Irish composer Finola Merivale releases her debut album, a collection of works spanning ten years of her life, and featuring the Desdemona Ensemble, a group Merivale has collaborated closely with since moving to New York City. Merivale's music establishes its own reference point, existing within but not being defined by the aesthetic frames of academic new music and chamber music.
|01||Do You Hear Me Now?|
Do You Hear Me Now?
|Adrianne Munden-Dixon, violin, Carrie Frey, viola, Julia Henderson, cello||17:06|
|Adrianne Munden-Dixon, violin, Finola Merivale, electronics||16:32|
|Adrianne Munden-Dixon, violin, Margarita Rovenskaya, piano||8:04|
|04||The Silent Sweep as You Stand Still|
The Silent Sweep as You Stand Still
|Caroline Drexler, violin, Julia Henderson, cello||14:16|
|05||The Language of Mountains is Rain|
The Language of Mountains is Rain
|Adrianne Munden-Dixon, violin, Caroline Drexler, violin, Carrie Frey, viola, Julia Henderson, cello||7:18|
Irish composer Finola Merivale’s debut release Tús encapsulates her energetic, kinetic music in selections drawn from the last ten years of her catalogue. Highlighting her fruitful working relationship with the New York based Desdemona ensemble, the album includes five works for various instrumental configurations within the quintet that demonstrate Merivale’s penchant for creating evocative textures that emerge from her adept handling of instrumental subtleties.
Opening the recording is Do You Hear Me Now? for string trio, a furious, cathartic work that barrels forward with manic intensity. The opening several minutes of the piece feature repetitive, intertwined high register passagework, buzzing like an unrelenting swarm of insects. Merivale creates contrast in a subsequent section that breaks up the virtuosic figuration with coordinated pizzicati, glissandi, and off-kilter outbursts. A dense ponticello unison sonority triggers a more static middle section, taking stock of the wreckage wreaked by the earlier sections. The work finishes with a vigorous dance, eventually spinning out of control as if to take off and go airborne.
Arbores Erimus, for violin and electronics and performed by Adrianne Munden-Dixon, shows a more open-ended side of Merivale’s notational strategies. The score invites the performer to improvise off of their own reflections of the notated material. Munden-Dixon’s realization is ethereal, as glistening harmonics populate the electronics and provide a pad for sighing melodic lines, replete with embellishing swells and figuration. The final minute of the piece bursts out of the relatively pacific texture that preceded it with powerful gestures worthy of Bernhard Hermann’s soundtrack to Psycho.
The percolating energy of Do You Hear Me Now? returns in Release for violin and piano. Merivale subjects her motives to subtle development and evolution within a tightly restricted frame, expressive of the sense of confinement many artists feel inside institutions. Moments of liberation are manifest in more gestural figures. The work doesn’t unfold in a strict teleology, instead embodying constriction and escape as alternating and enmeshed impulses.
The Silent Sweep as You Stand Still, for violin and cello, is the newest work on the album and also its most steadfastly introspective. The intensity of the composition lies beneath the surface sounds, held in the subtle ebb and flow of its poignant quietude. Only about three-fourths through the work does that intensity boil over into vigorous material traded between the violin and cello.
The final work on the album, The Language of Mountains is Rain for string quartet, was written when Merivale was living in Hong Kong and working as an English teacher. The work draws inspiration from Hong Kong’s unique landscape — maximum urban density surrounded by mountains and the sea — as well as a novel by David Mitchell, number9dream, and traditional Irish melodies. The material from Merivale’s native country is considered at a remove, integrated into a pizzicato line that makes up only one thread of the larger tapestry of her experience there. The Language of Mountains is Rain is somewhat more episodic than the other works on the recording, narrating a story with complementary but distinct settings. Textural sound painting, a nostalgic passage for the cello, and a colorful and dryly humorous section of hybrid timbres combine to form a collage reflecting the complexity of the experience of being far from home. The work closes with a dramatic “devil may care” flourish, tossing the deliberative aspects of the earlier part of the work aside, and encapsulating Merivale’s cultivated balance between inward and outward impulses in her work.
– Dan Lippel
Produced by Finola Merivale and Mike Tierney
Mike Tierney (Tracks 1–4)
Murat Çolak (Track 5)
Edited, mixed and mastered by Mike Tierney (miketierneymusic.com)
Tracks 1 and 4 recorded at the Shiny Things Studio, Brooklyn, NY, June and July 2021
Track 2 recorded at Virtue and Vice Recording Studios, Brooklyn, NY, September 2021
Track 3 recorded at The Samurai Hotel, Queens, NY, October 2021
Track 5 recorded at the Computer Music Center at Columbia University, Manhattan, NY, October 2021
Do You Hear Me Now? was commissioned by Kirkos Ensemble, with support from the Arts Council of Ireland (2017)
Release was commissioned by Music Network, with funds provided by the Arts Council of Ireland (2019)
The Silent Sweep as You Stand Still was commissioned by the West Cork Chamber Music Festival (2020)
Cover artwork by Tamzin Merivale (tamzinmerivale.com)
Page 2 drawing by Tamzin Merivale (Inspiration behind Arbores Erimus)
Design by Marc Wolf (marcjwolf.com)
Photo credit (Page 6): Emma O’ Halloran
Programme notes written by Robin Smith
Desdemona is a New York City-based ensemble devoted to creating unique and inventive performances of repertoire spanning from the Renaissance to world premieres. They have been described by The New Yorker as an “excellent young quartet,” and OperaWire as “fantastic”. Fusing the conservatory training of Juilliard-educated members with immersion in the New York experimental scene, Desdemona is known for expanding the sonic possibilities of traditional instrumentation with vocalization, improvisation, and mixed media. Desdemona has appeared at venues including the Ukrainian Contemporary Music Festival, Areté Gallery, 1 Rivington and Savannah Philharmonic’s Larsen Spotlight Series. They were 2021 fellows of the Banff Centre’s Evolution: Quartet program, and in 2020 they premiered “Magdalene”, an opera by 14 composers as part of PROTOTYPE Festival. Desdemona regularly performs on the Live Oak Concert Series, in Savannah, Georgia, bringing classical and new music to a broader audience in venues ranging from art galleries to kayak shops. They have worked closely with living composers including Anthony R. Green, Finola Merivale, David Bird and Robinson McClellan. Desdemona is a recipient of a 2021 Chamber Music America Ensemble Forward grant, made possible with generous support from the New York Community Trust, and a City Artist Corps grant from New York Foundation for the Arts and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.
Desdemona is Adrianne Munden-Dixon (violin), Caroline Drexler (violin), Carrie Frey (viola), Julia Henderson (cello), and Margarita Rovenskaya (piano).
Finola Merivale is an Irish composer of acoustic and electro-acoustic music, living in New York. She is a DMA candidate in Composition at Columbia University, where she is studying with George Lewis, Georg Friedrich Haas and Zosha Di Castri. Her music has been performed internationally and featured at festivals such as Huddersfield, the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival and the Contemporary Music Festival of Buenos Aires. Her works have been played by International Contemporary Ensemble, Talea Ensemble, Crash Ensemble, and musicians of the Chicago and St. Louis Symphony Orchestras, amongst others.
She was recently named the winner of the National Concert Hall and Sounding the Feminists’ Music Recording Award in Ireland – a grant that will fund the release of her debut album. She is currently working on Out of the Ordinary – the world’s first community opera in virtual reality – commissioned by Irish National Opera. In 2020, she was a winner of the inaugural National Sawdust New Works Commission Competition, and was awarded a four-month residency at the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris.
“Do You Hear Me Now?,” the opening track on this portrait album of Irish composer Finola Merivale, wastes no time in fleshing out the tone of that titular question. Between 2017-18 she wrote it as a fist-raised confrontation with the misogynistic, closed-off classical music world. The slashing upper register lines that three members of the New York string quartet Desdemona lay out grab the listener by the back of the neck and don’t let go. It’s in your face, intense, and unrelenting, but then the piece recedes a bit—or do we adjust to the aggression?—with lines pulling apart here and there in nifty hot potato counterpoint. After a pause, they slowly pick up again, shadowy and ominous, with an extended strain of dark repose, before flooring it with some Psycho-like ferocity. The 17-minute piece is so visceral, emotionally charged, and dynamic that it almost seems cruel that four more compositions follow it, but they prove that it’s worth sticking around. Desdemona violinist Adrianne Munden-Dixon contends with hall-of-mirrors electronics on “Arbores Erimus,” a piece where the performer is asked to improvise upon their own reflections of the scored material. It may be less forceful than the opener, but it’s just as riveting. Each of the five pieces features members of Desdemona—violinists Munden-Dixon and Caroline Drexler, cellist Julia Henderson, and violist Carrie Frey—in different combinations, including “Release,” a violin-piano duo with Margarita Rovenskaya.
— Peter Margasak, 6.30.2022
It’s oddly appropriate, given her musical style, that a lot seems to be happening for the composer Finola Merivale at once. Her virtual reality opera with Jody O’Neill, Out of the Ordinary, was presented this month by Irish National Opera at Kilkenny Arts Festival. She’s worked with organisations including National Sawdust, Sō Percussion, and Crash Ensemble, and late last year she won the National Concert Hall and Sounding the Feminists’ Music Recording Award. It’s this last accomplishment that’s led to Tús, her first album release, featuring five compositions from across the past decade. The works are recorded by the American chamber music group Desdemona, a pianist and string quartet broken into smaller groups for each work.
Merivale’s music is built on tightly wound repetitions and variations, showing influence of, without fealty to, American minimalism, instruments blending with and separating from each other. Other works which can be heard on her website, such as Falling Flames, her work for Sō Percussion, hew even closer to these influences, but her more dissonant works are more convincing, with a more distinct compositional voice.
The music on this album draws freely from extended techniques, seeming always to have something extra in reserve – be it a Bartók pizzicato, a Col Legno strike, or even a surprise consonance – to upset the balance and keep the textures shifting and shimmering.
The first two tracks, along with the fourth, make up the bulk of the album. The opener, Do You Hear Me Now?, is a frenetically driven piece for string trio written in 2018. It charges forward in the high register for about the first seven minutes, maintaining its momentum even in quiet passages. Violinist Adrianne Munden-Dixon takes the violin part (as she does on four of the works on the album), with violist Carrie Frey and cellist Julia Henderson. The three instruments play over and on top of one another, before being pulled into an uneasy, and very clearly temporary, peace.
Munden-Dixon is joined by pianist Margarita Rovenskaya for Release, an eight-minute duo for violin and piano written two years later. The works are both responses to academic conditions Merivale found misogynistic and stifling. Like Do You Hear Me Now?, Release has an uneasy quiet at its core. A delicate, water-like melody might bounce along for a few seconds before its destruction by a heavy scratch tone. In the middle of the piece, an almost modal passage lasts just long enough to create a sense of expectation, to know something is coming. When it finally does, it lands hard enough to propel the piece through its last three minutes.
These types of moments are my favourite on the album, and stuck with me long after listening. The calm spaces that Merivale constructs are fragile, unstable things with no illusion of permanence. Listening to them you experience a profound tension between relief and anxiety.
Other works on the album are more introverted (though just as involved). The violin and cello duo, The Silent Sweep as You Stand Still, feels poised between the two instruments, played by Caroline Drexler with Henderson, high harmonics and glissandi creating space and pulling both ways.
The 2013 work for violin and electronics Arbores Erimus, arrives as something of a relief, coming straight after the intensity of Do You Hear Me Now?. Melodic patterns swirl around a repeated G sharp, growing and branching and drifting through electronic echoes and manipulations like an ink blot spreading across a page.
The final track on the album, the seven-minute string quartet The Language of Mountains is Rain, was written the same year, while Merivale was teaching English in Hong Kong. Named for the second-last chapter of David Mitchell’s novel Number9dream, it shares the more internalised energy of Arbores Erimus, with the instruments occasionally in dialogue, sometimes even carrying a melody between them, others separating and each seeming to do its own thing.
For all the frenetic density of the music, as a listener you never feel lost – or at least it never feels like an accident when you do. And as busy as Merivale’s writing can be, it’s also very clear. It’s taut, nervy, and demanding, and Desdemona matches it skilfully and fearlessly.
It’s energy that’s at the core of this music. Whether that’s the charging, relentless drive of Do You Hear Me Now? or the stored electricity of The Silent Sweep as You Stand Still. The energy of her music may have changed across the ten-year span covered by the album, but it shows little sign of letting up.
— Brendan Finan, 8.17.2022
Finola Merivale is an Irish composer currently living in New York. Her works have been performed around the world including at the Bang on a Can festival in NYC and Vox Feminae in Tel Aviv by groups as diverse as Talea Ensemble, PRISM Saxophone Quartet and Bearthoven. Tús, which is the Irish word for “start” and the album’s five works represent ten years of Merivale’s compositions. They are performed with rigour and compassion by the Desdemona ensemble. My favourite piece is the opening Do You Hear Me Now? The liner notes describe this as «a direct riposte to the entrenched malaise of academic music institutions.» I love the aggressive opening: with its loud and looping lines it possesses an electric and frenetic exuberance. The 17-minute work goes through many phases, is always intense and ends with a fearless finish. In contrast, The Silent Sweep as You Stand Still was composed just prior to the COVID lockdown and contains softly dissonant sections that are almost silent and louder sections that are more angular and provocative. It builds a tonal landscape which walks the listener through spaces of anxiety and unease. Merivale is an innovative composer who continues to work on her craft and Tús is an engaging collection of her work.
— Ted Parkinson, 9.22.2022