Bob Gilmore: It was interesting thinking about the three of you together, only having met one of you before today, in that you form an interesting sort of mini-collective: obviously you're all from Ireland, and you're all in your late twenties. I'd be inclined to say that, in some ways, there the similarities end, because what you do is quite different. But nonetheless there are still quite a few similarities. One of the most immediate things, as we're talking now, is that the Young Composers Collective, to which you all belong, was just over at the University of York in England for a weekend, representing Irish music. When you do something like that, at a university across the water (and in the case of Peter where you're actually studying), do you feel Irish? Do you feel you're representing your country and if so, what does that really mean for you?
Dylan Rynhart: I think whenever I travel out of the country I always exaggerate the Irishness. It's an interesting question because I'm doing a lot with the jazz world in Ireland and trying to deal a lot with the classical world as well. I think particularly in Dublin, as far as the jazz scene goes, there is a very specific sound that the Dublin jazz scene has that they don't have maybe in other countries. Maybe I don't have as much experience with the classical world, and you guys can probably answer that question better, as to whether there is a specific Dublin [Irish] sound when it comes to contemporary classical music.
left to right: Peter Moran, Dylan Rynhart, Bob Gilmore, Donal Sarsfield
BG: Donal, what's your thinking about that? Did you feel somehow that being an Irishman at that weekend in York was an important factor?
Donal Sarsfield: I didn't notice it much. But I guess the size of the country has a great advantage in that we all know each other, whereas in England it's too big to have that sort of easy contact, which is a shame. So it's an advantage that we're so small.
BG: Peter, what's your perspective on that? Because you're now studying at York, so you're no stranger to those parts.
Peter Moran: I have a particular experience of the shared community in music between Ireland and England, more so than I have of either one -- and that's the experience that strikes me: I don't feel like an Irish person coming to a concert. Whether it's in York, where there's a long history of Irish students [who have studied composition], or even further afield. I did a concert in London recently and we had Natasha Lohan performing a piece by Linda Buckley, and Laura Moody was also performing, having recently played with the Crash Ensemble. So everyone already knows each other, and because the community is that close-knit I don't feel the nationalities really enter into it.
BG: The Young Composers' Collective [YCC] has been going for a few years now. What would you say is the main benefit of having a collective of composers? In what way does it help you all individually?
DR: YCC has been great because it gets us all talking. To be honest, my favourite thing about it is the arguing over emails. But I'm a relatively recent member of the YCC and I think what's been great about it is getting to hear everyone else's music and it's inspiring in that way. Recently we have received some funding and we're able to put on a series of concerts, which is great because then it means we can really start programming what we want to play. Of course everyone's style is so different and it means that you get these very varied concerts, which are great.
BG: Do you find that you're learning from each other by being together in the company of other composers?
DS: Not learning technical things but learning just how to survive and to keep going in a new music niche market. It's the support that's so good about the YCC. There are something close to 40 of us [in the YCC]. If you're outside a university department, there's nothing to support you. And composition is a solitary act, so the more composers you know the better.
BG: Is there a sense of competition between members?
DS: It's a healthy competition.
DR: That's an interesting word because I think there isn't enough competition! I think everyone is very nice about everyone's music and I think if we bitched about it a bit more we'd probably all get a lot more done. I always have to draw the analogy between the cutting contests in the 40's and 50's in jazz. And they're throwing cymbals at each other! I think if there was more of that it would be great. But the interesting thing about the YCC is it's the only opportunity, really, outside of university where you get to talk with composers.
PM: One thing England's new music scene has very well supported is the gap between the amateurs and the professionals, because the students are so well up on contemporary music that you're always going to have peers who are at the same level as you, and you can work your way up in those circles to get into a professional arena. While I was still [a student] in Ireland there were only universities, which have very little to no contemporary music activity, in my circles anyway, and then you had the Crash Ensemble and Concorde, and I did not see a way to get from one to the other.
BG: Peter, what would you say is the main difference between the new music scene in England and Ireland?
PM: I think that would probably be it: the accessibility to the new music scene, the opportunities to get into professional circles [in England]. That is changing rapidly. People used to ask me four years ago 'Where to next? Will you come back to Ireland?' Four years ago I actually had to say, 'I don't know, I don't think so. I can't see how a composer can have a career back here'. And in the space of those four years, now I say, 'Yes, I most probably will'. There is every opportunity. The [RTÉ] Living Music Festival began about six years ago. So previous to that there was little by way of proper festivals. Now there are four or five festivals a year, there are tours and groups and opportunities to get into them, and far more competitions and other options like that. So there's every possibility for a composer to actually have a career based in Ireland, which is a very good thing and very exciting.
BG: One thing that struck me that all three of you have in common is that you're all involved, to a greater or lesser extent, with more than just one kind of music. Peter, I know you have a background in experimental rock, you are an improviser, you play gamelan, you're a bit of a DJ. Donal, you're a composer but you're also involved with a Gospel Choir doing arrangements in that quite different sort of music. Dylan, some of your compositions are very much in a modern jazz domain, but also you compose for string quartet and other sorts of classical ensembles. Do you feel that you're content to keep those different sorts of music-making separate and they can all co-exist? Or are you ultimately looking to integrate all of those different types of music into one thing?
DS: I don't think I have a conscious effort to fuse or to synthesise. I directed a gospel choir because it was an opportunity that came up in the west of Ireland and I took it. And I also sang with a choir, it's a classical choir, and at the very end of the term I had a concert with the two choirs and I wrote an arrangement which involved both. So I guess that's as close as I have to some kind of synthesis, which was actually for a gospel soloist, gospel choir and classical choir.
DR: I think that the issue here, with your question, is to do with the performers. Because obviously with what I do, I find that it's all about trying to find the right players to play the sort of music I want to play. I seem to be pigeonholed as a jazz musician and yet I qualify for [representation by] CMC, which is great. But I don't see what I do as jazz. I think it's easier for audiences to associate what I do with jazz than with contemporary music. But what I've done in the Fuzzy Logic Ensemble that I run is find musicians who perform contemporary classical music but that have a background in jazz and can improvise. We've been together for seven years now and it's come to a point where I know what they're going to do. It's like the idea of an old married couple, that you can end each other's sentences and that sort of thing. The thing that always comes to a head is that the classical musicians don't focus so much on rhythm but they're excellent readers and they generally haven't the experience of improvising. Now obviously you can work with specific people who have gone through and done certain work and it's great, but I always find when you're dealing with the students who are coming straight out [of college], they may have had a lecturer who's been really interested in a certain type of music and they're really good at that, but generally it always seems to come down to rhythm that's really difficult. Because I write very abstract rhythmic music, I think, but yet it's always got a sense of pulse in there, or at least generally. That can be very difficult for a lot of people.
BG: Peter, you're a man who wears many musical hats, shall we say. Is that ever a problem for you? Do you sometimes feel that you're doing too many different kinds of things, or not?
PM: The key aspect, what's at the core of my music, is where all these things overlap, because the most exciting thing for me in the music is when these things are really a part of the composer's language and it's not just referential or a very obvious kind of postmodern juxtaposition. I get the most out of a really exciting piece of new music which does fall into the category of new music. The piece that gets into the CMC [library] but it really swings or it sounds a bit jazzy or, you know, there's more influences there and it's not a composer who comes from one style and tries to do another. The important thing for me and my sound is where they overlap in what I hope is a seamless way. That's what I'm after. I'm never trying to represent anything else and that's also the music that excites me the most.
BG: You're all very much involved in getting music out there and you're all, to some extent, performing as well as composing. I wanted to ask, to what extent is this whole question of accessibility, getting the music to the people, how much is that important to you when you're actually composing? Is that something you think about? About the impact of your music once it's out there?
PM: I did do an interesting thing just earlier this year, which I don't think I'd done before. I'd started a piece for Gamelan and it was a very fast, intricate work for the bonangs with interlocking patterns and fast rhythms. But the Gamelan's next concert was going to be in York Minster. These are big public events that are very well attended, and in a big reverberant space. The only other thing I had for Gamelan at that time was three chords that I really liked playing really slowly. And in the middle of this piece I said, 'The concert's in York Minster, I'm going to drop this one for now and I'm going to take these three chords and turn them into a nice, long slow piece'. Since I had three chords I said, 'Well I need the chords, I need a melody'. So I figured, nice slow chords, add a voice, that's what this piece is going to be and that's the piece I should write for the Minster, not the other one. So I actually responded to the audience and the space, and I hadn't done that before. So it is doable. And now the Gamelan will also be playing in the York Late Music Festival, which is in a very small space and it will be full of new music heads. So the fast, intricate, complex one will be ideal for that and I'll finish it and we'll premiere it then. By and large I would write what I'm going to write, but if there's a specific audience or space to be dealt with then it can also have an impact.
DR: That's a really interesting way to think about it. I'm studying with John Godfrey at the moment [at UCC]. I suppose he's very much influenced by people like La Monte Young. We were dealing with that in class and we were talking about putting sine waves together. So I thought it would be really interesting to do something like that where you have a sine wave piece and as you walk through the space you hear the different patterns. The idea was they come into a Fuzzy Logic gig and they'd arrive in the theatre to this weird background hum and noisy weirdness. Then they'd walk through the space and they'd hear it in different ways. Now I realise I'm not really selling this sort of music very well, but the idea was like a sort of ear cleaner. But then I played it for a couple of people in the group and they said, 'You can't do that to people!' So that was vetoed. But as far as actually playing something, I don't think I'd axe something just because I didn't think it fitted in. If I wasn't enjoying playing it then I'd probably throw it out. But once people are sitting there, as far as I'm concerned they're mine.
DS: I don't think I would think very much about an audience. I'm trying just to write something that's interesting to myself, and hopefully that works.
BG: So other people would pick up on your enthusiasm for your own material, as it were?
DS: Yes. If you know the performer or if you know the event it's going to be performed at, that's always on your mind. But if you're just writing a piece that's just for your own sake, it's almost regardless of the audience you have in mind. I've tried to always have a performance when I'm writing a piece, rather than starting a piece and letting it sit there and then trying to entice musicians to play it, which is quite a difficult dance to do.
BG: I'd be interested to know again in all three of your cases, like we've been saying, the kind of music you all make is quite different from one to the next. But what are, for you personally, the really exciting things in music at this moment in time? What are the musical questions that you're interested in? For example, Peter I know that part of your PhD research is specialising in microtonal tuning systems and so forth. Do you all have areas like that, that you find are quite fresh and quite current that you want to explore in the new works you're doing?
PM: Well actually the area that's most exciting to me is where the music that is composed fits in between several overlapping areas and genres, because that obviously isn't happening in isolation. There are performers who will sing gospel one day and classical the next, and there are audiences that share the same diverse taste as the composers, so venues and listeners, performers and composers, are all occupying their own in-between space. I'm most excited by the stuff that is naturally influenced by many areas, from computer technology to opera street theatre. I'm most eager to see where it will settle in 10, 20 years time. It will be very interesting.
DR: Well, I'm really excited at the moment because we just happened to finish a series of concerts around the country and literally I woke up the morning after and went straight to York. I'm really excited about the idea of doing these collaborations because I've been working with this trumpet player from London, a guy called Tom Arthurs. He came over and did a series of concerts with us. We had three days rehearsals thanks to Music Network who gave us money for touring; and the group is represented by the IMC, so we were able to get a small amount of funding from them and they helped us book the tour. So it suddenly gave me the musical space to work on the music and we got three days rehearsals in and we went and did five concerts. By the last three concerts the music sounded completely different, and was just the most amazing thing I've ever been involved in. We have partial funding secured now to make an album with Tom in the latter part of this year. Also, I've been dealing with speech transcriptions as part of my PhD. While a lot of people have done that, I'm trying to manipulate it in my own way and convert it into a kind of Dylan-sounding melodies I think and it's really worked so far. I've completed two pieces this year and we performed them last week. I've never had a piece written and then performed straight away and work so well, which was great.
BG: Just tell us a little bit technically about how you're doing that, Dylan -- so you did recordings of speech and put them into a software program?
DR: Yes. It's funny, lots of people seem to be dealing with speech in a different way. I've had so many interesting conversations about it, because it's all about how you filter it. It seems to me that you can transcribe the rhythms of speech or you can use a computer program to just exactly generate what's there. But I found when I sit down and write it out I have a system for doing it where it sounds really interesting to me. Now I'm doing this for John Godfrey, my supervisor, and he would listen to the same recording and say, 'I didn't hear that note there, I heard that one'. But I think that's completely subjective, you know. That's the beauty of it. So what I do is essentially format it in my own way and then arrange it for the band. What I have been doing is taking snippets of it and putting it in different sections and trying to stick as close to the rhythmic value of it as possible so that you get the sense of that flow.
DS: I just did a project where the IRCAM Academy came over to Glasgow. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra was involved and had five days of IRCAM workshop on software. They had an example of Gérard Depardieu, the actor. He was in some film and they wanted to anglicise his voice. So they have the software that anglicised his voice. But he turned out sounding more Irish than English. This is how far we've advanced in music technology! [laughter] We're changing the very core of people's speech. So I'm interested in electronics and working with electronics as much as I can. I think it's definitely something for today's musician that you can't ignore and it's a sound world that you would ignore at a loss. I think it adds to your music.
Peter Moran, Dylan Rynhart and Donal Sarsfield were interviewed on video by Bob Gilmore in the Science Gallery, Trinity College Dublin, on 12 May 2008.
CMC would like to thank the staff of the Science Gallery for the use of their cafe to record the interview.
The views expressed in this interview are those of the persons concerned and are not necessarily those of the Contemporary Music Centre.