Stargazers

Stargazers

Benedict Schlepper-Connolly gives an insider’s view of the Irish Composers’ Collective.

Photo: Lucy Clarke

There are Perseids overhead as I write; a vast meteor shower, filaments of dust that are thousands of years old. The world of music, and the people that make it, seems trivial by comparison, wanting scale, mystery, beauty. But the words of Lao Tzu, almost as old as these night flickers, resound: the world of men, too, is ‘with the dusty world’. Somewhere, in the flick of a bow, the crushed triplet, and the thick clouds of gig talk lie ten thousand constellations. Music lives by dense ecologies, people and things in complex systems of dust.

In 2004 the composer David Flynn wrote an article in JMI announcing the birth of a new organisation: the Young Composers’ Collective (YCC). Flynn alleged that organisations such as the Association of Irish Composers (AIC) and the Contemporary Music Centre (CMC) were not providing for young composers. ‘There is currently no support network for young Irish composers,’ he wrote. In reality, the situation was less extreme, and both organisations were quick to respond to Flynn’s accusations.

As is pointed out elsewhere in this issue by Peter Rosser, too much emphasis is placed on ‘provision’; there is a tendency to see funding and resource organisations as glorified babysitters, resulting in systematic complacency. Whatever the impetus behind the founding of the YCC, it marked a shift toward personal responsibility over the idea of provision by an establishment: if no one is helping you, help yourself.

The focus of the organisation has always been to organise concerts of music by its members. A by-product of this has been the development of a hub for new music, and a strong community of composers. The very first concert, in December 2004, set the bar high, with a solo performance by pianist David Adams at the Goethe Institut on Dublin’s Merrion Square. The Collective successfully established and maintained a template of high-quality solo, duo or trio performances, but, with the primary source of funding being ticket sales and isolated acts of goodwill, concerts could never include a greater number of players, nor could they happen outside of Dublin. Now, dozens of premieres and hundreds of cups of black coffee later, the group is expanding the breadth of its activity, changing its name to the Irish Composers’ Collective and launching its own performing group, Ensemble ICC.

The change of name was inevitable. Over the years, repeated attempts to adequately define the term ‘young composer’ left unsatisfactory results. A guideline age of thirty-five was once imposed, but this overlooked that the development of a composer is often unrelated to age, with many in their mid-twenties leading more active careers than those twice their age. Another issue that faced the Collective was that the membership itself was growing older, but that beyond the Collective, no other similar community – that is, one which involves the regular meeting of peers and frequent performance opportunities – existed for older composers. It was also suggested that the presence of the more experienced and less experienced composers would be mutually beneficial. In retrospect, the notion that the Collective would restrict membership on the basis of age or experience was as exclusive as the admission terms of the organisations it was initially reacting to. The solution was to open the membership to any composer born or based in Ireland who felt they could benefit from being a member, with ‘a particular emphasis on the professional development of its members … particularly those at the earlier stages of their careers’. Membership is to be capped annually, in order to maintain the effective distribution of resources, so a sudden influx of more members than the Collective can handle is not about to happen.

The ICC, now with nearly forty members, is but one fruit of an entrepreneurial spirit that has infected the country in recent years and which has resulted in a sharp increase in the number of people composing. There could be many reasons for this explosion of activity, but I suspect key factors include the development of isolated pockets of high-quality music education (in particular music technology), the persistent effect of longer-standing incubators, such as the Irish Composition Summer School, and more state support for music. The increase in activity fuels itself, making Ireland a place where composers want to live and work: it was once protocol for a composer to move abroad, at least to study; young composers are now reluctant to leave, fearing missing out on the bubbling energy.

But life in an organisation-cum-family like the ICC is not quite so glamorous as this image of vitality might suggest. With a diverse membership of strong minds and sharp tongues, debates can be quick to ignite and slow to resolve. The concept of collective responsibility is utopian; in reality the dog-work is carried out by a dedicated few. New structures coinciding with the name change promise greater involvement of all members, but there is also an awareness that too many hands make chaotic work. Yet, despite everything, it does work, and even with the most circular discussion dragging on in a Dublin hotel on a rainy Saturday afternoon, the justification for such collective activity is never in question. Composition is a lonely thing, especially outside the university, and doubts left to germinate in isolation can be crippling to even the most weathered. As one member, Dónal Sarsfield, told me, the richest achievement of the Collective has been the creation of ‘a social convergence of like-minded people’. If there wasn’t a support network for composers (young or old) five years ago, there certainly is now.

Interestingly, this hasn’t resulted in homogeneity of musical style. There are as many individual voices as there are composers. No stylistic or aesthetic school dominates, even among former students of the same teacher. Much of this could be down to the diversity of backgrounds – from electronica to traditional music – but it’s also telling that there is very little talk of music itself when the Collective meets. Irish composers, in particular, don’t tend to talk about their work, perhaps for fear of exposure to criticism, or because there is less emphasis in Ireland on intellectual rigour, more on intuitive writing; it’s a private thing, like religion. But the ICC’s musical diversity may also be a consequence of the Collective’s democratic and non-exclusive ideals, which result in concert programmes that are entirely random, literally picked out of a hat. This dismisses curation in the conventional sense, something that that would seem anathema. In this context, the chaotic miscellany is unapologetic; it’s important for concert programmes to reflect the unlikely, wildly incongruous convergence of minds that made them.

Photo: Lucy Clarke

Beyond the Scratch
A repertoire of small-scale chamber music was piling higher and higher. Composers, writing for the performance opportunities that existed, generally eliminated ensemble, let alone orchestral, writing from the equation. Ensemble ICC will gradually address the dearth in writing for larger forces. But apart from the much larger resource available to composers (and we forget that audiences also benefit), Ensemble ICC begins to fulfil some of the Collective’s other ambitions. As a touring band, the music of ICC composers will be performed outside Dublin on a regular basis, building audiences nationwide, with a view to playing internationally. This also introduces the concept of the repeat performance, something composers read about in history books but never really believed existed.

Starting as a five-piece ensemble, the instrumentation will fluctuate from gig to gig, with various combinations drawn from a small pool of musicians. This pool combines familiar faces from the Collective’s past concerts, such as the cellist Kate Ellis (cello) or Daniel Bodwell (bass), as well as new additions such as Cora Venus Lunny (viola), Karl Rooney (saxophone) and Roger Moffat (percussion), among others. The presence of a regular source of dedicated and interested instrumentalists elevates the group a step above the scratch ensemble, ensuring that composers and performers can develop lasting and instructive relationships.

With the foundation of Ensemble ICC, the organisation has entered a new stage of life. The Collective now has a whole new family of musicians, technicians, cities, schedules and logistics to keep it lying awake at night. But it doesn’t go blindly, with established groups like the Crash Ensemble blazing the trail. Though the nights ahead may be sleepless, the black coffee is still in plentiful supply, and there are stars to guide.

Ensemble ICC debuts this month in Dublin (Unitarian Church, 4 September, 8pm) and Galway (St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church, 5 September, 8pm) followed by further performances in October. Visit www.irishcomposerscollective.org

Published on 1 September 2008

Benedict Schlepper-Connolly is a composer and a director of Ergodos, a production company and record label. schlepperconnolly.com

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