Alt Notes #2 | Irish composer and producer Daniel McDermott

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 spoke to Irish composer and producer Daniel McDermott. What initially caught my attention about McDermott was his musical versatility and crossover of genres. This is a composer who refuses to accept any limits when it comes to music and style. Ranging from contemporary classical to minimal electronica, there is a certain manipulation of sound and freedom with experimentation that is unique to McDermott’s style.

What made you want to start composing? 

Daniel McDermott: Composing and improvising always seems more natural to me than performing other people’s music. I would sooner walk onto stage to improvise from nothing. Not because of superiority but because I honestly believe I cannot do justice to other composer’s works. Everything feels so technically focused in performance; whereas I can relax and express or communicate easier with my own. It has taken me years to realize this. My music is my music; no matter how bad or how good it may be. Then there is the simple joy of creating; which is a meditation in itself. It’s fun and beautiful.


How would you describe your music and what has inspired it?

As a composer and producer, my music is poly-stylistic and anti-stylistic. Like John Zorn or Nitin Sawhney’s musical output; it is hard to categorise. It is all styles, no styles and my style. It incorporates elements of electronic music, minimalism, modern classical, film scores, jazz, world music, melodic ideas and it is usually quite rhythmical. I admire and spent years learning the virtuoso guitar players like Steve Vai and great pianists like Keith Jarrett. I also love creative pop production, such as Grimes, James Blake, Burial,  Ben Frost and Nico Jaar. Anything that warps normal ideas of what a musical “idea” should be interests me.

But at heart I believe in minimalism; one idea developed. This is why I love electronic music. Anything that sounds superfluous to me will be culled from the score or the mix. I also believe in communication with the audience. I would never write my music FOR the audience, which is an art form in itself, but I would like them to take something from it. Otherwise it is communicating nothing; it is just notes dying in the air before a listener. If it is not expressing anything and is acting as some kind of academic or emotional catharsis for the composer, I am not really interested.

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

Always improvising first. I used to slave over mixes and scores but I am trying to work fast and intuitively now. Usually I have an idea that has ‘too many notes’ and a lot of my time is spent getting a good idea down to it’s perfected state; a motif that stands on its own, usually distinguishable within a couple of bars. Then I add material or sounds to add, distract, develop, mutate or destroy that idea. I am not really a composer who takes ideas from great works of art or poems.

If anything I admire the composers like Aphex Twin and Zappa who employ pop culture to inspire and ridicule. But for me, inspiration for creativity always comes from other music, music theory, numbers, rhythm or my piano or new music programs, sequencers, hardware, software, VSTs or synths. I will imitate and copy other musical ideas and then it somehow returns back to me sounding like my music.

Does your creative process evolve as you write?

It evolves and sometimes completely changes into something different. I will always follow my instinct as opposed to sticking to what the original intent may have been. Normally, the “I spent 10 hours a day for 5 months in a room with a piano” compositions do not pay dividends for me. You lose focus and ideas that are not worthy suddenly begin to sound good because you are tired mentally and aurally. I like to work in many short bursts of creativity as opposed to doing three months solid. I find working often for short periods stops the music and your mind from losing perspective. Composing can be a very lonely art and can get quite obsessive. It is important to keep your mind healthy and to keep things in context. All the rest will flow if your mind is working for you and not against you!

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In what way is your music different to what is already out there?

I don’t know if it is different! Just like Stravinsky said : “A good composer does not imitate; he steals”. I am 100% unoriginal. I steal and imitate from a wide variety of music and try and mould it into my music.  I tend to work in tonal frameworks, aggressive rhythmic ideas and slick production. I also use a lot of polyphony and popular music ideas. I suppose the unification of modern classical music with modern production ideas is what I am aiming for. Think Ableton live with a brass quartet or dubstep bass with clarinets, as featured in my track ‘The Lullaby Wars’. When I worked with the Crash Ensemble I tried fusing heavy metal with minimalism.

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

I don’t think Irish composers realise how lucky we are. We live in a small country with an amazingly supportive environment from our fellow performers . Groups like the Irish Composer’s Collective and Crash Ensemble do not exist for young composers in other counties. Getting access to the top performers and teachers in Ireland is not too difficult with the right attitude. Nights like the Free State and kaleidoscope are incredible opportunities for performers and composers. It would be nice to see more of these moving beyond Dublin and the larger urban areas.

Being a small country allows young composers access and exposure to very well established performers that you cannot get in New York or London. I also find that there are very talented Irish performers who go out of their way to work, program and perform with Irish composers. Clarinetist Paul Roe springs to mind as well as Crash Ensemble , Kate Ellis and The Fidelio trio. I also think DJ’s like Bernard Clarke and John Kelly deserve a medal for their promotion of more progressive music on Irish radio.

Any big performances or releases coming up?

I am in the middle of revamping my whole approach to production; different instruments, different approach to mixing and sound design. But there is always a new album in the pipeline.

Any new pieces in particular you can tell me about? 

I have a big piece for clarinet, piano, violin and cello for a Dublin premiere that is funky as hell. But I cannot tell you much more just yet!

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Photo credit: Sophie Murphy