The unique Irish classical composition SacrumProfanum is to be staged at the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith this weekend
AN encounter with an ancient Irish stone carving of a woman, known as a Sheela-na-gig, captivated composer and musicologist Benjamin Dwyer so much that it led to a ten-year odyssey throughout Ireland and the UK.
The result is a unique classical composition, SacrumProfanum' which will be performed at the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith on Saturday, September 10. Sheela-na-gigs are the enigmatic, ancient feminine stone carvings found in Ireland and parts of Britain, often with skeletal bodies and enlarged genitalia. There are an estimated 120 of them in Ireland and forty in Britain, often found on stone walls, in castles, or more frequently over church doors.
Dubliner Benjamin Dwyer, Professor of Music at Middlesex University, has spent the last ten years travelling across Ireland studying, photographing and sketching these mysterious figures.
Responding artistically through the Sheela ‘as witness’, Dwyer has created a unique work exploring themes such as feminism, colonialism, identity, religion, rite, landscape, sexuality and the disintegration of Gaelic culture.
“The 'Sheelas' have been witnesses to so much of Irish history, to colonialism, to the Famine, and State and religious oppression of women,” says Benjamin. He describes the work as translating into sound the 'aesthetics of damage' of the ages.
"We're not dealing with goddesses, with a perfect reflection of the female form here, I'm actually challenging the established narrative here with my work. For example in the piece called 'Hag' I'm looking at her anger, the exposing of the vulva is like a stare back to disable the male gaze looking for female perfection.”
There are numerous theories as to what the Sheelas could represent.
One is that they are icons of fertility that facilitate conception and childbirth. Another is that they are warnings against lust or the transgression of religious taboos.
Opposing these propositions is the notion that they are pagan goddesses of female empowerment and untamed sexuality.
The naming of the 'Sheelas' is also a mystery. It is thought that 'Sheela' could be a reference to a 'hag' or an old woman, or be derived from the Irish word 'Sile' for fairy woman. The 'gig' is possibly derived from a slang word for genitals.
Benjamin was first introduced to the carvings when he saw one on display at Rothe House, Kilkenny, and began to imagine how they could be a source of thematic material.
His composition investigates these themes through raw, visceral, often abject but ultimately poignant and deeply as affecting music.
With a score that combines contemporary music, interfacing with traditional Irish forms, instruments and voice SacrumProfanum offers perceptive critiques of contemporary exploitations of Irish culture.
Benjamin grew up in Dublin but was not exposed to classical music growing up. As a teenager, he loved the work of Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Dylan and played in a band.
After hearing a classical guitar concert, he was "blown away" and eventually sold his record albums to buy a guitar and take classical guitar lessons.
He became interested in the works of Stravinsky and Mahler, and practised his guitar for several hours a day, eventually taking a degree in music, a Masters Degree at the Royal Academy in London and a Phd at Queen's University Belfast.
He also founded a classical music festival, Music 21, which ran for 20 years in Dublin.
Benjamin became a world-renowned classical guitarist, playing with orchestras in prestigious venues. However, eventually he felt somewhat limited in terms of what he could achieve as a classical guitarist and knew he wanted to expand his musical horizons.
The concert at theIrish Cultural Centre for which Benjamin will play the bowed guitar, will also feature musicians Garth Knox (viola), Emma Coulthard (flutes) and Siobhán Armstrong (medieval Irish harp and voice). The work also incorporates a number of Irish texts. Uilleann piper Donncha Dwyer will also be featured.
Poet Jona Xhepa has written a specially commissioned poem entitled 'Sheela-na-gig'.
This Show will be followed by a Q&A with Benjamin Dwyer.
Saturday, September, 10
Irish Cultural Centre, Black's Road, Hammersmith