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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.
For this instalment of Alt Notes, I spoke to choral singer and composer Eoghan Desmond. Aside from composing, Desmond is also the founder and conductor of Dublin’s Dulciana Choir for upper voices. Although he has a wide range of works, Desmond specialises in works for voice and choir. He has discovered a manner of composing that expertly weaves voices together while keeping his distinctive style and delicacy at the forefront of his music.
What made you want to start composing?
Eoghan Desmond: That’s a good question, with a bad answer! To be honest, I don’t really know. The urge to compose was there as long as I knew what music was, so far as I can recall. I first sat down at a piano with the intent of writing a piece of music when I was about seven or eight years old. I wrote lots and lots of piano and choral music, all of it thankfully lost, from then until about 15 or 16, when I started to become a little more self-critical. This had the effect of drastically reducing my output, but dramatically improving it. There are only a handful of simple pieces, all of them choral, from that time that I’d still own up to today, but I think it’s around there that anything approaching a compositional language started to emerge.
How would you describe your music? What made you want to write music of this style?
A much more difficult question! Every piece I write is sort of in its own little style, depending on my mood, the text I’m setting, the forces I’m writing for, and what else I’m working on at the moment. We’re very lucky in the 21st century to have access to more or less everything that’s come before us, so I’m not afraid to borrow and steal liberally from those who’ve come before. I tend to be somewhat conservative in preferring to write music more dependent on form, harmony and contrapuntal textures. But, I like to explore extending and suspending harmony, and playing with the expectations that an audience may have not only in relation to other music, but within pieces of music themselves.
In a piece of music with lots of dissonance and angular harmonic shifts, a sudden perfect cadence can be really shocking and engaging in the right context. I think there’s too much of a rush these days to pigeon hole ourselves artistically, too. Most of the labels that we give to styles and composers gone by were ascribed to them by critics and historians. We young composers should experiment with everything we can get our hands on!
Does your creative process evolve as you write?
Absolutely. For most pieces, I sit down with a motif or a piece of text, and an idea of roughly how I want it to go. In most pieces, there’s usually a sudden shift in my thinking – a moment of clarity – wherein I see that I’ve been going down the wrong path the whole time and I need to start again from the middle and work my way outwards. So far as I can recall, I’ve had this experience with every single piece I’ve written in the last two years! I’ve learned never to be afraid to be flexible with my own plans.
As a choral singer, do you find this has influenced the way you write?
Yes and no. As a teenager, I wrote a lot of bad choral music, and then when I went to college I more or less stopped writing choral music entirely. I felt too close to the medium, too weighed down with hang-ups about what does or doesn’t work, and so I felt afraid to let myself experiment and fail and get it wrong and start again in the way I described earlier. It was really only when I finished my masters in TCD and took a six-month hiatus from composing to focus on my work as a singer that I was able to move through that and start writing choral music again.
The first choral piece I wrote was ‘Mother Goose’s Melodies’, which won the Sean Ó Riada prize at the 2015 Cork Choral Festival, and is closing in now on 10 performances. A second set, ‘More Mother Goose’s Melodies’ will be premiered in September as part of the National Concert Hall’s Composing the Island, so I think that that period of not composing probably did me some good! Now I write a lot of vocal and choral music again, and I seem to be able to write music of that type that people enjoy!
What motivated you to set up Dulciana Choir?
Conducting is something I’ve always had an interest in. I did a bit of conducting as a teen and a bit of it in college, but I wasn’t hugely keen on conducting an SATB choir and doing the same kind of repertoire as everyone else. There are a lot of choirs in Dublin, and there’s so much overlap of membership and repertoire! They also always seem to be on the hunt for tenors and basses, so I killed two birds with one stone and decided to set up a choir that necessarily had a totally different repertoire, and eliminated the need to be constantly looking for tenors and basses.
The commitment to a concert of music by women came very early on, before our first concert, and was something we decided to continue and to make into an annual thing. Last year’s concert was a great success, and we’ve already had a slightly overwhelming amount of entries for our call for scores. I was worried that we’d get maybe seven or eight and not have much to choose from, but in the first week of July alone we got over 20 entries! So far we’ve had entries from women all over the world, from teenagers still at school to retirees.
Aside from composing for voice and choir, you have many works for acoustic ensemble and soloists. How does your approach to writing for voice differ from that for instrument? Or how is it similar?
Quite simply it doesn’t. I’ve observed over the years that singers tend to complain that the vocal writing of J.S. Bach is too instrumental, while instrumentalists tend to complain that his instrumental writing is too vocal. Obviously with instruments and voices you have idiomatic and technical concerns, but I think that composers should first write good music, and secondly worry about an approach to writing. Of course, an open mind is also necessary with regards to being flexible if something you’ve written simply doesn’t work, but so far I’ve only encountered that once, when I wrote an impossible chord for double bass. Good music is good music.
You’ve had a number of your works performed. Do you approach writing with the performers in mind? Have you had to adapt pieces that haven’t been written specifically for the performers that you end up working with?
Again, yes and no. For the Irish Composers Collective, or for a commission or a competition, I do obviously write with a certain performer or group in mind, but it’s also important not to gear a piece completely and utterly towards one person. I’ve never had to adapt a piece, but I am flexible about performers taking liberties with the score. I don’t actually like sitting in on rehearsals of my music for that reason.
I’d much rather hear in a performance what people come up with, and let every performer or group bring their own fresh perspective to my music, rather than letting my own version of it stagnate. And of course, composers are the people most often wrong about how their piece should be performed!
Any upcoming performances or releases of note?
I’m starting a PhD in the Autumn so all of my energies have been devoted towards that, and I’ve also had a very busy singing schedule recently. But on 11th of August I’ll be giving a talk for the RSCM in Liverpool on the decisions composers face between writing “accessible” and “transcendent and lasting” music, which is an interesting subject. I’m not sure they know what they’re getting themselves into in asking me, but they’ll find out soon enough!
On September 15th, Chamber Choir Ireland are premiering ‘More Mother Goose’s Melodies’ in the National Concert Hall. There will also be performances of a new piece for Solo Double Bass taking place around the world at some point, but no concert dates have been confirmed yet – which is lucky, as I haven’t finished the piece yet!