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, I spoke to Dublin-based composer Robert Coleman. One of Ireland’s most unique and exciting composers, Robert’s music ranges from acoustic to electro-acoustic, to video and spatial performances, with works performed by some of the country’s most impressive musicians and ensembles including Kate Ellis, Fedelio Trio and Dublin Laptop Orchestra. I spoke to Robert about his composition style, his upcoming works and his many recent successes.
What began your interest in composing music?
Robert Coleman: Composing for me was a natural part of learning to play music at the piano. Whenever I would sit down to practice I would inevitably end up improvising and wanting to write my own music. Early on I played keyboards in bands with my friends. We all wrote songs and played them together. Even if I hadn’t written the song I would write my own keyboard part and so this encouraged creativity and writing music. The more I got into playing the piano the more I was drawn to explore the classical repertoire. I became, in a way, a little unsatisfied with the band approach and so took more serious to composing. I liked how I was the sole creator and felt I was more fully able to pursue the kind of sound that I wanted. That almost sounds a little selfish but I think it allowed me to commit more wholly, which in turn makes for better music.
How would you describe your style of composition and how did this evolve?
My music has evolved from all the different influences I’ve had over the years. I would certainly describe it as contemporary classical but then that doesn’t really say a lot these days. I usually write using tonal centres as a means of giving harmonic or musical progression to the piece. I’ve written for all kinds of instrumental groups, from solo instruments up to a full orchestra. Since piano is the instrument I play most, I think it has a special place within my composing so I am looking forward to writing a big piano work soon. Quite often my music is of a polyphonic nature and also can be quite dense. I enjoy detail and I like to experiment with structure. With each new piece I try to investigate something new, or else push an existing idea further – It wouldn’t be any fun any other way!
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Describe your creative process.
It can vary. Sometimes I will start at the piano, working with motifs and ideas until I feel like I’ve found something that can work for me. It can be as simple as finding the right chord, or just two notes and going from there. Recently I have been working from physical sketches. I previously studied architecture before I did my degree in composition and this has had a big effect on the way I work now. I find it easier to plan works in terms of form, shape, line and texture. It’s a very physical and abstract way of looking at music but seems quite natural to me. I spent a huge amount of time as a child building things from Lego and this combined with my training in architecture comes through in my approach to music.
Inspiration can be a lot of different things. Other music I’ve heard, art, books and places all can create what I would feel as just an initial seed for a work. However I don’t really need much inspiration as such to get going sometimes. Simply just sitting down and beginning to plan and write can be the best way to get the work written. Of course experience and an awareness of your own writing process all helps with it too.
Does your process evolve while you are writing a new piece?
I always find the start of the piece the most challenging. When writing the introduction to a piece I feel a need to establish the kind of harmony, sound world and mood. When that is taken care of, things usually move along quicker as I’m more informed of how the piece sounds.
One of your most interesting pieces of sound art is ‘There Once Was’ for spoken voice. How do you approach more experimental composition as opposed to instrumental composition?
I think it can be very liberating to work with different or experimental approaches. If you are not concerned with pitch, harmony or melody it frees you up to think quite differently about texture, form and the narrative of the piece. That is very much the approach I took with ‘There Once Was’ which was written for the Dublin Laptop Orchestra. DubLork are a group that does live improvised electronic music.
With this piece I really wanted to make use of the live element and so I used narrations of fairytales as material for the performers to live process with a specially designed patch. I gave them a graphic score giving them instructions about the structure and when to apply the processes. There was no music as such in the piece but I think it had a very clear idea which amounted to quite an enjoyable and different piece.
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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?
I’ve been quite fortunate in that the vast majority of the music I’ve written over the last four years or so has been performed. In most cases it has been written for a specific performer and I think this certainly adds a different dimension to the writing process. When you know the performer it makes the whole situation seem a bit more real and can also be really helpful if they can give suggestions and try things out with you. It also adds a little bit of extra pressure as I’ll usually want to impress them and write them a good piece!
What would you say makes your music unique?
I think any good artists are different by virtue of their will to experiment and do something new. Too many people work within a current style or trend and never work to develop a voice of their own.
How do you find being a composer on the Irish music scene?
For the moment I am really enjoying the Irish music scene. I am a recent graduate from the BA in Composition in RIAM and so feel like I am very much at the start of things with a long journey ahead. I am quite involved in the new music scene in Dublin, being the co-director of a young ensemble, Kirkos, and also now currently secretary of the Irish Composers Collective. For me, this has been vital in getting to know the scene and the people in it. My studies in RIAM not only gave me a great training, but also allowed me to get to know a whole generation of Irish musicians. As a composer it’s really important to develop these kind of relationships because it can be so hard, and even quite daunting to be looking for a performance of your next piece, and having no-one to play it!
Have you any performances or new pieces coming up soon?
My next performance is on June 4 as part of ICC InSight series. It’s an electroacoustic piece which will be performed in Smock Alley with live lighting/visual installation by Slipdraft. The piece is an exploration of shape and form and I’ve been quite influenced by Xenakis while writing this. I think he’s written some very powerful music and love how he writes in a very physical way.
After that I have the performance of my second string quartet at the West Cork Chamber Music Festival in Bantry on July 5. I’m delighted to have been chosen as a young composer there for the second year in a row since the festival was really such an inspiring experience last time for me.
In regards to new compositions, I’m writing a work for solo violin (possibly including movements for two violins and electronics) for violinist Jane Hackett. I’ve been fortunate to have received an Arts Council Bursary this year which will support me in writing a multi-movement piano work for pianist Billy O’Brien and a large scale work for Kirkos. I recently worked on a project called Running Blind with dancer Laura Sarah Dowdall and we’re planning on bringing that back bigger and better for a second phase in 2017 too.