Alt Notes #4 | Jenn Kirby

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 had the chance to speak with a composer and musician who knows no boundaries when it comes to music. Jenn Kirby’s catalogue of works shows versatility and an experimentation with sound that is a staple of the Irish composer scene’s originality. Kirby’s unique take on music and sound and how it can be put to use is inspiring and her work is no different.

What made you want to start composing? 

I don’t remember starting to compose or making a conscious decision to do so. I played guitar when I was young and used to, or at least attempt to, write songs. I grew bored of this and when I learned about new music, electroacoustic music, contemporary classical and noise music, I loved it and wanted to be apart of it. I loved how free it was. I realised that I found pop, rock and other genres constrained. I enjoy listening to it, but I realised it wasn’t the music I wanted to create.

How would you describe your music? What made you want to write music of this style?

I write in a very sectionalised form that is usually anti-developmental. I write a lot of electroacoustic music, a lot of which is for the Dublin Laptop Orchestra, as well as contemporary instrumental music. My electroacoustic music tends to be very noisy, while my instrumental music generally focuses more on subtly.


I often use theatrical elements and surprise to subvert the audience. Why? For fun! I try to write music that is fun, energetic and sometimes a little tongue-in-cheek. Not every piece of music I write has this aim in mind, but I’m very interested in how audiences respond to music. And if they respond to my music with laughter, I feel I’ve succeeded in some way.

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

It’s different each time really. I find it very helpful to picture the performer. It is easier in a sense if I know who I’m writing for and the space it will be first performed in. This is more important when I’m using theatrical elements. I spend quite a while thinking about what questions the music might be asking, thinking about the performer, even drawing them on stage to help spark ideas. Like many composers, I get inspiration from very different things. For example, one piece, ‘Tripping’, was inspired by someone stumbling on cobblestones. I just thought about what it feels to trip up, when you are teetering on the edge of falling or saving yourself and how time seems to slow down in these moments. Of course it does not ‘sound’ like someone tripping, but the piece goes through some cartoon-like tripping scenarios, like everything falling out of your pockets and bouncing down the street.

I guess I am often inspired by mundane things or even depressing things. A few years ago I wrote a spoken word piece called Big Scary Numbers, which was inspired by the recession and its effect on language. I thought maybe children should no longer be learning “A is for Apple”, but instead “A is for Austerity”. The material itself is pretty dark, but I did my best to make it light-hearted and humorous.

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Does your creative process evolve as you write?

I think it changes as I go. Sometimes it can be hours and hours of generating material until I see something in one bar I like and I begin again with just that. Other times I’ll work out the structure of the piece and then it’s almost a matter of filling in the blanks. After which I usually go back and restructure everything again, dealing with sections as almost discrete elements and piecing them together in a puzzle.

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

Everyone’s music is different and we all perceive it differently. I would like to say my use of humour in music is a little different, but someone might respond with ‘what humour?’ What is funny to me may not be funny to someone else. One of the things I strive for in my music, is bringing the audience and the performer closer together by dissolving the ethereal barrier between them. I try to do this through theatrical and humourous elements.

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

I no longer live in Ireland, but this has only made me more aware of the importance of organisations such as the Irish Composers Collective, the Association of Irish Composers and the Contemporary Music Centre of Irelandand also the big supporters of new music like Bernard Clarke, who regularly features Irish composers on his radio show Nova. Having moved away, I have a newfound appreciation for not only these organisations but for the creativity and DIY culture in Irish music. The diversity of the music, even within the contemporary music scene is really exciting.

The composer community is very supportive and even though we are often in direct competition with one another, with grants, commissions and such, composers and musicians are genuinely interested in what others are doing and this makes collaborations possible. Of course there is little to no money to do what we may want to do, but people are setting up their own collectives and ensembles and doing what they can with what they have.

What’s coming up?

Hiromi Okumura and I regularly work together. We currently have an exhibition at Washington State University. I recently got to be apart of Mean Time, a project by Rachel Ní Chuinn & La Cosa Preziosa which took place on Culture Night in Dublin Institute of Design.

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Any new pieces of note?

I’m currently – and have been for a while – working on an album of guitar pieces that aim to decontextualise the electric guitar and recontextualise it in noise music. The album extracts the guitar’s typical associations and highlights it as a timbrally complex sound source. With reduced listening comes reduced exploration, delving deep into the timbre of the electric guitar to extrapolate the subtleties and magnify and reduce different aspects of the timbre. At least that’s the idea anyway. The above track is a work in progress.

You can find more of Jenn Kirby’s work on her website and her Soundcloud page.