Composer Spotlight Q&A: Aileen Sweeney

Aileen Sweeney is a Scottish composer, accordionist and arranger based in Glasgow. 

In 2018, Aileen participated in a composers' residency run by sound and Red Note Ensemble. The resulting piece The Wooden Web was premiered by musicians from Red Note Ensemble at soundfestival 2018. 

When did you start composing? 

I wrote my first piece in 6th year at high school as part of the Advanced Higher music exams. I don’t know how much credit I can take for it though! At the time, I was learning a piece by Débussy on the piano and there were certainly a lot of influences that I quite blatantly borrowed from Claude to say the least - I was a huge fan of Débussy!

When and what made you decide to pursue composition as a career?

My undergraduate degree was a performance degree in Classical Accordion. Towards the end of my undergraduate degree, I was getting really bored of practising for hours every day to be honest! I found writing music much more fun and creative than practising and gradually spent more and more time composing and never looked back!

Where and with whom did you study?

I graduated from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in 2017 having studied Classical Accordion with Djorjde Gajic and second study composition with Dr Gordon McPherson and Dr Oliver Searle. I am now studying a MMus degree in composition at the RCS with Dr Linda Buckley.

What stage are you at in your career right now? 

I am near the end of my studies and have been composing now for a good few years but I still have lots to learn. This year, I have been lucky enough to receive some professional commissions for “emerging composers.” They are hard to come by but I’m hoping to gain more opportunities like these for emerging composers in the professional circuits after graduating. 

How would you describe the type of music you write?

I would like to think my music is quite cross-genre. I play a lot of Scottish Traditional music but also love listening to contemporary Jazz so I think you can hear a mix of everything in my music.

Is there something that inspires or helps you structure your compositions?

My structures tend to stem from the concept or title behind the piece. Most often, I will come up with the title and a story behind the piece before writing any notes – it helps me to stay focused during the composition process.

What forces do you prefer writing for and why? (Instrumental, orchestral, chamber music, choral…?)

I love writing instrumental music, especially with strings! String instruments are rooted in traditional music so I’m able to capture the essence of folk music on these instruments and weave it into the composition in a subtle way. I’ve only recently started writing vocal music but have also really enjoyed that. I think the length and mood of the text already decides the structure of the piece to a degree, meaning that the composition process flows a lot easier for me.

Which composer (dead or alive) has most inspired you and why? 

I couldn’t name just one but I recently discovered the music of the Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy. He manages to incorporate traditional elements into his music really naturally and his use of spectral harmonies really enhances the very raw and beautiful music he writes! Definitely worth checking him out! Grá Agus Bás and Aisling Gael are my favourite pieces which both include the folk singer Iarla Ó Lionáird.

Name a piece of music (or two) that you listen to over and over, or find inspiring and why? 

I really love Short Ride in a Fast Machine by John Adams. The piece exudes so much energy in such a short space of time! I often listen to it before I start writing a piece as a reminder of what is possible in just 5 minutes of music. Plus, it’s fast and loud - which are my two favourite things in music!

In complete contrast, I love Maiden with the Flaxen hair by Débussy. It was one of the first classical pieces of music I discovered as a teenager – it came as a free download with a new iPod I got. I remember listening to it over and over again when I first heard it and probably will never tire of hearing it!

What do you do to take your mind off composing?

If I am not composing, I am probably gigging/rehearsing with my bands. However, if I have spare time, I unashamedly enjoy playing FIFA, binging on a true crime on Netflix or venturing to Scottish islands with my tent!

What are you working on right now? 

I’m currently working on an orchestral piece for The London Philharmonic Orchestra as part of The Young Composers Scheme 19/20. I’m also writing a couple of traditional tunes on the accordion and releasing them in a little YouTube series online for some fun!

What would your dream commission be? 

I’d love to do a really unusual collaborative, cross-genre project involving lots of different creative people. An opera incorporating folk singers/musicians or a ballet with a rock band. I’ll keep my fingers crossed!

Is there anything about the current lockdown situation that is affecting your compositional activity, whether positive or negative?

I have tried very hard to stay productive throughout the lockdown period and make the most of the time I don’t usually have. However, I’ve found it can be easy to put too much pressure on yourself to be working 24/7. It’s important to chill out a bit and find fun things to do in order to stay creative!

Find out more about Aileen and listen to some of her music: