100 Days – Day 3

Polyphonic Rigor > Rigor Mortis*

In other words, polyphony means that even if your own line is boring, it’s ok, because you’re serving the satisfaction of another part, and the whole is superb.

Musical examples to follow.

* Dominica Williams, 10.5.19

100 Days – Day 2

Today I set 6 more lines of the movement I’ve been working on for upper voices, which in a way seems like I tripled my output from yesterday, but in reality means that tomorrow I probably won’t set any new text. What I’ve written is very skeletal and sketchy, and I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to figure out the best way to convey the aleatoric elements of the piece, before realising just now on the luas home that my first instinct, which I’d forgotten about in the heat of the work, was not only the best idea but also the convention. Good news – this means that I don’t have to do any more tinkering with notation and can instead spend all that time tinkering with sibelius… Once I’ve figured out how it should all look, I might post a picture.

I also haven’t actually written any of the string or harp parts for those 6 lines – just the vocal parts, so tomorrow I’ll probably focus on filling out what I wrote today. The vocal lines all snake chromatically upwards, to convey a sense of rising tension in the mourning, but also to reflect the words Féach an spéir, which I’ve chosen for the sopranos and altos to repeat ad lib under the next 4 lines, sung by a soprano soloist. I think that the consonants “F”, “ch” and “sp” will be very interesting to listen to in an aleatoric texture. Underneath all of this, I think the strings can build up a chord (pictured below) that occurs at several structurally significant points throughout the work as a whole, but always glissando downwards before too long. The combination of the voices moving upwards while the strings are moving downwards should help convey a sense of dizziness or something. Ask me again when I hear it performed by real instruments.

This evening I did what I’ve been putting of for a number of years and finally got new headshots! I’ve only had the lovely one on the home-page of this site that we had done for the 10th anniversary of the Irish Composers Collective for the longest time, but the brilliant Miriam Kaczor was saying she had some studio times available so I pounced. Watch this space for updates!

The “structurally significant” chord.

The “structurally significant” chord.

100 Days – Day 1

With my PhD due date looming on the horizon, a little under 4 months away, I’ve decided to try to keep myself honest (and come up with a new way of procrastinating) by blogging about how I’m doing.

Buoyed by the lovely review of my Oxen of the Sun in this month’s Choir and Organ*, today I set about tackling the only movement of my large PhD piece (Amra Choluim Chille, henceforth known as ACC) that I had yet to start. It’s the 6th of 7 movements, and I had decided several months ago for this movement to be for upper voices, strings and harp only – no tenors or basses. This is because the text relates to the grief of the Uí Néill clan upon hearing of the death of St Columba. I have some vague idea in my head that traditionally, in Ireland, only the women were involved in keening over the dead body – often in chorus, lead by a professional bean chaointe.

While at the end of today I have only set the first 2 of 13 lines in this movement, I have planned more or less the whole structure, based on an octatonic ascending texture that I developed for my commission for New Dublin Voices entitled Comrades. In that piece it is quick, regular and energised, to convey the words “free through the world your spirit goes.” Here, however, it is going to be much slower to develop, and I will probably use aleatoric techniques, so that there is something more chaotic and mournful about how the texture builds, to give meaning to the words Is deimhin: ní och aon-tí, ní och aon-téite,/ Is trom an tuath anois i ngreim an scéil.**

I am bringing back a motif from the very beginning of the piece, which I think of as the “Cross” motif, because the way I’ve laid out the strings, it forms the image of a cross. Here, that motif is used on the words Mac na Croiche a ainm;***. For some reason, whenever I think about the beginning of the piece, the words “Hold thou the cross before my closing eyes” come into my mind – I have this image of the dying St Columba looking at the sky and seeing a shining cross formed out of light and clouds and rain and so on.

Don’t ask me why.

*“quite beautiful... is Eoghan Desmond’s extraordinary Oxen of the Sun, with its Joycean brio and deceptive subtlety.” 

** Truly: not the grieving of one household, nor the sighing of one harp string, sad are all the people at the wounding word.

***Son of the Cross his name.

Page 1 of  Amra Choluim Chille (in progress)

Page 1 of Amra Choluim Chille (in progress)

The Green Man – A Parody

The Green Man

The hill rose green above the lake.
On it, as I looked, there sat
Upon its crest, holding a rake
A green-clad man, both short and fat.

The green beneath was neat at last.
The man atop smoked "green" in green.
A moment, ere the man had passed
It was a most relaxing scene.


This little piece of silly verse is a parody of Mary Coleridge's poem "The Bluebird", immortalised by Charles Villiers Stanford in his incredible musical setting. To hear it sung by the Swingle Singers, click here. 

* * * ALT NOTES FOR HEADSTUFF * * *

Greetings from sunny Berlin! I'm currently here singing with Tenso Europe Chamber Choir, and enjoying the sun, the famous Berlin falafel and boating on the river Spree!

I'm also delighted to be featured on headstuff.com's series "Alt Notes". Shell Dooley fired a few questions my way and I answered them as coherently and unpretentiously as I could manage. Let me know what you think. 

Link to the blog here.

Thanks for having me on your series, Shell. :)

#WTF

I am a feminist. That is to say, I like to consider myself a feminist. However, as a straight white male born in the Western world in a body I identify with, with all the privileges that come with that, it can be difficult sometimes. I don't mean that it's difficult to be a straight white man, or even really that it's difficult to be a feminist – although it's sometimes difficult to get people to understand why I'm a feminist. I mean that it can sometimes be difficult to remember to be a feminist. Sometimes it can be easy to forget just how privileged I am, simply because I was born male to white, Western parents. 

 

The programme for the National Concert Hall's celebration of 100 years of music since the Easter Rising, Composing the Island, was recently published, and I was delighted and proud to find myself included as one of 4 Irish composers with featured world premieres, and one of 91 living Irish composers to have a piece included in the programming. (This is purely because I sent a piece to Paul Hillier, Artistic Director of Chamber Choir Ireland, who found it suitable for the purposes of the concert.) I made the customary facebook post, told my mum, and went about the rest of my day feeling pretty chuffed. Sure, I had a look at the rest of the programme, but nothing much stuck out to me as wrong with it. 

So what is wrong with it?

Out of 4 world premieres, all 4 have been composed by men.
Out of 91 living Irish composers, only 17 are women.
Out of almost 200 pieces of music, only 23 are by women. 

I didn't even notice the staggering discrepancy until my good friend, the composer* Jane Deasy pointed it out. This is what I mean when I say that it's difficult sometimes. It's difficult, going about in a world where I'm not passively excluded or overlooked due to my gender or race, to remember that there is a vast chunk of our society who are excluded and overlooked. It's well and good for me to give myself a little pat on the back every time I programme a female composer in my own choral concerts**, but how can I justify it in the context of not even noticing that barely a quarter of the living composers represented this September will be women? 

 

The blame for this doesn't lie with any one person or body. So far as I am aware, each individual performer/performing group in Composing the Island was responsible for their own programming, possibly with NCH oversight. Of course, in concerts of older music it's more or less inevitable that men will be more prominently featured. The privilege we still enjoy today is thankfully greatly diminished when we consider the privilege enjoyed by white men 100 years ago. However, in concerts of contemporary music, it truly is unforgivable. But in the majority of cases, I highly doubt it's malicious. It's nobody's fault

And yet, it's everybody's fault.

I failed to notice the gender imbalance in the programming, simply because I didn't think to look for it. In the same way, those who put together this programme probably simply didn't think to include a significant number of women – like those who put together the Waking the Nation programme announced by the Abbey last year, like those who curate almost every artistic exhibition, series or programme. It is certainly not that there is a dearth of active female composers in Irish society. I don't have the statistics off the top of my head, but any idiot can glance at the Contemporary Music Centre Website and see that more than a quarter of living composers represented are women. All it would take to be more inclusive would be to think about it a little more. When I set up Dulciana with the goal of performing a significant amount of music composed for upper voices by women, I thought it would be relatively difficult to come up with more than a couple of concerts. A year and a half on and I've filled an entire notebook with potential programme ideas centred wholly around the music of individual women. My mind was blown at how easy it is to find the sheer volume of pieces of music written for this relatively niche grouping, that isn't performed simply because no one seems to look for it. In many cases, (as in the case of Imogen Holst) the music is still in copyright, but out of print, and there is no way to buy it. I could, (and I may) put on an entire hour of music composed or arranged by Imogen Holst for upper voices, and yet most of it is rarely if ever performed. Upon rehearsing it, it became obvious that the reason for the neglect could not possibly be the quality of the music. It matches the music of Gustav, and in some cases outshines it.

 

Imogen Holst is just one woman out of many whose voice wasn't given its due in her day, and is still being ignored. I won't even begin to go into the tragedy of Rebecca Clarke. It is bewildering to me that this sort of thing is ongoing in the 21st century. And yet, it is my fault too, because it took a woman to point it out to me, even when it was laid plainly in front of me. Feminism, I am learning, cannot be a passive attitude. It cannot be something we take out of the box when it suits us. Feminism must be a conscious daily decision, or it too will go passively un-noticed by the status quo. 

If you are a female composer and would like Dulciana to programme your music, drop us a line on dulciana.vocal.ensemble@gmail.com with a link to where we can find your music, or check out our call for scores

Since writing this blog, I had an encounter with a barber – straight, white, male – who was complaining about the congestion in Dublin's city centre on June 25th. The congestion had been due to the Pride parade. "Why do they need pride?" he asked. "Sure they got gay marriage last year. You never see straight people asking for a pride parade." To my shame, I stayed silent, because I didn't want to rock the boat. I was only there to get my hair cut, and he wasn't cutting my hair. Passivity beats equality again. 

 

*As though the mere word "composer" could possibly begin to describe the phenomenally broad contribution Jane makes on a regular basis not only to contemporary Irish music, but also theatre.

 

**For those of you not in the know, I run a female voice vocal ensemble who are committed to an annual concert consisting exclusively of music, new and old, by female composers. Even with this, and including music by women as much as often as I think of it in our other concerts, our programming regrettably is skewed towards music by male composers.  

An Die Freude

In the wake of this week's referendum in the EU, words fail me. Though we are becoming politically divided in this great peace project of ours, I hope we can remain musically and artistically united. To paraphrase Bernstein, I hope we can "make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before" in the name of unity, equality, friendship, peace, freedom, democracy and tolerance: everything that the European Union means to me, and everything that the majority of British voters regrettably failed to see, when confronted with the appalling narrative presented to them by Boris Johnson and his ilk over the last two decades.  I hope that we, the European community, can move on from this tragic result and continue to make beautiful music and art and progress together.

 

 

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

or

It’s “interesting” but is it "good"*?

 

Something one often hears in the field of contemporary classical composition (and other art forms, I’m sure) is the label “interesting”.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve been at concerts of contemporary classical music and afterwards heard the audience talking about how “interesting” such-and-such a piece was, always avoiding making an actual judgement call on whether they thought the piece was good or bad, or even whether or not they liked it. Generally speaking, I find with pieces of music of this type that appreciation of the music is dependant upon having read a programme note, or having had the composer explain his or her concept of the piece or process of composition. I often wonder if the audience members would have found the piece “interesting” if they had only been able to listen to it, and not know anything else about the piece other than what it sounds like. I often suspect that the answer would be no.

 

For a number of years, the trajectory of contemporary classical music has tended towards music composed by process – music generated by algorithms or programmes; music generated by chance; music generated on the spot according to pre-defined rules which the performer must follow. These processes are often very interesting, and often produce a very interesting sonic effect, but is it good music? Occasionally, an extra-musical element is thrust upon the audience to varying effect: concerts in complete darkness, or blindfolded, or where the performers are seated among the audience. Sometimes I wonder if perhaps some of this type of music would be better labelled theatre, or even philosophy, as the reason given is usually that the performers/composers are confronting or challenging the audience’s pre-conceived notions of what a performance is. This is all well and good, and is often done to great effect (as in Kirkos ensemble’s recent Blackout series) but I think that what composers, performers and audience members alike must continually ask themselves and each other is “concept aside, is the music good?”

 

In other cases, the audience and performers is presented with modern programmatic music. Very often, this is music that is compelling to the audience, enjoyable to perform, by all generally accepted conventions “good”. However, when the programmatic element is revealed, the piece is raised to another level altogether, wherein musical moments which were previously simply compelling take on a clarity and brilliance. I was lucky enough in 2014 to perform in such a work. As part of the Cork Choral Festival, Chamber Choir Ireland had commissioned a work from David Fennessy, the result of which was Letter to Michael for 16 voices. It’s a dense, intense work, full of semitone glissandi and overlapping layers of sound. We were all enjoying the rehearsal process, and then David came in and told us what his inspiration for the piece was:



“A few years ago I came across an extraordinary image by a woman named Emma Hauck (1878-1920). It was of a page of text written so densely in pencil that it was almost completely black and more or less illegible. Hauck was a patient in the psychiatric hospital of the University of Heidleberg and in the summer of 1909 wrote many similar pages in the form of letters to her husband Michael, begging him to come and collect her. The text consists simply of the phrase ‘Herzenschatzi Komm’ (Sweetheart come) written over and over again, many hundreds of times or simply ‘Komm’ (Come). It seems the letters were never sent and her pleas were left unheard.”**

 

With this programme note in our minds, the reason behind the texture of the piece suddenly became clear, and our performance of it necessarily gained an understanding and ability to communicate to the audience. This was an already good piece that only became better with explanation. There are countless other examples throughout music history of pieces of music that stand on their own two feet, but with the addition of a programme note are elevated to another level of engagement altogether.

Often, however, one comes across the opposite – pieces of music wherein an audience or ensemble without such a programme note would be left floundering in an obscure mess of abstract notes. Music that they may describe as “interesting”, but would hesitate to describe as “good”. Upon receiving the necessary wisdom from the composer, the piece will usually become “more interesting”, but rarely seems to become “more good”.

 

In many cases, I find that the concept is simply a veil to conceal an inherent weakness at the core of the composition itself. Composers who have failed to write compelling, engaging music have to hide their art behind a curtain and, like the Wizard of Oz, would be revealed to be severely lacking if only the audience had Toto to run in and pull back the curtain.



I suppose that this all leads to one really crucial question: is “interest” enough for a piece of music to be “good”? Should a piece of music be able to stand on its own two feet without extra-musical input, or is it OK for music to need to be propped up by something external? For me, the answer is no.

 

 

*I have purposefully not gone into the minefield of what actually could be considered “good” music, and whether it’s a subjective or an objective label.

 

**Taken from the Chamber Choir Ireland website. 

EUYO TO CEASE OPERATIONS

Reminiscences on Walton's 1st Symphony.*

*this somewhat rambling blog is an emotional response to the announcement that the EUYO would cease operations this September.

One of the most electrifying and profound concerts I have ever had the good fortune to attend took place on August 21st, 2005. That date is burned into my memory. In spite of extremely heavy rain and thunder, Cork’s City Hall was packed with people eager to hear Ravel’s Sheherazade and Rapsodie Espagnol, and Walton’s electrifying 1st Symphony, conducted by Sir John Elliot Gardiner. This was my first exposure to the music of Walton, and it sparked a love affair that remains strong to this day. It’s been some years since I last listened to his symphonic works, having become obsessed in later years with the Viola Concerto (which I was lucky enough to play in the following year, with our own NYOI) and Façade, but I will particularly never forget what happened as the great final chords ripped through the air at the end of the piece. The audience reacted first with stunned silence, for what seemed like an eternity, before bursting into rapturous applause. I was 16, and, though I loved music, I didn’t yet know that it was to become my entire life. Further explorations into Walton’s output (how could I ever forget my first time hearing Belshazzar’s Feast!?) made me sure of several things, among them that music was absolutely my calling. How could I ever have done anything else after having sat through such an awe-inspiring 45 minutes? From its restless opening, through its tense second movement (was ever a musical instruction so explicit as Presto con malizia?), its bitter-sweet third movement, and finally onto those unforgettable final few triumphant minutes, I was taken on a musical journey from which I could never return.

What is most remarkable about this transformative experience, however, was that the orchestra who gave the performance weren’t a seasoned, experienced professional orchestra, but rather a collection of the finest young (16-26) instrumentalists from across the EU. This was the first time I heard the European Union Youth Orchestra performing, and regrettably, I’ve only had the chance to hear them once since. In 2014 on August 5th, Vasily Petrenko led them in a performance of Berio’s Sinfonia and Shostakovich’s 4th Symphony in the Proms. The orchestra, though necessarily completely different in membership, had lost none of its vitality and excitement. In each performance, it was obvious that on stage were the future of classical music in Europe, and that they absolutely loved what they were doing.

Today, the EUYO announced that, due to funding restructuring within the EU, it would be ceasing operations in September of this year. Across the world, music, alongside other art forms, is being asked to justify its existence in a capitalist society. Artistic organisations are being asked why they can’t turn a profit, and how they can justify their existence without being profitable. Where funding is offered, it is invariably offered to people who use a list of buzzwords ­– innovative, entrepreneurial, multi-media, the sort of words that grew out of board room meetings in order to justify the grossly inflated salaries of people who do nothing else but come up with this kind of business jargon, in order to continue to justify the gross inflation of their own income at the expense of nearly everyone else. While I’m sure good artistic endeavour can come out of these concepts, they don’t gel with the centuries old traditions of music. An orchestra shouldn’t need to justify its need for 100 people to play some of the most incredible music ever written, in particular one providing an early platform to young musicians from across the EU to meet to play these works, at the same time necessarily improving relations between these countries at an a-political level. One would have thought it an essential component of the European project. A bureaucrat, however, only sees that these things cost more to run than they can possibly make, and so, the arts suffer. In our own country, the arts have been neglected to the point that they now share a governmental department (and budget) with “Regional Development, Rural Affairs and the Gaeltacht”, headed up by a woman who has seemingly no interest in the arts (and specifically music) whatsoever. In 2007 we lost one of our own National Youth Orchestras, the senior tier, although the Esker Festival Orchestra, set up and run by Peter Joyce, has filled that vacuum in recent years. If we can’t nurture the young artists of today, the future of art, in Ireland and now abroad, seems bleak.

Read more about the disastrous situation here.
And find out how to help here. 

 

 

 

 

Another Limerick, and a blog for a tenor from Limerick

It seems as though 3 years ago today I was working on a paper for college on Berio's fantastic A-Ronne, as Facebook has just informed me that 3 years ago today, I posted a limerick on that very subject:

 

There was a composer named Berio.
His music exceedingly Merry-o.
Though sadly he's gone,
He left us A-ronne,
A ludicrous play for the stereo.

 

In other news, I was recently asked to be a guest blogger on the wonderful trialbytenor.com. Conor Gibbons (from Limerick) asked me a few questions about what I do and how I do it, and I answered to the best of my ability. Click on the link below to have a read!

http://www.trialbytenor.com/blog/eoghan-desmond