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Raymond Deane talks about the ideas behind his chamber work, Seachanges (with Danse Macabre), and his development as a composer. Seachanges is one of the set works on the Leaving Certificate music syllabus, the final examinations at second-level in Ireland.

This article is a transcript of a video interview and also includes accompanying video extracts.

Copyright ©2003 Contemporary Music Centre, Ireland.

An Interview with Raymond Deane

Raymond Deane

View or listen to extracts from this interview or read the transcript below.

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Michael Dungan: You've always had a healthy anti-establishment streak. Having one of your pieces on the Leaving Certificate music syllabus is like a badge of respectability. How does that sit with you?

Raymond Deane: I never thought of it that way, as a badge of respectability. Anyway, I think I'm quite respectable. You can be anti-establishment and be reasonably respectable as well. I'm quite delighted that an anti-establishment composer would be the one to have a piece on the Leaving Cert. I would encourage students to become anti-establishment as well.

MD: How did it come about?

RD: It was recommended by the Contemporary Music Centre. It's the third contemporary composition in succession that has been chosen for the Leaving Cert., the first one being John Buckley's Violin Sonata, then a piano quartet by Gerald Barry. The first I heard about it was when I was asked by the Contemporary Music Centre would I be willing to allow the piece to be used in that context. And I was delighted.

MD: For many Leaving Cert. students, Seachanges (with Danse Macabre) will be their first encounter with contemporary music and with contemporary Irish music. What is it about this composition that makes it suitable in that context?

RD: Well, if you phrase it that way... I wasn't the person who decided it was 'suitable'. Now, do I consider it suitable? I suppose I do, and I can think of a couple of reasons why it might be. One is that I think it's a fairly entertaining piece, which I couldn't say about a great deal of contemporary music, couldn't say about a great deal of my music, in the normal sense in which people use the word 'entertaining'. It is a fairly colourful piece. It's a piece that involves interesting instrumental colours. There are quotations in it -- something you don't usually find in my music -- which people may or may not recognise. So in that sense, it is probably a reasonably upfront, lively introduction.

But it's also a very formal piece, which would be more consistent with the rest of my pieces. It's a piece that uses technical devices of various kinds which you can teach to people, and it uses them in a fairly straightforward way. I mean, it's not a dense serial piece or anything like that. It's a piece that has canonic techniques, it has little pitch cells. A great deal of it is written in seven-time, and stuff like that. There are a lot of little technical details that could be quite interesting in a pedagogical sort of way.

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MD: There is also engagement with the subject of the trilogy from which the piece comes, which is, as you say, 'an irreverent view of death'.

RD: For whatever reason, I've always been a pretty morbid person. At a certain stage in my life I thought I might like to write a series of pieces -- it turned into three chamber pieces -- that would take death as the subject. But without any great, heavy pessimistic interpretation of the subject, much in the tradition of -- particularly in this piece -- the medieval dance of death, which comes from a time of particular horror with the Plague, the great poverty and great oppression. People were dying like flies, and how did they cope with it? They went out and they danced. That whole aspect of things -- the slightly grotesque, the confrontation of death as a kind of 'Mr Bones', a slightly ridiculous, jangling figure -- that was the kind of thing that I wanted to confront in these pieces.

MD: And the students are sixteen and seventeen-year-olds. They will have encountered the theme of death in the literature that they will have been studying as well, both English and Irish.

RD: Well I would presume so. It's a pretty universal theme! They have possibly encountered the Shakespeare lyric Full fathom five in the course of their English studies. And that was one of the sources -- it's certainly the source of the first part of the title, Seachanges.

MD: You mentioned quotations, something you don't often use in your music. Hopefully, Leaving Cert. students will have had a basic survey of music history. What kind of resonances with earlier musics should they notice or would you point out?

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RD: Well the most obvious one is the quotation of the medieval plainchant Dies irae, 'the day of wrath'. There is a long tradition of that being used in 'classical' music: Berlioz, Liszt, Saint-Saëns and a whole slew of contemporary composers. And I don't think that there is a single piece by Rachmaninov in which he doesn't quote it at some point!

So that's the most obvious one. Later on it's perhaps a bit more recondite -- the player-piano studies by Conlon Nancarrow, the American composer who lived in Mexico. There's not a direct quotation, but a very direct reference to his music in one part of this particular piece.

MD: I didn't spot it!

RD: Hmm, I think if you listen to it again... it's a part that begins with the marimba and then the violin. It's a kind of canon, and then it gets quite worked up.

MD: You've mentioned Nancarrow. What influences do you think are evident, say from the second half of the twentieth century, in your music? Commentators will impose influences upon your music, but what about the ones that you recognise yourself?

'I'd like to think that influences at this stage of my life...have been reasonably well internalised.'

RD: That's always a very difficult one to answer. I am influenced, I suppose, by all kinds of things which I'm not aware of being influenced by. Composers that I love, like Bartók or Stravinsky who, on the face of it, are not in the direct tradition that I work in. Though I'm sure they're in there somewhere. Certainly, Nancarrow. Otherwise I hope it's a piece that doesn't wear its influences too much on its sleeve. I'd like to think that influences at this stage of my life -- and that piece is about eight years old, I think -- have been reasonably well internalised.

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MD: That kind of assimilation that a composer would aspire to is the opposite of what a Leaving Cert. music student wants! They want to be able to say that in bar 34 there is a strong resonance with Bartók's Third String Quartet.

RD: Well, I hope that that won't be over-emphasised; I don't mean specifically Bartók's Third String Quartet. I think that that is one of the aspects that people maybe dwell on too much. So-and-so is influenced by so-and-so. It's a kind of a way of reducing what people are doing and depriving it of some of its autonomy, its integrity, its individuality. I can understand that people want to relate the unfamiliar to the familiar, but I don't want to help them too much.

MD: Having said that, if you could have included a list of 'suggested further listening' at the end of the score, what might that include?

RD: I would certainly list the 37 Studies for Player Piano by Nancarrow. I would list Ligeti who in some ways is the man who re-discovered Nancarrow and put him back on the map after he had disappeared into obscurity. And, simply, the contemporary composers whom I really love, like Luciano Berio or Xenakis or Donatoni or Boulez or Stockhausen. And then people like Stravinsky, Bartók, perhaps Varèse.

MD: So students could actually use your piece as a portal into that whole world if they're not getting a good diet of it in the Leaving Cert?

RD: Well I would love to think so. In many ways, this piece is rather more accessible than a lot of those pieces would be, although a lot of aspects of it can be traced back to that music. I would like to think that people would make that leap.

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MD: If you were put in front of a Leaving Cert. music class and given three weeks to discuss Seachanges and listen to it, to teach it and prepare them to answer questions about it on the exam, but really to absorb it, how would you go about doing it?

RD: I think I would start off quite anecdotally by just telling them about the origins of the piece. It's a piece of which the origins are very over-determined, as Freud would say. It's very hard to know where there is an actual starting point. Because every time you say, 'This piece came from such-and-such', you find that such-and-such itself came from something else. So I would certainly go into the history of it, go into the little piece for violin and piano that I wrote for my niece a couple of years before starting on this piece and that is quoted directly in the piece [Birds and Beasts]. I would play them that -- a recording, because I don't play violin. And I would then trace the way that piece runs through Seachanges. I would then go a little bit closer into it. I would show how the violin and piano piece is built up from three notes, and I would then show how that principle is taken over and is the whole basis of the Seachanges. That would be my starting-point. Now, I'm not a teacher, and I don't know what kind of questions people would expect to receive. I would be very reluctant to start going on about things like 'A-B-A', 'ABAA2B2C2' and all that sort of stuff, which I know people have to do. But when you've reduced something to a skeleton like that ('skeleton' being a very appropriate word in this piece!), I don't know that you've actually achieved anything. You may think that you have clarified the piece to yourself in some way, but I don't think you have.

MD: But they are to wrestle with the contents, or discuss them. The classic Leaving Cert. question begins with 'discuss' or 'treat of'. So if they're to discuss something meatier than formal design... Or let's say you're Sister Raymond marking exam scripts! What kind of things would you like to see? What kind of response would you hope to find from teenagers who have listened in depth to your music?

RD: From the point of view of listening... I'll come to that in a second. I would like to think that instead of doing the A-B-A-B-A stuff and trying to find a 'form', that people would be more interested in the structure, that they would be more interested in the detail. And that they would be able to say -- when you get a particular sequence of notes or whatever -- how that is built up, how it relates to other sequences of notes in the piece. In other words I would prefer to see them focusing on the micro-structure in some way. But that's perhaps a bit much to expect. People who don't have a detailed musical training and are listening to it for the first time.... It's very difficult to answer. I would like to think that they would relate it to other pieces they have familiarised themselves with and say in what way it's different. That would be one thing. And what does this mean to classical music? I mean, if you've listened to Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet and then you come and listen to this piece, in what sense are they both classical music? I would love to think that a student would be able to give a meaningful answer to that. Or even to say that they're not, and some other words would be found.

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MD: Is there a sense in which there is a direct entry possible into music like yours and into contemporary music? One that isn't really possible with our classical music heritage to date, in that in some respects, people who come to this music without knowing anything at all -- not knowing Tchaikovsky or about the Dies irae -- that they can have a very fresh response? And if that is the case, and given the way music education is at the moment, that some of these music students do encounter your music in those circumstances, in that they don't really know much about what's gone on before.

'I would love to be able to say that if people could put aside their prejudices they would have a more direct access to any contemporary piece. But in practice I don't think it works out that way.'

RD: There are obviously two ways of looking at that. One is positive and one is negative. The positive one would be to say that perhaps -- since it is a contemporary piece by definition and people are living in the contemporary world -- they might find that the piece speaks more directly to them. I'm a bit sceptical about that, I would have to say. And I feel that in some ways young people -- any people -- who are used to listening to, shall we say, pop music, in all its different manifestations which have in common the fact that their musical language is fairly primitive.... I don't mean 'primitive' in a necessarily dispraising sense. I mean that it's very basic: it is tonality, it's music in a key in the simplest, in the most 'three-chord' way. People who are used to listening to this music all the time have a certain framework of listening that in a way is closer to traditional classical music because it is also tonal music, it's music in a key. So in one sense they have more immediate access to Eine kleine Nachtmusik or Pachelbel's so-called Canon than they would have to a piece like this. So there are two ways of looking at it. I would love to be able to say that if people could put aside their prejudices they would have a more direct access to any contemporary piece. But in practice I don't think it works out that way.

MD: It's terrific that the Leaving Cert. syllabus does include new Irish work. Personally, I would see that as a small triumph in an otherwise losing battle. Have you had much encounter with music education? Have you a view on the way music is taught in Ireland?

RD: I'm afraid I share the universal view which is that music is taught very badly in Ireland if it's taught at all. One hastens to say that one is not condemning individual teachers who are doing their best. It's just a system that does not respond to educational needs when it come to music, particularly classical music (so-called). I know my own education had no significant musical dimension at all, except for the specific learning of the piano as a child. None of the schools I went to taught music as such. Then, I'm afraid, even the established institutions here which deal with classical music tend to be very conservative. They tend to prepare performers for playing nineteenth-century music, essentially. And even, I notice, the plans for the new conservatoire [the proposed Irish Academy for the Performing Arts, Ed.] do not seem to include a dimension that would have to do with contemporary music or with the phenomenon of composition or with the particular interpretative demands of contemporary scores, even for performers. That is unfortunate. I have a feeling that -- while it's great that this piece is on the Leaving Cert. course -- there is a certain danger in something like this existing in a vacuum. Because the kids don't have even an elementary training. I don't think they learn musical notation, by and large, and I don't see why people shouldn't learn that just as a matter of course when they're learning their ABC. And then coming to something like this completely fresh -- in one sense, which is a nice way to put it! -- it's not ideal. I think there should be some kind of context and that context should be provided from a very early stage. And this isn't happening. The teachers themselves, God love them, are often as much at sea when they come to dealing with contemporary works as the pupils. And that is an extraordinary situation in any kind of discipline.

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MD: You seem to set Seachanges apart from some of your other music. If students wanted to move on from Seachanges and listen to something else by Deane, what would be the next thing that they might listen to?

RD: I would say the other two pieces in that particular trilogy, although 'trilogy' is a rather grand name for it. They're three loosely linked pieces, in other words Catacombs and Marche Oubliée. I think that Marche Oubliée is a piece that gives the impression of being rather more traditional than it is. So I think it's got its areas of accessibility. The other one, Catacombs, is based on -- I daren't really say familiar material because it may not be familiar to some students -- the Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky, one of the great old chestnuts, and a piece that I greatly love, although some people listening to Catacombs might doubt the nature of my affection for it because it's rather irreverent. So I do think that those two pieces would be a good step on from Seachanges.

Then maybe a piece like the orchestral Krespel's Concerto which is another piece with a lot of extra-musical aspects to it, with a lot of quotations and with a rather closer link to tradition than most of my music. They perhaps might then move on from there to something like the Oboe Concerto [Concerto for Oboe and Large Orchestra] which is rather more hard-core in nature.

MD: You mentioned your own upbringing and how it was really the piano lessons which were your introduction to music. When you were at the stage of the people who will be studying this score, when you were sixteen or seventeen, what was your contact with music apart from the piano lessons?

RD: Ah well, you see, when I was sixteen or seventeen, I was a total freak. In all kinds of ways. I went to Darmstadt, to the vacation courses in new music, when I was sixteen. I had saturated myself in the most outré kinds of avant-garde music. I had practically given up piano lessons as such and completely devoted myself to composition and to finding out about other people's compositions. I had in fact left school at the age of fourteen and studied with a correspondence college just so that I could devote myself to music. So I don't think I was a typical example of a sixteen-year-old. Nor an example that I would recommend anybody to imitate!

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MD: Although as teenagers we are all prey to passions, though perhaps yours was more lasting. So it's something that perhaps the students studying your score can relate to, that kind of single-minded devotion.

RD: Well, perhaps. I made the decision that I was going to be a composer when I was ten years old. It's now almost forty years later and I've stuck to a decision that I made when I was a particularly infantile infant, as I remained until I was at least thirty-five! It's a very strange thing. I mean, I was brought up in the same surroundings as just about anybody else and with the same kind of music. And as a kid I loved pop music. I had no problem with that. I used to listen to Radio Luxembourg all the time. But I just got drawn into the piano and into the classical literature of the piano at that early stage. And I kind of developed this fanaticism for it that completely wiped out pop music and the stuff that other teenagers listened to as a rule. Also, I don't think that it's necessarily the case, as people often think, that classical music is something that is alien to young people or need be alien to young people.

MD: It doesn't need to exclude pop music.

RD: No of course it doesn't. Not at all.

MD: And in those early years, when you were ten, it probably never occurred to you that you would have a piece on the Leaving Cert!

'I made the decision that I was going to be a composer when I was ten years old... I was very confident about myself. That confidence took about thirty years to wear off!'

RD: No, on the contrary, I assumed that by the time I was twelve I would have pieces on the Leaving Cert! No, I was very confident about myself. That confidence took about thirty years to wear off!

MD: There's mariachi music in this piece. You were born in Achill Island which is a long way from the nearest mariachi band. How did that drift into Seachanges?

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RD: I wouldn't say that there is mariachi music in it as such. There is a reference to the mariachi band [the best known form of Mexican traditional music] which is the kind of thing you see roaming around the streets in Mexico quite a lot with the marimba and the maracas and the güiro and stuff like that. I was in Mexico as the Irish delegate at the World Music Days of the International Society of Contemporary Music. In fact I made my maiden speech, so to speak, in front of the delegates of, I think it was, thirty-four countries from around the world, in which I made a forceful case that the 'big' countries -- the big European countries in particular -- were keeping out a lot of the smaller countries. It created a great stir and I remember it was great fun. That took place in Mexico City. And as soon as it was over I went off to a place called Huatulco on the coast just south of Acapulco. It was there that I was looking for a present for my little niece, and I found this tiny toy violin, a very picturesque thing. I bought it and I started poking around with it. And in fact I didn't give it to her for ages after I got back to Ireland because I was so entranced by the hideous sounds that I could produce from it. I subsequently put some of those sounds into the piece. I actually started work on the piece, because I had the commission, in the hotel where I was staying in Huatulco. And I remember I was sitting beside a swimming-pool -- there was no water in the swimming-pool; it was their winter and it was coming up to Christmas -- and I was sweating so much that there were drops of sweat falling down on the manuscript. I still have that page on which I started, with the blobs of perspiration.

MD: Does that page correspond with the first page of the score?

RD: It corresponds with the opening of the score. It didn't have the title Seachanges then. The opening was an evocation of that sun, a really ruthless sun that was bleaching me. I had this picture in my mind of my bones being bleached on this obscure strand somewhere, and that put all the other ideas into my head bit by bit.

MD: How long was the gestation then?

RD: I didn't come back straight to Ireland. I stayed in Paris for a while and I wrote most of the rest of the piece in Paris. I can't remember exactly, but the piece would have taken me about three months to write.

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MD: You know the way a painter will have a sketch-book with rough etchings of something that they've seen when they've been away. Do you just have to carry all that in your head? The impressions you had of Mexico? Was it your first visit to Mexico?

RD: It was my first and so far my last. Wherever I go I always have manuscript paper with me. But it often comes back with nothing on it. On the other hand, things that go into your head can suddenly re-surface some time later. Just in this case it went straight down.

MD: It sounds very spontaneous.

RD: It was. The opening of the piece just came to me like that, on the spot in Huatulco.

MD: And the little pentatonic tune that features early on?

RD: That's the three-note thing. And you see, this is the thing: when I started writing this piece, I wrote those very high, shrieking sounds that you get at the beginning of it around three notes. And it was only afterwards that I suddenly realised that, 'Hey, those are the same three notes that I wrote in this little violin piece'. And then the violin piece written on that -- which came into my head on Ardtrasna strand in Sligo one very bleak day with seagulls wheeling over my head while the rain pelted me -- then that connection between these two dramatically different seascapes ignited a spark and the rest is history.

MD: Given that description of how organic the whole thing is, it's obvious how offensive it would be to divide it up into A's and B's.

RD: Yes. That's why I find the attempt to reduce pieces like this to A's and B's... Of course, there are A's and B's in it. But once you've said that you've said next to nothing.

Raymond Deane was interviewed on video by Michael Dungan at the Contemporary Music Centre, Dublin, on 12 February 2003.

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