idea of a border is laughable.
The next section of the show features an appearance from Irish folk/trad royalty in the form of Moya Brennan. Moya featured on the first release from Borders – ‘Colours’ – and she delivers an impassioned rendition of the song before the audience. Lyrically, she harnesses the multiplicity of nature with her unique Celtic singing style. Visually, the screen is lit up with shots of unassuming border roads, un-checkpointed crossings, unfenced existence. Once again, we’re back to that ridiculous notion that any of this can be policed. As an added layer, the fact that Moya Brennan, a Donegal woman, has leant her voice to this project is a small symbol of how music transcends limiting geopolitics.
After the next song – the reserved, reflective ‘Symmetry’ – the duo stop to engage with the audience. They mention that, following the album’s release and warm reception, they were asked to perform Borders to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down. The sheer appropriateness of this news isn’t lost on me.
Following this, they perform ‘Stay’, which features Beckett-esque footage of a man walking aimlessly to the shore before turning back confused and empty-handed (a metaphor for UK politics?), then the wryly-titled album closer, ‘Arlene’.
After this, they introduce the hugely successful spoken word poet Stephen James Smith onto the stage to perform his piece from the album track, ‘My Island’. Smith’s part involved him fusing two of his poems, ‘My Ireland’ and ‘This Community’, for a smaller piece which tackles the social and political consequences of Irish division and self-determination.
The set ends with ‘Droves’, which sounds like a tug and pull between peacefully piano melodies and violent, squelching electronic beats. Thematically, it leaves the ending of Borders with a question mark for the future.
The two men leave the stage to a standing ovation. The 8-song show itself might have been enough, but Ryan and Eoin return for one more surprise. They come together for a performance of Elma Orkestra’s 2018 track ‘Factory Girls’. Commissioned by the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society, and paying tribute to the women who worked in the shirt factories of Derry, the song features the ghostly tones of deceased singer Maggie McIntyre, over a deeply evocative instrumentation. Despite not being a Borders song, it communicates with the album beautifully. It reminds us of an element about the border saga that is very easily overlooked – the human element. It’s a song about the people who live (or have lived) along the border and worked there. It reminds us that they aren’t numbers in a demographic. They’re not communities to be flippantly toyed with. They’re real people. It’s enough to move you to tears.
Borders, an album by Ryan Vail, Elma Orkestra on Spotify
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