Daniel Figgis is the latest composer, following Nico Muhly and Andrew Hamilton, to be commissioned by the Crash Ensemble. The result is dimmerswitch, a work with a jagged persistence that has led to the word ‘steampunk’ — the use of anachronistic or deliberately decrepit technology — being bandied with abandon in all descriptions of the piece. However, there is a great deal more to the piece than ‘wonky’ technology. It is a reaction to the birth of the composer’s son, and his subsequent sensitivity to the transfer — and depletion — of life forces and energy; a realisation that the ‘dimmerswitch is on’. Despite this steampunk aesthetic, there is a determined resilience to this piece as well as a rich and exuberent soundworld. The composer spoke to Anna Murray about the ideas behind dimmerswitch ahead of its premiere at the Galway Arts Festival on 19 July.
Tell us a little about dimmerswitch.
Initially I was commissioned by Crash Ensemble to write a piece for the extended (ten-person) lineup. I decided to add another twenty-three ‘tape’ elements into the mix.
How did you realise your ideas musically in the piece?
dimmerswitch addresses birth, growth and decay. This was arrived at through relatively traditional compositional means. I don’t want to get into a forensic description of how it unfolds. Why spoil the surprise?
How have people reacted to the apparently morbid subject matter of the piece? Do you see it as such?
Not really and nobody has heard the work fully realised yet. There is a certain poignancy to the piece but a dimmerswitch turns in both directions — ‘fade up’ or ‘fade down’. And this work presents the audience with a topsy-turvy roller-coaster sound world. Mood swings.
Your experience as a new father has had an influence over this work. How has parenthood influenced you as a composer?
That’s proving very difficult to tell as yet. I am happier than I have ever been. Writing is now my principal stressor!
With each performance, you will be incorporating recordings of previous performances into the tape, so that it is a piece that is constantly growing rather than decaying. This seems to be almost contrary to the dimmerswitch idea. How do you reconcile the two?
The ongoing hazing of the picture is very dimmerswitch. It does not get bigger at all — it drifts in the fugue of the half-remembered. It becomes an aggregation of the little notes that tried.
Is this kind of dynamic automatic process — almost a constant re-composition of the work — something you have explored in other work?
This is re-composition in an entirely different sense. The original recompositions were new recorded works made exclusively from elements of previous recordings. This piece modifies itself ever so subtly over time.
You have a clear interest in the combination of live and digital sources. Where did this interest come from?
I’ve been working in this way since I was seventeen years old. How to explain? It seemed the way to go when my tools were a drumkit, a dictaphone, a borrowed Revox and a pair of scissors.
How did you integrate the tape and live instrumental parts in dimmerswitch?
The piece is essentially both dialogue and dialectic — thesis, antithesis, synthesis. The tape and the live players are in an agitated conversation for the first half. It’s a friendly competition.
You have described the tape as ‘steampunk’, though simultaneously as ‘forest-y’: what do you mean by those descriptions?
I used the term ‘steampunk’ as a shorthand for a particular aesthetic. I hear the core of the tape piece as tech-savvy yet deliberately wonky — a faulty relic oiling and soiling itself. The centre cannot hold. I rather fancy it veered off course and ended up in a forest. By a waterfall. At night. After one of those Irish monsoony rainstorms.
How did you find working with Crash on this piece?
Quite the pleasure I had expected.
Did you work closely with the ensemble when composing?
Not at all. That starts in rehearsal tomorrow (Tuesday) which I am so looking forward to. Before that point I like to keep in touch but I expect to be left alone, getting all forest-y.
Much of your recent works have been for larger-scale and site-specific projects: how did you tailor your approach for working with Crash?
In this case I had to think site-neutral as I have no idea of when and where this work will be performed, bar Thursday’s world premiere at Galway Arts Festival [in St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church]. Obviously the piece was not conceived particularly with a church in mind but a church feels like a very appropriate place to start. There are unsung canticle aspects to the dimmerswitch resolution — a thematic reiteration bolstered by very cathedralesque bass pedals.
Do you think your experience of working on this piece with Crash will influence your future work?
I think that what I’m doing next will prove yet another pleasant surprise. Fingers-crossed.
A pre-show talk with Donnacha Dennehy, Kate Ellis and composer Daniel Figgis will take place on 19 July, at St Nicholas Collegiate Church at 7pm. Galway Arts Festival Artistic Director Paul Fahy will introduce the talk and City Arts Officeer James C. Harold will be the talk facilitator. The concert starts at 8pm.
Published on 16 July 2012