An Interview with Rhona Clarke
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Ita Beausang: Rhona, I believe you were a child prodigy; you play the piano, you are an accomplished pianist, you took up the cello, what led you to composition?
Rhona Clarke: Well, first of all let me dispel this myth straight away that I was ever a child prodigy, because if I was anything I was a street urchin! [laughs] I loved music passionately from ever since I can remember and I took up the piano quite young. I always liked making things; I suppose people do and children do, children will make things instinctively. That making things didn’t transfer on to music until I was in my twenties -- about 22 -- when I started composition.
IB: Were you a student at UCD [University College Dublin] by that stage?
RC: I had left UCD at that stage and had started teaching at second level, so I had enjoyed my piano playing up to that stage and especially around the last years in college. A certain level of frustration set in when I could no longer take enough time to practise and even maintain a level that I had achieved, and I just started exploring musical expression through composing very tentatively and without saying anything to anybody for a few years.
IB: You were trying to find your voice through composition?
IB: When you were studying at UCD, was there no composition on the curriculum?
RC: On the curriculum at that stage we would have been learning harmony and counterpoint, techniques from fifteenth century up to nineteenth century harmony, up to and including chromatic harmony. I know there was something written down in the syllabus about the option of composing. No students as far as I know at that time took up that option and I would not even have dreamt of it especially considering the trouble [I had] grappling with eighteenth or nineteenth century techniques.
IB: If you went straight into secondary school teaching, how did you find time to compose?
RC: I used to find that I would work at weekends and of course during holiday times quite a lot; during the week mostly was out, so during holidays mainly. You need time to compose and an hour, or an hour-and-a half, two hours, will go nowhere especially if you are just starting off a piece, so I suppose most of my composing would have been done at weekends. For instance, I used to see people buying a newspaper on Sundays and think to myself, ‘Oh, they’re going home to read a newspaper and just have Sunday lunch’ [laughs], while that would be my work day.
IB: And did you have a mentor or a teacher in composition at that time?
RC: That would have happened during and after the Ennis [Composition] Summer School, so I had been composing just for a couple of years when a friend advised me that she saw an advertisement in the paper for the Ennis Summer School, which was run by John Buckley and Jim Wilson. Subsequent to the course itself, which was just a fortnight’s summer course, I attended classes with John in particular, and also both John and Jim organised some weekend courses in between which were really useful.
IB: And you met other composers as well, I suppose? Student composers?
RC: This was a wonderful thing: meeting people who have been friends ever since and people who have kept up composition. Michael Alcorn, for instance, was on the first course that I attended and subsequently became a tutor on the Ennis course.
IB: In 1990 you went to Queen’s University Belfast for postgraduate studies in composition. Did that mean giving up a permanent, pensionable job as a secondary school teacher?
RC: In 1990 I took a career break. My objective was to go and find out about electro-acoustic composition, how to work in a studio. I was really interested in pursuing that, so knowing Michael [Alcorn] from the Ennis Summer School I met him and had a discussion with him; so it was his idea then to convert this into study for an MA, which I hadn’t thought of at all. It was just the purpose of studying electro-acoustic music that I was interested in, so that then led into further work, which turned into a PhD in composition: a portfolio of compositions.
IB: Did that mean you lived in Belfast?
RC: I lived in Belfast for those two years. I stayed in postgraduate accommodation there during term time, which was quite an experience as well, because at that time you still had the [British] Army on the streets, and there were guns pointed at you. I found it extraordinary how you got used to that.
|‘You have an idea that you wish to pursue and you know you might have a germ of…a piece. I think it is bringing that on to the next stage that is probably the most difficult.’
IB: It was new to you, even as a street urchin?
RC: No, I didn’t have any of that in Dublin when I was growing up!
IB: So after that you were a fully-fledged composer. You had taken a career break: did you go back to secondary school teaching?
RC: I did indeed, I went back to my position in St Paul’s [Girls’ School, Dublin], bursting with new ideas for teaching as well as wishing to continue in composition, but I had in mind that I wanted more time for composing and that I would work towards a time when I could finish and pursue composition further.
IB: And when did that finally happen, that you plumped totally for full-time composition?
RC: This, I think, is my fifth year; five years ago.
IB: A very brave move?
RC: People say this to me, ‘You’re very brave’, but for me it was a very definite decision and something that I had to do.
IB: According to Brahms there is no real creating without hard work. What part of the composition process do you find is the hardest?
RC: I think that bit that’s just after the initial stage. You have an idea that you wish to pursue and you know you might have a germ of what might turn into a piece. I think it is bringing that on to the next stage that is probably the most difficult. There’s a certain stage in a work when you know that it will come together, that it will work, and until that there can be so many manuscript pages in the bin or pages put into the trash on the computer. More and more I find that I dispose of a lot.
IB: Jim Wilson said to me recently that he felt he had only finished a composition when it had been performed. At what stage do you decide that a piece is really finished?
RC: Well, I would say that there are two stages of finishing and of course Jim is right; a piece doesn’t exist really until it has been performed, it only exists in your mind, it’s not real. Once you hand it over to the performer, that gives something extra to the piece. There is the first finishing stage when you decide that, ‘Yes, this piece is finished, I don’t want to change anything,’ and it may not even be when you get the last bars and the last notes, because sometimes I would find I have an ending of a piece before part of the middle is finished. So there’s that first finishing stage and then there is that next part where the performer takes over.
IB: Have you ever been shocked by what you heard when it was actually performed?
RC: I can think of one occasion in particular! [laughs] I won’t mention it but there was one occasion when I was quite amazed at what resulted.
IB: You use quite a few familiar performers for a lot of your works; I’ve noticed the same names recur. Is that an accident or do you write with those performers in mind?
RC: Well, I’ve been lucky from the beginning to have had works performed, for instance, by members of Concorde. They have played a lot of pieces. And then in recent years I’ve been introduced to -- or these musicians have introduced themselves to me -- some Austrian musicians. There are two particular ensemble groups there: one is called the Tyrolean Ensemble; they invited me a number of years ago to come to Austria and they played a half-hour programme of works. One of the members of the Tyrolean Ensemble is a member of the other group, called C2, a smaller group.
IB: What instruments do they play?
RC: C2 are a very unusual combination of clarinet, guitar and two percussion players who play a full range of percussion between them. Sometimes they have a saxophone or clarinet but it’s rather a strange combination. It’s not one that I would think of writing for offhand, and of course that poses certain challenges in the writing.
IB: And it does influence the design of your work as well. They’re playing your work Hidden at the moment quite a lot.
RC: This is a piece that they asked for and they have not only premiered it this year but are playing it four or five times in different places, which is great because of course it’s usual that a new piece will be played once, but to have several performances is more rare, a bit of a luxury.
IB: Did you hear it -- the first performance?
RC: Strangely enough, I haven’t heard this piece at all yet and there’s another piece which the Tyrolean Ensemble played for saxophone and guitar; another unusual combination that I also have not heard [live] yet. They’ve sent me a recording but it has been performed many times between Austria and Croatia and I’ve not heard it yet. It’s very strange, it’s almost as if I hadn’t written it because I haven’t heard it.
IB: It’s a treat in store I hope. Going back to your early writing, I notice that the flute seemed to feature quite a lot in your early works, both as a solo and an ensemble instrument. Why do you think you were drawn to the flute at that time in particular?
RC: It wasn’t specially that I was drawn to the flute; the opportunities for flute presented themselves.
IB: Would that apply also to the succession of works that you have written for strings either with or without piano: two piano trios, a piano quartet, several duos, cello solos? Is it because you were able to match up performers and commissions?
RC: There are two things here. First of all, the violin is an instrument that my parents played. I never heard either of them play but both played violin, they actually stopped before I came on the scene. And piano also, my mother played piano, they’re very much family instruments. In my father’s family everyone either played violin and/or piano and/or sang, so I think they’re probably in the genes, those instruments, definitely in the genes. The first group of pieces for those instruments resulted from a commission, and that was The Waterford Suite (1997), so-called because there was an international masterclass which was being held in Waterford that year run by Young European Strings, so I was asked for pieces -- for duos in particular -- for violin and piano, viola and piano, cello and piano, and two pianos. That was the first time I’ve ever written a number of pieces at the one time. It was very stimulating, because often when you are writing a piece, other ideas will present themselves that don’t belong to that piece. They might work very well in another context, so ideas led to other ideas, and it was interesting to work with several pieces at the one time.
|‘A piece doesn’t exist really until it has been performed, it only exists in your mind, it’s not real.’
IB: You mentioned the instrumentation for your most recent works which have been performed abroad, and I have noticed that you use a more eclectic mix of instruments for some of these works, for example Monsieur Marceau (1999) for marimba, harpsichord and guitar; Sympathy (2000), for voice, flute, percussion and Irish harp; and Hidden (2003) for clarinet, bass clarinet, percussion and guitar. Do you feel more adventurous when you are writing for these groups abroad?
RC: Again, there are two things here. First of all, I was asked for some of those strange combinations. I would consider them quite strange. For example, the one for harpsichord, guitar and marimba was for the Donne in Musica festival in Italy. The director of the festival asked for a piece for this combination of guitar, harpsichord and percussion, she didn’t specify which. Marimba was the best way I could find to reconcile the other two, because for me it’s harpsichord and guitar that are quite strange together. Having said that, it forces you to think in a different way, matching up these timbres that are not heard generally together. In another case, the piece Sympathy for the Tyrolean Ensemble was a commissioned piece for the Festival. They had quite a large group of instruments to choose from, so I did select that particular combination. It was with the poem in mind, Sympathy, because I wanted to dedicate that to my friends who had lost their child. That was the reason for the choice of text and then that led in turn to the choice of instruments from the group. So that was a very personal choice on the one hand and the Italian commission was a very, very different thing, but always a challenge.
IB: You’ve some very programmatic titles: Jagged Edge (2000), Undercurrent (2001), Jealous Pursuit (1997). Are those titles that you thought of afterwards or during or before?
RC: Almost always the title comes near the end or at the end of the piece. I’ve often come across wonderful ideas for titles but the title never results in a piece. I find it impossible to interpret a title musically. Sometimes they were suggested by other people who would hear a little bit of what I was doing and say, ‘That reminds me of something’.
IB: Listening to your instrumental music I often get a strong visual impression. Is this my imagination or is there a connection in your writing?
RC: I have an interest in visual art. In fact I’ve just come from the Chester Beatty Library where I was looking at the beautiful manuscripts there and the Japanese prints in particular. When I’m composing I’m not aware of visual elements at all. I think purely in terms of sound but it’s hard to say how the work is inspired visually; if that happens it happens at moments when I am not at work. For instance, if we take my first piano piece, Gleann Dá Loch (1995/96), I find it very hard to write a piano piece because piano is my instrument and the fingers automatically fall in certain places. So having found some chords to work with, having found my material for the piece and having started it, I was on a walk down in Glendalough [an ancient monastic site in County Wicklow] and there was something about the visual scene there... The landscape down at the lower lake with the mountain rising to the side and the contrast between these two things... The stillness: the lake was like glass, and then the stark contrast of this cliff. That definitely had an effect on what I did with the piece after that.
IB: And I found that in listening to it too -- the drama and the stillness juxtaposed -- and so beautifully played by Anthony Byrne.
RC: Tony did a lovely job on that and he also premiered the second piano piece, Béal Dearg (2001).
IB: And they’re being played abroad?
RC: That’s right. Through an enquiry to the Contemporary Music Centre, in fact, there is an Austrian pianist, Eduard Lanner, who has taken them on board. First of all he played Gleann dá Loch last year and one of his senior students played Béal Dearg, and next October in a series of concerts he’s going to play both of those pieces so this I will hear, I’m going over to hear them.
IB: The influence of nature is evident is many of your works that you’ve written ‘in peace and solitude’ as you describe it. What is your ideal environment for writing? Do you need peace and solitude or can you shut everything out?
RC: I need not to have to do something else an hour later [laughs] or even a few hours later, so peace and quiet, yes. Background noises wouldn’t really disturb me. If I’m to be interrupted, if there’s a phone call, if you’re distracted... In other words, if your attention is called off in some other direction, that will definitely stop the flow. Time is what I need most for composing.
IB: When you are writing -- well, obviously for piano you’re using the instrument -- but do you use the piano a lot otherwise?
RC: I like to work at the piano because for me music is a very physical thing; it’s not just a function of the intellect. I like the physical contact with the instrument, so I will move away from the piano sometimes just to a table, and then again to another room where my computer is, so I work in different ways at different times and at different stages of the piece. I like to start messing with the piano, just to fiddle around and get ideas, and then preferably move away from the piano and put something down on a page. Again the physical act of putting something on a page, and perhaps move back and forth then between the piano, a flat table, and the computer. The computer is the most wonderful tool, it really is.
IB: You don’t find it a barrier?
RC: Oh not at all, it’s wonderful, just the practical thing of not having your hands covered in ink. Obviously the greatest luxury of computer notation is being able to edit, you don’t have to rewrite something; if I feel that a section is not long enough it is just so easy to include an extra number of bars.
|‘I’ve often come across wonderful ideas for titles but the title never results in a piece. I find it impossible to interpret a title musically.’
IB: The International League of Women Composers was established over 25 years ago to help women composers overcome the isolation of belonging to a minority. Have you ever felt isolated or that you belong to a minority?
RC: Maybe I belong to several minorities [laughs]. I don’t tend to cut myself off. I don’t think of myself as a woman composer, nor do I think of myself necessarily as an Irish composer, just a composer. The isolation? Well, you might feel isolation anyway because it is a solitary pursuit, but I’ve never felt any drawback in being a female; perhaps that’s naive of me, that there are certain things I’m not noticing. I know that there are statistics which show that the numbers of commissions for women are not level with male counterparts. Certainly statistics from Britain from about a decade ago would show things like that, but I am really not conscious of difference in that way.
IB: You’ve written orchestral, ensemble, solo instrumental, vocal and choral music. Are there any other genres that you would like to explore in the future?
RC: Well, of course there’s some electro-acoustic in there as well, but I have to say that I have a very strong preference for acoustic music. Again it’s the physicality and the human presence that is a very essential part. I would love to make a work with another artist; a visual artist, preferably. There are several things that I would like to do. I would like to write a work with dance, for instance; that would be an exciting thing to do. Again the whole physical thing, the interpretation of music physically -- the working together, the collaboration between the sound and the physical movement -- I would find exciting. I’d also love to write a work for organ -- church organ -- the organ is an instrument that I like very much but I haven’t [written for] yet; I think it’s about the only one that I haven’t yet written for.
IB: What about opera? You could collaborate with a librettist for that?
RC: Well, that would have everything. In some ways opera scares me because of that very reason: because it has everything. You wouldn’t just be collaborating with a librettist because every element in an opera really needs to work for the opera to work -- so the visual element, the spoken element through the music, the direction, the staging, every element must work.
IB: Which contemporary composer do you most admire outside Ireland?
RC: I’d find it very hard to limit an answer like that to one composer. In fact, absolutely impossible! There are composers whose styles are very, very different whom I admire greatly. Somebody like Ligeti, for instance, the way he has managed to take a chromatic scale without adjusting the order of the pitches into a series, produces wonderful textured layering just with strings; or the way someone like Mark-Anthony Turnage can write music in seemingly quite different styles. He uses an eclectic mix of styles even from one piece to another -- where there will be, perhaps, more jazz elements in one piece, another piece may be slightly more romantic -- and yet his own voice comes through in each of the works. I love the work of Einojuhani Rautavaara; I suppose it might be labelled neo-romantic but again an individual voice and very contemporary at the same time.
IB: Which do you consider is the most experimental work that you have written?
RC: Well, I wouldn’t call any of my work experimental! [laughs]
IB: The most ambitious, so?
RC: When I think of experimental I think about John Cage. The most ambitious would have to be the longest, surely? [laughs] The longest is a piece for girls’ voices, Missa (1999), but musically it’s not the most ambitious, I limited it very much pitchwise to suit the girls’ voices, especially in the vocal parts. Perhaps the electro-acoustic piece for flute and tape called Pied Piper (1994), and certainly it took me the longest. It took me over three years to complete!
IB: Is it more difficult to get commissions for electro-acoustic music? Is that one of the reasons why it’s nearly the smallest area of your output?
RC: There are practical reasons and personal reasons why I haven’t pursued the electro-acoustic area.
IB: But you have a hankering for it?
RC: I will go back there at some stage. I haven’t had the desire to pursue it strongly enough to get myself set up. The works that have been composed in that way were done while I was at Queen’s where they had very good studio facilities.
IB: What are you working on at present?
RC: I have started a large-scale piece, a concerto. I’m still not sure whether it will be a single concerto for violin or whether it will be a double concerto using violin and voice. I won’t say any more about it because I feel if you talk about a piece of work that’s just begun that will be the end of it, that it will be talked out.
IB: Your Contemporary Music Cenre biography says that you hope ‘to express the sensual and the spiritual in the simplest and clearest way’. That’s a tall order! Do you think that it’s possible to achieve that in everything that you write?
RC: I think it’s important to know what you want when you set out to make something; to write something which seems simple without being simplistic is actually -- at least I find it -- very difficult to do. It’s easy to write something that’s easy but that’s empty, and I would find it in some ways easier to write something that’s very, very complicated and sounds very, very complicated, than to write something that will sound distilled. There’s a lovely Yeats poem -- I think it’s called Adam’s Curse -- and he talks about the fact that a line may take an hour or two to write: ‘Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, Our stitching and unstitching has been naught’. So to try to make something which doesn’t show the seams is an ambition.
|‘When a piece actually works…when it’s well performed and you just know that it works, it’s a great feeling.’
IB: One of your most high-regarded early works, Sisyphus , for which you were awarded the Varming Prize, is concerned with a mythological character who was condemned to push a heavy boulder up a cliff forever; every time it reached the top it rolled back down again. Do you ever feel like Sisyphus?
RC: Well, it always does roll back down again [laughs] because -- I was saying this to students recently -- it doesn’t get any easier. Composing doesn’t really get any easier even when you have composed many pieces. With each new one you do have to start again and you do have to ask sometimes the very same questions again, like ‘What do I want?’ or ‘Why am I doing this?’. Going back to your Brahms quote, it is ‘hard work’. There is nobody who wouldn’t agree that it is hard work, but there are the rewards when something works. When a piece actually works, when it goes out there, when it’s well performed and you just know that it works, it’s a great feeling.
IB: I think that’s a very good note to end on. Rhona Clarke, thank you.
Rhona Clarke was interviewed on video by Ita Beausang in the Contemporary Music Centre, Dublin, on 6 February 2004.
The views expressed in this interview are those of the persons concerned and are not necessarily those of the Contemporary Music Centre.