Composer David Coonan talks about his new commission for our November tour

Composer David Coonan talks about his new commission for our November tour
We caught up with composer David Coonan to find out about his compositional process and the inspiration behind his new commission written especially for our November tour with Anna Dennis, Jonas Nordberg and Liam Byrne.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your music

I’m a composer and a multidisciplinary artist: alongside purely musical projects, I make work in collaboration with other artists - theatre makers, visual artists, choreographers, and filmmakers.

I come from a classical music background, although my work has taken a different route in recent years and has been more influenced by my collaborations with non-musical artists (especially theatre makers). If I could describe it as a melding of two practices, it’s work that’s conceptual yet aesthetic and sensory: equal parts for the head and heart (or at least that’s always my aim!). Also, I’m a Gemini, and always interested in the flip side of the coin, so I tend to make music that’s filled with contrasts and opposites.

Tell us about your new commission for Music Network and what inspired you to write the piece?

The piece is called spenser, and it’s a portrait piece of the 16th Century Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser. I’ve been reading a lot of John Berger (the writer/art critic) on portraits, which has been a big influence - the idea that making portraits of others reveals as much about the person making the portrait as it does about the person whose portrait is being made - and so this piece is a look at a poet who’s quite controversial from a perspective of Irish history.

Spenser was considered one of the ‘great’ poets of the early modern English language - known for his formal achievements (‘the Spenserian stanza’ etc.) - yet was also a statesman who, in Ireland, called for scorched earth policies and the eradication of the Irish language. He’s a complex figure, and there’s a duality to his image that’s really appealing - in my portrait of him I wanted to queer his image: here he’s both upstanding and monstrous, sophisticated and childish, artful yet messy.

The idea for the piece was also bolstered by a conversation with Anna, Liam, and Jonas about the idea of 16th Century musical portraiture. I wanted the commission to have an historical texture to it (such that might speak to the other pieces in their programme) yet be musically contemporary and of-today.

I’ve more info about the piece here:

What is the process of musical composition like for you?

It frequently varies from piece to piece - infuriatingly, there’s not really one normative process (it’d be so much easier if there was (though I guess it would also be quite boring…) - but recently I’ve been getting better at streamlining things. I start by doing research - reading, listening, jotting down ideas - and then once I feel like I have a strong starting idea (which is most often a conceptual idea), I start to compose the ‘world’ of the piece: I make lots of different sketches, with no real idea of what sketch might come where, but instead just write for the sake of amassing music - to find the what the piece might sound like its ‘world’. Then the last phase is the actual composition of the piece (starting at bar 1), and when things go well, this tends to happen really quickly.

However, all of that said, sometimes things go weirdly, and a piece finds a different route, and collaboration often tends to impact on the process in interesting and unforeseeable ways.

Do you have a favourite composer/s and what is it about their music that you are drawn to?

I find this an impossible question to answer! My answer might be one thing on a Thursday and another on a Friday (that’s the Gemini at work, again). Recently I’ve been listening to Pharoah Sanders and Floating Points’ (Sam Shepherd) collaboration with the London Symphony Orchestra Promises on a loop, and also a lot of Cassandra Miller’s music. Their music has a stillness and beautiful concentration which I guess I’m looking for in my music.

Also, Irish composers have been a massive influence on me in recent years too - ever since I moved back home from the UK I’ve been listening to them with a renewed context. Composers like Gerald Barry, Andrew Hamilton, Jennifer Walshe, Donnacha Dennehy - there’s an unencumbered quality to their music-making which feels very Irish to me (in a Joyce or Flann O’Brien kind of way) and I’ve been more and more excited by it every time I encounter it. The recent Music Network tour of Oscailt proved a striking example.

What would you consider the most challenging aspect of composing music?

Overcoming a blank page. Honestly there’s nothing more frightening than the sound of a deadline coming at you fast, and not having any ideas to work on to meet it. So having some exciting ideas to move forward with is always critical, as you can then can craft something. Sometimes ideas/pieces just fall into place in the right way at the right time and it’s a joy; other times it takes wrestling. Funnily, I’m not always sure which makes for better music!

What is your favourite thing about making music, and how does it make you feel?

I guess my favourite thing is when you’re enjoying the process so much you loose track of time - when you look up and realise that it’s gone dark outside and you hadn’t noticed. Being creative is such an essential activity: I know that for me, it’s like exercise or eating well - I feel better when I do it regularly. The other part that is completely thrilling is hearing your music played; especially when you get to work with great musicians. It’s a feeling of lightness, excitement, and thrill that’s beyond words - which is why it’s music I guess.

Where can we hear your music?

I’ve recently made a new website that contains lots of info about my music, with plenty of excerpts and links to my music:

Written for Anna Dennis (soprano), Jonas Nordberg (lute) and Liam Byrne (viola da gamba) Spenser is a ‘portrait’ of the 16th Century Elizabethan court poet Edmund Spenser(1553-99), which continues David's ongoing interest in the concept of musical portraiture. The work will be performed as part of our November tour programme. The tour will run in venues across the country from 22 - 30 November.

David will join us during the tour at the concert in Rothe House, Kilkenny on 29 November to offer insight into his compositional process and share the inspiration behind this new commission.