An Interview with John Gibson
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Jonathan Grimes: What are you working on at the moment, John?
John Gibson: I'm working on a performance of a chamber opera of mine, Judith and Holofernes, as part of the Cork 2005 European Capital of Culture celebrations. It's being produced by a young opera company called Cork Opera Works. The opera consists of four soloists, a chorus, and an ensemble. At the moment I'm getting everything organised and the finance in place.
JGR: And you wrote that opera in...?
JG: I wrote it as a celebration of the PEACE [Prayer Enterprise and Christian Effort] movement in Cork. It was commissioned by the late Cecil Hurwitz, who had suggested on a number of occasions that I do a setting of the story of Judith from the Old Testament. It received its first performance in 2002 in the North Cathedral in Cork. The premiere was a concert performance and had a large chorus, whereas this next performance will have a chorus of four people.
JGR: So the work was performed previously?
JG: Yes, but this will be the first staged performance -- it will have costumes, lighting and so on.
JGR: Is this your first dramatic work?
|‘I've always been attracted to writing for the spoken word -- poetry and so on. This appeals to me because the structure is more or less set up by the words themselves.'
JG: It is my first opera or music drama of any kind. I've always been attracted to writing for the spoken word -- poetry and so on. This appeals to me because the structure is more or less set up by the words themselves, so you don't have to worry too much about the form. I was lucky in that Robert Craig, who's a singing teacher in the [Cork] School of Music, did the libretto from the Bible and arranged it in twelve different scenes, so immediately I had a structure and just had to set the words.
JGR: And have you made any changes since the last performance or do you tend to do this with works you've written?
JG: Not really. In some cases I have done. I remember a Wind Quintet I wrote during the 1980s when I was going through a difficult stage, and it took me about five years of revision to finish the work. I've just completed a work for piano for the next AXA Dublin International Piano Competition: this more or less wrote itself in the space of a few days and was revised over a two-month period.
JGR: Going back to your formative years, did you grow up in a musical family?
JG: I did. My mother was a piano teacher and my sister Darina was a bit of a prodigy. I can remember quite vividly sitting underneath the grand piano in our living room listening to my sister playing, and getting that sort of echo-chamber effect. I also remember my father having an old gramophone and listening to things like The Skaters’ Waltz and The Blue Danube. So I was surrounded by music.
JGR: And your initial training was in piano?
JG: That's right. I learnt with my mother first, then with a teacher in the School of Music in Chatham Row [DIT Conservatory of Music], and then with Patricia Herbert, who was married to the conductor Éimear Ó Broin. Then I moved over to the Academy [Royal Irish Academy of Music] and studied for over ten years with Rhona Marshall, a wonderful teacher, who had been taught by Esposito; so I'm Esposito's grandchild musically!
JGR: And your interest in composition: did it come around the time you began learning the piano or did it come later?
JG: It came later. I had been studying theory with Annette Perry who had been a pupil of John Larchet. When I finished with her, she suggested I go to Archie Potter, who was teaching composition at the Academy during this time. He was wonderful in that he didn't force any particular style of composition on any of his students. Derek Ball and Brian Beckett were also students of his back then, and each of us wrote in a different style, which was good because if he had been dominant and had decided I should write in a particular style I probably would have given it up. It was at that time that we founded the Association of Young Irish Composers, which led on to the Association of Irish Composers [AIC], largely under his [Potter's] encouragement. He felt that nobody was going to perform our compositions unless we did it ourselves and organised concerts -- we had to be proactive in doing things like that.
JGR: So the roots of the AIC date from this period?
JG: Yes. As we were approaching thirty we decided we were no longer young, so we formed the AIC, and it was at that stage that heavyweights of the day like Brian Boydell, Jim Wilson and Seóirse Bodley came on board.
JGR: You refer to this period of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and that your early works date from then. What was it like to be a young composer during this period?
JG: It was a wonderful time in Dublin in that you had the Dublin Twentieth Century Music Festival. This gave an opportunity for young composers to have their work performed and to hear great works. I remember Elliot Carter, Messiaen and Lutoslawski coming to Dublin for performances of their works; there was an enormous amount going on. The fact that all the Friday night concerts with the RTÉ Symphony Orchestra were free meant that there was a great atmosphere and a great following for the concerts. My early works date from that time and looking back I wrote quite a lot. I wrote Two Songs that Archie Potter sang, and Two String Quartets. Then my first orchestral piece, Lament for Children, was performed by RTÉ when Gerry Victory was Director of Music in RTÉ. I was a student in Germany and I sent the score back to him. I remember I got £30 for the performance.
JGR: Which was probably a lot of money in those days.
|'There is always a danger with a very important personality that you are encouraged to follow in that vein rather than develop your own particular style, for better or for worse.'
JG: Not really [laughs]. During this time, the Dublin Symphony Orchestra with Colin Block had composition prizes. I remember writing a piece called The Sound and the Fury which won a prize at that. The Dublin Baroque Players also commissioned me to write a piece and I wrote Sounds for string orchestra. There was a circle of us -- John Buckley, Raymond Deane, Brian Beckett, Derek Ball, and myself -- and we were all good pals. It was a happy time, compositionally.
JGR: And you mentioned that you studied in Germany. Was this just for piano?
JG: It was. I was composing but I didn't have any composition lessons there, and maybe it was just as well because I used to hear from the composition students that the teachers were very strict and insisted on a form of writing that one had to follow. There is always a danger with a very important personality that you are encouraged to follow in that vein, rather than develop your own particular style for better or for worse.
JGR: So you had this other role as a pianist. How connected were the two sides -- the performance and the composition -- or did you regard them as being quite separate fields of activity?
JG: I regarded them as being quite connected in the sense that I tend to write at the piano. Also, I was involved with Concorde when it was first formed by Jane O'Leary, and I played a lot of contemporary repertoire with them. I've written a lot of piano music and I've played a lot of contemporary piano music, both as a member of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and in chamber music.
JGR: Do you feel that your composing has benefited from your experience as a performer or that your approach to composing is in any way different?
JG: I suppose they are so intertwined I find it hard to separate the two. It means that you can tackle works and get to know a lot of music by playing through scores. I don't know if that answers your question.
JGR: It does. You performed a lot of your own piano music, which you've written especially for yourself. How do you find performing your own works? Does your approach differ to performing Messiaen or any of the other classics?
JG: Well, I don't write stuff that I can't play or that is too difficult for me, whereas Messiaen does. My own stuff might sound difficult but it's not horrendously difficult. I don't really see the point in writing something that you have to spend six months preparing.
JGR: So the challenges come elsewhere?
JG: Yes, in shaping the work or making some sort of sense or order out of the ideas.
JGR: You've been living in Cork now for a number of years.
JG: Since 1982.
JGR: To what extent do you think living there has influenced your development as a composer? For example, had you lived elsewhere do you think you might have developed differently?
JG: I think if I lived in Dublin I probably would be more ambitious and stressed, whereas Cork is more like a big town, so you can pace yourself. Living in a smaller place gives one time to develop in other areas in terms of one’s approach to life and not just from the point of view of the music. Certainly I’m less stressed living in Cork than I would be in Dublin. I'm less in competition with others because there aren’t so many composers living in Cork -- it’s a more relaxed atmosphere.
JGR: A lot of your works have been written for people you know. How important is this aspect of your composing?
JG: I suppose it just happens that occasionally a commission comes along. For example, with the new piano piece I don't know who's going to perform it; I don't know if any of the semi-finalists in the competition are going to actually choose it. I took great care in the notation of the score so that it would be as clearly defined as possible. Sometimes we composers are a bit lazy: we know how it goes ourselves so we imagine that everyone else will intuit what we intend, but it may not be as clear as it could be. It doesn't matter who plays it -- I'm quite fascinated when somebody that I don't know plays something and I see something new that I hadn't seen or intended; that's refreshing.
JGR: And you now teach composition as well as piano at the Cork School of Music?
JG: Well, I did teach composition for a short while -- I was involved with some of the degree students. Actually, at the moment I'm doing a Master’s in Composition with Jim Wilson as my tutor -- just to get the brain working again. So I hope to teach more regularly as part of the degree. But I've been involved for a number of years with Composer in the Classroom, which is a scheme funded by the Arts Council, the Cork International Choral Festival and the Department of Education. So I go into a school and teach transition year students about composition.
JGR: Moving on to another area. In terms of your working methods, do you compose all the time or do you compose in creative bursts?
|'I don't really see the point in writing something that you have to spend six months preparing.'
JG: Every Christmas I try to write a Christmas Carol, so that's regular. I wouldn't be composing all the time; at the moment I'm not writing anything because I'm preparing for this performance. When that finishes I'm going off on a cruise playing piano around Ireland, Scotland and the Channel Islands, so I intend to write some 'island music' using the tunes from the different countries. Again, it gets back to living in Cork and my style of life. I'm not feverishly working at anything at any one time. If I have to finish a work I'd work regularly on that but I wouldn't write in a vacuum, I'd write for an event or an occasion. I don't see the point in writing a large-scale orchestral work and not having it performed; I'd be quite pragmatic about that. That doesn't mean that my works aren't inspired, it just means that I'm not prepared to put in that amount of work without some sort of goal or result. It sounds terribly mercenary...
JGR: Well no, because composing a work requires a lot of time and discipline, so unless there is a particular project it must be difficult to compose without a specific purpose.
JG: Yes. For the last year, because I'm doing a Master’s in Composition, I've been orchestrating Five Songs for full orchestra and soprano: that was a big project and I enjoyed that. I had started it previously but hadn't finished it, so the fact that I was doing the MA made me complete it.
JGR: And you've produced five CDs to date of your own music on your own label, which is quite an achievement. How important is getting your music out on CD?
JG: Well, I always envied painters and sculptors because they have an exhibition and the work is there. With performances, unless you have a recording, it's gone into the ether. I think CDs are important as a calling card and record of what you've done, and also as an impetus to record stuff. For example, the next CD of mine I hope will include the string orchestra piece [Sounds] and the viola pieces [Three Sketches] for Constantin Zanidache, Five Songs and the new piano piece, as well as some other works. So it's nice to have a concrete ‘sound exhibition’ of what you have done, and I've been lucky to get sponsorship. My last CD was sponsored by St Michael's Credit Union in Cork as their contribution to European Capital of Culture. So there is great support out there; maybe sometimes we don't look for it. I'd be a great believer that if one door is closed then some other will open. You mightn't get all the funding from one source but at least you can get it in dribs and drabs. Again, I'm under no pressure: I don't have to produce the stuff; I don't have a deadline. I do it when I'm ready and when the support is there. I also recognise that commercially they're not going to be selling like hot cakes. I don't have to earn the production or distribution costs back from what I do.
Also with the advent of RTÉ Lyric FM, never before on Irish radio have we heard so many Irish composers. In the days of FM3 [its predecessor], there was very little Irish music heard. I know that John Kinsella has said that if he won the Lottery he would get all his works from the 1960s and 1970s recorded because there is such a dearth of commercial recordings of music from that period.
JGR: It is amazing because lack of commercial recordings was a problem twenty years ago and in 2005 it continues to be a problem Perhaps less so because with your initiative you are proving that it is possible to produce CDs.
JG: And of course the production costs are going down all the time. It costs less than a euro now to produce a CD, especially if you are involved as a solo performer. The recording costs are much lower than they used to be.
JGR: You mentioned RTÉ Lyric FM. Yhey seem to play quite a lot of your recordings?
JG: They do, and they usually play one particular piece and I wish they'd play others [laughs]. I've nothing against that piece -- I get the royalties!
JGR: And that piece is?
JG: The Music Box. And there's a story attached to that: evidently some German friends of mine recognised it as a German folk song slightly altered. Whether or not I had heard the song when I was in Germany and it had gone into the subconscious, it came out as The Music Box.
JGR: Looking back on nearly forty years of composing, are there particular pieces you've written that you're especially fond of over others?
|'Sometimes we composers are a bit lazy: we know how it goes ourselves so we imagine that everyone else will intuit what we intend, but it may not be as clear as it could be.'
JG: Well, there was a time in the 1980s when I was going through a difficult time -- health-wise and creatively -- that I wanted to destroy a lot of the music I had written in the 1960s and 1970s, and I'm glad I didn't. I like the Six Piano Preludes -- they date from the late 1960s -- and I like the Nocturne for piano from the late 1970s. Nijinsky has always fascinated me as a character and I've done two settings of his life: one lasting six minutes and the second lasting fourteen to sixteen minutes depending on the speed of execution; I'm fond of those. I suppose a lot of works were written at particular points in my life so that they would have certain resonances. I think this new piano piece -- Moladh Go Deo le Dia [Praise to God always] -- is interesting and a pupil of mine, who is also a violinist, played it with me as a violin and piano duet. I think I'll rework it as that, so we'll see what happens.
JGR: And as to other projects that you'd like or plan to do?
JG: Well I'd like to explore the story of Ruth from the Old Testament further and do another chamber opera based on that, and I'd like to get the Five Orchestral Songs performed.
JGR: We'll look forward to hearing those. Thanks very much, John.
John Gibson was interviewed on video by Jonathan Grimes in the Contemporary Music Centre, Dublin, on 29 March 2005..
The views expressed in this interview are those of the persons concerned and are not necessarily those of the Contemporary Music Centre.