Ailís Ní Ríain: ‘Words and music are things we do against all better judgment’

Composer on the challenges of her latest work and the transformative effect of Zoom

Cork composer and playwright Ailís Ní Ríain has written one of four new works that the RTÉ Concert Orchestra will premiere at the National Concert Hall on the final day of the New Music Dublin festival on Sunday, May 1st.

The title of the work – Flower Scar Road – sounds like an intentionally disjunct grouping of nouns. But, she explains, it's not. "I live in rural Lancashire in northern England, " she says. "I walk very frequently. It's moorland and brittle, dry, dark, wet, boggy. It's a place of extremes. The light changes everything. Flower Scar Road is the name of the road I walk on most frequently. It's an ancient highway going from one stretch of the Pennines to the other. At one point it would have had traffic. It would have had human beings. Now it's moorland, it's completely covered and pastured." From the Bronze Age until the late 18th century it was the only road connecting the towns of Todmorden and Bacup on a route across Todmorden Moor.

”It’s not a gentle walk,” she says. “It’s not a pretty walk. It’s rough on the foot. When I discovered the name of the road I was very taken by it. I thought, that is magical; how has that come about. I’ve got no further really in discovering why exactly it’s called that. But it doesn’t take much to extrapolate some sort of personal meaning from it.” She chose the title “in honour to the place and in honour to the routine and the place where I do most of my thinking. Whether it’s anxious thinking, reflective, creative or otherwise – it happens on Flower Scar Road. It’s eight minutes from where I live.”

We have a disabling society. That is what we live in

Ní Ríain is in her late 40s, and Flower Scar Road is what she calls “my first large-scale commission” – not the longest or the heaviest work she has written, but the first to deal with such a large group of musicians. Has that been intimidating? “I find getting out of bed intimidating. I’m full of fear. The whole thing is intimidating. But what are we here for? Who are we serving? That’s what I’m interested in. I’m intimidated and then what . . . if you’re gonna do it you’re gonna do it. Feel the fear and do it anyway. I was more overjoyed to have a chance to do this, and put my best foot forward.” Not to be overwhelmed by it all, she adds, “is the trick”.


She outlines some of the practical challenges. She contracted encephalitis at the age of five and was left hearing impaired. She hears low frequencies much better than high frequencies, to the point where normal conversation is an issue. She also suffers from both the constant internal disruption caused by tinnitus and the pain that is brought on by everyday sounds because of hyperacusis.

“Writing for a large group of people means that there are aspects of what I’m composing that I don’t hear. So it’s risky. I guess had this opportunity come when I was younger I would feel more enabled to grasp it in full confidence. So it presents practical and intellectual challenges. But, I guess, to be arrested by the body of sound, whatever aspect or part of that you can grasp hold of, is the experience. I’ve tried to compose something that is bold, dramatic and menacing in a mercurial sense. It’s that kind of work. Of course, how people understand that and experience it is entirely their call. It isn’t easy. But then tell that to the Ukrainians. They know what’s not easy. It’s a blessing to have the chance.”

Transformative experience

We don’t meet in person, but over Zoom. And Zoom, it turns out, has been a transformative experience for her over the last two years. It’s levelled the playing field in terms of personal communication. She hasn’t had to try to talk to people in places where background noise gets in the way of comprehension, nor has she had to deal with the free flow of talk in groups, with overlapping of sounds that are not easy for her to unravel. She has been able to talk to people one at a time, and has had the benefit of captioning software to supplement what she hears.

“My opportunity to communicate has been far greater and of much better quality than it has been for a long, long time. If I met you in public, the room would be too noisy. I particularly struggle with voices. And there is no place quiet enough, with few enough distractions, in the real world to facilitate good communication, creative communication, anything other than the nuts and bolts of the day-to-day.

“Society has a role in that. We have a disabling society. That is what we live in. That is the option. So, if you want to take part, that is what you must sign up to. Which is kind of appalling. The opportunity for me to be able to see your face, to read your face, and to have what you say as a written line quite soon after you say it is great. But this isn’t how the world works. It is isolating and it’s alienating.”

Something in our conversation prompts a recall of a childhood experience of mine when, at the age of 10, I was in hospital for an eye operation and saw a baby in another ward who had been born deaf, dumb and blind. Some time later I came up with the idea that we would all learn a lot from sensory deprivation, say, for example, a week living without hearing or a week living without being able to see.

“I think the issue is around invisible disability,” she says. “For those of us with the gift of sight, we are so charmed and convinced by what we see that we believe that to be the case. We find it very hard to use our imaginations as to what an experience of this world is for people who need to access it differently. So, for sure, in a week you would realise what needs to change fundamentally.”

She returns to the baby. “The thing is, there’s always something to hold on to. There’s always something to grab hold of. Because, as human beings that’s what we’re searching for. We’re always searching for the communication. You’ll reach for whatever that is. And on a good day make that work. ”


She talks about working with the great, deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie. They're working on a new commission for percussion and the New London Chamber Ensemble and they're due to record it in the next few months.

“When I’ve met with her,” she says, “it’s interesting that the conversation is not about what we don’t hear, it’s about how you are able to access what is there, and what is readable in other forms. In her case she’s spoken very frequently indeed about her physical relationship to sound. I would say in my case it is more visual. From a very early age, I’ve been very led by the visual. I’m very arrested by image. For me the sound has always come after.

"I was speaking to Jonathan Grimes at the Contemporary Music Centre recently for an interview, regarding something I'd done for Ulysses Journey, a recent project that they've initiated. He asked me the big question – what comes first? For me it's never been sound. That's not my primary connect to creation or art or whatever it is we think we're doing. It's a vision and it's a sense. But if you were to push me on what sense it is, I really don't know. It's back to that child again. Deaf, dumb and blind. Well, what is it, then? How is it that you're navigating what your experience is?" I had told her the baby was crying when I saw it. "Why was that child crying, for example? What is it that it was witnessing that it was crying in response to?"

In her own case, she talks about “the compulsion to wade your way through tinnitus, for example, because that is what I am doing. There’s no silence, you know. There’s no such thing as silence for me, at all. That’s what I said earlier, about getting out of bed being intimidating. It is when you’re already rattling.”

And at one point, talking about her hearing impairments, she laughs at herself about “the combination of three things that suggests I should probably move on from composing music”. But, “there is nothing else I would do. Words and music are things that can’t be surgically removed. These are things that we do against all better judgment.”

The New Music Dublin festival runs at the NCH from Thursday, April 28th, to Sunday, May 1st. The RTÉ Concert Orchestra under Gavin Maloney performs Ailís Ní Ríain’s Flower Scar Road on Sunday 1st as well as new works by Garrett Sholdice, Stephen Gardner and Andrew Synnott.

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan is a music critic and Irish Times contributor