How to stay composed in an unsure career

It’s not easy to make a living as a composer, says Siobhán Cleary, who is set to premiere a new commission, the elaborately orchestrated…

It’s not easy to make a living as a composer, says Siobhán Cleary, who is set to premiere a new commission, the elaborately orchestrated ‘Cokaygne’

THE FIRST thing I learn from Siobhán Cleary about her new RTÉ orchestral commission, Cokaygne, is how to pronounce the word.

The most famous related piece of music is Elgar's CockaigneOverture, whose title, Elgar once explained "is the old humorous (classical) name for London, and from it we get the term Cockney". Elgar actually believed the Cockney connection to be a remote one, and knew also about Cokaygne, the land of luxury, a connection he simply chose to ignore.

Elgar's title is pronounced just like "cocaine". Cleary, who has reached back to the 14th-century poem, The Land of Cokaygne, pronounces hers Cokan-ye. At one point, she offers the rhymes of the original poem as an explanation, but later admits that the possible cocaine connection "is probably why I'm pronouncing it Cokan-ye. I'm distancing myself from the cocaine-word.


“My introduction,” she explains, “was through the poem, which was most likely written in Ireland by somebody for whom English wasn’t their native language. I started to delve into the other sources of Cokaygne, the land, which is one of these Avalon-type countries. A lot of my work would be an escape from reality. This exploration fitted with all of that.”

Although she describes the piece as a tone-poem, there are none of the programmatic depictions that such a description might lead you to expect. “Tone-poems have something extra-musical as their inspiration or source. Every tone poem can stand on its own, musically. It’s definitely not programmatic. It doesn’t follow the poem. The inspiration is the land itself, this mythical land, and that’s why I looked into the other sources of it, the ancient Greeks, the medieval French.”

There isn’t a single specific allusion in her piece, she says, “only that it is a land of extreme luxury and bliss, and that’s what they all have in common. The piece itself – this is where it gets very difficult and language lets us down – is an emotion and it’s an expression. For the last 50 years both of these words have been very unfashionable, people have been trying to move away from both emotion and expression. I find that I just can’t get away from it.

"That's not to say that it's the only thing. You have to back it up with technique, craftsmanship." Is her Cokaygne, then, in any sense a romantic work? "It's not at all a romantic work. I don't think so." But it is elaborately orchestrated. "It's got triple woodwind, triple brass, there's three percussionists as well as the timpanist. They're all busy all of the time. And they're all doing their own thing."

Cleary is one of those composers who began very young, trying to write her own music in a childish way at the age of six, and she says she still has some pieces that she wrote a couple of years later. “I was a musical kid,” she says, and describes herself as being fired up by a children’s book about Mozart. But, in the absence of contemporary role models, she didn’t take up the idea of becoming a composer until she started studying music at university in Maynooth.

She hadn’t actually stopped composing. “When I went to the piano, what I would do is start writing pieces rather than practice.”

It was simply that for her the idea of being a composer was totally disconnected from the modern world. In Maynooth she took inspiration from that great emblem of 1960s upheaval, Luciano Berio's Sinfonia. And around the same time she came across the work of Gerald Barry and Olivier Messiaen, composers who kindled her enthusiasm, with György Ligeti following soon after.

Having made a decision to become a composer, was she aware of the career challenges that might lie ahead? “Yeah. I did have an idea of how difficult it would be. But I think I was probably more passionate than realistic about it. That’s why I went for it. Looking back now, if I saw exactly how difficult it was going to be, I don’t know if I would go through it, to be honest.”

As she puts it, the career of a composer “is not clear-cut at all. That’s probably why the trend now in Ireland is you go and do your master’s, and then you do your doctorate, and then you might do a post-doctorate. This is the way it’s been in the States for a long time. It buys you time. But the flip side is that it becomes a very precious and specialist thing, and it’s no longer relevant to the community.

“I’d prefer to see music much more in the community than in universities and with specialised performers.”

She’s done her stint, as a composer in residence in Co Kerry, and has written for the local Kerry Orchestra. “Bernstein,” she points out, “said that when he was in Harvard, the professors believed that music should be seen and not heard. That’s what happens when it becomes an academic subject.”

The biggest career challenge has been an obvious one. “It sounds pretty materialistic, but finance has been the main problem. You can’t easily earn a living as a composer, so you have to go and do other things, but you have to try to do other things that are not going to take an awful lot of time and energy from your composing.

“The other challenge is that, I think because of what’s happened in the last 60 or 70 years, music has become so specialised, so individualised, that it’s difficult to get performers to take it on board.” It’s easier to get commissions than performances, she says, in spite of the fact that there are very few commissions in the first place. She’s not been idle about trying to turn the situation around.

Since the mid-1990s, she’s been active as a promoter of new music, currently through the New Sound Worlds series put on by her own IPNM (Ireland Promoting New Music).

She launches here into an impassioned plea for more arts funding, pointing out that, during the current recession, countries as diverse as Iceland and the US have actually increased rather than decreased funding for the arts. She points to the ambassadorial role of the arts. “When you go abroad, people know of Ireland’s arts and culture more than they know of anything else. They don’t know the leading GAA players, or the leading politicians or the leading bank people.” Cokaygne, after all, scores a respectable 16,000-plus Google hits, in spite of the passing of the centuries.

Siobhán Cleary's Cokaygnepremieres at the NCH on Friday 27th by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Altschuler

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan is a music critic and Irish Times contributor