An Interview with Eibhlis Farrell

Ita Beausang: Eibhlis, do you remember I interviewed you ten years ago [New Music News, February 1993, 9-11] and a lot has changed since then, especially your glamorous photograph on the [CMC] web site! How do you like to be described? As a composer, or an Irish composer, or a woman composer, or an Irish woman composer?

Eibhlis Farrell: I think firstly a musician. I hope [laughs] musician first, composer second.

IB: Over the last ten years has your music been affected by political events in the North of Ireland?

Interview with Eibhlis Farrell (2003) clip1

EF: I think that coming from the North, especially the South Down area, which is a very nationalist area to grow up in, that you couldn’t escape from the Troubles; they were always a weight you carried around with you. They’re something that you feel very passionate about and a lot of people of my generation from the North from similar backgrounds would have an extreme interest in politics and be very politically-minded; it was just something that was part of your background, was part of your psyche and you couldn’t escape. So I think that although I wouldn’t ostensibly have written any piece and said, ‘Right, this is a commentary on the North of Ireland’, probably a lot of that comes across in the music.

IB: Would that be a sadness?

EF: Well, sometimes it might even be a form of escapism because it’s with you all the time, it’s something that you try to rise above in your creative work, it’s one area where you can get above all the darkness.

IB: Your identity, is that important to you?

EF: Well, I think for any artist the identity and the landscape you come from has to be important because after all it does shape your mind in your early formative years, and it’s something that you carry with you. I was lucky enough to be born into what I would consider aesthetically a very beautiful area of Ireland -- the Mountains of Mourne -- and in growing up looking at Carlingford Lough and the history being so much around us in terms of the Viking invasion, there were relics of the Early Christian period, there were Celtic crosses, there was everything historically you could want as well as the beauty of the scenery. So that has to impinge on you; also it was interesting that we were looking across Carlingford Lough to the Border [with the Republic of Ireland]. Now the Border ran through the Lough and you were looking across to the South of Ireland and the Cooley Mountains on the other side. So it has to impinge, I suppose, on your development.

IB: Many of your works are premiered in very exotic locations. Do you think you could belong anywhere else besides Rostrevor?

EF: Ah well, if I find a very rich partner I’m sure I would [laughs], who could keep me in the style I wish to become accustomed to, I think I’d move to Timbuctoo if I had the chance.

IB: In the past decade you have had a steady flow of new works. They fall into two main genres: for voice and for solo instruments. Is this by accident or design?

Interview with Eibhlis Farrell (2003) clip2

EF: Well, a lot has depended on commissions I’ve been asked to do. For instance in the works for voice there are a number of chamber cantatas. I’ve always had a great interest in baroque music, in the baroque period, especially early opera, and the form of the chamber cantata -- which in its way was a mini-opera -- was something that I was very attracted to in a structural sense. So a lot of the works for solo voice take that form, and then there are some choral works as well. A lot of the texts I’ve set are older texts, partly because you don’t have to worry about copyright, but there’s something about setting older texts that it’s like adding bricks or building bricks onto words which have survived for centuries, and there is a great beauty and power in those words in the fact that they have been there for so long and that you’re adding something of yours on to the edifice.

IB: It’s very significant that you are drawn to voice because even in your pieces for solo instruments the voice of the instrument is very much invoked. Is that a conscious happening? Do you choose the instrument because you feel you can express the heart of the instrument? Or is it again because you are asked to write a commission for a particular instrument?

Interview with Eibhlis Farrell (2003) clip3

EF: I suppose it depends. I think that my style has gone through a period where I was very interested in the sense of line and the linearities through the music. When I was growing up a lot of contemporary music tended to be very mosaic and juxtaposed jumbled-up patterns from the aleatoric period, and I think I always had that sense of this continuous growth, and line and shape and structure growing out of that, and so I suppose I would say that linearity or even beauty of melodic writing has been very much a part of my style in the last ten years or so.

IB: You seem to have an affinity with the poetry of two very different women: Hildegard of Bingen and [the Irish poet] Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. What drew you to them and do you think they have much in common?

EF: Well, they are both extremely like myself: passionate, sensuous [laughs]. I was asked by an Italian to do a setting of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill for a group who normally played baroque music, and it was in the context of a baroque music concert. So I looked through her poetry and I found a poem, The Silken Bed, which she had written in Irish and it had been translated into English, but there was also an Italian translation. The Silken Bed itself is a very beautiful love poem so in the setting I looked at the actual sounds of the different languages and I constructed the work around the broadest and most ‘sensuous’ sounds and sonorities I could get out of the words. It so happens that the first and the last section are in the Irish language, the second and the fourth section are in Italian and then the middle section is in English, so the work is built around that particular poem. But it’s amazing how, even though the Hildegard poetry is centuries old and Ní Dhomhnaill’s is contemporary, you get the same resonances, you get the same depths of feeling, even the same word patterns. And it’s very much the same with music; you learn as much from a piece of plainchant as you do from a piece by Berio because every piece of music has to have a sense of structure, it has to have a sense of timing. You know they say there’s nothing new under the sun: the ‘changing world maintaining harmony’ of Boethius.

IB: It’s extraordinary how personal the emotion is in the twelfth-century text that you used. I noticed in your settings of three of your recent chamber works that you used three instruments, three very different instruments. You used oboe, viola and glockenspeil for The Lovesong of Isabella and Elias Cairel; violin, cello and harpsichord forThe Silken Bed; tambourine, violin and harp for O Star Illumined by the Sun. Is there something special about the number three? How did you choose those instruments in particular for those works?

EF: The first one was a commission from the International League of Women Composers for their biannual festival which they were having in Alaska that year. I was asked would I set a work of a trobaritz. I hadn’t known much about the trobaritz until I started working on this piece. They were a group of women during the Crusades from 1150-1250 based in what’s known as the Provençale area, and they wrote the most incredible music and poetry when the men were away on the Crusades. And they had the ruling power, the control of the place when the men were away, and it’s rather sad because when the men came back the Albigensian heresy came, and they were all wiped out.

But for those hundred years you get this wonderful flowering of women’s poetry and music. For that particular setting I was trying to create the sound of the medieval bombard, hence the oboe, and the rebec, hence the viola, and the singer herself plays the glockenspiel. Now the glockenspiel actually only has one note and it announces and closes each section. But in the first section the singer is the lady, Isabella, and she’s being courted by her lover, Elias, and she’s singing about how much she loves him and it’s all very beautiful. But then the second half becomes a contorted version of the first half because he’s let her down badly and run off with another woman, and she’s giving out about how he’s used her. You know men never change really[laughs]. The usual story!

For The Silken Bed I think it was because Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s original poem was in Irish and I was thinking very much of marrying the sean-nós [Irish traditional singing] style which is very heavily ornamented anyway, with the very ornate but very melodic ariosorecitative from early opera. You get a great freedom of expression in that.

IB: O Star Illumined?

EF: That was a commission for the twenty-fifth anniversary of Adapt, which is the women’s refuge in Limerick, so I had to set women’s poetry for that and I mixed a work by the Comtessa de Dia, who was another of the trobaritz, with a work of Hildegard which is taken from the antiphons of St Ursula and the eleven thousand virgins. St Ursula was being forced into marriage and she went on this ship with eleven thousand virgins to escape but there were so many on the ship that it started to sink, so they had to go into port, so of course they were all martyred. The third text I used was a Marian prayer I found from the early Byzantine liturgy. It was a hymn to Mary, but in that I was trying to give the three different aspects of women: for instance, the second section where I do use the Comtessa de Dia is actually constructed like a French chanson of the time.

IB: You seem very fond of the harp in ensemble and as a solo instrument?

EF: It’s interesting because one of the first harp pieces I wrote was commissioned in 1992 for the bi-centenary of the Belfast Harp Festival for the Welsh harpist, Ieuan Jones. I was asked to do a piece about 10-12 minutes long and I really got tired writing it, and I realised that with some instruments you get tired in your head if you are writing for them.

IB: All those strings?

EF: I never get tired writing for voices, my ear never gets tired of writing for violin... Sometimes with the harp and the organ it gets very tired. It’s as though there is a surfeit of sound, that it’s just too much and after a while your ear just starts to... ’Oh I wish I was finished with this... ’ I think it is back again to this thing about sonorities of instruments; with certain instruments there’s such a wide range of sonorities that you can never run short of sounds, whereas other instruments maybe tend to be more narrowly focused.

IB: Moving on to your work as an educator, according to Confucius if you want to know whether a people are well-governed and if their laws are good, examine their music. How would you apply this to Ireland in 2003?

EF: Well, for someone who was brought up -- maybe I shouldn’t say this -- being taught rebel songs and anything which was banned by the BBC [laughs]...

IB: But you were educated under a different system [in Northern Ireland]. How does that inform your views of Irish music education [in the Republic of Ireland]?

EF: Well, I think the system at home [in Northern Ireland] was much more highly-developed, and it’s interesting that a lot of my early music education actually came from learning plainchant, because at that stage the ravages of Vatican II hadn’t reached the little village of Rostrevor, so for quite a number of years after Rome had given it up we were still singing away, it was just a great basis for...

IB: You didn’t have folk groups?

Interview with Eibhlis Farrell (2003) clip4

EF: Definitely not [laughs]. We still don’t. I think that there is a real dearth when it comes to music education, especially at primary level, because those are your future audience, your listeners, your music appreciators, your performers, or whatever. I worry too about the teacher training end, especially about students who are doing music education; when it comes to the music practice I worry about the quality of the music that they are being asked to pass on to children. To me there is nothing more beautiful or more satisfying than our own Irish music and children don’t know that any more, they’re growing up without being exposed to it and what they’re getting is this middle-of-the-road stuff you could hear either in inner London or downtown New York. We’ve lost a certain distinction and children respond to quality. If you give small people good things all the time they do respond. I just worry about the dearth of music education and the paucity and the lack of quality in what they’re being fed.

IB: The new report from Music Network recommends a national system for music education based on local music services. What do you think should be the main focus of such services, as well as quality?

EF: Well, I would like to see much more emphasis on choral and vocal training as well as instrumental, and I think that too much emphasis has been put on instrumental music, that it is a solo practice, that we train hothouse flowers so therefore you go off and you practise your violin and you come in and have a solo lesson. An awful lot of that early instrumental teaching, even middle and later instrumental teaching, should be done in groups and small seminars which could encourage children to partake. I’m a great believer in the power of singing so that a child is introduced to singing early and gets to use the voice and to sing with other children. You see, singing then leads on to so many other social activities with drama and musicals, opera, staging and dressing up; children get so much out of it. To me, if you miss out on that aspect you’re missing out on a lot of the creative and the magic element of childhood.

IB: As an educator you have promoted music technology. Do you think there’s a danger of technology for technology’s sake at the expense of musicianship?