A County Investing in Music

Jonathan Grimes writes about Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown's composer-in-residence scheme. This article was originally published in New Music News, February 1999.

A small but significant piece of musical history was made last October when Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, one of the new outer Dublin local authorities, became the first county council in Ireland to appoint a composer-in-residence. The six-month residency, which is co-funded by the Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaíon and co-ordinated by the county arts officer, is proving so successful that funds are already being sought for an extension.

This is not the first time the borough has given a lead. In 1997, locally-based jazz composer,Ronan Guilfoyle, was commissioned to write a work to mark the opening of the new County Hall. The piece, and indeed all the works from the opening concert, were recorded and issued on CD; an idea that one hopes some of the other county councilors from around the country who received a copy might take up. In 1998, a maritime-influenced sound installation by the French electro-acoustic composer, Cecile le Prado, was located on one of the piers of Dún Laoghaire harbour, an appropriate association for a county whose history is so intimately connected with the sea and shipping.

Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council has chosen Belfast composer Stephen Gardner to be its first composer-in-residence. Gardner is working on two main projects: weekly workshops with local musicians who are writing a suite of pieces inspired by geographical, historical and social themes relating to the county, and a new work of his own which will be premiered by the contemporary music ensemble, Concorde. This piece, with characteristic Gardner humour, is called, You never know what's around the corner, and was commissioned with funds provided by the Arts Council.

Cliodhna Shaffrey, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown's Arts Officer, views the residency as being of enormous benefit both to the composer and to the community. 'The residency is an opportunity to fund an artist for somethin he or she wants to do', explains Shaffrey. She believes that the composer should lead the way in terms of how the residency evolves. 'The composer is the most important person and he or she has to be happy. The residency has to be led by the composer within the parameters of an overall philosophy.' Rather than the composer's time being mapped out, Shaffrey feels that composer-in-residence schemes should be based on the principle that less is more. 'The composer should be given time to focus on other projects and write music without financial burdens. The scheme is a very good way for a local authority to highlight and support contemporary music. Local authorities have huge potential to be of support to the artist; the question is how best to invest the money.' In terms of the outcome of the residency, Shaffrey emphasises that a concrete result should not necessarily be expected. 'There doesn't always have to be a CD or a book. The return is having somebody who can bring their expertise to the area.'

And how does the composer feel? I spoke to him at his base in the Church of Ireland in Monkstown. He is enjoying working with the local musicians and is encouraged by the level of talent among them. 'They are so full of ideas and there is nothing better for me than feeding these ideas. It is refreshing that people can be so creative.' Asked how he feels about living in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, he describes himself as 'a bit of a rover' and says that he always liked the idea of living near Dublin. He also likes being part of a community through his work and is very complimentary about the support he has received from the arts office. 'They are very helpful and encouraging and I feel comfortable with their support. This is a very worthwhile scheme and one which other local authorities will hopefully take up.' He also pays tribute to the support of Jane O'Leary and Concorde.

Stephen Gardner's residency culminates in a concert on 21 April 1999 in the Church of Ireland, Monkstown. This will feature his own new work written for Concorde and the traditional- and jazz-inspired suite composed by the musicians who have been working with him. Let's hope that the shining example of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council will be taken up by other local authorities -- after all, you never know what's around the corner!