Musical horizons, near and far


As the annual Horizons series begins, we asked the four featured composers four questions each about the music that inspires them, writes MICHAEL DERVAN


What piece of music has most influenced your work?The opening of Bach’s St John Passion. The emotional impact of this piece – full of suspensions that take an age to resolve – has definitely seeped in to how I think about music and my own composing. I remember hearing this as an undergraduate music student and being thrilled and moved by the interweaving lines.

What is the greatest piece of music of the 20th century?I would have to say Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna for choir. He creates an ethereal otherworldly atmosphere through the dense layering of voices that is incredibly haunting. Ligeti often spoke about composing as the interaction between head and heart, technique and instinct, which is also very important for me.

If you were to recommend one living composer, who would it be?The work of the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho is perhaps not heard here very often. There is such imaginative merging of the instrumental and electronic, and the creation of a Nordic inspired sound world, conjuring up images of icy landscapes and the Northern Lights.

Which of your own works are you most proud of?Perhaps Chiyo for orchestra, there’s something understated yet enveloping about this piece – it was such a memorable experience hearing it performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London earlier this year. It is inspired by the quiet beauty of Japanese haiku poetry.


The piece that most influenced you? I’ve studied with two wonderful composers who opened my eyes and ears to the world of contemporary music, Donnacha Dennehy and Kevin Volans. Time spent talking about and listening to music with them are some of my fondest memories. I owe them a great deal.

It’s to Kevin Volans that I turn in relation to a piece of music that I feel has most influenced my own, and that piece is Cicada (1994) for two pianos. If I had to choose only a handful of pieces to listen to from here to eternity this would be one of them. To hear the piece it seems quite simple as it ebbs and flows and gently unfurls over its 26-minute duration but to look at it on paper it is a very complex piece, with constant subtle shifts of tempo and shadings of timbre.

The greatest 20th century piece?Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Kontakte from 1958, a piece for piano, percussion and four-channel tape. Stockhausen’s music is not to everyone’s taste but he was a true pioneer, particularly in the field of electronic music, and for me, Kontakte is one of his masterpieces, merging the acoustic sounds of the instruments with that of electronically produced sounds spatialised around the audience in four loudspeakers.

In an age where we consume most of our music privately via headphones or in the privacy of our homes, to hear this piece live in a concert hall with the electronic sounds swirling around your head, and to see the sheer concentration and stamina required of the performers, is a thrilling experience.

What is the most recent new Irish work that impressed you?Music for People who Like Art (2011) written by Andrew Hamilton for Crash Ensemble. Witty, inventive, mesmerising and a thrill from start to finish. Andrew is one of the best of the younger generation of Irish composers and his voice is truly unique and original.

Which of your own works are you most proud of?In 2011 I was asked to write a piece for the violinist Darragh Morgan and, in all honesty, I struggled to find inspiration. With the deadline rapidly approaching and with nothing to show for it, I happened to read an article by the art critic Jonathan Jones in relation to a series of abstract paintings by the German artist Gerhard Richter.

The works, titled Cage I-VI, are Richter’s homage to the American composer John Cage, and in particular his piece 4’33”. Jones used the following phrase in his description of the works – “where distant city lights flicker on half-frozen ponds”. This phrase resonated with me and I went back to the piano and wrote the opening bars and the piece just unfolded (


The piece that most influenced you?There is no such single piece, but Stockhausen’s Mantra for two pianos has a special place in my affections.

The greatest piece of the 20th century?There’s no such thing, but for me Schoenberg’s unfinished opera Moses und Aron (1930s) sums up most of what preceded and followed it.

A recent Irish work that impressed you? The Cranning for string quartet by Dave Flynn.

Your own work that you are most proud of?Embers for string quartet, composed 40 years ago, and a hard act to follow.


Piece that most influenced your work? Metastaseis for orchestra by Iannis Xenakis. One of the most fiercely original musical minds of the 20th century, Xenakis held a multifaceted career as a composer, architect, and mathematician, and from these influences imagined and created sound in a way that no one else ever has. Metastaseis is a piece of chaotic inner detail with decisive, graspable shapes, like a natural force being recreated on the orchestral stage.

Your own work?Probably Inner, a piece for cello and piano from 2009, which I think works at a much slower tempo than previous pieces had, allowing me to reach what I feel are very meaningful moments: subcutaneous truths that previously hadn’t been given the space to speak.

The greatest piece of the 20th century? Mathias Spahlinger’s und als wir for string orchestra. This is a masterfully constructed listening experience, which feels as if you are being woven into the most intricate tapestry with its own unique laws of gravity and motion.

If you were to recommend one living composer everyone should discover, who would it be? I would recommend two: the Italian composer Pierluigi Billone and Israeli composer Chaya Czernowin. Both composers create works of great depth and thought, engaging the mind, and inviting the listener into the most magical of places.

The RTÉ NSO’s free Horizons lunchtime concerts begin tomorrow at the National Concert Hall, with Linda Buckley the featured composer.

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