Witness Stones

Quite unique piece of music, and research, from the composer and guitarist Benjamin Dwyer. His SacrumProfanum (FARPOINT RECORDINGS fp081) arrives as a CD with a wraparound cover and a hefty book of notes and images by Dwyer, and is scored for amplified ensemble and tape. The label are claiming it as a “multimedia” work and I think it does exist in the form of an audio-visual presentation; at any rate, teaser videos can be found on Vimeo.

Dwyer is tackling a rich and fascinating theme, that of the Sheela-na-gig – these old stone carvings thought to date from around the 11th century onwards, which depict female figures with very prominent and outsize vulvas, while the remainder of the body and the face are often depicted as wizened, near-skeletal beings. The Sheela-na-gig is not exclusive to Ireland – about 40 instances have been uncovered in England – but it was very prominent in that country. It seems the figure is one of those disputed subjects of folklore, not unlike the Green Man in that respect, where very little is known for certain about its origins, dates, or meaning. Interpretations abound; it’s plausible to take it as an image of childbirth or fertility, but at the same time the Sheela-na-gig seems to contain a message of death. Some say it’s a religious warning from the established church against the perils of lust, others claim it as wholly pagan in origin. Modern feminists have embraced the Sheela-na-gig and excavated many positive signs and pro-woman meanings from these carvings.

As to Benjamin Dwyer, he’s been studying the subject for about ten years, travelling the country to gather first-hand evidence; his photographs and his sketches are printed in the book of notes presenting his study. He’s taken a very personal and artistic route, and he takes the Sheela-na-gig as a witness – a witness of changes in Irish society across hundreds of years. His composition SacrumProfanum is thus intended to cover numerous themes, to do with sexuality, identity, and feminism; as well as wider topics like landscape, rituals, the landscape, and colonialism. If that leads you to expect some form of “lecture” from the work, listen and think again; practically everything is expressed through music and sound, apart from brief forays into poetry (by Jona Xhepa), and the grand themes that preoccupy our man manifest themselves in associative, open-ended ways. The most exciting tension results from his use of traditional Irish instruments and music; the Irish harp, the uileann pipes, texts spoken in Gaelic, and a very specific form of folk song called Sean-nós. These elements, with their very strong sense of national identity, are situated in a powerful modern composition made with tapes, bowed guitars, and the very astringent viola playing of the estimable Garth Knox. This basic structural approach creates a very tempestuous, full-bodied and noisy work, reflecting the critical dimension of Dwyer’s plan, which is to do with the “disintegration of Gaelic culture”.

Through all the surprising twists and turns of the work, the Sheela-na-gig is ever-present, and I have the impression of something shifting its shape and its identity depending on which part of culture and history it might be regarding with its implacable staring eye. Credit to Dwyer’s talented collaborators – Emma Coulthard (flutes), Siobhan Armstrong (harp, singing, narration), Garth Knox and Jona Xhepa for helping the composer give voice to the Sheela-na-gig in this way. An impressive and utterly original art statement. From 7th March 2022.