Keeping their Composure

Andrea Rea profiles NI's unsung generation of classical composers

Northern Ireland’s best known musical exports have tended to be its performers, musicians like James Galway, Barry Douglas or Phil Coulter. There is, however, a tradition of classical composers reaching back to before the 20th century, which is gaining strength and numbers all the time.

Writing music is now a viable career option for students, with composition forming part of both GCSE and A-Level music courses. Queen's University has offered an MA in composition for quite a few years and in the Sonic Arts Research Centre, there is the most up-to-date facility of its kind in the field of electronic music.

The University of Ulster also offers postgraduate study in composition. The Sonorities Festival of Contemporary Music in Belfast is based at Queen's University and commissions works from NI composers, resulting in a body of new work each year which is often premiered by the Ulster Orchestra with backing from the BBC.

Piano playingPioneering NI composers from the early part of the 20th century include Joan Trimble, whose family had a newspaper business in Enniskillen for many years. She was a performer and pianist, often playing dual recitals with her sister Valerie.

Trimble was known to value freedom of expression as a composer, writing works that she described as being ‘subject to neither schools nor period’. A modern-day composer who shares this philosophy is Philip Hammond, who says, ‘I now consider myself old enough to write what I feel like writing, unfettered by considerations of fads or fashions’.

Hamilton Harty was born in Hillsborough in 1879 and composed music that was unashamedly romantic and connected to his Irish roots. Composer Alan Mills, from Belfast, also aims to use ‘traditional’ elements in his writing, in what he calls ‘a conscious reaction against certain trends in contemporary music’. His goal, like many composers working today, is to create a personal language with his music.

Some of NI's most active and visible composers are women. Indeed, a major composition commission in the 2006 Belfast Festival was by Deidre Gribbin. This work immortalised 'Goliath', the larger of Harland and Wolff's shipyard cranes.

Gribbin’s innovation was to use two Lambeg drums as part of the orchestral texture of the work, thus bringing into the mainstream an instrument which had previously been only found in bands on the Twelfth of July, or other occasions on which the bands of the Orange Order were known to march.

Gribbin, also from Belfast, is a composer who is very much led by instinct, following, as she puts it, ‘my gut reaction to structure and form’. She goes on to say that her relationship to her music is affected by ‘emotions generated by a place, the reaction to an environment, people, and pace of life.’

Music sheetsAnother NI composer who has been the recipient of a major BBC commission is Brian Irvine. One of his works, Secret Cinema, premiered in the Ulster Hall and marked the beginning of his placement as Associate Composer for the Ulster Orchestra.

The inspiration for this work was the window of an ice cream shop in Donaghadee where he grew up. His ideas for compositions come from unorthodox sources like comics, rubbish art, jugglers and circuses, ‘people with odd facial features’ silence, racecourses and call centres.

By way of contrast, Derry's Kevin O’Connell gets his inspiration from inside his head. He acknowledges, however, that other people’s ideas also influence him, resulting in what he calls ‘a knowing kind of borrowing’.

O'Connell teaches composition at the Royal Academy of Music in Dublin and has an interesting opinion about the relationship of composers and performers to a score. ‘The performer,' he says, 'Is a Catholic: the scripture plus tradition - a cellist playing Bach is also playing Casals and Tortellier playing Bach. The composer is a Protestant: scripture only, please.’

Eiblish Farrell, from Rostrevor, Co Down, feels that the best things about being a composer are the process of composing when things are going well, and ‘the smell of black India ink and a scratchy italic pen’.

Stephen Gardner, from Belfast, gets most of his ideas for composing from other composers. His greatest ambition is to meet Beethoven. However, the musician in history he most admires is jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, for his tone, phrasing and sense of musical invention which transports Gardner ‘to that other place’.

Some Ulster composers are able to work full time writing music but most have other jobs to pay the bills. David Byers, who has himself been the subject of an MA thesis (The Organ Works of David Byers) is currently Chief Executive of the Ulster Orchestra.

Hammond, mentioned above, is Director of Arts Development for the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. Elaine Agnew, originally from Kilwaughter, Co Antrim, aims much of her compositional work towards education, but also values music that is quite direct, with ‘sudden disruptive jolts contrasting with ritualistic still textures and whispers’.

Unlike performers, who often complain about the lifestyle and conditions of a solo or orchestral career, most composers seem to relish their occupations. According to Irvine, composing is ‘all pretty fab’.

O’Connell, whose concept of heaven is composing a piece ‘as good as Sibelius’s 4th Symphony’, relishes the ‘quiet industry of producing a work’.

Ian Wilson states it more simply when he says that the best thing about being a composer is that he gets ‘to do what I want in life and get paid for it’. In the words of another great (non-Irish) composer, George Gershwin, ‘who could ask for anything more?'