An Interview with Seóirse Bodley
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Michael Dungan: Have you a piece on your desk at the moment?
Seóirse Bodley: I have a piece on my desk all right, several pieces waiting to be done. But what I'm doing is I'm taking a break because I've just switched my music software. I've switched over to Sibelius because I want to produce some of my earlier avant garde scores and it gives a really good print-out. So far it's been very successful. But it's a learning process and I've simply got to take some weeks.
MD: Do you feel called back to your desk? Are there pieces crying out for attention?
SB: There are. But performance of the three main ones won't be until next year, so I have a little bit of a gap. It suits me very well.
MD: Can you say what kind of pieces they are?
SB: They are songs, chamber music and an organ work.
MD: John Kinsella said he was banished to a garden shed. Is that where you are now with your new software?
SB: No, no! I'm not in a shed in the back of the garden. The one that's there is full of old tools. I'm just in a room in the house.
MD: At different stages of our lives we respond differently to various impulses. You're about to reach the landmark of seventy years. Do you think that you respond to the muse differently now from the way you responded at other stages?
SB: As time goes on you develop, especially if you were born in the time and place that I was. You were exposed to different musical influences, often quite radically different, over a period. Either you respond to these or you don't. In my case, I certainly would have, both to -- how shall I say it -- tonal-contemporary, and also to the whole avant garde school, with whom I engaged quite a lot. And also traditional Irish music. So you find you have a mixture of things inside you. Which is quite handy because you can draw on different things. Also, very often there is a problem of getting a balance. It's rather easy to be absolutist and say, 'You must only do it this way'. Or, to adapt Boulez's point of view, that there is an historical imperative which compels you to write only the one way at a particular time. Which happens to be the way he was writing at the time! By and large, I tend to be a bit suspicious of absolutes.
MD: When an idea comes, can it come at any time?
|'You tend to get ideas when you're writing. I often think it's much like writing a letter. You sit down, you start, and you scribble it out.'
SB: Yes, but you tend to get ideas when you're writing. I often think it's much like writing a letter. You sit down, you start, and you scribble it out. And what you write on Monday you might rub out on Tuesday. It doesn't really matter; it's all process, part of a process. And it's in that seeking that the idea comes. A lot depends, too, on the type of music that you're writing. If you think of Beethoven writing in his sketch-books: if you're working on themes, where themes are really extremely important to you and you're working on the balance of those, then of course sketch-books will work very well and you can work, in a sense, away from the process a bit. But if you're working much more on, let's say, athematic music, then of course you have to adopt a different strategy. And there you're very much into the act of composing.
MD: You can't do that scribbling on a note-pad in Bewleys?
SB: I don't really think so. You might scribble some ideas, all right, or some strategies or ways of approaching it. But I don't think you would write down themes because, obviously, there aren't any in it.
MD: Impulses -- apart from the creative ones -- and the appetites we have and the way we respond to them: is there still a rush of excitement when something comes to you? The same as when you were a student or when you were the 'bad boy' of Irish composition? Even at different stages, does it still hit you the same way?
SB: Yes, I suppose it does. But I don't quite think of it that way. Rather, in the sense that you're writing something. And, as I say, you may go through the process of rubbing it out and re-writing or whatever. But there comes a certain point when it just feels right to you. It's really about that sense of rightness.
MD: Composers lives are often divided into phases. Would you be able to divide your own career into phases?
SB: [laughs] I suppose one could all right. But I'm still going through a phase, I think! Everyone hops in and out of phases, and sometimes backwards and forwards. It's a bit in the nature of life the way it is today. But obviously when I started out... I'm thinking of works like my Music for Strings which I wrote when I was nineteen, and it's still played from time to time. That was a work -- though perhaps not very obviously connected to Irish music -- which has a modal flavour to it which was very much my intention at that time. And then I moved onwards from there just with the feeling that I needed to develop to be able to handle larger-scale works and movements. And so I moved into the more generalised tonal area, if I might put it like that, with elements of that earlier style. Then for a while in the 1960s I took six months to a year off and just studied avant garde music and the developments that had happened there. During the course of three years in the mid-1960s I went backwards and forwards to Darmstadt, which at that time was vastly interesting. I've certainly never regretted that. I gained an awful lot of insight into what the thinking was. And once you get that basic insight, you don't feel that you have to grab at every little thing that appears within that context. But you have a general feeling for it and you know how it works. And it doesn't cause you any headaches.
|'One fears somewhat ... being swallowed up ... Becoming a disciple of something or other.'
On the other hand, later on, maybe 1976, I first came across the Minimalist school, in particular Steve Reich. It was at a conference on American music in Salzburg. I found that very interesting, particularly certain works. Six Pianos I liked a lot then and I must say I still like it. But I never felt any temptation to go that particular route. I find it very interesting to listen to. I guess it's that I'm not a great joiner. It was the same with the avant garde music when I was there. On the one hand I was very interested and wanted to know all about it and wanted to get involved with it. But on the other, one fears somewhat -- at least I certainly did -- the idea of just being swallowed up and more or less directed in the way you would go. Becoming a disciple of something or other. The feeling that you had to go a certain way. I'm very much in favour of a certain independence of mind.
|'I'm very much in favour of a certain independence of mind.'
MD: I suppose that's reflected in the fact that you have 'changed your spots' a few times.
SB: Oh yes, sure, of course. Absolutely. I still, to some extent, do that. In other words, I take up different ways of doing things. I suppose that happened most recently just before the turn of the millennium, particularly with a large piano work called News from Donabate which is fifty minutes long. I just felt that what I wanted to do with that would not be amenable to, for example, either using tonal expression or elements of traditional music. Neither seemed right for it, so I just simply turned around and did it differently, and in a sense re-joined some of my earlier experiences in avant garde music. I wanted to write a work that would somehow be illuminated from inside. But in order to do the sort of work I had in mind, I wanted to avoid any kind of a) sentimentality and b) any too direct expression. So I deliberately wanted to put myself in a sort of indirect mode of expression.
I've done this before. I did it in a work called Meditations on lines from Patrick Kavanagh. It's an orchestral work with one vocal movement. That was quite a way back in the 1970s and even then I used the idea of using a stimulus from particular phrases of Kavanagh: 'And then the pathos of the blind soul, how, without knowing, stands in its own kingdom'. Words like this, taking them really as a starting-point but not attempting a direct expression. From that point of view, if you're using things like tone rows, which in fact I did in News from Donabate, the larger tone rows beyond twelve notes, like fifteen- or sixteen-note rows... I wasn't really concerned with the question of tonality or atonality, but just more with using it as a sort of distancing device so that, in a way, it's like holding yourself back a bit. And somehow the expression becomes more intense.
MD: If you're holding yourself back and creating distance, what words of advice have you for the performer?
SB: Learn the damn notes! I'd say that's a good starting-point! I think from the performer's point of view it's a bit different. You have to learn, in particular with a work like that -- it's a piano work and I'm thinking of piano music -- how to play notes at just the right dynamic, the right degree of intensity, so that it could be just a single note. It might be soft, it might be loud. It doesn't really matter. But you have to have this feeling of almost waiting for the most intense possible thought to strike you, and then you hit it on the note or notes.
MD: Is that in any way similar to things that Arvo Pärt would say?
SB: I don't think I would have thought so much of Arvo Pärt in this particular connection. But I mean, it wouldn't be at all peculiar to me in any sense. You would have seen it many times, for instance as I did with the playing of people like the Kontarsky Brothers who had that just down pat. I always remember Aloys Kontarsky who used to wince before every note! And while that's somewhat distracting when you see it, it produces a very good musical result. So if you ask me the question and I say, in reply, to pianists: wince a lot!
MD: Raymond Deane honoured your 1967 Configurations by describing it in very warm terms and saying that it belongs to the radical tradition and by including it in the RTÉ Living Music festival [Dublin, October 2002]. What was it like hearing it?
SB: Well it was quite a relief after some thirty-six years! It's nice to have something like that. I was very glad. It does present some difficulties, but nothing insuperable with a bit of good will. I specified a very particular lay-out for the orchestra which is non-standard. And it wasn't adhered to. They didn't actually do it and they needed to do it. It's a commonplace in performances of music that you spend twenty minutes rearranging the stage afterwards. And audiences for new music know that. But anyway, by and large it was very interesting to hear it after all these years.
MD: In what way? You obviously recognised yourself; or did you? Were there parts that you didn't recognise?
SB: No, not at all. I knew what to expect, and was just very glad to have the opportunity of hearing it again and letting other people hear it again. I know there is another performance of it proposed, whether it will come to pass or not. That would be good. With the correct arrangement. That should be rather nice.
MD: You mentioned the Music for Strings. You would have been nineteen or twenty when Brian Boydell conducted that, more than half a century ago. Obviously you retain some affection for it. I was going to put it to you this way: would you include that very early piece in a CD retrospective, 'The Best of Seoirse Bodley'?
SB: Ah yes. I would. I wouldn't know about 'The Best of'!
MD: In the boxed set?
SB: Yes! In the boxed set! Now you have it. It's true to what I was doing at the time. It's a piece I couldn't write now. I would have to sit down and do it with a sense of deliberately forcing myself to do it that way, whereas it wasn't like that at the time.
MD: I haven't heard it. Is there Bartók in it? Does the title reflect that?
SB: Not very directly. But in sort of general terms. I was interested in Bartók at the time. But there is nothing that you would recognise as Hungarian influence in it. Clearly, it would relate to music of that tonal type.
MD: Just to continue with your boxed set. Copland referred to his pieces as children and he loved them all, including the ones that everyone else seems to love like Appalachian Spring and so on. But he did lament the obscurity into which some of what he called his 'neglected children' had fallen.
SB: I can understand that. Because if you think of some works of Copland, like the Piano Variations; that's a very fine piece.
MD: And quite radical.
SB: It is. It has that jaggedness to it that is very attractive. So I can understand his position, and I suppose I would have somewhat similar feelings with regard to a piece like Configurations. That doesn't get performed for thirty-six years! [laughs]
MD: Are there others at the top of the list that you would include in the boxed set? Of course, in a boxed set you could probably fit everything in!
|'My favourite work is always the one I'm about to write.'
SB: Well that's true, depending on the number of boxes, of course! Obviously there are other works. But basically, my favourite work is always the one I'm about to write. But with that said, there are obviously works from the past -- even from the recent past -- that I would like to include. News from Donabate is an obvious one. Or, in fact my last piano work, which was called An Exchange of Letters; that is one that I would certainly wish to include. Also there would be some other things from the earlier stages, like the Meditations on lines from Patrick Kavanagh which I mentioned before, and my first string quartet.
MD: So changing your spots doesn't mean that there's anything that you would disown at this stage?
SB: Oh no. Absolutely not. I wouldn't disown the stuff. It's all part of... It's only on the surface that they differ quite so radically. Because if you knew where to look, you would find the oddest similarities!
MD: You are Professor Emeritus at University College Dublin. If UCD were to ask you to design a course about the development of new music in Ireland since, say, 1900, what would be essential in the outline?
SB: Golly. That's difficult!
MD: The reason you get that question is the milestone of the seventieth birthday coming up. Jane O'Leary has been with Concorde for over a quarter of a century, you've been composing for half. So you've seen a lot. Even since the war, but informed by what happened before the war.
SB: Well, obviously one could go right back to the very early part of the century; people like O'Brien Butler, who wrote the opera Muirgheis in 1903, and Robert O'Dwyer who wrote Eithne in 1910. You'd begin with that sort of thing. And then, then there are people who have done work -- like Jack Larchet who composed a certain amount, and the same would apply to Stanford's Irish works as well; but they were all perhaps related to Irish music at one remove, in the sense that they all came to it through collections. One has the impression that none of them had actually come to grips with the live element at all.
MD: Less so, even, than some English composers? Moeran and Bax?
SB: Yes, in some ways, though for Moeran and Bax, the Irish elements in their music are not terribly remarkable. It's as if they hadn't quite got there. They were very interested, but from the outside. Bax had a very romantic approach to the whole thing. A bit like watching a white man 'go native', as they used to say!
MD: Your counterpart in Trinity, Brian Boydell, saw a very clear delineation between what he mischievously called the 'Celtic Twilight' composers -- Larchet among them, and people like that -- and the newness that came with himself and Frederick May.
SB: I remember Fred saying to me once that he really regretted that he hadn't gone to study with Alban Berg. He had thought of this at some stage. He really regretted not having done so. Right enough, I think that would have really completed the direction that Fred was going in. And he did write a number of very good works, like the String Quartet. And Songs from Prison has a lot of good things in it, though it needs a very good performance to bring it off. But then, so much of his work was very much in the shadow of Vaughan Williams. I think he would have developed rather better had he gone in the other direction. But that's just a personal guess. And Brian [Boydell], of course, was somewhat different again. His work is entirely tonal. I don't know if he wrote any atonal music at all. I don't think so. He developed his own style of dealing with that. And in his best works it has worked extremely well.
As you move on, you come to the beginnings of things like what used to be called electronic music. And electro-acoustic music generally is another area that gradually came into being here under people like Roger Doyle in particular. Then also there was the whole group of young composers who came up originally via the Young Composers' group in the Dublin Festival of 20th Century Music. They then developed in their own individual ways to a considerable extent. For instance, Raymond Deane strikes me as having gone in slightly different directions in different works -- and I don't mean that at all badly. And that's fine. They're not so radically different that you wouldn't recognise the same person. Then Gerald Barry has obviously taken a slightly different approach, perhaps more absurdist at times! And if you skip to the present day, some of the younger composers are again taking a different viewpoint. So you'd have to deal with that whole area of where exactly they fit in.
MD: The contemporary music scene is incredibly diverse. From your special perspective, do you see patterns within that diversity? Would you hazard a guess as to where it's all going?
SB: No I wouldn't, because I'm not sure if one can. Predicting the music of the future is always a bit difficult. Even Wagner couldn't quite do it. I don't know that one can say, 'This is the way things are going to be'. That's very, very difficult. It also makes an assumption of the human universe being in a steady state. And it's nothing of the sort. One look through the Hubble space telescope would clear your mind of any such thought! It's a scary place that we're living in.
MD: Final word?
SB: Looking back over the years, it's been a lot of fun. And there have been a lot of very interesting things of a very diverse nature that I've had to deal with. It really makes things come alive. Whereas if you stick rigidly to just one point of view and never examine anything else, there may be a certain security in it but it's no way to live.
Seóirse Bodley was interviewed on video by Michael Dungan at the Contemporary Music Centre, Dublin, on 10 February 2003.