by Ruth Brennan, Trinity Centre for Environmental Humanities, Trinity College Dublin
A few weeks ago, I spent an hour chatting to composer and sound designer, Alma Kelliher (also known as Lux Alma) about her audio-visual odyssey, To The Sea. A few days before we met, I watched the première online and felt goosebumps rising on my skin as Alma introduced the piece where “every single instrument…is made of the sea.” It was as if my body could sense what was to come. For almost six glorious minutes, I was swept along in what felt like a love affair with the sea, immersed in a liminal space with an otherworldly sea creature, wild and sensual, playful and dark. I emerged from that other-world with a longing to dive straight back in, selkie-like, and possibly never leave.
As an Edge-dweller myself, it’s always special to meet others who occupy liminal spaces. It’s particularly special to connect with those who, like me, are seduced, over and over, by the sea, and who feel her call as a visceral longing that must be heeded. And so, when Alma extends her invitation “Will you follow me to the sea?”, I don’t hesitate. It’s not a question of choice. “I must follow”. I experience this piece not just as an audio-visual odyssey, but also as an emotional one. Mingling with her sea instruments, Alma’s soaring vocals wrap themselves around me as the tricksy sea creature lures me ever deeper to that place that will “crack me open, pull me under by the hand”. I feel a thrill run through my body at the jubilation of “I’m home!” I feel the heartbreak when Alma asks “But what’ll I do when you’re gone?”. And when she inhales and exhales audibly, I recognise my own longing to dissolve myself into the sea, to make her part of me, in the hope that when I have to leave her shores, I will still be able to taste a trace of her, wherever I am.
Lux Alma – To the Sea. Image: Hazel Coonagh
R: How did you think of making music out of the sea?
A: I guess it stems from being a sound designer. My day to job day to day job is that I’m a sound designer and composer for theatre and sometimes film. With sound design, I always feel like your raw materials need a really good reason to be there. So if I’m doing a play that has a bicycle at a key moment in the play, I might decide to record all the different sounds of the bike, and then make music and sound from that. You wouldn’t know it by listening to it, but I know that there’s a deeper connection to the crux of that play. And so the idea of using something in real life, and recording bits of it and making music from it, it’s actually something I do all the time. But I haven’t ever done something purely because I felt compelled to do it before, and I hadn’t applied it to my own solo work so far.
R: When I watch To The Sea, I feel like I’m watching and experiencing someone else’s love affair with the sea. There’s so much sensuality that runs through it, and otherworldliness. It’s like you’re this faery creature from the sea….
A: Yeah, it’s my love of the sea, I suppose. It’s always been in my little notebook of ideas for songs, to do something about the sea and to do something about Fenit [Alma’s childhood beach in Kerry, south-west Ireland] in particular. Because, you know, growing up near the beach, when you move away, it’s only then that you realise, okay, this is important to me. And that was heightened to a huge extent with lockdown when it wasn’t just far away, it was impossible. I hadn’t realised how often I’d actually been going home to relieve that feeling. To just go out, look at the expanse of it, deglaze your eyes a little bit and then go back to Dublin feeling a little bit more able for the world. And this year just concentrated that in a huge way. We’ve all felt boxed in this year, we really have. So it was really easy to channel the relief from that into this piece. These last eighteen months have really taught me how this kind of nourishment is really important.
R: Is there an element then of celebration there? Almost a bursting out of this caged place and into the sea?
A: I guess there is. Even though at the time, when I was planning it, it felt like it was a million miles away as I didn’t know how or when I’d be able to really do that. I wrote some of the lyrics while I was on the beach, and I had that that moment of ‘oh my god, this is amazing!’ But then I actually compiled them into a proper list of lyrics in Dublin. So I was away from the sea, dreaming about it again. I think the distance from it is as important as the being in it, I think. The idea of the whole piece for me is like, I call it a digital seashell to hold to your ear. That’s how I think about it. That, if you want to feel the sea, this is a good way to feel it for six minutes. So the being with it and being away from it are equally important.
R: To kind of set up that, almost like a creative tension?
A: Yeah, but I think that creative tension was kind of accidental, really. I didn’t set it up to have both, but it just happened that way. So it was a happy accident, I think.
R: Because there’s a really expansive feel to it. Like in the way you’re moving, and just the joy, the pure joy in your face at times….
Yeah, the bigness of it is really important. Because that’s part of when I go to the sea, what I look for is the horizon, and the hugeness of it, and that feeling of being small and insignificant, and that’s great, because it means your problems are also small and insignificant here. And so, standing at the edge of the ocean, you’re like, you know what, it’s not so bad. And so to get that feeling of epicness into it, was a massive part of it. Also, my influences would be people like Kate Bush, and Enya, who are massive, massive sounds. So I’m always reaching for that, because that’s what I love.
R: So when you’re at the sea then, is your place at the edge or is it underwater, where is it?
A: I think it’s at the edge actually. When I when I think about myself there, and when I’m most conscious of the goodness of it, it’s standing, you know, in the sand at a slightly high point where you can see into the distance. And I think that’s because I’m currently living in the centre of Dublin, and that’s what I lack here. No matter where you look, there’s something within four or five metres of you here. And so that’s what I crave. Whereas, at another time, maybe it would be immersion or submersion that I’d want. And I love sea swimming, I love it. But like, sometimes I don’t bother. Sometimes I just go for a walk. You know, it’s not it’s not just the water, it’s the whole thing, for me. It’s the smell as well. The smell, the sand and the grasses and whatever just washed up and died. It’s all part of it!
R: But it still seems to be that kind of liminal space that you’re occupying when you’re there.
A: Yeah, that precipice is important.
R: And that’s very much the feeling that comes through from it. I really want to know more about the otherworldly sea creature. Where did she come from? I love her!
A: Well, there’s a bit of backstory, in that all of the things that I do with Lux Alma are that kind of slightly otherworldly, creature thing. This is the first time it’s kind of really, properly come together in that it’s clearly a sea creature. To go back a couple of years, in 2016 I got an Arts Council ‘Next Generation’ bursary to explore my own solo work. And out of that came Lux Alma. At the time, I was really excited about Irish mythology but noticed that our female characters in mythology were all either damsels in distress or witches not to be trusted, you know. There was no in-between, because it was all written by monks who’d never met a woman in their life. And so that really interested me. I was like, right, there’s a through line missing here and we’re all on that. Where are we on that spectrum? And you can move, or you can be both, you know, you can be a vulnerable war goddess. And so I really, really enjoyed writing songs from those points of view. I’ve a previous song called The Shadow, which is about Scáthach, who’s essentially an Irish war goddess. I think she was on the Isle of Skye possibly, and she trained Fionn MacCumhaill and the lads and, according to whatever text that was written, she was not to be trusted, she was evil and dangerous and awful. But actually, she’s like, ‘yeah, I’m threatening, deal with it!’ And I love that! So that idea of being a creature and being a little bit scary, a little bit dark, and otherly, is really, really important. So that was an easy thing to migrate into this piece. It just came with it. I didn’t do it on purpose. But I knew with this that it’s not about strength or threat or darkness, it was about being… almost amphibious. You know, you have to be able to live in both. So the costume being like a coral sponge made it easy because I was already just a walking sponge and then I made my hair kind of seaweedy. And it kind of it all came together pretty easily, once I felt that every element of this needs to feel like it’s of the sea, without it being a pastiche, either. You know, it’s about, that I washed up on the beach and sang this thing.
R: That’s really interesting to hear. I was talking earlier about the sensuality of the piece, and the dress, the femininity of it, like the fabric is just beautiful and the way it moves and the way you move, there’s a real power in it. And it’s a power that is also the power of the sea as well as you as well as the creature. And it’s not portrayed as this threatening power that we need to be afraid of or that’s blocking stuff out or that’s exclusively belonging to somebody. It’s more a celebration of that power.
A: And it’s gentler than that….
R: Yeah, absolutely. But it’s very, it’s very tangible, and really, really deeply rooted, I think, in that feminine power that I don’t think we often get a chance to express in a way that is understood.
A: Yeah, that’s so true. And what I love about that dress is that it chooses its form, I can’t control it at all, it’s just lumps of material! But also that it’s not about the female form, it’s about the sea’s form. Because some of the other stuff I’ve done has been a lot more about body shape, you know, very consciously. I don’t do things that are overtly sexual unless I’m doing it on purpose. And I’m very aware of, like all women are, when you wear something you get looked at in a certain way. And with this, it wasn’t about running away from that. But that just wasn’t relevant, I feel. And in a way, that actually made it all the more feminine, because I was totally free to frolic and run around in my big puffball dress, and it was totally free in that way.
R: Are there any plans to install this somewhere in the future?
A: If someone would like to install this, I would love them to do that. And I would happily create an amazing world for it to live in. The obvious place for me would be Siamsa Tíre gallery because they’ve been incredibly supportive and they were the only reason that this piece got made. They just totally got it straight away, and that was really special. But I’m also happy for it to live online and for people to experience this. Because it lives between an art world and a music world, it’s a funny middle space, because if this was strictly art, it would only be available for a limited time, I’d imagine. And if it was music, on its own, it would be a music video that’s just up there and I might get a gig or two out of it. But it’s kind of both. And so for that reason, I’ll just err on the side of it being there in perpetuity, I think. There are plans to do some kind of live version of this as well.
R: Oh, please keep me posted!
A: I will, I will indeed. It will still be recorded but it will be with live humans. I’m trying to figure that out at the moment. And the same with an instrumental version, that’ll be much more of a sound bath. So I’m in the middle of making that at the moment as well. I’m both shuddering and super excited by the thought of trying to do this at a gig. Because I really enjoy gigging, I feel like I would like to do it live, and particularly because it’s resonated with people so much. But how did you get the sea into Whelan’s? Like, how do you do that?
While Alma figures out how to get the sea into Whelan’s (a live music venue in Dublin), you can find Lux Alma – To The Sea (5:55) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T48E3PSGhrw