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On Thursday night I went to the International Anthony Burgess Foundation to hear Ailis Ni Riain’s latest piece. I say “hear”, but “experience” is a more suitable word…

Like myself, Ailis is a keen collaborator and loves to work with people outside her own field (which is how we ended up collaborating on “Down”). Her latest work, “Brief-Blue-Electric-Bloom” involved not only a score written for electric guitar and cimbalom (a rare Hungarian string instrument), but also a recorded duologue, which was somewhere between a play and a poem. The sound elements were accompanied by Laura Richardson’s warm, scratchy, hand-drawn black and white animation, which highlighted the text’s key words and their despondency. What was most unusual in all this was the inclusion of two actors who provided not only a silent performative element, but who were also interpreting the sound for deaf people (in recent years, Ailis has started to lose her hearing).

The narrative of this intensely personal piece (e.g. “I had a baby which never got held”) dealt with the breakdown of a personal relationship. I do not know for sure, but can only assume that as the female voice recorded in the soundtrack was Ailis’ own, the opposing male voice was in fact that of the partner with whom her relationship had failed. To collaborate with someone under those circumstances is moving in a way that is hard to explain. (The only similar thing I can think to compare it to would be Abramovic and Ulay’s final 1988 performance, “The Great Wall Walk”)

However, what was even more astounding than this difficult aesthetic choice was that as the story of the relationship’s failure unfolded, the reasons for the artistic collaboration itself were beautifully accentuated. The story revealed that there had been a complete breakdown of communication between the couple and this was simultaneously underlined to those of us in the audience who could not understand the sign language we were seeing and to the deaf members of the audience who could not hear the words being spoken. In short, what was being so deftly communicated was how hard it is to communicate successfully.

Though her professional collaborations are so expert as to seem effortless, Ailis has used just such a collaboration to bravely suggest that this skill does not carry across to her personal life. The true poignancy of the work lay in the honesty of its communication – which is something no collaboration (artistic or otherwise) can do without.