Encountering the Brontës

Encountering the Brontës

I first visited The Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, West Yorkshire shortly after I had moved to the area. I took small, local bus from Hebden Bridge up through the increasingly dark moors, the views – breathtaking, I’d never seen a landscape so glowering. I was there to create what would become Linger – a project comprising a set of six piano pieces installed in six rooms in the Brontë home and a concept album featuring these alongside improvisations, song and text-based soundscapes. On arrival I found the Brontë home itself smaller than I had expected. Intimate. Contained. Modest.

The Instrument

My first task was to get familiar with the Brontë family piano. Small, up-strung, resonant and very responsive to touch, it has a beautiful, bright tone and unusual resonances due to its age. Emily Brontë was an advanced pianist who studied seriously and played daily; for a modest, second-hand, cabinet piano it got a lot of use. Clogged with soot with much of the internal mechanism missing or completely unusable it was fully restored to working order in 2010.  I set about improvising on the instrument and spending time in the rooms, getting a sense of the place, letting my imagination wander and noting down musical ideas as they came. On a practical note this was not always easy; as the Parsonage is open daily I could only get access in the evening and understandably, given the historical importance of the place, I was always under supervision, which did, from time to time, impinge on thinking.

Linger – The Installation

The installation comprises of six intertwining, contrapuntal piano pieces separated into six rooms in the Brontë home which ‘lock into each other’ when heard at a distance. Elements of each piece ‘drift’ and ‘leak’ out of the rooms forming a sonorous space all of their own. Each room has a name, for example, The Children’s Room, Mr Brontë’s Study etc. I researched the family’s life within the house, using that knowledge along with the size and shape of the room to begin to structure the musical content. The essence of Linger is using new music to ‘colour’ each room in which it is placed, my aim being to let the music suffuse the visitors’ experience without driving a particular narrative or manipulating the listener to feel a particular emotion. It was important to me that the pieces worked within the context they were created for; I certainly did not want visitors to be overwhelmed by music. Visitors often believed that Linger‘s piano music was being played live downstairs as they see the piano when they first enter the house. These instances of ‘psychological play’ where audiences subconsciously draw upon their surroundings and find themselves interpreting what they hear and see, in context of each other, is one of the joys of working site-specifically; hearing their interpretation of my work.

My primary compositional considerations were around density of gesture, the capacity for harmonic dissonance and suitability of tempi. How could I stay true to my own compositional voice without resorting to simplistic ideas? For me, it is essential, particularly in heritage spaces, that an artist allows space for interpretation; to trust the audience and their unique capacity for an individual response. When I work in these contexts, I often consider myself the ‘composer’ of just 50% of what is experienced. I find working in these contexts a need to be willing to compose ‘beyond the ego’. It is never about ‘me and my music’, it is about a response to and consideration of, a unique setting, heavy with a history of its own. Needless to say, research is a key element when I compose music in a site-specific and/or installation capacity.

Linger – The Brontë concept album

“My object in writing the following pages was not simply to amuse the Reader; neither was it to gratify my own taste, nor yet to ingratiate myself with the Press and the Public: I wished to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it. But as the priceless treasure too frequently hides at the bottom of a well, it needs some courage to dive for it…” – Anne Brontë, from the introduction to the second edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848)

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a powerful novel of expectation, love, oppression, sin, religion and betrayal. It portrays the disintegration of a marriage between a woman and her alcoholic husband. Groundbreaking for its time and considered ‘a great mistake’ by her sister Charlotte; it is Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall which inspired Linger – the concept album. She certainly doesn’t shirk from the ‘horror and repulsion’ of living with addiction, something which resonated strongly with me and inspired much of the musical content. Texts from the novel are presented throughout the album, which is a ‘through-composed’ fifty-three minute work comprising thirteen tracks. Alongside the installation piano pieces are a set of three duos for piano and improvising instrumentalist, a song and soundscapes for female actor (speaking in a West Yorkshire dialect as Anne would have done) and ensemble.

Composed and conceived over three seasons I experienced at the house, I wanted to capture the unique timbre the instrument in the atmosphere of the room in which it is housed. In the Summer evenings the birds were ever present in our recordings, in the Autumn rain was heard lashing against the windows. The piano stool creaked on the wooden floorboards, the grandfather clock chimed on the quarter hour. Some listeners have commented on the album’s sense of claustrophobia, the contemporaneity of Anne’s writing, the haunting, obsessive and brooding quality of some of the music. It was my intention to bring Anne Brontë’s writing to a new audience through a long-form piece, interpreting her words and ideas through composed music, semi-improvised duos and song. I would like to think she might feel I too, had the courage to dive for the truth.

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Linger the album : cdbaby.com/cd/ailisniriain


Ailís Ní Ríain plays the Brontë piano

‘Linger’ Documentary, Brontë Parsonage Museum.
K. Forrest – Restoration of the Brontë piano.

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