Maybe, if you’d strolled past 44 Prussia Street in Stoneybatter in the past, you would have picked up the steady ambience of a hair salon with its clipping scissors, hum of hairdryers, and soft chatter.
Saunter past now at an opportune hour and you might meet with a quite different array of sounds.
An ensemble in a discordant mood, say, or performance artists in rehearsal, music-theatre makers testing out works in progress in front of curious passersby.
Unit 44 is a new venture by Kirkos Ensemble, who have refashioned the old hair salon into a venue and rehearsal space for contemporary music, performance art and all the art forms in between.
“We want to be as open as we can be,” says Sebastian Adams, Kirkos’s director, of the new space. “Certainly we’re not exclusively limiting it to music.”
The grid of black and white tiles, shining like a gleaming chessboard, are the space’s distinguishing feature – and they hark back to the store’s history.
Wires run across the ground, from sound cards to stereos, mics to mixing desks. A projector sits on the floor pointing up to the large blank back wall.
The space is pokey for a venue but perfect for the ensemble’s ambitions for the space, says Adams. “Certain types of work are ruled out through a lack of different types of spaces.”
Unit 44 seeks to widen the number of spaces on offer for performers, says Adams, as well as being a low-key space that supports the wider ecology of musicians, performers and artists who are struggling to find places to rehearse, collaborate and perform in the city.
Kirkos Ensemble is a contemporary music group, with boundary-breaking work influenced by the worlds of theatre, visual art and performance art.
Tide Quartet, a performance from the ensemble last September, saw four members perform on a Blackrock beach. The show ended only when the sea rose up to the quartet’s necks.
Finding space to workshop and rehearse new work had been getting harder, says Adams, Kirkos’s director. “You needed more money. There were venues that were previously easy to get access to but they disappeared.”
They got respite in 2019, after they were awarded Dublin City Council’s “Incubation Space Award”.
It meant time in Unit 4 on James Joyce Street in Dublin’s north inner-city, which shifted the ensemble’s outlook.
The residency allowed the group to rehearse, run workshops, try out small concerts, and, most importantly, help out other groups with a space to rehearse and perform, says Adams.
“This was a bit of a departure for Kirkos,” he says, of the group moving from producing work to facilitation.
The residency ended. But their time there illustrated the importance of artist-run spaces and set the seeds for Unit 44.
“Heavy curtains go on those hooks there,” says Paul Scully, a composer and the general manager of Kirkos Ensemble, his finger trailing across the top of the large storefront windows.
They’ll help with sound, he says. “We’ll put them up during concerts.”
Two large black speakers, standing about four metres apart, hint at the performance stage.
“This is the live-streaming set-up,” says Scully, pointing to a table that most of the room’s entangled wires lead back to.
There’s a tablet where Scully can see the different camera angles, a small mixer to toggle between views for live-streams, and a mixing desk to ensure all the levels are in order for live performances.
The whole space is kitted out and ready for live performances and streaming, says Scully.
A recent live-stream showed the ensemble performing Terry Riley’s “In C”. The musicians face out towards the open doors.
There’s violins, singers, synthesisers. The slow bubbling of instruments layering over each other and spilling out onto the streets of Stoneybatter.
“It certainly grabs people’s attention,” says Adams. “I prioritised having a big window that people can see into because I think one of the problems that our sector faces is that we’re not so central to the culture as we would be in other European countries.”
“I think if we can have any opportunity for people to stumble past the type of art that they mightn’t know to look for, that’s potentially new fans,” he says. “It normalises it.”
Kirkos Ensemble are addressing a lack of low-stakes casual spaces to go and play, says Adams.
So much contemporary music is high-stakes, he says, with expensive venues booked months in advance and funding needed to pay for musicians and tech.
“That rules out a lot of types of work,” he says. Like exploring new collaborations that could come to nothing, testing out works-in-progress or playing together just because.
Not having such places limits the development of the entire scene, he says. “All those things are a really important part of later work happening – the really good stuff can only come from trial and error.”
In the past, Kirkos Ensemble has been involved in ambitious projects, he says. They needed a lot of planning and funding.
“They’d tend to be well received but there was always this disappointment attached to it,” he says, of those concerts.
The disappointment came from the rarity of such nights in the city, coupled with the rather limited opportunities for new contemporary music to be performed more regularly, he says.
So many people are doing incredibly interesting things but have no outlet for it, he says. “There’s no reason why we couldn’t be going to shows like this every single week except that there’s no infrastructure for it.”
They want Unit 44 to be an accessible space and a no-pressure environment where people can rehearse, try out new things, and show their work to curious audiences, he says.
While they’re still figuring things out, they’re hoping that use of the space will be free or close to it.
Next month in Dublin Fringe, Kirkos Ensemble are premiering a new show, Music for Cranes.
“It’s going to be quite meditative,” says Adams, “a sort of indirect musing on what cranes mean to people.”
The show is taking place at Grand Canal Dockyard where the ensemble will be interpreting the cranes in view as a musical score.
“We all feel different things when we think about cranes. They seem very neutral in a way but they have very powerful connotations because of what they build,” says Adams.
A lot of the time, they’re associated with the destruction of things or things that people don’t want to be built, he says.
“But there’s no reason they couldn’t be building things that would really improve our city,” says Adams.
“That’s the kind of angle we’re going for and we’re wondering how we’re going to turn that to sound,” he says.