Conversations Blog #4: Daniel McDermott

Interview with Daniel McDermott

Trinity College Dublin 27/06/2014

Daniel McDermott
Daniel McDermott

Tell us a bit about yourself and the piece you've written for New Dublin Voices...

Hi my name is Daniel McDermott and I'm a composer and producer. I predominantly work with electronica and modern classical music. The piece that I've written for New Dublin Voice is called Obsessive Choral Disorder, OCD, and it's based on that actual obsessive compulsive disorder. I took a number of concepts or words that are associated with the actual disorder like an obsession with time and an obsession with numbers It is quite rhythmic, repetitive and quite fast, and you'll hear a lot of the time during the actual piece things like 'tick tick', 'check check' and the repetition of numbers. That was my approach to writing with the choir, so it is almost in a minimal fashion, and it's extremely rhythmic.

Have you written for a choir before?

I've had no past experience from writing with choirs and it was interesting working with New Dublin Voices to actually hear some of the techniques that they could do.

Are you currently influenced by specific contemporary artists?

I do tend to be heavily influenced by minimalists, also Frederic Rzewski, and the Irish guys, I love Donacha Dennehy's stuff and I'd also be into Bang On A Can, Michael Gordon and David Lang.

I tend to approach a lot of classical music with quite strong rhythms, strong beats, influenced by the likes of Bang On A Can and Crash Ensemble.

Where does this piece sit in your repertoire?

I don't know, because it's my first piece to write for voice, I would certainly take parts of it and I think I would revise parts of it to form a bigger piece.

How do you treat the relationship between composer and performer? Is there a dialogue back and forth?

I would certainly like more of that in actual performances because I find that often what you hear back on your computer is completely different from what you hear in a live setting. Sometimes it can be a shock to the system in terms of the parts that you think are strong that end up being weaker. I think dialogue is really important and I also think that it works to the benefit of both the performer and the composer. In my piece for NDV, I had a tempo marking that was far too slow and when we did it first in the rehearsal I couldn't actually believe how much it was dragging the rhythm. In the next rehearsal with them we bumped the tempo up by about 30bpm and it resulted in a much stronger performance of the piece.

How do you feel working with NDV has influenced your approach to working for voice again and how does the experience of writing this piece make you think about vocal writing having not necessarily done it before?

The complexity that they can achieve in vocal writing. After I heard my piece back and then I heard other people's pieces I thought 'oh god mine sounds really simple'. When it gets to the more lurid complex rhythms in my piece, they could sightread that stuff so easily. It's then that I thought they are actually capable of a lot more complex writing. But I'm certainly not one of those new complexity composers you know. I don't know, that's the way I would find it with them anyway.

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Premiere of Obsessive Choral Disorder by New Dublin Voices in St Ann's Church on July 12th. See who else is going here

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0'00 Extract 1 - Grit Listen to full track at goo.gl/mQcjiE

0'32 Interview begins

1'45 Extract 2 - The Lullaby Wars Listen to full track at goo.gl/krzEJ3

5'05 Extract 3 - In This Skin Listen to full track at goo.gl/HGqlrj

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Listen to more from Daniel at soundcloud.com/danielmcdermott

Conversations Blog #3: A View from the Choir, Eoin Conway

A view from the choir

New Dublin Voices’ working repertoire spans about four or five hundred years, with a greater emphasis on the contemporary than most choirs. But all the pieces we sing normally arrive to us fully-formed. This project has given us a glimpse into the act of composition, an opportunity to see musical material in embryonic form, growing and changing through various drafts. For us, interaction with composers normally means asking questions and adapting our performance to match what the composer wants. But workshops give opportunities for composers to try different approaches to see what works for the performers.

Singers are an idiosyncratic bunch, and writing for us must seem very counterintuitive to anyone who’s used to writing for instruments. A textbook will say to the young composer: here are the ranges of a soprano, alto, tenor and bass; now go forth and compose. For example, Wikipedia defines the bass range as “generally” reaching down to two octaves below middle C, and defines tenors as being able to sing to the C above middle C. What the textbooks won’t tell you is that singers with that kind of range are extremely rare. I’ve known choral directors to refer to them (in hushed, reverent tones) as “true tenors”, or “real basses”, etc., to distinguish them from all the tenors and basses out there. Even if the textbook advises a more conservative range, the arcane matters of tessitura and passagio, while matching high and low notes to the most appropriate vowels, can take years to master.

To complicate matters further, writing for several voices is a different discipline to writing for one voice, because relative range will affect the balance of the chords. A climactic passage which crescendoes out into bigger, richer harmonies, with everything from the highest, soaring treble to the deepest, thundering bass played together, sounds great or on a piano or in MIDI playback, but goes against the grain for a choir. The mismatched ranges will unbalance the chords, and making smaller subdivisions of voices will cancel out the effect of the crescendo.

Happily, the majority of the ICC composers arrived with a good grasp of these principles. Most of the issues arising in rehearsal, mundane though it sounds, were about notational clarity and ease of reading. One composer submitted a first draft printed in landscape format, which looks great… until you put all your concert music into a folder.

The primary rule of notation is to write your music so that it’s easiest to read. A different way of stating the obvious is that the music, as far as possible, should look the same way that it sounds. If a piece contains tonal chords, spelling them with a mixture of accidentals will create confusion. If a piece sounds gentle and not rhythmically charged, very precise rhythmic notation will undermine the mood. It’s hard to maintain a serene sound if the singers are counting furiously in their heads to navigate a thicket of rhythmic information. A disagreement between the eye and ear can be jarring enough to derail the piece.

That sounds so obvious that it's almost insulting to mention it. But in practice, when you’ve been working on a new piece for a long time, it’s not easy to take a step back and see it with fresh eyes. One piece arrived to us with a rhythmic pattern which was 5 crotchet beats long, and therefore notated in bars of 5/4. But that created oddities like triplets beginning halfway through beats, so we asked the composer to re-notate it in two bars of 5/8. The score now looks less tidy, but the rhythm is easier to process.

Clear notation applies most of all to uncommon or extended techniques. In our ICC pieces, we’ll be singing, speaking, ululating, sliding between notes, singing our highest possible notes, clasping our hands over our mouths, breathing loudly, and imitating seagulls. Anything is possible, as long as the notation is clearly explained. One piece included an aleatoric section, unbarred, with stemless notes, saying that singers should use the written pitches “as a guide for the melody”. This meant that singers should use the written pitches in free rhythm. But “as a guide” is a little ambiguous. It could also have meant “use approximately these pitches”, so we had to double-check.

All this nitpicking about notation sounds like a small point, and indeed it only poses a problem on the first or second readings through a new piece. But first impressions matter, and they can make the difference between a choir persevering with a new piece or not. It is my hope that the composers will come away from the project with pieces capable of taking on a life of their own.

[ - Eoin Conway is a freelance musician, and countertenor with New Dublin Voices  ]

Conversations Blog #2: Patrick Connolly

To One Dead

This work was inspired by the writings of poet Francis Ledwidge and is one of a number of works I am currently composing that utilises his poetry. Ledwidge was born in Slane, County Meath and wrote many short poems depicting the landscapes of Ireland. Like so many of his poems this text is full of strong imagery describing nature “blackbird singing” and “bluebells swinging”. As a composer is it wonderful to work with a text that contains such vivid imagery and I tried to represent these images through the use of rich, condensed harmonies.

This poem, again like many of Ledwidge’s, is simple in its construction consisting of two verses of short fragmented lines. I tried to convey this feeling of simplicity in the work, with the use of simple rhythms and melodic phrases. In essence I tried to capture the mood of restrained sorrow found in the poem, of descriptive scenes of nature and the longing conveyed in the final phrase “the silence was for you, the sorrow was for me”. I particularly enjoy writing music for voices, and this is my second large scale work for unaccompanied choir (the first being my 2011 work Geimhridh). I find once I stumble across a text that I feel I can work and connect with, the compositional process is relatively straightforward. A key task for me is finding and understanding the soundworld of the text I am working with and then trying to devise a way to replicate this in music. A good text will have an inherent musical quality and through imagery and phrase patterns will almost suggest music to the composer, all we have to do is write it down! I like to work with poetry that deals with nature, particularly the nature of an Ancient Ireland that perhaps doesn’t exist anymore.

The process of working with a group like the New Dublin Voices is an exciting one.  The workshop was very informative and it was exciting to hear some new works by my colleagues in the Collective. A group like the New Dublin Voices care about the music and the suggestions they make are for the good of the piece, and for the good of the performance. There is also the exhilaration of hearing a new piece for the first time and seeing how the sounds in your head are replicated in real life. I am not a fan of hearing my music in a concert setting and I much prefer hearing it in this type of workshop, where there is interaction and an exchanging of musical ideas involved. After any suggestions have been made and corrected the work is out of my hands and it is up for the performers to present it to a (hopefully!) willing audience.

Conversations blog #1: Donal MacErlaine

the bubbles of the whirlpool break, and form again, and disappear again 

The Text

The text is from the opening of a beautiful memoir written by a Japanese hermit Buddhist in the twelfth century by the name of Kamo No Chomei. This man renounced material possessions, leaving the city to live in the wild sometime in his thirties. He spent the remainder of his long life there playing music, meditating, and writing poetry. As far as I'm aware, this memoir is his only prose, and the only documentation of his existence.

The text itself is simply one line of Kamo No Chomei's. 'The bubbles of the whirlpool break, and form again, and disappear again.' This idea of perpetual change is one of the central messages of Buddhism. Within a universe described as this, it is logically impossible to identify things as fixed, and therefore giving a name to things denies this truth. So in the line is a paradox: as a whole it speaks of impermanence; but in its detail it denies this by supposing that things such as bubbles and whirlpools exist as entities. Much of the Japanese tradition of Buddhism focuses on paradoxes such as these, often in the form of koans. As the act of composition is, in a way, measuring out time, I thought it was an appropriate text. It works then as a sort of vague self reference.

Process of writing

I had done another choral work, but that piece had chewed up the text so much that I don't think it would be possible to hear it through the musical texture [Solomon Grundy, recent winner of the Sean O'Riada Composition Competition]. That suited it, in a way, as the text was absurdist. In this piece, however, the words do have a poignancy which I'd like to maintain and allow to shine through, which is why the full text makes up the title. In this way, then, the audience has already been given the plot. There are no surprises. I threw lots of material out when writing this piece. In the end I opted for a much simpler piece than I had originally intended, and that I usually compose. Despite this, some elements remain, such as the tremolo material that weaves itself through the piece as a whole.

Working with NDV

Working with this choir and Bernie was a fabulous experience. I was surprised at how insightful some of the singers' comments were in terms of composition. Unfortunately I didn't get to hear the whole rehearsal, but some of the other pieces I did hear were of astounding quality. I often find workshops and rehearsals of my work more interesting than concerts. This is partly because the informalities of rehearsing mean a better interaction between people generally, but mainly it's down to the way that ideas are questioned, stretched, trampled upon, and kicked around. It's a fun process. It's the same as the act of composition itself in that it's the way material is treated rather than something inherent in the material that makes a piece interesting. Just consider how much Beethoven got out of his 4-note motif which opens his Fifth Symphony. And three of those notes are on the same pitch!

Composition is essentially a lonely process and it's experiences exactly like these that reinvigorate and re-energise composers. It's inspiring to hear your own piece performed by such a talented choir. And it can be even more so to hear others' pieces – and see the diversity of design that arises when a group come together to organise sound.

- Donal MacErlaine

the bubbles of the whirlpool break, and form again, and disappear again   will be performed by New Dublin Voices on 5 April at the University Church, Stephen's Green

Introducing: Conversations, with New Dublin Voices

Composing for Choirs workshop - 26 Feb, 7pm, Katherine Brennan Hall, RIAM Conversations I  – 5 Apr, 8.30pm, University Church, Stephen's Green

The ICC is delighted to announce the details of a new collaboration between us and 'Ireland's Choir of the Year', New Dublin Voices, directed by Bernie Sherlock

Conversations is a collaborative project that aims to develop a new Irish repertoire of choral music, and to facilitate close communication between choral practitioners, composers and the public.

The project sees Bernie Sherlock and the choir give workshops on contemporary repertoire and on writing for choir, the next of which will take place at 7pm on 26 February at the Katherine Brennan Hall in the RIAM on Westland Row. The workshop is FREE and open to the public, and should be of great interest to singers, students, composers, and choral music fans!

Conversations will culminate in two concerts, each featuring the world premiere of seven new works, the result of collaboration between the choir and member composers. Conversations I will take place at 8.30pm on 5 April at the University Church on Stephen's Green.

Conversations Composers: Ryan Molloy, David Collier, Peter Leavy, Éna Brennan, David Bremner, Richard Gill, Daniel McDermott, Patrick Connolly, Kian Geiselbrechtinger, Sean Doherty, David O'Regan, Donal MacErlaine, Anna Clifford, Hugh Boyle

Conversations is generously supported by the Arts Council of Ireland