‘My first musical memory is standing in a cot listening to an old Telefunken reel-to-reel tape recorder’

Musicians whose work will be at this week’s New Music Festival talk about their influences, ambitions and fears

Charles Bullen and Charles Hayward. Photograph: Lewis Hayward

Charles Bullen and Charles Hayward. Photograph: Lewis Hayward

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Charles Hayward, founding member of experimental rock band This Heat

Your first musical memory

My first musical memory is probably my mother singing me a lullaby. It actually is. [He sings.] I think it’s Brahms’s Lullaby. [It is.]

What drew you to become a musician?

I was born in a house where music was happening all the time. My father was quite a practical, everyday sort of guy. But he would go misty-eyed whenever he was listening to, say, Ella Fitzgerald singing Every Time We Say Goodbye. I remember one afternoon noting the incredible power that this music seemed to have. I think that was the first time I took music seriously as something that meant something to people.

The best musical advice you were ever given?

I used to play on Saturday nights with my uncle who was a band musician in the late forties and fifties. He used to come around with his alto sax. “Watch my foot,” he said. That was about the pulse between the musicians. So I try to take on board the physicality of everybody I’m playing with, and the audience, and make that where I’m focusing.

An experience of contemporary music that changed you

I think a very large one was Steve Reich’s concert, the very first one I saw, which was at the ICA in London, with four keyboard players most of the time. Four Organs and Phase Patterns were the central pieces. It changed me a lot. I saw a John Cage concert once and that changed me a lot in an opposite way. I just didn’t get it. That was like a Wizard of Oz moment. It’s not all what it says it is. I’ve come to the point of view that somebody had to do what Cage did. So it was good that he did it.

Contemporary music heaven

Contemporary music heaven would be music that’s made by people not in relation to some sort of cultural competition to go to the next place in some sort of territorial way, but to actually find what it is that expresses the reality they’re trying to share. That means there’s no cutting edge. That means the most ordinary thing, if its genuinely generated and meant, is as authentic as the most complex. It isn’t really an academic thing any more. It’s a thing that belongs to everybody.

Contemporary music hell

It think it would be music that relates too heavily to the old way of doing things that had too much hierarchy in it, that took the score as a finished object itself and tried to just manifest that, and didn’t realise music-making was also a social space and needs to integrate the insights of the players and needs to be able to respond to the audience. A very stiff ‘we know what this finished product is’ would be my idea of hell.

Charles Hayward, a founder of experimental rock band This Heat, plays in This Is Not This Heat with special guest Daniel O’Sullivan at 8.30pm in the NCH main auditorium on Saturday 3rd.

Gráinne Mulvey: ‘Keep going, keep getting experiences in composition, looking for different things, keep investigating’
Gráinne Mulvey: ‘Keep going, keep getting experiences in composition, looking for different things, keep investigating’

Gráinne Mulvey, Irish composer

Your first musical memory

Standing in a cot listening to an old Telefunken reel-to-reel tape recorder, and the choral part of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony being played. That’s because my dad loved music so much and he used to play BBC Radio 3 on the radio all the time. He had the recorder set up to record them so that he could listen to them when he came back from work.

What drew you to become a musician?

I just love music. Music was around in my house all the time when I was growing up. It was always on the radio, or my mother was playing records, or my brothers were playing guitars. I was encouraged to sing as a child. My musical interest got stronger as I got older, even though I didn’t have any formal education in music until I was in my teens. There were six of us in my family. Once I started to learn piano, relatively late at the age of 13, and then getting a piano at the age of 16, that really gave me the idea to pursue this, that I might have something to offer.

The best musical advice you were ever given?

Gosh, I’ve been given so many bits of advice. Just to pursue, to keep going, keep getting experiences in composition, looking for different things, keep investigating, keep open-minded to whatever is going on.

An experience of contemporary music that changed you

I think listening to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was one of the most significant moments. When I first heard it I thought it was so completely outside the norm of what I had experienced in classical music. I thought it was something I would be able to pursue, that I would be able to work in this line of composition, and experience and understand the workings of the piece. That gave me the love to go ahead and write music.

Contemporary music heaven

Having access completely to an orchestra all the time. That’s so greedy, I know. Access to performers is the crunch, really, for anything to happen. Access to great technology as well. I work in the acoustic field, the electro-acoustic field and electronics. So it would be good to have a studio, to have access to all those technological facilities and have performers on hand to experiment and try out things. And with an orchestra you can try out so much colour. And performers from all over the planet that have different instruments, that would be good as well.

Contemporary music hell

Not having performances. Not having access to performers. And no support. That would be absolute hell.

Gráinne Mulvey’s new e-Greeting, played by Crash Ensemble, opens the New Music Dublin festival on the front steps of the National Concert Hall at 6.02pm on Thursday 1st.

Unsuk Chin: ‘When I was twelve I heard Petrushka by Stravinsky. I didn’t understand the piece’
Unsuk Chin: ‘When I was twelve I heard Petrushka by Stravinsky. I didn’t understand the piece’

Unsuk Chin, South Korean composer

Your first musical memory

My first musical memory is when I was two or three years old and my father bought a piano. My first experience with a musical instrument was to press the key and listen to the sound of the piano.

What drew you to become a musician?

At the age of four I began to play piano and I knew immediately that making music will be my life. I don’t know why. I was really affected by the music.

The best musical advice you were ever given?

All my life I’ve had lots of best musical advice. If I think of just one or two . . . the best was from Ligeti. He told me that I had to find myself, my own music. It was the best advice.

An experience of contemporary music that changed you

When I was twelve, I think, when I heard Petrushka by Stravinsky. I didn’t understand the piece. The music was very strange and very new. But the sound colour at the beginning was really amazing, and I immediately accepted this kind of strange music. Later on I discovered Bartók, and then all the avant-garde, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Boulez and so on. I never had the feeling that the music is ugly. I always accepted new kinds of music.

Contemporary music heaven

I think the heaven of contemporary music at the moment is that there is no dominant musical style. There are lots and lots of musical materials and composers can use all of them. You have great freedom and lots more possibilities to make music. That’s very good.

Contemporary music hell

Hell is when it is very difficult to make judgements, whether one piece is good or not good, or which musical way is the right one or the wrong one. I think I know what is right and wrong for myself. There are many other composers and everybody has their own way. That’s our dilemma today. So the heaven and hell are connected.

Unsuk Chin’s Su for sheng and orchestra is played by Wu Wei with the RTÉ NSO under David Brophy in the NCH main auditorium at 9pm on Friday 2nd.

Deirdre McKay: ‘I remember Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony hitting me like a train’
Deirdre McKay: ‘I remember Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony hitting me like a train’

Deirdre McKay, Irish composer

Your first musical memory

My first musical memory, I was really small, it was in the days of the old cassettes, it was Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I remember it hitting me like a train, it was so strong, and Seán Ó Riada, Mise Éire, and Simon and Garfunkel. It was an experience that really did impact very strongly.

What drew you to become a musician?

That’s easy. I was brought up in Co Down and we had a peripatetic teaching system. There was the opportunity to learn violin if you passed an ear test, three places for about sixty kids. The teacher demonstrated the instrument before the tests and I had no idea if I was musical or not but I was just desperate to play. It became the most important thing. And I was lucky to be one of the three kids chosen. I was heartbroken every summer when we had to return our violin in June before getting it back the next September.

The best musical advice you were ever given?

You have me thinking of my early years. I would have been 13, maybe 14. We had a brilliant music teacher in school, Bob Leonard, and one of the new pieces we were learning in music class was Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. He played the first movement, and most of the music I knew up to that point was baroque or plainchant or classical. He played us the Symphony of Psalms and asked us all to pack up our books and go to the next class without saying a word to each other. He didn’t want us talking about what we’d heard, because what we’d heard was so new to us we weren’t ready to reference it. He told us that you sometimes have to allow yourself to get to know something that’s new to you as an experience before you make any judgement. By the end of that year I was completely addicted to that piece, and I was so grateful to him for protecting us from ourselves in not pre-judging it.

An experience of contemporary music that changed you

There are so many . . . Hunting:Gathering, Kevin Volans’s String Quartet No 2, was a big light for me at a point when I was feeling I was immersed in a lot of music that I no longer necessarily wanted to be immersed in. It had ways out, it had answers that became very important to me.

Contemporary music heaven

Amazing, gifted composers writing at their best, having fantastic resources, loads of rehearsal time, and incredible performances that are really valued. And something that really connects on an emotional level.

Contemporary music hell

Without wanting to offend anybody . . . music that I don’t necessarily want to hear.

Deirdre McKay’s buttons, breath, bow is played by Concorde in the NCH Kevin Barry Recital Room at 1pm on Saturday 3rd, and her Mr Shah Stares to the Heavens by the RTÉ Contempo String Quartet in the NCH Kevin Barry Room 2 at 3pm on Sunday 4th.

Garrett Sholdice and Benedict Schlepper-Connolly: Photograph: Frances Marshal
Garrett Sholdice and Benedict Schlepper-Connolly: Photograph: Frances Marshal

Benedict Schlepper-Connolly, Irish composer and producer

Your first musical memory

Probably my mother singing Russian lullabies. My mother was a Russian teacher. She picked up all of these Russian lullabies and sang them to me. I don’t know if I picked up any Russian though.

What drew you to become a musician?

Well, I was brought to concerts. I was encouraged to think about playing an instrument, and when it came to picking one out I chose the violin. I spent years taking violin lessons and played a lot of music. I had a lot of music around me of varying musical traditions, from classical to songs sung at parties. There was always a lot of music. The composing came from the playing. It just seemed like the logical thing to do.

The best musical advice you were ever given?

I had a teacher in the Netherlands, Peter Adriaansz. He instilled this way of looking at music through various parameters. Is it going up, is it going down? Is it doing this, is it doing that? It was just a lens he gave me to analyse the material I was writing and find ways to expand that material. It was not so much advice as being given a pair of special glasses and particular ways of looking at your music.

An experience of contemporary music that changed you

I’ve just been rediscovering an album that came out while I was in the Netherlands, Kate Moore’s Debris and Alchemy played by Ensemble Klang. A lot of her music is very distinctive, she was doing the things she was doing without any apology. It’s a very tonal language, very much just doing a couple of things incredibly well in a structured way. I just loved how clearly she would expand her musical ideas. Every time I listen to it, it gives me inspiration.

Contemporary music heaven

For me it’s certainly about a very wide angle lens on what that term contemporary music means. In addition to composer and ensembles I would have a lot of contemporary electronic musicians and people writing songs. They all belong in the same heaven. I see contemporary music as a very broad term. I’d like to be able to sit among a few different heavens or for it to be very inclusive.

Contemporary music hell

When I studied in Holland one of the things I loved was that there was a complete aversion to dogma. People had very strong views and weren’t afraid to let you know about them. There was this feeling that no particular musical style is more potent than any other. My idea of musical hell would be to be in a space where music only does this one thing, only has these functions. Hell would be an exclusive place.

Ergodos, the music production company Benedict Schlepper-Connolly runs with fellow composer Garret Sholdice. The performances of their Secret Music Trail “through the city’s back streets and laneways” offer “more than two hours of musical exploration”. Sunday 4th, 11am, 11.30am, noon, starting from NCH reception.

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