Alexander Bernstein of Kirkos on piano at Blackout. Photo: Jonathan Nangle.


Anna Murray talks to the director of new student-run contemporary music ensemble Kirkos after Blackout, their final performance of the season.

Kirkos is the Royal Irish Academy of Music’s (RIAM) first student-run ensemble, focussed on providing student performers with an opportunity to explore contemporary music composition. Supported by the RIAM, but led and directed entirely by students under the guidance of founder Sebastian Adams, the twelve-strong ensemble launched in April with a concert at St Ann’s Church in Dublin. In each concert since, Kirkos have shown their dedication to new Irish music by programming works by both student and established Irish composers. They have performed works by Jonathan Nangle, Kevin O’Connell, Emma O’Halloran, Nori Krupp as well as ensemble members Sebastian Adams and Robert Coleman, and Kirkos also hosted a John Cage centenary event combining music and talks.

The ensemble’s maiden season came to a close with a special invite-only event that marked their greatest performance challenge so far. Matching a very difficult programme with a flair for theatricality, Blackout was an exploration of the music of Olivier Messiaen: a dark room lit only by candles, with musicians located around the audience illuminated only by a spotlight, a stark reflection of the time the composer spent at Stalag VIII-A, a prisoner-of-war camp. The programme was a balance of new solo works, written for the same instruments available to the composer while in the camp (violin, cello, clarinet and piano), and Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps.

Sebastian Adams’ own adenosine and adrenaline for solo violin opened the concert — a single spotlight on the player Colm Ó Braon as he stood on the floor close to the tables, made for an arresting beginning. This was followed by Jonathan Nangle’s Particle, a work for clarinet and tape from 2008 deftly handled by Léonie Bluett performed from a balcony behind the audience, and Kevin O’Connell’s more lighthearted Epithalamium 1 & 2, performed from amongst the tables. Another student composition followed in Robert Coleman’s Still Life IV, an impressive work for solo piano built of complex layers and very demanding of its performer, Alexander Bernstein. The concert came to a close with the Messaien quartet, performed with sensitivity and confidence by the student ensemble.

After Blackout, The Journal of Musicspoke to Sebastian Adams, founder and director of the ensemble, about the motivations behind establishing Kirkos.

You are a composer and viola player; how did you get interested in contemporary music yourself?

I suppose you could say it’s in my genes. My parents have a story about when I was two. They came in to find me sitting in front of an upturned rocking horse, bashing away at it and wiping sweat theatrically from my brow. When asked what I was doing I replied that I was practicing The Chair (a Gerald Barry piece my dad [organist and harpsichordist David Adams] was learning at the time). So then I spent my whole childhood being dragged around concerts of all kinds. I was often very bored, but obviously something sank in over the years! Despite all that, I must admit that I was about sixteen before I would accept that anyone actually liked contemporary music!

What was the motivation behind setting up Kirkos?

I had been toying with the idea of setting up a contemporary music ensemble for a long time, but had been put off by the fact that there was a teacher-run ensemble, Ictus, in the RIAM already, so I thought my own one would be a bit redundant. Then I found out that the teachers wanted to get Ictus off their hands (these things take far more energy than an outsider can imagine) and so Kirkos was born (after months of agonising over the name… Topless Music Ensemble anyone?).

The main reason I wanted to start something like Kirkos is that I saw a huge gap beneath the likes of Crash and Concorde, and other well-established ensembles. There is very little contemporary music at student level in this country, and much of what there is consists of workshops, etc. So I think I saw a way to introduce student performers and student audiences to modern music. And of course if I am in charge of programming, I can make sure I always get a piece performed!

Why do you think there has never been a student contemporary ensemble at the Royal Irish Academy of Music before now?

The only reason I can think of is that the BA in Composition at RIAM is relatively new — it’s only four or five years old. Now for the first time there is a body of composers in the institution big enough (just about) to support an ensemble like Kirkos. Other than that, maybe it is one of those ideas that seem so obvious now that someone has thought of it.

What are the aims of Kirkos?

I feel as if Kirkos has four aims, in this order: 1) To expose young people (particularly students of the RIAM) to contemporary music, and to create an audience among the next generation of concert goers. We recently had a [John] Cage concert (including a lot of pretty out-there stuff) in the Academy; about twenty students went. Whether they liked it or not, this can only be a good thing.

2) To get works by our composers performed. Goes without saying really!

3) To further contemporary music in general by performing whatever we feel like.

4) To integrate the RIAM with the Dublin contemporary music scene.

Do you think you’ve achieved these four aims so far?

A lot done, more to do… Certainly I think we have already managed to create an appetite for contemporary music within the RIAM which did not exist before, which is something that has the potential to grow immensely. We have also already performed about fifteen works by RIAM students and teachers, including a number of [world] premieres and Irish premieres. As to integrating the RIAM with the new music scene, we are working on this. Tempting the new music crowd in to the RIAM is proving difficult, but I think that it is something which will be achieved through sustained hard work over the next few years, and not something that will happen overnight.

How do you decide on your programming?

A lot of it is through necessity. We have these instruments, and we have these pieces by those composers and, if we do this, then we have a fifty minute programme, and so on! There are not many composers in the RIAM and it can be all we can do sometimes to put together an achievable hour of music.

On the other hand, good programming is something that is very important to me. Going to concerts by people like Ergodos and my father has opened my eyes to the fact that having some kind of concept or unifying theme running through a concert (as a composer would have running through a large work) can improve the experience immensely. In the Cage 100 and Blackout concerts we concentrated more on this kind of clever programming, and it is something we will be doing more of in the future.

You went full-tilt into concerts as soon as you launched, it must have been very difficult for student musicians to keep up with the schedule.

We have some very special students in the academy. We have had numerous examples of players doing Kirkos concerts a week after being finalists in international competitions, three days before final masters recitals, two weeks after big concerto performances. There is always a lot going on for everyone at the Academy, and I think the reason Kirkos has worked is because the performers think it is something worthwhile. I think there have been many times where people (not least myself) have been left totally shattered and stressed by Kirkos, but probably none where people have regretted doing it.

In any case, the standard and attitude of the best students at the RIAM is not just close to professional, it is equal to it. I have said time and time again that the thing which separates Kirkos from other student/amateur contemporary music ensembles is that we have not only the exuberance of youth on our side, but the professionalism and technique of top-class musicians.

Where did the idea for Blackout come from?

Blackout began as an idea of Colm Ó Braoin’s. Colm has essentially been my right-hand man this year, we were drinking Trappist beer on a balcony in Antwerp when he casually mentioned the idea of coupling my violin piece and three other solo pieces and Messiaen’s Quatour in a programme played in the dark. Twenty minutes later, virtually every detail had been decided, to the point where I don’t think either of us knows whose idea it was to put Léonie on the balcony.

Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps is a very challenging work – can you tell me why you chose it, and the other pieces on the programme?

Three of them played it together last year for a chamber music exam (these are the kind of people we are lucky enough to have at the RIAM, never taking the easy way out!). Their standard is through the roof, for example Alex Bernstein just came fourth in the Dublin International Piano Competition about a month ago. I can’t say it enough times, these people may be students, but there is nothing they can’t play. It was a terrific performance of an emotionally intense and technically difficult masterpiece

Well, Colm could already play my violin piece, Léonie had made it her mission to learn Jonathan Nangle’s Particle, so that made sense. It made sense to represent one more student, and Kevin [O’Connell, lecturer at RIAM]. We picked Rob’s piano piece partly because it is a great piece and partly because he put a huge amount of work into Kirkos this year (the beautiful logo is his). Also the four pieces complemented one another very well, in my opinion. And it was always the plan to have a solo piece for each member of the quartet.

What is in the future for Kirkos, especially given that students will move on once they have finished in RIAM?

The fact that there will always be turnover of students was something that seemed to me, at first, the big drawback of starting this thing through the RIAM. But, while we may lose great people every year (and it is a fact that there may not always immediately be a direct replacement), there will always be more great people coming through. We are also keen to have recent alumni back to take part in Kirkos, which is something that already happened this year. You don’t necessarily leave RIAM just because you finish your degree. From a backroom point of view, I can’t see myself remaining as Director beyond the end of my degree, but this will not be a problem. Probably by that point fresh blood will be a good thing anyway.

We are penciled in to support the Music Educators’ Orchestra on 21 June [love:live music day], and I have a couple more plans hatching for over the summer. For next year I am hoping we will put on even more concerts than we did this year — we have had five spread over two months since April; eight spread over eight months will seem pedestrian by comparison. We are hoping to have one more installation of our John Cage celebration (perhaps his Sonatas and Interludes?) and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies will be visiting the RIAM in March of next year, so we are hoping to put on a concert centred on a big piece of his. Everything else will remain a secret for now, but rest assured, there will be lots going on.

One of my main preoccupations with Kirkos is to make our concerts stick out from other events as much as possible. You will have seen this already with little (perhaps unique?) touches like having baked goods prepared by the performers before concerts. I think the salon-style presentation of the Blackout concert (though unlike Kaleidoscope) is something that has a lot of mileage and we will be looking to expand on that idea. I believe that a good concert experience is as much about presentation and atmosphere as it is about music, and this is something that will continue to be a priority for Kirkos.

Published on 18 June 2012

Anna Murray is Assistant Editor of The Journal of Music. Her website is

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