An Interview with Elaine Agnew
Jonathan Grimes: Elaine, are you working on any pieces at the moment?
Elaine Agnew: I just finished a piece for the National Chamber Choir. It’s going to be premiered in Belfast and Dublin in December . After the New Year I’ve got quite a lot of big education commissions. They take a lot of planning and preparation before I can actually start the work, so that’s going to take up all my energy until Christmas.
|'I still haven’t composed a string quartet. It’s one of the most perfect ensembles so I’m just waiting for the right quartet to come along at the right time.'
JG: Tell me a little bit about the work for the National Chamber Choir that's coming up in December, The Medina Gilder.
EA: It’s about 6 or 7 minutes long. I think it’s my fourth commission from the National Chamber Choir. Over the past number of years I’ve collaborated quite a lot with the Irish American poet Chris Agee who is now based in Belfast. We’ve worked on pieces before and I thought, 'Wouldn’t it be fantastic for him to write a text specifically for this concert'. Neither of us had worked in this way before, so we spent a lot of time together discussing themes. Earlier this year Chris had been in Medina, a little town in Malta, and went into the shop of the Medina gilder. Chris said that walking into his workplace was incredible. It was so untidy but yet [the gilder] Horace knew exactly where everything was. So Chris spent about half an hour with him and watched him doing his work. In the particular text that Chris has written he goes into detail about the atmosphere in the room and how Horace refers to a strange presence in the room. From a musical point of view it was a real joy to work with it because there’s just so much happening in it. There was quite a lot of preparation [before beginning to compose the work] -- Chris did quite a lot of work and the text he has come up with is brilliant.
JG: As you said, this isn’t the first work that you’ve had commissioned or premiered by the National Chamber Choir. How useful is it for you to have this ongoing relationship with the choir when it comes to writing for them?
EA: It’s brilliant that they come back [and ask me to write another piece] because obviously you’re doing something right. You're working with a group of singers and a conductor that you’ve worked with before. I think the National Chamber Choir are brilliant. Their level of professionalism is fantastic so it’s just such a great joy to work with them.
JG: Presumably the particular type of sound that they have informs how you approach writing for them as well?
EA: Absolutely. I love it when they all sing in unison and do really fast things -- they can sound so incredibly big. Within the choir itself there are also a number of really good soloists that you can draw on.
JG: Was composing and making music something you did from an early age?
|'I love working with voices because I love working with poets and I love working with words.'
EA: No, not at all. I didn’t get into composition until I went to Queen's [University, Belfast]. In third year you had a choice of different subjects, and composition was one of the choices that you could take. At that time Kevin Volans was the composer-in-residence. I started playing piano when I was about eight or nine and did O level and A level music [state examinations in Northern Ireland], but I don’t think I ever had any great aspirations to go into composition. I probably was following the line of a very general music career, whatever form that would take. John Toal and myself [broadcaster] were the only two in my year that took up composition, so we had a lot of time with Kevin [Volans]. He was such a fantastic teacher. He would never tell you what to do or what not to. He was very encouraging and gave you very simple exercises: write one minute of music on one page; or take the note A, choose particular instruments and think of timbre and colour. I had never thought of doing things that way.
JG: And then you went to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama?
EA: Yes, I went there and did a post-graduate certificate with James MacMillan and Judith Weir. I had met Judith Weir before -- she had been to Queen's when I was an undergraduate student. But I had never heard of James MacMillan before, and yet this was 1990 when he had his big BBC Proms commission, The Confessions of Isobel Goudie. With Jimmy MacMillan we had a weekly lesson and again, like Kevin, he was a brilliant teacher. He was really into the whole education side of things -- he wanted to demystify composers, to get composers out working in schools and in health. He organised these little projects in secondary schools in Glasgow. We would just stand in a big circle with maybe thirty 15-year-olds -- probably none of them played any instruments -- and he had all these fantastic rhythm and clapping games, singing things, to show how you can create music without needing an instrument. I loved it. Then Jimmy set up residencies for us working in an elderly care unit. I was just in my early twenties -- I made loads of mistakes and came out of workshops thinking 'That was fairly dreadful but if I slowed things down, if I did this…' So you very much learn as you go along.
JG: In terms of your own music now, what interests or doesn’t interest you?
EA: That’s such a tricky question. I still haven’t composed a string quartet. It’s one of the most perfect ensembles so I’m just waiting for the right quartet to come along at the right time. Over the past number of years there have been possibilities of writing for string quartets but they just weren’t the particular quartet that I really wanted to work with. I compose very little for solo piano, but this year I did a piece for the AXA Dublin International Piano Competition. I’m not sure if that’s [not having composed much for piano] because I myself am a pianist and therefore feel a little bit restricted by my own possibilities. It’s just a short 5-minute piece called Seagull. I spent much more time writing it than I spend on quite large-scale works, and I loved it. I really like to explore writing music for solo voices and then I love big orchestras and that colour and texture and timbre that you get. Having your music performed by an orchestra is just fantastic. I love working with voices because I love working with poets and I love working with words. I’d love to do lots of work in dance, which is something I haven’t had a chance to explore. I do a lot of work with the Irish Chamber Orchestra. I love that sound world of strings, which I still think is very different from a string quartet. I did a piece for the European Brass Band Championship earlier this year in Belfast -- the first time I did a big brass band piece.
JG: How did you find that?
|'It’s really important, whatever sector you work in, that you work with the things that you’re really sure of.'
EA: On one hand it was frightening, and then on the other hand it was mind-blowing. I was asked to write a test piece for the B section [of the championships] -- bands who are not as experienced as the Championship bands. So it was trying to get the level right. You don’t want it to be too easy and not challenge the players, and then if it’s too hard they really struggle with it and are put off by it. I think all the bands did really well.
JG: And did you have to do much research in writing the piece?
EA: Yes. I find that brass players are really helpful. I didn’t grow up in a brass band tradition at all -- it was completely foreign. Paul Young from the Ulster Orchestra was a brilliant help. I got to work with a band in Belfast who weren’t going to be part of the championship festival itself. I was able to take the piece to them and they would sight-read it through and then I was able to go and make changes to it. A couple of guys from the band would quite often come around to my house and we would go through it. I’d play the piano and they brought instruments -- we did quite a lot of that. I got together lots of scores and recordings [of brass band music], especially of British composers who write exclusively for brass bands. But I think you can only listen to so much of this. I find listening and studying scores fine at the beginning but then I have to just put that aside -- make mistakes and get players in [to try out the works].
JG: Over the past number of years you’ve developed a reputation as one of Ireland’s leading music educationalists. Is there a direct relationship between your work in this area and your composing?
EA: Whenever I’m working -- whether it’s in education or health -- I always start from the same point. I work with things I’m comfortable with as a musician and slightly change things depending on the situation. I think it’s really important whatever sector you work in that you work with the things that you’re really sure of. I do quite a lot of rhythm exercises and the worst thing is when you’re dealing with a class and you make a mistake. So I’m always very confident about what I’m doing and that is also the way that I start anything that I write. Quite often I’m working in a workshop situation and somebody says something and I think, 'Oh isn’t that fantastic. You could write a piece about that.' So they both definitely feed into each other and I love the way that I get to do both, because I think I’d go mad if I just had that very isolated career as a composer. Then I’d also go mad if I just worked all the time with bunches of people who sap all your energy -- that's exhausting. But one really sparks off the other, so I’m really lucky I get to do both.
JG: You’ve also written a number of works which include amateur performers. Most recently you’ve written works like I Am A Miracle and Music from the Mouth and probably countless others as well. Does the process of composing these educational works differ from composing a straight piece for a professional group?
EA: The process is the exact same -- you’re just coming from a different starting point. For example, I Am A Miracle was a commission from the European Union Chamber Orchestra. The orchestra commissioned me to write a piece [for school choir and orchestra], which they would tour in Coleraine and Newry. So we picked two schools -- Coleraine High School and St Coleman’s College in Newry. The orchestra were very keen that the work had an education element to it. I work a lot with the Donegal poet, Kate Newman, so she came on board and we looked at the life of a Benedictine monk -- the importance of silence, the importance of prayer, prophecy. Kate worked with the students and would ask them questions like ‘What do you believe in? What does sleep feel like?' The students all write down their answers and Kate takes this home and edits it. Then she emails it to me and I take out the particular extracts that I think will work. I picked four poems called Sleep, Silence, I Believe and finally I Am A Miracle. I then went into the two schools with a box of chime bars. We sat in a big circle and we’d all just randomly pick a chime bar and we’d play around in a circle. I’d say, 'Well if that was a melody that you were singing, are there any really tricky bits?' They were very good at saying, 'Oh yes. That note’s too high and that note’s too low and that one just doesn’t fit in because it’s too awkward'. People just very randomly picked white and black notes, so we avoided things like keys. I brought all their little riffs and musical notes home and knitted it all together. So they have a huge sense of ownership of the piece and that’s what really makes it work. For education work there’s months of lead up [to composing the final work], so it’s in the back of your head all the time. For one of the songs, I didn’t use any of their material -- I just didn’t think any of it worked particularly well -- and composed that myself. The process of actually writing a piece, once you get into the writing of it, is the same. Students are really brilliant and I love their honesty. I’ll do something and bring it in and they’ll go, 'Oh Elaine that’s rubbish, I like mine better'. Which is great.
JG: So they really have a sense of ownership?
|'Quite often I’m working in a workshop situation and somebody says something and I think, "Oh isn’t that fantastic. You could write a piece about that."'
EA: Yes. I think when you do projects like that it has to be all or nothing. You want them to have a really good musical experience from it and they will have a really good musical experience if they’re involved from the beginning right to the end. When we did the performance in Newry it was broadcast live on Radio Ulster that night, which was a real boost for all of us. I ended up conducting the piece, because it wasn’t really until we got half way through the project that I suddenly realised, ‘Gosh, I haven’t got a conductor.’ Then I felt that I was probably the best person to do it because we were so far into the project to get somebody else on board. The project lasted for about 9 months. I think they [students] get a really good thrill if they’re involved in the whole thing from beginning to end. It spurs them on.
JG: You have a number of these type projects coming up in 2007 -- one each with both Sligo and Donegal county councils.
EA: The Sligo one will happen first. It’s a commission as part of the Vogler Spring Festival in May in Drumcliffe church and the proposal is that I will write a piece for the Vogler [String] Quartet with a children’s choir. We initially thought about forming a children’s choir in Sligo, but because the time frame is a little bit short for this particular project we’ve decided to go with a choir in a school that already exists. So I’m working with four schools and the poet Kate Newman is working in two of the schools and will generate text with them. Once the text is completed I’ll go back to my schools and we’ll look at setting little bits of it and then I’ll take it all away and write the piece. It will be performed by a primary school in Riverstown.
The other project is quite huge. It’s to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Flight of the Earls. It’s all going to happen on Rathmullan Beach in a state of the art marquee that’s going to be built there in September 2007. Because it’s a public art commission and the money itself is coming from the Fanad Peninsula, the work will involve community groups and children from Fanad Head. I will be working with Kate Newman and Cathal Ó Searcaigh [Irish language poet], because there’s a number of Irish language schools who would really like to write in the Irish language. So Kate and Cathal will generate text based on the themes associated with the Flight of the Earls. It’s brilliant because we’ve got the Irish Chamber Orchestra on board, a traditional group of musicians from Donegal and a trio of musicians from Italy, because the Flight of the Earls left Ireland and ended up in Rome. So the Irish traditional musicians will start the piece and then the Italians will finish it. The middle 30 minutes will be the Irish Chamber Orchestra. We’re going to form a choir and we hopefully will have narrators as part of the piece as well. That’s quite a large-scale project, so I’m actually going to do my first set of sessions in Donegal in December and will go back again in January. Then from Easter onwards the whole thing really takes off.
JG:So you will be spending the first three months of 2007 in the US at the McDowell Colony, which is a scholarship from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland?'
|'Students are really brilliant and I love their honesty. I’ll do something and bring it in and they’ll go, "Oh Elaine that’s rubbish, I like mine better". Which is great.'
EA: No, it’s a series of residencies that the Colony itself has given out. They’re known as the Peterborough projects -- McDowell is very close to a small town called Peterborough. They wanted artists to come to the Colony, and as well as work on their own private work they would do some work in a local school. I was at the McDowell Colony about three years ago -- that was an Arts Council of Northern Ireland award -- and I did just a couple of one-off workshops in a little primary school. I put in a proposal saying that of my seven days a week I’d like to spend two days working with different groups. I was very lucky to receive one of the awards, so it means that I’ll spend one or two days doing workshops and the rest of the time working on with my Donegal and Sligo pieces.
JG: And then you’re going to Washington?
EA: Yes. I’m doing a residency with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. I’m working with the poet Kate Newman and the two of us will be in residence in a cancer hospital that's part of Georgetown University. We’re also working in a special needs primary school. I think it’s right in the heart of Washington DC and is really close to the White House, which is very bizarre. So the two of us are going out there for three weeks in March to do a residency, which is really exciting because that involves Kate and I will be working with lots and lots of people and getting them to be creative. That’s going to be a fantastic experience.
Elaine Agnew was interviewed on video by Jonathan Grimes in the Contemporary Music Centre, Dublin, on 23 November 2006.
The views expressed in this interview are those of the persons concerned and are not necessarily those of the Contemporary Music Centre.