amplify #82 - Deirdre Gribbin on composing for film

Composer Deirdre Gribbin talks to Jonathan Grimes about composing music for the film documentary, ‘Stolen’, writing her new cello concerto, the importance of narrative in her music, and her thoughts on the plight of women composers today.

Show Notes


Read the interview transcription

Jonathan Grimes: Tell me about the project and how it came about for you.

Deirdre Gribbin: So the film Stolen is based on the mother and baby home scandal in Ireland, which is very topical at the moment because a lot of the court cases and legal documents are coming out and the true extent of the whole situation is now becoming very clear. And I was approached by a filmmaker called Margo Harkin, who’s based in Derry, and she’s got an amazing track record. She did all the political films, Bloody Sunday and an amazing film called Hush-a-Bye Baby with Sinéad O’Connor about the kind of role of women and the whole idea about women in Ireland. So she’s very connected to that. And she was drawn to my music - she heard some of it online, some of the concert music, and really wanted me to do this. She has this really strong sense of the land and the land being very important, and also the hidden secrets in the bogs and the whole nature of the land being hidden and the culture having hidden identities and hidden subjects. And this was one of them. So the film went through a few titles and ‘Stolen’, I think, is a really good title because it focuses on the mother and baby home in Tuam in Galway, where they found over 700 remains of babies in the septic tank, babies who had died and hadn’t been buried properly.

DG: It was run by the Bon Secours nuns and they had a system where women were taken - often the families were embarrassed to have a woman in the family who had an illegitimate child, and they were taken there and the babies were often taken away from the mothers and adopted out. So this film follows the story of a number of people who are actually survivors of that system. And it’s their voices. So there’s lots of interviews and it’s interspersed with poetry and some visual arts as well. It’s very operatic in a way, in terms of the kind of motifs that I used in the film.

JG: Operatic in what way?

DG: So I’ve written two operas and the process around writing operas is very much choosing a theme and in the old fashioned sense of a leitmotif that kind of manifests and often for me, attaches to a character and it might have something to do with tonality or pacing. I began to hear music for this film that had a lot to do with this idea of walking and repetitive walking, because the women were in very confined spaces, they would have been in a courtyard walking around. That would have been their only exercise outside. They often worked in the Magdalene laundries as well. And that repetitive action of doing kind of very mindless tasked work, that was very tough. So there’s a lot of repetition of movement, but also that sense of the landscape and that sense of it being Ireland and it having a sense of desolation and great beauty as well. So hopefully the type of music that I’ve chosen for the film comes out of that as well.

JG: And going back to the kind of initial conversations that you would have had with the director about the ideas, what she had hoped to bring out, and you mentioned that she had certain ideas about what the music should be like. How do you kind of negotiate that space with a director? Because I’ve heard horror stories in the past of, let’s say, a composer being dictated to by a director or you know - “I want music that has to be this”. Obviously, I’m sure it wasn’t that in this particular case, but how do you negotiate that as a composer?

DG: Well, for me, it’s always in the process of - it’s not a commission like a concert commission. So I have walked away from projects in the past where I’ve had conversations, maybe over a long period of time. But, over conversations with Margo, and having seen other pieces of work that she’s done, I was pretty sure that we would have a good working relationship. And we did. We’d talk around the kind of music that she wanted, the kind of themes that she wanted. And it is quite different from the approach to writing for an orchestra or an independent commission that I can have artistic freedom over. But also I do love using some kind of lyricism somewhere in my music. It always comes through. So this is a good chance to do that as well.

DG: It’s very dependent on the visuals and the time, so you have to write it for the specific time that the image is on screen. And also to make sure that the music is not dominating what you’re seeing on the screen. That’s really important as well.

DG: That word collaboration is something that we as composers bandy about a lot. But I love the art of collaboration, I love the act of collaboration, I love that to and fro and letting go of things and actually saying, no, actually, it’s better if somebody else’s vision has this with it as well.

DG: If it’s not collaborative and it’s posing to be collaborative, that’s when the problems happen. But this was very collaborative.

JG: And is this the first time for you composing for film since you wrote the score for My Kingdom in 2001, which starred none other than Richard Harris?

DG: That was amazing. I worked with an incredibly established British film director called Don Boyd. And yeah, I had the opportunity of meeting Richard. I’ve done other film - Hearing your genes evolve featured in a German documentary which was a finalist in the Berlinale Film Festival. And I did some other music that segued in and out for that film as well. I’ve done quite a lot of radio drama which, without the images, is quite an incredible artform to work in.

JG: Is it a similar process to writing for film or what are the differences?

DG: Well, I mean, I had the opportunity of working in a radio drama that starred Patrick Stewart, who’s an incredible actor, of course, but to hear him reading the script and I went along to the studio to just see how it was paced. It’s in a way more challenging because you have to create visual images of what the script is doing but not make it too much of a dictate of what it is. So this piece that the play was a Hungarian play. It was an adaptation of a novel, by the radical Sándor Márai, called Embers. And it was two men meeting at the end of their lives and they talk about a moment where they had this incredible - they were great friends as young military officers together - and of course, there was a woman involved, and their lives separated from that. So that was incredible because it was 19th century, I had to adapt the music to fit the speed of the time. So the first scene is the general arrives in a landau, which is an old carriage with wooden wheels. So, it was creating that sense of open-endedness as well. I wanted to create music that came in and went out, as you would on a journey as well. So it was yeah, I love doing radio, actually.

JG: Is being restricted to those particular elements, does that kind of have the opposite effect of being a little bit more liberating - in terms of, you can go in a direction that you mightn’t necessarily want to go or, not ‘want to go’, but you mightn’t necessarily choose to take if it’s a piece of concert music?

DG: For me, that doesn’t really ever come into it, because I think of the concert music in a very different way than I would for film or radio because there’s that other element. I think probably the closest in terms of collaboration was the piece I wrote with Crash Ensemble and Cóiscéim and Fishamble, and that was called Invitation to a Journey, which was about the life of Eileen Gray. And we did this incredible period of collaboration where we had a week in Dublin, six months before the next collaborative period where we worked together again. So it was watching the movement and the music and the musicians all developing and the text developing together. And that was interesting because it was more like the concert music that I would write, but also thinking, well, it’s for something else. Yeah, it’s a different type of harmonic language. I mean, a lot of my concert music has strong narrative to it as well. So although I’m not telling a story that goes from A to B, necessarily, there is a sense of narrative about the music always, but in a way - that’s that defined thing that I do - and then the other things are defined things as well.

JG: Yeah.

DG: And I would say it’s almost like you’ve got a portfolio of types of things that you do, and you adapt to the genre that you’re working in. But there is something about the fact that the concert music is the thing that attracted both film directors that I’ve worked with closely to the music. It wasn’t that they heard music in a play or they heard it on radio, they heard it in the concert music and it was that that made them think, oh, that’s the kind of music I’d like for my film. So it’s hard to really define what it is about film music that attracts people. And of course, we’ve got the Hollywood scores, that, you know, all sound pretty similar, and that’s an amazing artform as well, because people have to be able to do that music to order. I’m not sure that I could do that. So there is that freedom to choosing timbre, I think is the big difference, because definitely for Hollywood they’re told: “We want it to sound like this” and “This is what you’ve got”.

JG: Yeah. And it is much more dictatorial. It doesn’t seem collaborative.

DG: No, no.

JG: On the directors coming to you through hearing your concert music, you mentioned that for Stolen, the director heard your piece How to Make the Water Sound.

DG: That’s right! And she actually used a bit of it in ‘Stolen’ as well. It’s this solo cello line with the very folk-like melody which comes out of a really distorted harmonic passage before that. And then I wanted to create an idea of how to make a water sound. I wanted to create the idea of breathing about people coming out of the water and just taking a breath, and you get that sort of very slow pulse in the cello line that then becomes quite a big lament. So it is quite fitting to be in this film.

JG: I had to remind myself that’s from 1997!

DG: It’s a very old piece, yeah.

JG: Yeah.

DG: It’s been done a lot, yeah.

JG: Do you still see yourself in those pieces, or, or is it more a kind of an earlier self? I’m always interested in composers when they write, you know, when they write pieces that almost have a life of their own, you know, they’ve had multiple performances-

DG: Yes, yes.

JG: - and of course, as an artist, you’re always developing, you’re always growing, you know. Tell me about the relationship you have with these older pieces.

DG: I still have a great connection to that work. I lived in Northumberland when I was writing it. It was a very quiet place, and I had been living in London, and it was probably the first major piece after college. And I was doing a job that was a Composer-in-Residency. I was a Composing Fellow for Northern Arts. So I had the time to do it, and I just had that space. And I think you can hear that in the music, but I was trying things out for the first time in the music. So I would say it’s probably one of the mature pieces.

DG: I think technically I’m much more aware now of what I do, in terms of orchestration, and sometimes that means that I maybe don’t have the same sense of freedom in terms of I’m very critical about every note right now. I’m writing a cello concerto at the moment that is just really absorbing. And I’ve I’ve had three different starts to it, and now it’s really flowing. But there was a big chunk of time that I kept re-writing. I had never done that before-

JG: Really?

DG: - And it’s not that I was stuck on anything. It was just, I’m trying to do something different. And, it’s probably a much more complex way of thinking than the earlier pieces. So that’s maybe why or maybe my life is much more complex now, so maybe that has something to do with it as well.

JG: Yeah

DG: And also post-pandemic, I wrote all the way through the pandemic. I did a lot of commissions. I had a string quartet commission for West Cork, and I had a commission for Crash Ensemble, so I was writing small pieces. Well, the West Cork piece was quite a big string quartet, but, I never really took a break. I never really - I was absorbing all of this stuff that was happening. And, in this piece I was really finding the subject again and thinking about the narrative and just going back to writing something really big-scale again. So that’s been quite a mountain. And that’s well on its way now.

JG: And when is this cello concerto due to be performed? Is it this year or next year?

DG: It’ll be January 24, end of January, so, with a cellist called Natalie Klein.

JG: Oh wow.

DG: She’s pretty amazing.

JG: Yeah, fantastic - and the Ulster Orchestra?

DG: That’s with the Ulster Orchestra. It’s a BBC commission.

JG: Yeah. And, going back to what you were saying about the kind of initial struggle, writing the piece and having to kind of restart it, you said that that’s not normally …

DG: No, it wasn’t that I restarted it, I just couldn’t figure out whether it started very soft or very loud. It’s called Mná, and it’s about a woman who, in the late 1800s, her husband, he actually kills her, but he claimed that she had been taken away by the fairies and replaced by a changeling. So he claimed that he wasn’t killing his wife, he was freeing her spirit and she was going to come back, and then he was tried for manslaughter. And I wanted to handle that subject in a way that was very considered. So maybe that’s, in many ways, I thought, should I really be writing about this? But it’s something I’ve never really shied away from, this notion of taking something that’s thorny and difficult and writing it. And I really felt her story had to be told. And the very touching part of the story was that because of this whole connection to the other world and the fairy world and the kind of magic, which was hugely part of Irish culture at the time, that overlap before Christianity really took hold - none of the villagers went to her funeral. And there’s something very sad about that whole end to somebody’s life.

DG: And she was a very independent, strong woman before, so there was something different about her when she was well and then she became ill and that was when they all said, “oh, she’s been taken by the fairies”, in a way. So that story, it’s quite a brutal end. And I wanted to tell it, really.

JG: Mm, this idea of narrative, having a narrative in your music. You mentioned this earlier that’s kind of important to you when you’re writing a piece. It’s almost like kind of an abstract storytelling?

DG: It is, I mean I think quite visually. I studied art and was going to do art and then decided, no, I’ll do music instead. And I also studied archeology, so I’m really fascinated with that sense of the past. And archaeology is very speculative, so you’ll find remains of something or postholes of a building, but they’ll work out what it was, but nobody really knows. For me, that sense of composing is almost like archaeology of your own memories, in a way, that sense of piecing things together. And it’s only lately that I’ve begun to really realise that connection. I’m still totally fascinated by archeology. And my sister lives in the Hebrides and there’s a place near where she lives that we unearth pottery. Every year, little bigger fragments of bigger pottery. And I found once a piece of pottery that had a thumbprint on it and that was from 8000 BC, 6000 BC, you know. So that sense of delving into the past, in a way, I connect with that. And Seamus Heaney wrote a poem and described us as “mound dwellers” - in that sense that we all belong to something that is before us. So, in many ways for me, composing is connecting to that really deep-rooted culture.

DG: So, again, I’m back to the film. Again, Margo’s connection is to the bog and the land. And there’s something that resonates very much about that. And that’s only a recent realisation. I’ll talk a lot about the music from a musical perspective, about the harmony and what the rhythm is doing and what the timbre is doing. But essentially, for me, if the sense of where it comes from isn’t clear, then I can’t really hear all of the other things that I then pose myself as problems to be solved in a piece, which is why structures happen and things happen. But I’m not a composer that will say, “oh, I’m taking this group of notes and I’m going to do this with it” and that will come out of the notes that speak out of the subject that I’m working with. In a way.

JG: I’m also getting that you have to have a very deep connection with the material?

DG: Yeah, yeah, definitely. And I’m really feeling that with the cello concerto at the moment. I was working on it yesterday and that sense of context, of repetition, so that repetition is never the same, because it’s always heard in a different way. So I always build that sense of reinterpretation into the repetition. For example, the cello line, I could say is reconfigured, so it might be a partial repetition. So it’s almost like the player is partially remembering something from the music or some other thing that might be from the narrative. So I’ve got this long passage that is then reinterpreted, revalued in a way and parts of it are changed, just slightly, so it almost sounds the same but it’s got things that are truncated and extended - but that’s deliberate and that’s quite hard to do because it’s all about that sense of timing and motion.

JG: Yeah. And dealing with these kinds of subjects, you started off talking about the film - which is a very powerful, very dark period in our history, recent history, and then this, which deals with violence against women, domestic violence, that must have an emotional cost when you’re in the middle of writing it? Or does it, at one point, does it become a piece of music that you’re writing and the story is over there - like a cloud?

DG: That’s a really interesting comment because it hadn’t become that. I was reading about it while I was researching and writing and doing it. And now the story is to the side and it’s very much I’m just writing the music. But interestingly, I have been choosing a lot of subjects that have to do with the nature of the role of women in Ireland, because I think that specifically, I think women in Ireland have really had a huge journey probably in the last 50 years. And of course the role of women’s journey in the Republic of Ireland, as opposed to the North - where I’m from, is also quite different. In many ways, I think that Northern cultural definition has been harder and more restrictive on women, in some aspects.

JG: We’re approaching International Women’s Day on the 8th of March. It being the 2nd March now, when we’re recording this, I mean, from your own perspective and your own career, and also, your other role as a teacher of composition - how much has changed for women composers or women in music, compared to when you were starting out as a composer way back in the 90s?

DG: Well, I left Belfast and went to Guildhall in London, and in my first year at Master’s programme there, I was the only woman in the course. I teach on the Master’s programme at the Royal College and Trinity Laban in London and, we have a lot more women composers. We’ve got a lot of independent groups that are run by women, but I think there are hugely more opportunities for women now. I think that, that sense of programming women’s music is becoming more commonplace, and there are just a lot of things happening. But I also noticed that a lot of my students are making their own work. They’re devising projects, they’re writing about things they want to do, they’re getting things on themselves. And I think a lot of that spirit maybe comes from the way that we’ve discussed the aspect of the business, that you need to make things happen for yourself. But I do think it’s an exciting time. I think there’s a lot of really strong awareness, maybe beyond the music world as well, of the fact that women are composers. And that it is something viable as well. My biggest challenge now is the fact that the education system is broken in terms of music in the UK - so the feeding aspect of coming through the schools isn’t happening anymore because the funding isn’t there. So music has been cut so much from the curriculum that we are missing - we’re going to miss the next generation if we don’t do anything about it now.

DG: That sense that we’ve just got this idea that women have an awareness that they can be composers and that if music is cut from the curriculum, then that’s going to slip away again. So I am very much involved in going into education settings in schools and talking about that, about the possibilities, about, where work might lead you and the whole nature of the composer as well as a portfolio career. So that you’re not just waiting for a commission. But I run a small charity that works with young people with learning disabilities, so that is a really fulfilling part of my work, but is also a very big part of potential employment for composers as well. I’ve slightly gone off the track of women composers but!

JG: No, no, but I think when you have a conversation about women in music, and comparing it to previous times, I mean, it also very quickly goes into other areas of disadvantage and exclusion, be it educational disadvantage, be it disabilities, all of those things.

DG: I’ve certainly really enjoyed that interaction and that sense of being able to be seen on panels for younger women composers coming through. Being a mentor, just really welcoming that sense of balance. And that’s taken a while for that to really become something concrete.

JG: Finally, what other projects do you have coming up? I mean, you mentioned the cello concerto?

DG: Looking ahead I’m very fortunate to have an orchestral commission for next year after the cello concerto. But I’m also developing - I have a collaborator that I work with, a filmmaker called Esther Tykman - Esther and I are exploring her visual sense of movement and her videography and photographs to do with skin. I’m also doing some work with IMMA to do with audience, diversification of audience, and about that sense of owning the space of the gallery - but through music as well. So it’s very early days, but looking at a specific interactive weekend where we can do some work towards that sense of, making that part of contemporary artistic thinking, part of a life that people may be interested in but have a fear of? So that’s something that I’m interested in. And of course, more and more work with young adults with learning disabilities, because that’s a huge part of how I think. I have a son with Down syndrome, and he has had such a big impact on my life. He’s an extraordinary person and he is so focused and has an incredible way of seeing the world that I’ve learned a lot from.

JG: It’s really lovely to hear you say that, and I can see that in your work. We mentioned International Women’s Day, what we didn’t talk about was the piece that you wrote for the BBC Singers, which has texts written by your son Ethan.

DG: That’s right. So he began writing poems when he was about nine, and they started off with very simple images that he would just speak and people would write them down, either at school or I would start to write them down. And he’s written probably about 40 poems, and they’re quite profound visual ways of seeing things that have an incredible resonance that I think your average young person would not be thinking of. And I think maybe it’s because his cognitive thinking is different, so his approach to life can be slower, more considered in a way? Or just actually slower because cognitively there’s that Down syndrome processing thing. But then there’s this incredible buoyancy of colour as well in what he says that I just, I’m sometimes profoundly amazed by, in a sense that it’s not something you think that’s a nice thing to have said, but they’re really profound statements about the world that I don’t know where they come from. I don’t think he does either. But that’s, a lot of writers say that. So that, of course, has affected my work. I wrote a song cycle last year for the Irish Chamber Orchestra based on his poems. So they’re touring that next year and recording it as well. And he was there, of course, at the concert. But that sense that someone who has that vision of life can enjoy music. And he was at the Hugh Lane Gallery for ‘Hearing your Genes Evolve’. Totally focused. Always has been. No question! Very much loves that process of the reciprocal part of the listener being involved in the music. And that’s an incredible legacy that he has for himself, that he will always have in his life.

JG: That’s wonderful. Yeah, he enjoys that kind of process and listening to your music and he -

DG: And he listens to Late Junction, you know he’ll go and put it on. And the most austere and esoteric music he’s really listening to. So he’s always seen that as part of normal. That’s a resonance that most people don’t have time to have - because we’re all in such a busy, and, and education things about everybody achieving grades and exams and whatever, and, you know, and then you start life, but he just lives life - has always done!

JG: There’s definitely a lesson or two in that.

DG: Totally. Yeah.

JG: Deirdre, thanks so much. It’s been an absolute pleasure, as always.

DG: Ah you’re welcome.

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