An Interview with Ailís Ní Ríain
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Michael Dungan: Describe how you got started in music and how you came to be a pupil at the Cork School of Music.
Ailís Ní Ríain: I took piano lessons. By the time I was around twelve I decided to write some lyrics, and with my basic piano technique I accompanied myself. And I wrote a few piano pieces but then I thought I’d rather focus on playing the piano.
When I was fifteen, my mother went out to lunch in a restaurant and there were no tables, so she asked this lady if she could share her table with her. She turned out to be [the pianist] Bridget Doolan from the Cork School of Music where she used to be Director. And my mother said, ‘Well my daughter is such a great piano player.’ And in fact at that stage I was taking examinations and I wasn’t that great! And Miss Doolan said to my mother, ‘Well, if she’s that great, why isn’t she with us?’
MD: Before you took up the piano seriously, had you written any pieces?
A ní R: At twelve I wrote some bad love songs.
MD: When did the creative impulse return to you?
A ní R: When I was nineteen. In the meantime I was working really very hard on my piano technique. That was the most important thing for me. Composition was something I never even thought about. There was a turning-point when I was around sixteen. I came to Dublin one summer to sit in on some master classes which were taking place at the Royal Irish Academy of Music. I observed what was going on there for the duration of the course and one day I went to the National Concert Hall for a concert. It was my first ever classical concert and it just so happened that Jane O’Leary’s piece Islands of Discovery was being performed. You could have knocked me down with a feather when I saw her get up to acknowledge the audience’s applause. Because a) I didn’t know that composers were alive; and b) I didn’t know that a woman could write music; and c) it was all so real and happening: she was right in front of me. I was really shocked, and that was at sixteen. So really, the whole music area or scene was certainly not something I grew up in. It was something very far away from my mind. As I say, I hadn’t realised that that could be a reality. And that got me thinking, although not enough to do anything about it. I was just pleased that this woman had had a piece played.
|‘The whole music scene was certainly not something I grew up in…I hadn’t realised it could be a reality,’
I started at UCC [University College Cork] at eighteen, just after my Leaving Certificate. We had a composition class, very rudimentary: ‘Write four bars of music’, so I did. They could be the best four bars I’ve ever written, they were actually quite inspired! Then I was encouraged -- for a very short time -- to write another four, and maybe add eight to that. And I did and that was the end of it. I mean, no one saw the piece again and I didn’t study composition at UCC.
So I wrote a piece called Down the Rabbit Hole, which is my first piece and which I’m very proud of, for flute, piano and bodhrán or some sort of ethnic drum, whatever drum you can find. I entered a student competition at UCC. I think there were only three entries and I won! So that was great, and that’s what started me thinking seriously. I felt I could express myself very clearly, or clearer in that form than as a musician. So that was my first piece. No training, no background, I just produced it. I then crawled and struggled onwards from that point.
MD: Did you show it to anyone who taught composition? Or was anyone helping you that stage?
A ní R: No. They may have been at the concert and heard it. For example, one of the adjudicators -- I’d forgotten this! -- was Marian Ingoldsby and she liked it a lot. I remember her saying to me afterwards that it was a nice piece, very charismatic, a lot of colour and a lot of good ideas. So that was that. I played it a few more times -- I played the piano part myself -- and I got other performances together.
MD: Is it Lewis Carroll-inspired?
A ní R: Oh absolutely. First chapter.
MD: When did you first leave Ireland?
A ní R: I left as soon as I finished my B. Mus. at UCC, which was 1996. I went to York University then [in England] and started a part-time Masters in Composition. I had had no previous tuition in composition.
MD: So how did you get in?
A ní R: I got in probably because I produced three very badly-written scores, very badly presented, but there might have something in one of them… Professor Nicola LeFanu [Head of Department and a composer] was happy for me to come on board on a part-time basis and see how I got along. It was a difficult time because I didn’t have any training. It was all new to me and I was surrounded by people who had had a good deal of training and who were impressive and seemed much more mature in their arguments and their aesthetic, their belief in their music. They had formed opinions and I really hadn’t. I was really quite lost at that time. I was still writing intuitively, with no systems and no technique. But I still believed it was something I wanted to pursue and work on.
|‘I think as a composer that the one thing you need to be prepared to do is to move constantly and to travel.’
I’d heard a lot of positive feedback about York from various people, including one particular teacher I’d had in UCC. And I was feeling, well, there’s no point in staying in Ireland because I don’t have a teacher. I did have a meeting with John Buckley at one point, and I thought that he was someone that I would like to study with but he had a full book. I’d tried to get lessons with people in Ireland and it just wasn’t going to happen.
Meanwhile, I had already applied to York and was very shocked that they offered me a place. So I thought, ‘Well, I’ve done well here [in Ireland], however I do need to move on and have courage, and see what comes of it.’
MD: So that was two years in York. And did you feel compelled to do Palestrina counterpoint and fugue, and catch up on all that?
A ní R: That’s my Achilles heel: I have done none of those things.
A ní R: At this point I’m not sure.
MD: So you haven’t been back to live here since then, have you?
A ní R: That’s right. I sort of forgot to come back! And things move on. However, I think as a composer that the one thing you need to be prepared to do is to move constantly and to travel. You can’t really afford to put your roots down anywhere and say for certain, ‘This is where I will be, this is where I will remain.’ So for me, nothing is definite. Things probably go in a cycle of a few years and then you take stock again and see, ‘What is the best thing for me, personally and artistically?’ Each is as important as the other and feeds off the other. It has taken me a long time to realise that and understand it fully, and both need to work in tandem. So yes, after York I was quite disillusioned and I stopped writing actually.
MD: So it had been really tough then?
A ní R: For me it was.
MD: What made you come back to composing?
A ní R: Well, I got a full-time job selling holidays, nine to five -- it was great. Great to finish work at five o’clock on a Friday, but by Saturday morning that had worn off. And I had nothing to say musically and I was struggling stylistically. There was a massive lack of confidence. What I decided to do was enter [Ireland’s] Mostly Modern competition. I wrote a piece for solo double bass, Dogs in waiting, and that was Ailís back again. That was me writing intuitively and sort of forgetting about York for a short time. I thought, this is a good piece, and this is an honest piece. This is me speaking. And it is a bit weird, a bit quirky, and it’s a strange idea. But it is most essentially what I am interested in and how I should express myself. So I wrote that and sent it in and I won the competition! And I thought, ‘Off I go again. I can do this, and I’m going to persevere. However, I need to listen a little more to the inner voice, and just try and be reasonable and see how things come together.’
Then I wrote The man made of rain. But I was working full-time, which was good for me, because I’ve always liked structure and doing non-musical things has always been important too, in order to have a sense of perspective. To me, perspective is everything. How the music comes about for me is very often just observing things around me. It’s not necessarily high art, it’s just how I see things and how I interpret them.
MD: So you prefer to be part of the world so that you can observe it, so that you can respond to it, rather than be in a garret composing all day?
|‘For the first time I felt, this is me utilising all the areas that I’m interested in, and I want more of this.’
A ní R: Of course. People are odd creatures and you can pick up on all sorts of things. So I wrote The man made of rain at the weekends. I suppose I felt at the time, ‘This isn’t ideal. I shouldn’t be working full-time in a non-music environment. ‘ And I’ve met people from time to time who said, ‘Why do you do that? You’ve got two university degrees. Surely you could do something better? Surely you could come up with something better?’ Well, maybe I could, I don’t know. But that was the decision I made, that was what I felt was right for me. And I enjoyed the challenge in something else and I came fresh to my manuscript at the weekend.
MD: And is that what your routine was? You saved your composing for the weekend?
A ní R: Yes. Just a few hours. It wasn’t manic, I still had a life. And I finished that piece and I enjoyed writing it a lot. I felt, ‘This is good’, and I submitted it for the [composer class of the RTÉ] Musician of the Future competition. And I was very pleased to be a finalist [and the eventual winner] in that, and I said to myself, ‘Well, great! I just want to hear the piece performed, and I want people to hear this piece. Most importantly, I want people to hear Brendan Kennelly’s text.’ So I had a great time choosing the text I wanted to use, and that led me into a different stage of development.
MD: Do you live in Bristol?
A ní R: No, Manchester.
MD: And do you feel like a composer in exile?
A ní R: I feel like a composer in exile from myself very often. I don’t have the ability to think beyond that. So the short answer is, no.
MD: Well then what do you mean, in exile from yourself?
A ní R: Much of my music stems directly from where I am as an individual, as a thinking person. The psychology of music, the psychology of everything. I think about these things a great deal and I’ll often stop writing to do the thinking. And then I’ll see where I’ve come to and what, if anything, is worth imbuing the music with. It’s fascinating to be in exile from yourself, though it’s a hard one to explain. It’s a journey, and it’s good and it’s bad.
MD: Do you compose all the time? Or do you wait until there’s a commission or a competition?
A ní R: No, I don’t compose all the time, at all. Because I do other things. I write text -- poetry and prose, some short stories -- and I’m very interested in film and visual arts and conceptual arts. So very often, for me it isn’t a case of writing a piece of music. It’s more like conceptual music, or conceptual art. And that’s where I’ve moved into now, and away from traditional or straight composition for a concert hall audience.
MD: So what kind of things are you working on at the moment, or have worked on recently in this new direction?
A ní R: I’ve been headed in this new direction for quite a while now. The man made of rain is probably the first piece in this genre. It’s for clarinet and piano, and the clarinetist both plays and then also speaks the text by Brendan Kennelly [the Irish poet and academic]. From there I produced a number of other chamber pieces, because I am mostly interested in chamber music. The immediacy of it, the idea of a small room with a small group of musicians and just being up close to the musicians and seeing how they perform.
However, more recently I have become interested in musicians who are performers in another sense, as actors or speakers. So for example I’ve written a saxophone quartet in three straight sections. The middle section is completely spoken. Dogs in waiting has these involuntary ‘woofs’ and things going on. So text and theatre combined with music is what’s most important to me now.
The most recent piece which I’ve finished and which for me was the most satisfying artistically -- in all senses and in terms of the things I am interested in besides music -- is Exit. It’s a music-theatre piece, forty minutes long, and it was my graduation piece from the Royal Northern College of Music [where she was the first Junior Fellow in Education]. They had a studio venue and I was given free rein -- which I’d requested -- to put this on. And that was terrific because I wrote most of the text myself, I wrote all the music, I experimented in very basic electronic music techniques, I produced a number of images which were used as a visual stimulus throughout the piece. It’s for eight musicians and six singers, so it’s the biggest thing I’ve done, and I also directed. So I did everything myself, and it was a real challenge. I did nothing else for eight months, absolutely nothing else.
MD: Still just on weekends?
MD: Is it an Achilles heel?
|‘I suppose I have a socialist belief that music should be for the masses, and that it should be accessible.’
A ní R: At this point I was on two jobs and a full-time student! It was a real eye-opener for me, and it was received very well. For the first time I felt, this is me utilising all the areas that I’m interested in, and I want more of this.
MD: And is there more of it to come? Are you working on something at the moment?
A ní R: I am. However, once you’re outside the institution of music, it is difficult to get these works staged because each piece that I write has an added extra. It’s difficult to find musicians who want to speak in pieces, who want to walk around stage and be choreographed. Not all musicians that I’ve come across are comfortable with that. The difficulty is finding that band of musicians who want to do that, then to work with them from there.
I feel very strongly that Exit is a show that should be put on again. And I say ‘show’. For me it was an entertaining, difficult, dark and very heavy subject matter. But people were entertained and felt, ‘This isn’t necessarily what we would have expected at a music conservatory. This could be a theatre piece.’ And that really pleased me because that’s where I’m moving to, I think.
MD: Are you part of a musical community? Or are you still kind of on your own?
A ní R: I never have been [part of a community], because I seem to have some odd ideas as to what music is for me. And I come back to this idea of entertainment. I don’t mean necessarily commercial music, although there is nothing wrong with being paid a fair wage for what you do in any sphere of life. I suppose I have a socialist belief that music should be for the masses, and that it should be accessible and interested in and committed to music education and community music. Because it’s fresh, because it’s uninhibited, because it’s honest. And that’s what I find most interesting about my own expression, in whatever form that may be whether it’s text or music or visual ideas. I’m not saying that I haven’t met other artists who feel similarly. However, I do definitely feel on the outside, because I do these other things and for me it’s a complete piece of art. And I just haven’t met anybody else who does that, as yet. But I’m sure that they ‘re out there!
MD: That combined with what you say is very important -- to keep moving, and for composers to travel -- do you foresee yourself abandoning Manchester and going to the US or somewhere further away? Mountain tops?
A ní R: I see myself moving around. Having said that, I am a home-bird. I’ve just come back from a sixteen-day course in the south of France, which you might think is a glorious opportunity for any young woman at this time. And it is and it isn’t. Just being out of your environment and your routine is often unsettling to an artist. Yet it’s essential in order to present something that has some perspective and some originality.
MD: I was just thinking that you might encounter some other people who might have that same eclecticism and cross-aesthetic.
A ní R: Sure. I have heard of someone recently that I have become very, very interested in. And if I was to move again it would be to cling onto this man’s leg and let him drag me around: Heiner Goebbels, the German composer, artist, producer, director. I’ve seen two of his productions on grainy videos, and I was completely blown away because I had no idea that somebody else was interested in and had been successful in this field. He will become a much bigger name in these parts. He works in Frankfurt. It’s political music and I’m quite politically motivated in some respects. And I feel that all these things should have a voice in the music.
I suppose what I would say that I don’t do is write abstract music. Because for me it doesn’t penetrate, it doesn’t come through to me very often when I go to concerts. It doesn’t speak to me. And sometimes I think that that is a gross indulgence on the part of some composers. Still, everyone goes to a concert with their own agendas and their own interests. Very often mine are not stimulated by what I see in the concert scene -- in the UK at least at this time. The odd time a little piece comes up by a composer, and it’s programmed because it’s an odd little piece. And such a composer just exists on the periphery, as someone doing their own odd little thing and coming to the fore from time to time. That’s where I suppose I am.
Ailís Ní Ríain was interviewed on video by Michael Dungan at the Contemporary Music Centre, Dublin, on 8 August 2003.