How Music Works: How to compose music with multimedia in mind

Niall Byrne talks to people about their work in the music business. This week, Anna Murray - composer, A/V artist, concert promoter, writer and arts manager - talks about bringing the sonic to the audio-visual

Anna Murray: “Music, and art, stimulates our emotions, our intellect and our physical body”

Anna Murray: “Music, and art, stimulates our emotions, our intellect and our physical body”


Anna Murray’s life in music was almost pre-ordained by her family. who took her long fingers as a sign that she would follow in an old family tradition of playing the piano. And so it proved, helped by the presence of a beautiful old instrument in the house, which originally belonged to relative Carl Hardebeck, a respected arranger and composer of traditional music, who won awards at the turn of the 20th century at the Feis Ceoil, and was given a state funeral when he passed in 1945.

Piano-playing was an obsession to the young Murray, encouraged by her parents who drove her to lessons and brought her to an eclectic mix of concerts in the local arts centre, the Linenhall in Castlebar, Co Mayo.

Murray says her interest in contemporary music composition felt like “a kind of inexorable drawing-in”.

“I was always more interested in what the composer was trying to do or communicate than I was in becoming technically brilliant, so in a way, I think it was all music that introduced me to composition,” says Murray.

“There was also a romanticism to knowing that the piano I was playing was owned and played by an important figure in Irish music and that was pretty intriguing.”

Lessons with the Mayo-based composer Adrian Vernon Fish cemented her contemporary chops at the age of 16.

“We had long lessons that split between focused piano repertoire and studying scores,” Murray remembers. We covered lots of contemporary music in those sessions, including Fish’s own, and it really made the idea of composition as a potential career real to me.”

Murray also plays guitar, bass and has dabbled in gamelan. An injury means she doesn’t play piano in performance as much, focusing on electronics and keyboards in a live setting. Murray’s work in music is prolific.

Multifaceted multimedia composition
Murray’s compositions have been performed by the Crash Ensemble, the Gap Static Piano Trio and the Rhombus Ensemble. She has studied with the likes of Donnacha Dennehy and Linda Buckley. She manages the Quiet Music Ensemble, co-directs production group Fractal, is a contributing writer for The Journal of Music, has worked in arts management, concert promotion and is a Secretary of the Association of Irish Composers (AIC) which represents and promotes Irish composers.

Having obtained her Bachelor of Music degree from the National University of Ireland Maynooth in 2009, where her music interest became more electronic-based, it was a two-year Masters from Trinity College in Music and Media Technologies that introduced her to the possibilities of audio-visual art.

That interest in what the music sets out to achieve, as well as its possibilities for its presentation goes someway to explain why Murray thinks of herself as a mixed-media composer.

“Bringing together people from different backgrounds, including fine art, music or computer science, really opens your eyes to the interconnectedness of all these areas.”

Mixed-media composition has been central to her work since, manifesting itself by incorporating electronics, speech, theatre, improvisation, film, live generated visuals, lighting and location.

Exploring , researching, listening, deciding
“The process is much the same no matter what media is involved: you have an idea, spend some time exploring that idea, researching, listening, deciding the best way that it can be communicated, and then putting it together, whether it’s a score or a video or programming a Max/MSP patch,” says Murray. “No matter what I’m working on, I try to keep the context of performance or presentation in mind all the time – that way you can be thinking of any technical concerns from the very beginning.”

Murray established Fractal Music Dublin, an event production group, with co-director Philip Lawson, to explore the idea of context and multimedia in performances.

“We have done a few experiments, presenting the same music with different visuals in different contexts, and exploring how different our experience of that music can be each time,” Murray says.

“In classical music ,we sometimes ignore or at least underestimate the visual elements of musical performance, but A/V and multimedia work allows us to play with it a bit more.”

Inspiration from elsewhere
Other art forms also inspire Murray. She admits to an obsession with Japanese Noh Theatre, a form of theatre in Japan which dates back to the 14th century involving chant, instrumental music, movement and literature. It’s an obsession that led to an immersion of three weeks at Royal Holloway University at the Noh Training Project.

“It has some gorgeous conceptual ideas which I find very inspiring: invisible beauty, the relationship between audience and performers, the idea that music, drama and movement are all separate parts of one whole. I’ve been reading about it and studying it ever since, and have written a few pieces of music based on it.

“There’s a very strong motivation to connect with culture around me,” Murray says. “It’s my way to explore and connect with other music, art or literature. Music, and art, stimulates our emotions, our intellect and our physical body, and there’s nothing as enriching as experiencing that, creating it, or just being involved in it.”

“I’ve been looking at ways of making my scores a visual reflection of what they are about, rather than just notes on the page. I try to find ways to explore these extra-musical ideas musically. Generally, I’m interested in expressing ideas, musical or otherwise, as clearly and directly as possible. Simplicity is key; I also like to leave some openness in my music too, for the performers and presenters, but also for the audience, that way the listening experience is never exactly the same twice.”

Periods of absolute madness
A typical week for Murray is also never the same twice, when you have so many fingers in so many pies.

“There’ll be periods of absolute madness, usually coming up to a big event, or a funding deadline, and quieter times in which I’m itching to have more to do. Running concerts and events means that you work a lot of evenings and weekends too, but you also have the freedom to manage your own schedule around this.

“For me, there are a few constants every week: I teach piano on Monday and Tuesday evenings at Clonee Music Tuition Centre, and have a handful of other lessons in between. The rest of my time is divided between meetings with composers, performers, presenters or other collaborators, administration and promotion for groups I am involved in. Concerts would normally take up a fair chunk of a working day.”

As manager for the Cork-based experimental group Quiet Music Ensemble, Murray acts as the agent, booking concerts and tours, as well as operating as a general manager and administrator. She does all this because their music resonates with her own.

“The ensemble are dedicated to truly innovative programming and performance, and often use unusual performance spaces or ideas,” says Murray. “They give performances responding to art exhibitions or architecture, or long improvisations in which the audience can walk around and explore a space.”

New composers and energy
Murray has also been keen to explore the disconnect between audiences in the classical world and other genres, the politeness and lack of direct feedback, inherent in the performance of such music, that often gives it a stuffy air.

Since Lawson and Murray set up Fractal, she says that there has been a visible shift in that kind of behaviour and through new composers who are taking inspiration from other fields and genres themselves have contributed a new energy and dynamism to contemporary music including Irish Composers’ Collective, the Insight Series, Kirkos Ensemble, Listen At Arthur’s, Kaleidoscope and Ensemble Music.

“This increase in the number of energetic, vibrant and exciting young performers and composers blurring these boundaries has had a real impact on the audience, meaning that contemporary music is reaching more people all the time, and audiences are feeling less constrained by formal presentation and stuffy concert halls,” says Murray. “It’s really refreshing and a real pleasure to be part of.”

Next stop Korea
Her role as Secretary of the AIC, has brought more international opportunities for herself and the body of composers she represents. Through the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM), which has been promoting contemporary music since 1922, there have been an Irish showcase event in Poland.

This Saturday, composer Nick Roth will perform his piece Woodland Heights premiered at the World Music Days festival in Tongyeong, South Korea thanks to the ISCM. Murrray will also attend and the pair will present a separate concert in Seoul in collaboration with the Irish Embassy with Murray on electronics and Roth on saxophone.

“This will be a first for me to perform so far from home, and I’m very excited about the prospect,” says Murray. “It will be very interesting to see how Korean audiences respond to both Irish composers’ music in Tongyeong, and improvised and electronic music in Seoul.”

Collaboration is a trend

Collaboration, Murray says, is a trend in contemporary Irish music right now that will have a lasting impact, not just on stage and between different genres but potentially the pooling of resources between organisations such as AIC and the more mainstream-focused Irish Association of Songwriters, Composers and Artists (IASCA) .

“These are fields which have been for too long quite separated, but now we are increasingly realising we’re all part of the same industry, and we should work together,” says Murray.

“There is innovation and cross-pollination happening here that is fairly rare to see internationally, and it’s providing new ideas and inspiration to musicians, composers, artists and presenters.”

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