Archive for the ‘Composing’ Category

I love learning about what other creative people get fired up about, not just in their own discipline but in all areas of the arts. So who are my favourite composers? In the past, when this question came up, I used to feel I had to at least mention some ‘difficult’ composers in response, if only to establish my serious credentials before moving on to composers I actually liked. You know the sort of thing, ‘I have a lot of respect for Brian Ferneyhough, but Steve Reich is more to my taste’. Well, now I’m older, a shred more self-assured, and further from the rather joyless institute where I gained my music degree, I’m happy to declare that I wouldn’t care very much if I never heard another note of New Complexity or Total Serialism as long as I live. But I would care very much if I never got to hear some of these guys again:

Being a choral-head, I love a composer with a real sense of how to write for choir as an instrument. Contemporary favourites include Ola Gjeilo  – check out his Northern Lights to start with, a mini-masterpiece of modern choral writing. I was also a massive fan of the late John Tavener. Estonia is a country that punches way above its weight when it comes to first-rate composers, with Veljo Tormis  and Arvo Pärt being personal favourites.  

 Given I mentioned Steve Reich in the opening paragraph, it won’t surprise you to learn he’s a hero of mine, as was Louis Andriessen, sadly departed earlier this year. There’s also a number of Latin American composers whose music really excites me, including Silvestre Revueltas and Carlos Chavez, which brings me to a particular pre-occupation of mine; I never cease to marvel at how musicology has broadened its focus in the past decade or so. Music students of my generation were educated according to a fairly narrowly defined, Euro-centric canon, and we were certainly never exposed to composers from Latin America or Africa – nor even Asia, with the exception of a handful of Japanese composers. Ready access to culture and different traditions from throughout the world has been a complete game changer, and all to the good. A further positive development in the world of cultural theory, in my opinion, is how we’ve moved beyond unhelpful divisions of music creatives. No longer do we insist on these hard categorisations of songwriters and composers (There is, in my experience, a range of sub-categories within that last one: ‘composers of difficult music nobody wants to listen to‘/ ‘composers of accessible music that people might want to listen to, but serious musicians won’t admit to liking‘ etc…. ) I love the fact that nowadays you can confidently describe Angelique Kidjo or Adrian McNally of The Unthanks as one of your favourite composers without the need to debate or defend the label. These are a few of my favourite things.


I’m a fortunate soul these days. I’m spending the month of July writing music for no other reason than that I want to, thanks to a recent award from the Arts Council of Ireland. No specific brief, no terms and conditions, simply following the creative urge wherever it leads. And for once, having such time and financial freedom to compose has not coincided with chronic writer’s block. So, everything’s going swimmingly. Minor niggle; the scolding figure in my head admonishing me: ‘You can’t do that’. For whatever reason, composers don’t tend to share these thoughts much with each other, so I have no idea whether this thought process is entirely standard, or uniquely my problem.

 Now, I’ve always loved sea shanties, even before they became a Tiktok sensation (!) But their recent – if somewhat surprising –  surge in popularity probably was responsible for my thoughts going in the following direction when I sat down to start writing. Without exactly intending to, I’ve ended up composing a work for multiple voices, percussion and strings, inspired by the sea. Text-wise, I’m playing around with invented words and language, in much the same way that many historic sea shanties include words that have no real meaning, owing to an initial mishearing when the tunes were overheard in a foreign port. So I’d call the piece a sort of contemporary sea shanty, except here’s where the internal dialogue becomes problematic: You can’t do that! It’s not folky enough for a sea shanty and it’s not ‘arty’ enough to be categorised as contemporary/serious. 

Rationally, I’m well aware this makes no sense. Why can’t I? Are angry sailors going to show up at my door complaining that they can’t haul their bowlines because I’ve written a shanty in 5/4? Are the contemporary music police likely to fine me for use of tonal harmony in a piece of art music? No. There is no law prohibiting the of writing a piece that resists neat categorisation, and the world would certainly continue to turn even if I never finished it. And yet, I can’t shake off the sense of misgiving.  I would truly be interested to know if other creative people experience this phenomenon. 

Just finished a few days’ EP mixing. Regular readers (do I have any of them?!) will be aware that I’ve been working on an EP for the better part of 18 months…..why so long, you ask? Mainly because recording, mixing and mastering is of necessity a slow process when you have a budget of nothing. I’ve begged, borrowed and bartered my way through the project so far – and been blessed in having some hugely talented musicians share their talents with me on this basis – but there’s a limit to how much you can rush people who are working for nothing. If I have  a bass player booked for a recording session and he gets offered a paid gig the same day there’s only one call to be made at his end –he’s gotta take the paid gig. So, we wait. I’m at roughly the 70% point now – which in my experience is the point at which there’s the greatest risk of project abandonment. Starting things is easy, finishing them is another story.  Still, after a long delay it’s good to be back in the studio, mixing and listening to the material with fresh ears. Stay tuned 🙂

recording pic

midnight oil

Posted: July 22, 2014 in Composing

Started writing something this evening….don’t know what it is yet. Choral, probably. I love it when ideas show up uninvited, but part of me always wants to hold on to the newness of it, preserve the pure idea at the point where it could still go in any direction. Still, an unrealised idea’s no good to anyone, right? Better get on with it so.