Alt Notes #1 | Sorcha Coller of the Irish Composer’s Collective

Alt Notes is a series looking at another alternative to the alternative music scene in Ireland.With musical diversity at its height around the country, this series is dedicated to bringing the contemporary and experimental musicians and composers of Ireland to your attention. 

In my own personal experience as a new Irish composer, it is difficult to get a platform for your music and also gain new listeners. As the term “contemporary composition” may possibly strike fear into the heart of the music fan, there are many musicians who can call their music contemporary and be a mind-blowing fusion of style, experimentation and sound that may be overlooked due to a lack of promotional opportunity. With few outlets for the Irish contemporary composer to unleash their creativity on the ears of the public, this is an opportunity for new music to be heard and discussed, and hopefully shed more light on the ever expanding and evolving genre of contemporary music.

To kick off the series, I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to discuss composition with Dublin-based composer Sorcha Coller. Aside from being a talented and diverse musician, Coller is also a key figure in the Irish contemporary music scene as chairperson to the Irish Composer’s Collective and working with the Kaleidoscope Night Music series.

What triggered your interest in composing?

Sorcha Coller: It was only really when I started my undergrad in music in TCD that I began composing. Once I started to really study music and understand how it all worked, it fired up a need to compose and I haven’t been able to put it out since! I never really intended to be a composer when I entered Trinity, but it quickly became my favourite module. I loved the freedom of it all – you could write whatever you wanted. Studying with Donnacha Dennehy for my final portfolio was the best thing that could have happened to me compositionally. He was incredibly inspiring and seemed to always “get” what I was trying to write. The feedback and guidance that he was gave me throughout helped me develop and produce work that I was really proud of.

Have you had any opportunity to work with musicians and have your music performed?

Working with Ensemble Avalon and Lucilin Ensemble was invaluable – hearing work that you had only imagined in your head or through the dreaded Sibelius is the one of the most important things in the development of a composer. I guess this is why I believe the Irish Composers Collective (ICC) holds such a vital and deserving position in the Irish music scene.

Tell me about ICC and how it benefits new Irish composers?

ICC provides development and opportunities for composers who are not yet quite at the professional level, enabling them to have their work performed by world-class professional musicians. In advance of each concert, the composers and performers work directly together in workshops. Sometimes things you’ve written as a composer don’t translate as well as you had thought when performed, so these workshops mean that composers have the opportunity to try out different options with performers and get direct feedback, leading to stronger pieces overall.

How would you describe your own music and creative process?

I don’t know if I’ve fully found my one voice in composition yet. A lot of my work is largely modal, or at least it starts out that way. I’m a pianist so the majority of what I write begins on the piano and then develops out. I come from a choral background, so writing for voice is something very close to the heart. Ideas for pieces will come to me at completely random times – usually when I’m not thinking about it. My iPhone is full of ridiculous recordings of me singing in ideas I’ve gotten when I’m walking to work or cooking dinner. There’s serious ammunition in stealing my phone if anyone wants to damage me musically! I’ve experimented with electronics in the past but it’s something that I’m dying to get stuck into more and include in more of my future work.

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Have you any performances or releases coming up?

I have two upcoming performances. The first is a piece entitled “among the folding branches” written for Kirkos Ensemble. It’s going to be featured in a flippin’ huge, exciting ICC event in November. I can’t say too much about it at the moment, but we’ll reveal all soon – make sure you keep November 13 free! The next date to pencil in will be December 19 – I’ve a piece for violin and cello being performed by Yseult Cooper Stockdale and Jane Hackett. They are incredible musicians, and I’m absolutely dying to work with them.

Can you tell me more about “among the folding branches”?

“among the folding branches” is based around a type of slow air for violin that I wrote. It has been notated with stemless noteheads, leaving a certain amount of the rhythmic interpretation to the performer. The other instruments act as an untraditional soundscape accompaniment, responding to the violinist’s rhythmic choices.

Have you any plans for your next musical venture?

I’ve very recently started playing with another pianist and singer, Kate Sweeney. We’re writing collaboratively at the moment, laying low for now but keep an eye out for us. I’m constantly writing piano music for myself and have started working on songs in the last few months, but never do anything with either. So it’s great to be working with Kate to bring it on a new path together. I’m a fiend for writing and not doing anything with it or showing it to anyone, so this is definitely a kick in the right direction!

The majority of my time and energy does go into running ICC – into the facilitation of opportunities for other composers to have their music heard. It’s pretty much been my life since I took it on in March, which has ironically meant that I’ve been writing less music as it’s pretty much a full-time position. It’s an incredibly inspiring thing to be involved in though – the sheer diversity of music that you’re dealing with on a day-to-day basis can be a little mind-blowing. I’ve had my eyes opened to a huge amount of amazing, new, unique music written by ICC members in the past year and that in itself is contributing to my development as a composer. ICC is working to shape the Irish new music scene around its composers, and with currently 75 members, I feel we’re well on our way to doing that! It’s a constantly, constantly challenging but extremely rewarding organisation to be running and I feel very privileged to have the opportunity.

To have a listen to some of Sorcha Coller’s work you can check out her Soundcloud page. For more information on the ICC and upcoming performances check out the official Irish Composer’s Collective site. 

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