I’ve really been composing for a large part of life - at least half of it anyway! I guess I started writing music when I played in rock bands as a teenager and this really engaged me with the act of creating music and wanting to develop it. I can pinpoint two experiences in which I knew I really wanted to be a composer. The first was when I was around sixteen. I bought a ECM recording of The Seasons by John Cage solely because I liked the beautiful cover. On the CD there was a recording of 74. I remember coming home from town and listening to the piece on my bed whilst reading the liner notes, I was completely overwhelmed by the sound of the piece, but even more so when I read about how it was put together or composed. From that moment on, I knew I wanted to write music like this. The second moment came when was when I was about 17. I went to a RTÉ NSO Horizons concert featuring Gerald Barry. In the concert Gerald had programmed a piece calledLentoby Howard Skempton. I was so completely and utterly taken aback by the piece, the player’s engagement with it and the audience’s attention to it, that if I had ever any doubts about what I was going to do with my life (I had at this stage been briefly seduced by a career in photography) it was now completely obvious. It’s kind of nice to think that now things have come full circle as I’ve finished my PhD in composition with Howard, who first inspired me to become a composer.
I had a bit of a long road to the Conservatoire! After I finished my leaving cert (the Irish equivalent to the UK’s A-Levels) I studied for a BMus at University College Dublin which was essentially a musicology degree but immensely beneficial to my development as a musician and composer. From there I went to do a master’s in Kings College, London, which affected me both positively and negatively. After this period of study, I went to study in Paris with one of the world’s leading composers Philippe Leroux, from whom I learnt a great deal and really played a large part in shaping how I think about music. Whilst in Paris I met Ed Bennett who teaches at the Conservatoire and whose music I really admire, and he really sold the Conservatoire to me. I had met Joe Cutler and was familiar with his music as I was with Howard Skempton’s music and we all got on very well personally and artistically. After toying with an offer from Université de Montréal I chose Birmingham Conservatoire and haven’t looked back since! (Oh how decisions one makes changes the outcome of life!)
I have so many happy memories from Birmingham Conservatoire. Some particular highlights include being involved with the Stockholm composition exchange which was literally a life changing experience for me. Additionally, being involved with the Louis Andriessen Frontiers+ festival, the Heiner Goebbels Frontiers+ festival and dancing like Bez to Joe Cutler’s music for Laurence Crane’s 50birthday have etched wonderful memories on my mind. I am also particularly fortunate to have worked quite closely with Ed Bennett’s group, Decibel, who do wonderful work in the Conservatoire and I am just very privileged to have met and worked with such a wonderful range of teachers and really interesting students who have all fed into whatever success I might have had elsewhere.
It’s always difficult establishing one’s career as a composer and there are many obstacles and rejections. One applies and applies for competitions and residences and courses etc. and nine times out of ten you get rejection letters, but the important thing is to believe in your own work, whilst at the same time welcoming criticism and trying to improve one’s work at every available opportunity. Perseverance and listening to what other people tell you, they’re the secrets! I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with many of the world’s leading ensembles and players and this helps because (a) you usually have a stockpile of good recordings (of mega importance!) and (b) because other people/ensembles/organizations trust your work because you’ve worked with these household names. Obviously for me being the BCMG/SAM apprentice composer-in-residence was hugely beneficial. I learned a great deal with BCMG and had the privilege of working with one of my favourite composers, David Lang, but most importantly I was afforded the opportunity to write them Findetotenliederof which I am incredibly proud.
A composer’s future is always a little uncertain! I hope to continue the small bit of teaching that I do at the Conservatoire and I have some very interesting commissions and projects lined up including a new orchestral piece, an extended song cycle, some sax quartets as well as number of smaller projects. I’ll also be applying for residences and competitions which may or may not come to fruition, but I’ll persevere!