Alt Notes #7 | Siobhra Quinlan

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.

Taking music to another dream-like world, soprano Siobhra Quinlan’s work transcends the imagination and expectations of the listener. Haunting atmospheres alongside soaring vocals in a wash of reverb-heavy textures are a staple of Quinlan’s beautiful compositional style. Her recent successful performance of her installation piece ‘What Alice Found There’ at Dublin’s Irish Architectural Archive perfectly encompassed the magic and imagination of her music. A truly unique musician and composer, Siobhra takes HeadStuff through her musical style, influences and progression as a composer in this week’s Alt Notes.

Having a unique sense of style, how would you describe your music? 

I’d say it’s definitely driven by melody. There tends to be a lack of preconceived structure, as both the text and its relationship with harmonic expression are paramount, so the structure tends to be a byproduct of that. Text is mostly communicated by the singing voice. When use of the singing voice is not suitable, text is communicated through use of pre-existing audio samples of spoken text.


I like including sections of both vocal and instrumental improvisation, as it allows players to have a greater sense of interpretation and expression. It makes the performance of the piece unique as its crafted by the players, it’s their reaction to your work.

How did you progress to writing in this style?

Voice is my primary instrument, so I guess it’s natural that it would be my go-to tool of expression when writing. Since I was little I’d always come up with songs, and my piano teacher at the time would notate them for me. She was this really cool, eccentric lady from New York called Lohnie. When I was 6 she had taught me how the pedal of the piano worked, which I was totally fascinated with, and then she notated my first “piece” for voice and like two-finger piano accompaniment called ‘The Fairies.’ Patience of a saint.  The writing melodies and lyrics thing always stuck. The piano thing didn’t, unfortunately.

But then half way through college I got really obsessed with opera. And then with classical music in general, and then with instrumentation and then finally with contemporary music – and that was when I started trying to figure out a way to express myself musically. But it’s only in the past couple months that I’ve recognised some kind of cohesive sound and style in what I’ve been writing.  It can be difficult to find your own voice when you’re already so aware of all of the fantastic music in the world, because you’re learning from all of the music that you love while still forming your own musical language. That’s not a fast process.

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Does your creative process evolve as you write?

I separate the creating phase and the notating phase. I use lots of paper, to write and scribble, and I record bits of melodies and then play around at the piano to try out different harmonic possibilities. I keep going until I have the thing fully formed in my head, and then at that point I drag myself to my laptop and spew it all into Sibelius. I actually dread that part, but once you’re a few bars in it’s grand and then you’re flying through it. It takes either a very strong coffee or a glass of something to ease me into it!

As a singer and performer, do you find a certain amount of freedom performing your own works?

Definitely. But initially I was extremely uncomfortable with the idea of it. And by initially, I mean the entire 4 years of college. You can feel extremely exposed when singing, and performance nerves can be more than enough to handle without the added stress of composition nerves. It was this time last year at ICC10 that I decided to give it a go and to combine singing and composing. The whole experience of being involved with ICC and working with Kirkos was so lovely, positive and encouraging that it ended up not being as terrifying as I had suspected. It’s a pretty unique environment where you can try things out and find your voice.

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Does performing other composer’s works inform your style of composing? 

Undoubtedly. It of course happens unintentionally. Although I perform and adore a broad range of styles, I think I’d have to have some kind of exorcism to eradicate the streak of Romantic opera from my musical language. For better or for worse I think that’s there to stay!

Do you find that being a composer of vocal works helps you interpret your performance of other composer’s works in your own singing style? 

This is the exact opposite. You have to abandon your stylistic preferences and observe only what the composer has written, use ornamentations appropriate to the era and adapt your technique accordingly. Like, you can’t have a big massive vibrato singing early music. It’s this discipline about classical singing that I love and hate.

Are there any vocal techniques you use as compositional methods?

I actually haven’t really experimented with any crazy contemporary extended vocal techniques; the furthest I’ve gone is Pierrot Lunaire. What I’ve been trying to do over the past few years is build a technique that can adapt to all styles, but in a way that I still sound like myself. I’m still trying to figure that out! When I started studying with Veronica Dunne a few years ago, I did a dissertation on bel canto and this quote sums up my approach to all music with regard to vocal technique:

Just as a prism breaks a single beam of light into many different colours, bel canto represents a way of singing in which a basic vocal technique accommodates itself to a wide spectrum of musical styles.

So I don’t see why this shouldn’t apply to contemporary music, or why there is a notion that contemporary music shouldn’t sound beautiful or harmonic. It’s like people think that if it’s tonal then it can’t be modern. But then surely “contemporary” music that’s imitating serialism isn’t modern either.

Your recent performance piece ‘What Alice Found There’ was a big success and a perfect showcase of your style. How did you go about putting this piece together? 

Thanks a million! Well, it was initially scored for clarinet and cello, but as it developed it was proving to be both very playful and very dark, so I decided to then push that into a fantasy sort of realm and run with it. That’s when I added the glockenspiel and switched to clarinet to violin to use more pizzicato. Then the whole Alice thing crept in halfway through and tied all the little fragments together.

Are there any plans to perform ‘What Alice Found There’ again?

Depending on the venue or event, it could possibly be performed again. But it was designed for ICC TAKEOVER in particular, so it might feel a little odd taking it out of context. I can’t imagine including it in a recital programme…but perhaps! I’m already stuck into two new projects at the moment that are exploring different soundscapes, so I’d like to focus on learning how to expand on what I’m already comfortable with.

[soundcl[soundcloud url=”" params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true” width=”100%” height=”450" iframe=”true” /]Tell me about any performances/releases you have coming up?

Some friends and I are running and performing a gig on December 12th called MELTING POT 2, which is an informal evening of lieder, chanson, arias, sonatas, chamber & contemporary music. The first instalment took place in London, and this one will be in Berlin.

Any new pieces you can tell me about? 

I’m delighted to have been invited by the Institut für Alles Mögliche to showcase two new pieces in early 2016. One of the pieces involves setting the text of spam mail, whilst the other is both a collaboration with and a response to visual art.

For more from Siobhra, visit her Soundcloud page.