Flight of fancy: Composer Ryan Molloy on collaborating with poet Martin Dyar
When I felt I was inhabited by the texts, I transcribed the soundworld they prompted for me
Ryan Molloy: my previous song settings have all been rather ‘traditional’ in their compositional approach: find a text that resonates with me and begin to unpick it musically, the text gradually revealing the music inherent within it and, somehow, within myself. Photograph: Maurice Gunning
‘Peaceful and tumultuous at once’: Michael Griffin talks to composer Ryan Molloy about Buaine na Gaoithe, his new song cycle for soprano, flute and harp, a setting of poems by Martin Dyar, which will tour nationally next month.
At the outset, what was it about Martin Dyar’s work that made you want to embark on this project?
I had the immense pleasure of discovering Martin’s poetry through the poet himself. Mutual friends introduced us several years ago. It wasn’t long before our conversations turned to creative passions. After reading some of his work – especially as a composer, always on the lookout for resonant texts – I was drawn to an artistic personality that I felt an affinity with. I also found in his poems an identity and a use of imagery that connected with me strongly in musical terms. When the opportunity to write a song cycle arose via an Arts Council commission award through the singer Francesca Placanica, Martin was a natural choice to collaborate with.
Buaine na Gaoithe is not a new departure for you. You have adapted poems to music previously, including While All the Others Were Away at Mass by Seamus Heaney, and also Dyar’s Death and the Post Office. But were there new creative challenges inherent to this song cycle?
To some extent, my previous song settings have all been rather ‘traditional’ in their compositional approach: find a text that resonates with me and begin to unpick it musically, the text gradually revealing the music inherent within it and, somehow, within myself. The first creative challenge in Buaine na Gaoithe was to find a common expressive basis with Martin. This project was the ultimate ‘blank page’: no poems, no music, and no set starting point. But after meeting a number of times, with piano and books close at hand, sharing stories, ideas and discussing themes, we found a strong connection in some core imagery that ultimately allowed the words and sounds to flow.
Speaking about the work at a recent UL creative writing event, Martin Dyar praised your sensitivity to language, and your care with the rhythms and nuances of poetry. Was this undertaking, for you, a meeting of minds? And were you conscious of taking on the role of wordsmith as well as the roles of musician and composer in this work?
Making music out of Martin’s Death and the Post Office, a poetic tour de force which is now on the Leaving Cert prescribed poetry syllabus, had been a very satisfying project. I believe myself and Martin had come to trust each other. Buaine na Gaoithe, however, was undoubtedly a departure for both of us and an element of trust had to be at the core. I sensed that Martin understood precisely where I was coming from musically and in turn somehow (though I might be biased!) I felt that my music naturally amplified aspects of his writing so I suppose it was indeed a meeting of minds. I wasn’t overly conscious of any role as wordsmith, however, although perhaps this was an obvious if indirect consequence of being involved in the creation of the work from its outset. Happily, we found a rapport very quickly, once it was time to start writing in earnest, which we did early in the summer of 2017.
Can you tell us about the title of the work? Buaine na Gaoithe translates as ‘the constancy of the wind’, or maybe ‘perpetual wind’, is that right?
‘The constancy of the wind’ seems about right, although it still doesn’t quite capture the aura of the Irish phrase that also encompasses hints of eternity, durability, solidity, even warmth and light. The title emerged from myself and Martin’s thematic discussions – revolving around heritage, family, nature, landscape and light – and, relatively early, it seemed to fit the creative prospects that were emerging, even before some of the poems or music were written. Perhaps you could say that the title, and what it stood for, became the muse.
The durability and solidity you refer to also seems bound up in Dyar’s poetry with ideas of self, and with the idea that the self might not always be as integrated or as constant as we might like to believe, that whatever calm there is in the mind might itself be ‘eccentric’. How does that mix of solidity and volatility, if I might call it that, find expression musically?
I might facetiously suggest that you’ll have to come to the concerts to find out! For me, this solidity and volatility are all parts of a single entity, a spectrum perhaps. This spectrum can take many forms musically – temporal, harmonic, timbral, gestural... I use these and other compositional techniques in an effort to represent this solid-volatile dichotomy at the same time. On occasion, time might seem to stand still in the music yet there is an underlying shifting rhythmic current that gently tugs at your conscience to navigate that stasis. The same could be applied to my approach to harmony etc.
The merlin seems to be a central image in the work. Can you tell us about representing that bird in the music?
Following on from the influences of nature and landscape in the work – not least the Aeolian implications of the title – avian life became central to the texts and inevitably wound up in the musical language also. There are tangential musical references to birds throughout the work but in the fourth movement of the cycle, A Merlin in the Sheeffreys, the actual ‘song’ of the merlin became the bedrock of the musical soundworld. The swooping call followed by the staccato ratcheting of the merlin are clearly heard in the flute, alternating with windlike sounds to create the sonic fabric above which Martin’s fabulous poem is heard.
Can you tell us a little about your process?
When I’m working with poetry, my process begins with living with the poems for a period of time, usually a month or so. I read them every day and gradually let the lines sink deep enough into my brain so that I almost feel I’ve conjured them up myself. All the while, some important words and images stick stronger than others and these become musically thematic cornerstones that guide the overall soundworld. After this, in the case of Buaine na Gaoithe, I had the luxury of being able to bring Martin into the studio to record his own delivery of the poems. Having those recordings was important for me in learning his natural cadences and for aligning his emphases with my understanding of the text.
When I got to a point where I felt I was inhabited by the texts, I tackled the task of transcribing the soundworld they’d prompted for me. I like to imagine this as a big lump of rock. The rock will have a certain colour, texture, size and shape, all of which is derived from the basic soundworld that supports the text. As I progressed through a poem, I gradually sculpted the rock to fit the words so that I am adequately deferring to the text. It is important for me that the music does not shape the words, but, rather, the converse.
Is there any sense for an Irish composer such as yourself, one who is steeped in traditional music, that there is a tension between classic and traditional approaches?
I don’t think so, or at least no more so than there might be a tension between hip-hop and Mozart. Nowadays, that particular tension is really only a stylistic one. Both musics occupy vastly different positions on the grand musical spectrum because of their social histories, but for me personally they occupy important and much closer positions in my musical spectrum. Why I feel comfortable working with both from a compositional perspective is probably down to one common trait: their power to transcend. Although fundamentally different in their approach, I need the technical and emotive language from both traditions in my effort to express my musical wishes.
Your new work is in the hands of Damselfly Trio. American soprano Liz Pearse, and a duo from Switzerland: harpist Lindsay Buffington, and flautist Chelsea Czuchra. Are the personalities of the musicians important to the bringing forth of a new work such as Buaine na Gaoithe?
Yes, definitely. It’s always important for me to have performers in mind when creating new work. Their individual sound, which is indelibly shaped by their personalities, is the musical Rohstoff that we composers use to make our own individual sound, so it’s important to develop a good understanding of that sound. In the case of singers this is even more true. Certainly, there are instrumental ‘stereotypes’ and standard ensemble soundworlds (we might readily recognise the sound of a string quartet, for example) that can be used as a pasteboard to throw musical ideas on to, but for me it is important to delve beyond that into the individuality of the ensemble and its constituent parts to weave a new sound that I can really feel is my own. I was lucky to have been able to spend time with the Damselfly Trio during the creation of the work, which helped me to personalise, hone and deepen the sound.
Buaine na Gaoithe is about to have its premiere Irish performances and a national tour. What can audiences expect?
Buaine na Gaoithe is a journey into a shared musical and literary landscape. It encompasses five songs/poems that invite reflection variously on cyclical themes of nature, maternity, light, life, mortality; and also the voice, and this is something that is central concern of a number of Martin’s poems, the power of the voice to reveal the deepest of insights and even its ability to transcend the limits of the body. The musical fabric aims to guide the listener through the beauty and subtlety of the poetry, at first by gently lighting the stage with softly focused sounds, gradually becoming more ornate and active as the main character’s mind is revealed. At times, the music remains minimal, as in the third movement, which is titled From the Basement of St Catherine’s Bakery (a nod to the Liberties area of Dublin, where Martin now lives). At other times it tries to depict a natural panorama, as in the fourth movement A Merlin in the Sheeffreys. The song cycle closes with an embracing of the transcendental nature of music and poetry. By then the audience and the performers will have travelled together into the words and the music. It’ll be peaceful and tumultuous at once. And that’s the purpose. That’s what we’re offering.
Damselfly Trio will perform Ryan Molloy’s Buaine na Gaoithe, along with works by Mamlok and Crumb, at the Hugh Lane Gallery at midday on October 7th. The tour includes performances at Queens University Belfast (Oct 4th), Portico in Portaferry (Oct 5th), the Kildare Readers Festival (Oct 6th), Maynooth University (Oct 8th), the University of Ulster, Derry (Oct 9th), the Irish World Academy at the University of Limerick (Oct 10th), and the Linenhall Arts Centre in Castlebar (Oct 11th). Full details: ryanmolloy.ie
Michael Griffin is associate professor of English at the University of Limerick. He has edited, with David O’Shaughnessy, a new edition of the Letters of Oliver Goldsmith, published this month by Cambridge University Press