Lecturer of Composition at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
What was your first musical memory?
More like a sound memory – of the foghorn from the nearby lighthouse where I grew up in the south of Ireland, then traditional Irish music played by my father on accordion, then early records of the singer Kate Bush.
What was your route into composing?
Through singing in choirs I loved being immersed within the power and harmony of choral music. I grew up singing sean nos unaccompanied folk song, studied the piano, and began improvising ideas vocally and on piano. I had always loved electronic music and later became more interested in this aspect of composing.
Which composer do you wish you could have met – or could meet if they are still alive?
Hildegard von Bingen, who is the first female composer that most speak of, seems like a fascinating character, also I really wanted to meet Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti and talk to him about his astounding clouds of sound created in works like Lux Aeterna and Atmospheres.
What would you ask them?
Hildegard was a mystic, a poet as well as being a composer and her plainchant melodies have this strangeness to them. I would ask her about how she composed, and where her ideas came from.
What music do you like to listen to – that’s not work related?
Ambient electronic music, post punk, often music that draws you in and creates an atmosphere…
If you weren’t a musician, what might you have become?
I always loved writing, so perhaps painting with words and not music – a poet.
What do you like to do when you’re not composing?
Being in nature – growing up right on the sea makes me yearn to return to that again and again, and I find it so cleansing for the mind, especially when working on music and needing a balance away from that.
What do you wish you’d known about composing when you were 18 years old?
That you must write what you love – and not worry about what anyone might think… I was lucky in my studies to have a very diverse range of music open to me, from Javanese gamelan to Indian to medieval – I never felt locked in by genre or any notion of what ‘new music’ should be.
Where do you get inspiration from?
It can be from anything, from sound in the environment, to reading a memorable line in a poem, to seeing pattern and structure in visual art, and imagining that in sound. I’ve just come back from Iceland – the expansive landscape there is endlessly inspiring to me.
What do you do when you’re stuck in a compositional rut?
It can help to take the pressure off – to get away from the piece and go for a walk. Often when in motion like this, the mind is working subconsciously to perhaps find a solution to some aspect of the piece, making sense of structure and material.
What are the most useful aspects of musical theory to understand or learn to help with composition?
Harmony – especially exploring stacked intervals and modes. Orchestration is so important – starting early with skills in imagining colour combinations with their real timbres, which is so different to what is played back in notation software and can be misleading. Techniques in transforming material – eg. melody in retrograde and inversion etc.
Are there any exercises that you can recommend to develop understanding of theory and harmony?
Orchestrating one single chord in three different ways, e.g. dark, icy or open – Exploring these possibilities. Composing a theme and variations – learning how to restrict ones material, ‘do a lot with a little’, keeping it focused and creating a strong sonic image.
What are your 5 top tips for young composers?
- Be curious – go to see gigs, concerts, art galleries, poetry readings. Inspiration can come when you least expect it.
- D.I.Y – connect to live performance, perform, put on shows, create an active musical community around you.
- Composition is not just one path of concert music – embrace collaboration, eg. video art, contemporary dance. This can open up a world of exploration and possibility.
- If one approach of creating music feels exhausted by you, try another – eg. moving from purely notated scores to making field recordings and finding the sonic potential in that.
- Persevere – there will be times when it is hard… but we are so lucky to get to do something which can be so joyous, and express a part of us which cannot be expressed in words. That is its own reward, when you’re immersed in the flow state of making music, and lost in the beauty of it all.