Alt Notes #6 | Sebastian Adams

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.

This week I got to speak to one of Ireland’s most up-and-coming and exciting composers. Having already been writing music for a number of years, Sebastian Adams has recently been appointed RTE Lyric FM’s Composer in Residence for 2016. Ahead of premiering a number of new works next year, Adams discusses an alternative progression of a new Irish composer and musician as well as a look at his compositional methods and musical influences.

What inspired you to start writing your own music?



I come from a musical family, my father is a very highly regarded organist and harpischordist and my mother has worked as a translator and editor mainly in the field of classical music for years. There were operas and symphonies pouring into my ears from before birth, and one of my earliest memories is my mum imitating the amazing braying donkies in Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. My dad is a phenomenal sight reader and as a result he has always played a lot of contemporary music, apparently as a toddler I upturned my rocking horse and bashed away at it, and when asked what I was doing I replied that I was playing Gerald Barry’s The Chair. I would say it was genetically inevitable that I became a composer except that I’m the only one of four siblings who has gone into music.

My parents were never pushy about music and, as a result, I never practiced as a child or teenager and found ways to avoid taking music theory classes. At sixteen I couldn’t read key signatures! When I suddenly decided to do Composition in college I think they were shocked. Thankfully, I had been a choirboy, which is an incredible training for a lot of practical aspects of music and meant that I caught up quickly with people who had done theory, although I never got good at scales.

I had always enjoyed composing, although I wouldn’t have called it that. As a very small child, I composed the beginning of a sung mass about sixteen times and as a teenager I got hooked on creating computer music. It was only when I was applying to RIAM that I figured out how to use Sibelius and started writing proper, performable pieces. I was lucky to have two incredible teachers at the Academy: Kevin O’Connell and Jonathan Nangle – two very different types of composer, but both superb composers and thinkers who put a huge amount of energy into their students. I think it’s a composition faculty that would rival any in the world and would recommend it to any budding composer.

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How would you describe your music and the sound you try to create?

The main thinking behind my music is that it should be emotionally affecting. A lot of music over the last century has been written with a great focus on technique, innovation and concept, which can often leave an audience totally cold. I think music is often written for the benefit of other composers and I would tend to think that if 90% of the, already hugely filtered, classical music audience doesn’t like your music then they may have a point. The Irish scene thankfully has a lot of composers who would probably agree with at least some of what I’ve just said.

My other interests are in monumentality and large forms. Despite what I’ve just written, this is something that audiences don’t tend to want or expect. In terms of the sound world, I am a polygamist – I am certainly influenced by the music of the last century, and in particular Irish composers such as Gerald Barry and Andrew Hamilton, but I also pay a lot of attention to earlier music, and I think that can be heard in my compositions. We are lucky to be alive in a time where an incredibly wide spectrum of feeling has been created through music and I like to think we should be allowed to use all of it, rather than the tiny portions associated with minimalism or modernism and so on.

What is your process when you write? What might inspire your creativity to start a piece? 

At the beginning of a writing period I will often spend days, weeks or months kicking around, sleeping in late, getting really annoyed and doing nothing. Then I will finally HAVE to write the piece. At this point a sliver of inspiration will inevitably strike and I will tend to write the piece in a very short space of time. At the end I am exhausted, half-mad and need a shower. I don’t tend to change much that I have written, and I rarely scrap any music unless I give up completely on a piece and start again.

Would you say your creative process evolves as you write?

Of course! I am a young composer, everything is always changing. Every piece is a learning experience.

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How do you find being a composer on the Irish music scene?

The Irish scene is interesting in that there is no pressure to conform to a certain sound. There is also a lot of talent here and quite a lot of good people producing interesting concerts. As it is a small place, there is a lot of space to be proactive and create your own opportunities – you can make a splash without waiting around endlessly in the hope that other people will recognise your brilliance!!

It can be frustrating because there is very little interest in classical music among the general public when compared to other major culture centres, given that Ireland is such a hub for theatre and literature, and particularly very little interest in or awareness of contemporary music. I feel there is a lot that composers can do to change this and think it should be the duty of every composer to try and be an ambassador for their kind in this country. A lot of composers seem content to view tiny audiences as inevitability and not to worry about it.

I think the way contemporary music is handled in the education system is an important factor behind this cultural lapse. Kids are unlikely to come across the more ‘modern’ side of music until they are doing the Leaving Certificate. This is when they are suddenly faced with quite extreme pieces by Deane or Barry, heard alongside The Beatles or Queen, totally without the musical context (Beethoven, Mahler, Schoenberg, Stockhausen etc.) that would help them make sense of them. Compounding this, they are also presented with very technically-minded analysis of the pieces without any great focus on emotional content. There is nice solidarity among a lot of older composers who all come to each other’s concerts, but this something that is sorely lacking among the younger generation.

You have recently been appointed RTÉ Lyric FM’s Composer in Residence for 2016. What kind of projects and performances will we be hearing?

The RTÉ appointment involves a number of new works for the RTÉ Ensembles, two Christmas Carols suitable for amateur choir and also outreach work and work in education. I will also be getting involved in audio for some radio programmes. The point of the residency is to try and make work that is appealing to the average radio listener, so the projects include an accessible orchestral suite for the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, and other similar projects. The most challenging and artistically interesting thing for me will be to make sure that whatever I do really will work for their target audience, but will also work for me!

Any other performances and pieces coming up?

I’ve also been selected to be Musician in Residence for Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council from April – July 2016. This is a much more esoteric residency, really focused on me creating original work in whatever way I want. My plans for this involve working with a lot of composers on three separate projects – a viola recital of works written for me, an audio-visual improvisation concert with electronics and live performers, and an exploration of works by others and by me for my live composition programme. This is a Max patch I have been working on for two years which composes notated music in real time.

Between the two residencies, plus a couple of projects with Kirkos Ensemble, I have my hands very full for the whole of 2016. But, I am incredibly lucky in that I will be more or less forced to spend the entire year on creative endeavours, and that the two residencies have, by chance, captured the opposing ends of my activities as a musician.

For more from Sebastian, visit his Soundcloud page.

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