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Unearthing: Conor McAuley reflects on his NAVIGATOR Residency

  • Process & creation

Drummer Conor McAuley was Artist in Residence at An Grianán, Letterkenny as part of IMC's Navigator Residency programme in Summer 2023.

He reflects on the experience and outcomes for him as an artist.

Hi there, whoever you may be. Whoever that ‘you’ is who finds themselves drawn this way. Welcome to this space - a place where I’ll try to use words to hopefully come close to that thing we call experience. It’s a magical thing we’re very lucky to feel. It’s also the place where meaning is created.

As you read this, as your you-ness glides forwards across these words which have only just appeared from what was the present moment in my time, you are experiencing a multitude of sensations in your body, all at once.

And we can listen with our bodies.

I didn’t necessarily plan on stopping at the start, but let’s take a moment to have a beautiful breath out, and relax our shoulders and face.

Isn’t it interesting that we can read and feel at the same time?

Meaning is also a felt thing, we feel meaning in the body.

I’ve developed a relationship with the drum set where moving is the thing that makes music. Moving, is the music - moving is the sound. I listen, and my body wants to make things happen. Sometimes I think, and sometimes I don’t, but I’m always listening. I listen with my body, and I think with my body. Sometimes what happens surprises me. It’s nice when that happens. Listening helps me discover and navigate pathways of exploration, and that’s how I view the drum kit, as a multitude of pathways yet to be explored.

When I listen, I experience meaning.

But sometimes I interrupt myself.

I don’t want to play the same things over and over again. I ask myself this question all the time - but what is improvisation? Are we really improvising if we play the same things all the time, if we play in the same way?

Am I simply following the habitual ways my body wants to move? Or can I challenge these perceptions, and interrupt these movements? And what does it sound like when I interrupt them? And what does it feel like?

This is mostly what I explored during the Navigator Residency at An Grianán, Co. Donegal, whilst working on developing my solo practice.

I’ve been exploring ways to develop the sound of the drums too. I remember over a year ago discovering an incredible artist online named Etienne Nillesen. He creates naturally occurring harmonics on the snare drum that resonate in a very strange and beautiful way. It’s quite hard to capture in terms of audio, as it really is a felt thing. A bit like feedback in a room for example, the resonance can move you in profound ways.

I had been slightly obsessed with how he was making these sounds and watched his videos online, searching the comments to try and find out exactly how he was doing what he was doing, but I just couldn’t figure it out. I shared my approach of the idea with a few drummer/improviser friends, and we got closer to the sound. By chance I was chatting with Michael Speers (incredible artist) about this technique. A while later he directed me to a lengthy interview with Etienne, just released online, where he spoke about what he does in more detail. Michael also sent me a link to the tools he was using. Turns out that was quite the missing link as far as generating the sound I was hoping for. The tools arrived just before the residency, and the residency was literally the first opportunity I had to sit down with the drum and feel it out.

And, it was amazing!

It’s a peculiar experience, playing this way. I sat every day for a few hours with pencil like precision, drawing on the snare drum in circular motion. Listening and feeling, and adjusting, and listening again, and feeling again. It taught me to listen in a different way than how I would listen when I play the drum set. And when we listen differently, we feel differently.

I also noticed the harmonics I was hearing on the drum sat well around the open notes of the guitar tuning, DAGDAD. This sparked an idea to develop a drone piece for a contemporary/experimental Irish Traditional trio I play with.

Coras Trio
Córas Trio performing at Letterkenny Blues and Roots festival 2023

We recently changed our name from ‘mcauley/mckeown/mccullagh’ to ‘Córas Trio’ and you can follow us online at Instagram, Facebook, Bandcamp etc. Córas means system, as Gaeilge (in Irish) and refers to the multiple active systems that are at play when we improvise with and around Irish traditional tunes. We are currently re-releasing our first two singles under the new name which you will find in all the usual places, and we also have a very exciting gig announcement coming soon.

But back to the residency. I was lucky enough that the kind people at An Grianán and The Letterkenny Blues and Roots Festival booked the trio for a gig during my residency, and so we premiered the piece based on the naturally occurring overtones of the snare drum.

Here’s a link to a short clip of the piece, as well as another of the trio playing together.

The gig itself was beautiful. It was fitting to explore some Donegal tunes (amongst others) for the warm attentive audience. The sound was fantastic thanks to Hughie at An Grianán, and we embraced the beautiful reverbs that were present in the large foyer space.

It felt a little like the birth of this trio, since it was our first headline show. We’ve been lucky to have the support of some incredible artists we look up to, including Aidan O’Rourke and Bhrìdge Chaimbeul, and after performing multiple sold-out supports, we discovered we have a wealth of performance material. Expect more performances across our own island, and as I mentioned, we’ll have a very special show announce coming soon, so do keep your eyes peeled.

Some of my time during the residency was spent engaging with the local community of Letterkenny. I was put in touch with Adrian Kelly who is the curator up at Glebe House and he gave me a wonderful tour of the place, it is definitely worth a visit. Adrian is also a serious drummer and drum collector. He organised a drum workshop in the wonderful RCC just behind An Grianán, and I got the chance to chat to local drummers about all this stuff that’s been going on in my head (and my body) about playing drums and improvising, and it turned out they really enjoyed it. I got the chance to play for them, and we all got the chance to play for each other, and as usual when a herd of drummers get into a room together there’s an amazing energy. A big thanks to Adrian for that, it really made the residency for me.

Likewise, I held an improvisation workshop on the wonderful theatre stage at An Grianán. It really is such a great space up there. I introduced some ideas and concepts I would explore when leading the QUBe Ensemble at Queen’s University Belfast (a large improvising ensemble of up to 25 people and beyond that I co-direct with Prof. Paul Stapleton), and again, people really enjoyed it. We also performed some nice movement stuff that I learnt from a body coach on a residency I was recently on, ‘The Take-Five programme’. It’s great to learn, steal, borrow, and extend from everyone around us, and carry the good stuff forwards. It was a joy to spend some time with people on their early journey into improvisation and walk the path alongside them.

Conor and Patricia An Grianan
Conor McAuley and An Grianán Director Patrica McBride on the first day of the 2023 Navigator residency

In a direct sense, I found keeping up with social media updates forced me to share more of my own playing with the digital world than I would normally, and it generated warm and encouraging responses. I had some very high-profile musicians I look up to and follow like my posts, which was quite surreal.I also really enjoyed bringing my ideas to other people, talking about and demonstrating them, and giving them context.

It was nice to take stock of it all and realise that people find it interesting, beneficial, and useful, to learn about your musical journey and it was a pleasure to engage with the local community, sharing the spirit of life, questioning, and searching.

The best part of the residency for me was having the time to deeply engage in my own practice away from my usual routine and removed from my own environment. It is worth so much for an artist to have the time to look at themselves and their work, and to ask questions; to look at things another way, invest in loss, spend time searching, reaching even. I unearthed a few things in my playing that wouldn’t have emerged without this dedicated time, and I’m very appreciative of the opportunity.

Follow Conor McAuley on Instagram

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