'Our challenge is to reclaim intimacy.'

Composer Bill Whelan

'Our challenge is to reclaim intimacy.'

The composer Bill Whelan spoke of the challenges facing composers at the launch of the Music Composition Centre at Trinity College, Dublin. Here, we reprint his speech in full.

Bill Whelan delivering his address at the launch of the new Music Composition Centre. Photograph: Daryl Feehely.

The birth of a new Music Composition Centre at Trinity College, Dublin, was marked by a launch concert for an invited audience at the Samuel Beckett Theatre on Saturday, 21 January. Composers connected to the music centre were featured on the programme, including Bill Whelan, Evangelia Rigaki, Kevin Volans, Gerald Barry, Donnacha Dennehy and Linda Buckley, with performances from the Crash Ensemble, members of Ensemble Avalon, the Dublin Laptop Orchestra and Enda Bates (hexaphonic guitar). (Ensemble Avalon also hosted a public launch event the following day.) The evening also featured speeches by the provost of the university, Dr Patrick Prendergast, and composers Donnacha Dennehy, Evangelia Rigaki and Bill Whelan. Whelan’s address, reprinted below, officially launched the new centre.

The Music Composition Centre does not occupy a dedicated building; as Dennehy said, it is more ‘an umbrella organisation’ covering the activity composers active in the university. This activity includes teaching of composition at undergraduate and postgraduate level, a new M. Phil. in composition (starting 2012–2013), a series of guest lectures, Ensemble Avalon’s residency in the music department, and performances of music in and around the Trinity College. The stated aim of the centre is to provide ‘a new platform to produce active, practical composers equipped for the emerging music of the twenty-first century


The full text of Bill Whelan’s address: 

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;

On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

Recently, while thinking about the practicalities of following a career as a composer, Brutus’ urgent injunction in Julius Caesar kept clamouring in my inner ear. Rarely, it seemed to me, has a career as a composer been at such a crossroads.

A venerable Jesuit who taught me in school would turn to us every now and then in class and say, ‘Gentlemen, you are living in stirring times.’ That was true in the 1960s; his stark admonition resonates even more fifty years later. On this day when we celebrate the launch of the Centre for composition and contemporary practice, let us reflect at some of the challenges facing a young man or woman headed for a career in composition.

In the last few days, we have seen Wikipedia and other similar websites withdraw their services for twenty-four hours in protest at proposed legislation in the US to regulate piracy on the Internet.

This is all part of a turbulent conversation that has been growing in intensity since Napster first appeared in 1999. Driven by our cultural excitement at the seemingly infinite possibilities of the world wide web, we have rushed forward on this great technological tide with so much vigour that the landscape of music-making has been utterly transformed. Add to this our understandable discomfort with any notion of censorship or control, plus the seemingly global enthusiasms for freely available content, and we have all the elements necessary for a perfect storm. In the eye of that storm, we are encouraged to believe that the great battle is now joined between the struggling composer trying to find an audience, and the greedy record companies and middle-men grasping for their pound of flesh. In actual fact, both the composers and the record companies are slowly battling each other to death in the new cyber amphitheatre, while watched by the real beneficiaries — the Internet Service Providers who are feasting on the harvest of advertising revenue that ‘free’ content allows them access to. Perhaps my language here is somewhat immoderate, but I have become impatient watching young creators distract themselves with all kinds of entrepreneurial activities to support their careers. The great prize that the Internet promises is an enlarged audience. But if that audience has been reared on the idea that music is free, then how can the young composer make a living from a market that has no currency? Please let us not be beguiled by the suggestions that they can earn their income from merchandising, or by advertising products. Is music doomed to become some kind of endless jingle — a global hymn to commerce echoing around that great cathedral of the 21st century — the Internet shopping mall?

Another challenge facing the composer relates to the technology itself. As an early adapter to the possibilities presented by samplers, sequencers and synthesisers, I am very aware of their capacity to lead me down long avenues, not necessarily because I needed to go there — but just because I could. It was exciting, and adventurous, and while I sometimes had to reverse back out to where I started, the detour itself was helping to define my relationship with a fresh technology. As that technology develops further, and the relationship between man and machine changes, the very nature of composition will move and shift as the composer swops back and forth between the pen and the mouse, between the live performer and the sequenced sampler.

May I just draw attention to one final challenge facing us as composers — the relationship with our ancient friends — the audience.

In olden times (as my children used to call my childhood), we sat our listeners around fires and sang songs to them, or caused them to dance. Along the way, we provided them with music to enhance their rituals, comfort them in times of stress or celebrated their moments of joy. Then we sat them in great concert halls, with orchestras bursting with virtuosi, under the direction of mad conductors…. and we sent them home exhausted and happy or sometimes confused. We put them into smoky basement bars and introduced them to the experience of live composition, as jazz improvisers gave free reign to their spontaneous creative urges. Then, with the help of technology, we gathered them around gramophone speakers, and let them bring all this into their homes.

In all of these cases, performers and audience were both communal and intimate with each other. We had their undivided attention, and we returned that attention by trying to be as good as we could be and as interesting and innovative as possible. I suggest however that Music is a jealous lover. Once the object of its attention starts filing their nails, or watching the rugby, it can retreat into itself. In a world where we are being asked to supply ringtones, accompany computer games, share the stage with a clamorous Babel of other media, our challenge is to reclaim intimacy.

A lot of challenges! But it is precisely because of all of these challenges that a centre which focuses on composition, and its contemporary practice is essential, timely and necessary. The opportunity for this centre here in Trinity to lead the thinking both in composition and in how that composition relates to the world is exhilarating and exciting.

As I said at the outset (downloading legally from the work of Shakespeare):

On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves.

At this exciting and blustery time, I am honoured to be here today and who knows, if technology keeps progressing, I may be able to return in a hundred years to see how it has all been going.

In the meantime, on this tide in the affairs of Music, may I salute Evangelia Rigaki, Donnacha Dennehy and everyone at the Centre and wish them…

‘Bon Voyage!’

Bill Whelan
21 January 2012

Published on 2 February 2012

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