‘Composing music is almost like trying to remember a dream’

‘Composing the Island’ celebrates 100 years of music by Irish composers, written between 1916 and 2016. What do composers think about Irish music now?

We asked a range of Irish composers about the sounds that most evoke Ireland, about how their concerns and sounds have changed, and about the state of classical music in Ireland today.

Ed Bennett

When I started composing over 20 years ago, the lesser spotted Irish composer seemed something of a rare creature. As a teenager growing up in a troubled Bangor and Belfast, my experience of music was more rooted in the world of rock, jazz and folk music than in the alien world of contemporary classical composition.

Composers were, for me and most people I knew, something from the distant past, usually scary men with big wigs and names like Beethoven, Mozart and Bach. The idea of a living Irish composer who might write huge works for orchestra, string quartet, opera, seemed exotic, even quaint.

Meeting the composer Brian Irvine in my late teens, I discovered that not all composers were wig-wearing men from the past. Brian was very much alive and Irish, and there were no wigs in sight. I was introduced to the huge and expansive world of contemporary composition and my mind was completely blown. I realised there were living Irish composers dotted all over this small island writing for a polyphony of mediums and contexts, and they all had weird, wonderful, beautiful, energised and important things to contribute to our cultural landscape. You just had to look quite hard to find them.


It's not easy surviving as a composer, and every composer I know has to work very hard to make any sort of a living at it. (Some of them can't even afford wigs.) But today the island of Ireland has some of the most interesting, exciting and diverse composers around, many highly respected at home and internationally. Artistically, the scene is in a healthy state, and composers are more visible than they were when I started out. While every little helps, perhaps we should celebrate them in a substantial way more than once every 100 years, in case this rare creature eventually becomes extinct. Composer Ed Bennett performs and directs his own ensemble, Decibel.

Linda Buckley

It may seem obvious, but for me the sound of the sea most clearly evokes Ireland. The peaks and troughs of waves, the sense of it ever constant, yet always changing. Inspiration can come from anything: the sound of a gate creaking, wind blowing through pipes.

Often you can internally “hear” the sound you wish to create in the early stage of the process, then you try to capture that initial experience. It’s almost like trying to remember a dream.

I have always felt proud of where I come from, with the expanse of ocean surrounding us; this is instilled in my music. For me, music is about communication, emotion, harmony, atmosphere and beauty; a shared experience between composer, performer and listener.

I imagine there’s more of an atmosphere of openness and inclusivity in the current scene than there was 40 years ago. There is a sense of boundaries blurred now between genres. For example, my experience of Irish traditional singing, Indian music, Javanese gamelan and medieval chant, as well as electronica and post-rock, have filtered down into what I do. I compose music, but I also sing, play gamelan, perform electronic improv.

I’m moving to New York for a year on a Fulbright scholarship, where I feel very connected to that cross-genre ethos.

I would like to see more instances where new music is presented less formally. This can be an issue in classical music, whose formal conventions may sometimes deter a broader or younger audience.

I would also love to see a warm and welcoming atmosphere between young composers and performers. There’s something special about composing for musicians who have a joyous and tangible desire to perform new music. For them it is about exploration, discovery, bringing something new into the world. Composer Linda Buckley’s work engages with non-western musical cultures. She is a founding member of the Spatial Music Collective.

Andrew Hamilton

On a few occasions audience members have come up after a performance of my work and said, laughing: “Only an Irishman could have written that!” I stumble away confused, as I have no idea what they mean. Growing up in 1980s Dublin, I probably absorbed pretty much the same sounds and sights as others: the rhythm of the banter between Zig and Zag, lacklustre St Patrick’s Day parades on television, somehow getting Twink’s autograph, auditioning to sing on

The Late Late Toy Show


A pivotal moment happened in Ballinteer, Dublin, in, I think, about 1983, when I was six. I found a cassette tape with music by a very dead white man (though some contend he had west African origins) who had never set foot on this island (though he did set some Irish folk songs, my favourite being The Pulse of an Irishman) and was from Germany (though my teachers at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague always maintained he was Flemish).

It was a recording of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. After a few seconds, I think I realised this was what life could be about: making something beautiful and transcendent, either by playing it or writing something that might emulate the joy of that moment. After this experience, nearly all other music and sounds were mundane and empty.

I still try to recreate the utopian sensation I had in Ballinteer 33 years ago (and, of course, mostly fail). I was incredibly fortunate to have parents who saw value in this slightly esoteric path, and I wish that every child in Ireland could have the opportunity to learn an instrument so they can find their own way of expressing the beauty of notated and non-notated music. Composer Andrew Hamilton is visiting tutor in composition at the Birmingham Conservatoire.

Deirdre Gribbin

Coming from an island whose history has been deeply affected by water and its relationship to the land has had a profound effect on my work. I grew up in Belfast/Béal Feirste, whose name means “mouth of the sandy ford”, where the river Lagan flows into Belfast Lough. Getting away from it all, to the sea, out of Belfast’s troubled city, in the 1970s, and losing myself at the water’s edge, listening to the stillness and the waves breaking, is part of my deepest core.

I constantly evoke both the turbulent and still waters of Ireland's places and identities in my string quartets and orchestral landscapes. I also embody the sense of exuberance and joy of traditional folk rhythm, as in my violin concerto Venus Blazing.

I perceive a genuine curiosity about music in Ireland. There is strong programming, and a real presence on radio and in the media. Classical music has its followers and is connected to the wider culture, more than in other European countries.

I believe that, as a living Irish composer, I am a part of a continuum, harking back to the ancient but with a duty to reinvent and redefine the role of music in contemporary society. As the mother of a disabled child (my son has Down syndrome, and regularly attends my concerts), I would welcome programming that invites, encourages and makes accessible the wonders of classical music to those who feel excluded from the experience. I’m not talking about dumbing down but thinking creatively about developing new audiences.

Getting music out of the concert halls, embracing the theatricality and lighting of pop culture and using social media will inevitably lead to a change in audience profile, and this is the way forward. Composer Deirdre Gribbin's most recent work includes 2016's Invitation to a Journey, based on the work of architect Eileen Gray.

Jane O’Leary

Today’s Ireland is a healthy mix of languages and cultures; so too is its music. The scene is unrecognisable from what I encountered when I arrived in the 1970s. The number of composers in the classical tradition has never been as large as now; technology also has a huge influence.

Contemporary music forms a tiny part of the repertoire presented to the public, either live or over the airwaves. Any composer will tell you that their greatest need is for their music to be heard and responded to.

Listeners need to become as familiar with our work as they are with contemporary Irish literature, theatre, art.

This festival is a welcome look at Irish music from the past 100 years, something we should do more often! It is on the work of our predecessors that we build the future, and composition is a lifelong learning experience. It’s not only the newest composer and first performances that need to be heard; repeated hearings yield new insights.

My hopes for the future: music by classical contemporary composers being included regularly in concert programmes and on the airwaves all the time, not just Sunday nights; an Irish recording label for all contemporary music styles; a long-term worldwide promotion of new music from Ireland; performers and composers collaborating in every county; and a growing body of listeners engaging with the music of our time.

I wish we could find a word to describe the music we write – I don’t feel comfortable with “classical” and it’s not pop/rock, jazz, folk or trad, although it may have aspects of all of those. But it’s exciting, vibrant, challenging, inspiring. Let us be heard! Composer Jane O’Leary is director of Concorde Contemporary Music Ensemble.

Ian Wilson

Often I conceive of Ireland as landscape and mythology rather than our modern country and its gradual groping towards self-determination and equality. So, plaintive instruments heard alone will sometimes evoke Ireland for me, or raucous ensembles of brass or winds, in which I hear the sea.

When I want to conjure some element of Irishness in my own work, I tend to focus on rhythm and particularly on ornamentation, the kind that is found in sean-nós singing.

My core concerns have changed somewhat in the past decade. My output has broadened dramatically to include electronics, improvisation, music theatre and different types of collaboration; I am even performing again. Rather than relentlessly ploughing one narrow artistic furrow, I am interested in as many honest and varied musical experiences as I can have, and the best way is to constantly test myself in new arenas.

I have always been interested in exploring ideas of mortality, solitude and creativity – what makes us human – and these themes persist across the different musical contexts I engage with.

I am anxious about the present condition of Irish contemporary music: there seem to be fewer opportunities than 10 years ago, fewer bodies are commissioning, and there is a tangible sense of stifling caution.

The economy of the arts is three or four years behind the national economic curve, so there could still be a bit of a wait for an upturn.

I would like to see a company dedicated solely to contemporary opera. I would like to see more composers visible in the media – we can converse and opine just as well as writers, poets and artists, but many people have still neither met nor even knowingly seen a living composer. Ian Wilson is a contemporary composer and member of Aosdána.

The National Concert Hall and RTÉ present Composing the Island, celebrating 100 years of music by Irish composers written between 1916 and 2016, on September 7th-25th. During the festival, almost 200 works by 90 Irish composers will be performed and recorded. An accompanying book, The Invisible Art: A Century of Music in Ireland 1916-2016, published by New Island, is edited by Irish Times music critic Michael Dervan. Tickets for all concerts are €10. See nch.ie