An Interview with Linda Buckley

CMC Composer of the Month June 2007

Composer Linda Buckley talks to Bob Gilmore about her musical background, her interest in electronics, approach to composing and how she'd like to write once more for Javanese Gamelan.

Bob Gilmore: I’d be interested in knowing a little bit about your family background. Was your family musical?

Linda Buckley: My father came from a traditional music background. He plays accordion and sings and that was one of my musical memories -- hearing him sing and playing the accordion. There’s nine children in the family and I’m the youngest, so it was quite a crazy, chaotic household but it was very exciting because most of us learnt instruments at some stage -- anything from piano to cello to accordion. There was a huge range of performers in the family, so we all used to get together and perform in the house, which was great. A lot of people talk about my father as being the main influence musically but I think my mother had a major influence on me, partly to do with the fact that she’s [musically] tone deaf! When I was a very young child she used to sing me very atonal nursery rhymes and I remember thinking that they were very beautiful. These were my earliest melodic memories of these nursery rhymes. So I think in a way that has influenced me maybe indirectly as well because at a young age I already felt that these atonal melodies were very natural and beautiful. I didn’t feel that they were dissonant.

When I was very young I remember actually lying in the cot and listening to the sound of the foghorn from a nearby lighthouse, because we grew up just right on the cliffs in the old Head of Kinsale and our farm was just directly on the cliffs. So I remember hearing the sound of the foghorn and it was very, very haunting and quite eerie but quite beautiful as well. So I think this always haunted me throughout my life, this memory of the foghorn. Also, I was always fascinated with the sounds of milking machines on the farm. They have a mechanical rhythmic metallic quality and I think that they’ve definitely informed my compositional thinking later on in some ways.

BS: How did you then get from those early musical experiences to an interest in contemporary music? Was that university or was some of that in your family?

'A very natural experience for me would be to go into college and have a sean nós lesson, perform in the Javanese Gamelan ensemble and then study Léonin Pérotin.'

LB: That wouldn’t really have been in the family. When I was still at school I was composing things on the piano but I never really took it seriously. Then when I started the music degree at UCC [University College Cork] at 17, I began to think, ‘Wow this is amazing, this is actually something you can do with your life.’ I had never realised that it was possible. That was a really important time for me, the four years spent doing my music degree in UCC.  I studied ethnomusicology with Mel Mercier so I was actively performing things like south Indian vocal percussion, Javanese Gamelan and African drumming. I also studied sean nós singing. I studied composition withJohn Godfrey, so that was a major influence and I think all of those aspects still come into play in my writing. Also, medieval music was a major influence for me at the time and still is.

BG: That strikes me as being an unusually broad musical curriculum for an undergraduate degree.

LB: I think it is.

BG: Did you ever find that there was almost too much in the way of too many possibilities or too many different paths being thrown at you, so you had to find where you were personally as a young developing composer? Or were you always pretty clear of the relevance of these various musics for you?

LB: I assimilated them and I filtered them through my own experience and I think they came out in my music in various subconscious ways also. I think it was hugely important for me and I never really felt that I had to choose between them. I always found very strong connections between them -- I never felt I needed to build boundaries between them; they all felt very natural. A very natural experience for me would be to go into college and have asean nós lesson, perform in the Javanese Gamelan ensemble and then study Léonin Pérotin. Kyle Gann talks about the idea of totalism and the totality of music making -- embracing the totality of music expression and experience. That’s something that’s very important for me as well.

BG: After UCC you went on to do your masters degree at Trinity College in Dublin in music and media technologies. So by that stage had you gotten interested in electronic music?

LB: Earlier on when I had experimented with composing for piano I always felt that it was quite limiting -- it wasn’t really expressing the sounds that were in my mind. I went to the Ennis Composition Summer School in 1998 and that was really significant for me. I studied electro-acoustic composition with Michael Alcorn and he taught me the program C-Sound. I remember being very excited about the possibilities [that C-Sound offers]. Suddenly I felt that I could recreate these sounds that I hear in my mind very clearly. I felt very at home with electronic music immediately. Then I decided that I wanted to pursue that later on and did a masters at Trinity.

BG: Can you say for you as a composer, what is it that attracts you to working with electronic sounds? Is it somehow that acoustic instruments are not able to realise the sounds you’ve got in your head?

LB: I was quite young when I got interested in it -- I was 19 -- and I was extremely excited about the possibilities that it offered. I felt that there were almost limitless potential in what you could do in terms of playing with the very detailed aspects of sound: attacks, decays, sustain and things like that. You could create pieces which were combinations of electronic sound and acoustic sound and I felt that it was the best of both worlds. At any stage I never felt that I wanted to do away with acoustic music or acoustic instruments at all -- I still feel that they’re incredibly important for me as a writer. I just felt that it was expanding the possibilities and I think in a way the electronic experience in my life has definitely influenced my acoustic writing and vice versa. I always think about acoustic instruments as sound making devices in a way. It’s interesting, even with my orchestration I almost think of it as additive synthesis in a way. You’re combining all these timbre to create a new timbre. I think that comes from my electronic music experience.

BG: So for you there wouldn’t be a fundamental difference between sitting down to write an acoustic piece and an electronic piece?

'I think in a way the electronic experience in my life has definitely influenced my acoustic writing and vice versa.'

LB: Not really, no. I approach them pretty similarly actually. When I start a piece for acoustic instruments I think of what types of sounds I can create and that always informs the direction the piece will take. Similarly with electronic music, I will build up a palate of sounds which I will use within the piece. So I think for me there is not really a huge gap between those worlds. I often write for acoustic instruments with electronics and I’m always trying to blur the boundaries between those sound worlds by creating a very coherent sound world, where the audience or the listener does not know what’s acoustic and what’s electronic; I love that.

BG: Can you tell us a little bit about your actual working process with electronics? Do you work in a studio or have you got the whole set up now pretty much at home on your lap top?

LB: I do have the set up at home.

BG: What kind of stuff do you use?

LB: I started off using C-Sound, as I said earlier, with Michael Alcorn. When I went to Trinity I learnt the program Max/MSP and I use that a lot today. I use that for generating material and also in live improvisation for live electronics as well. So it’s extremely useful for both those things.

BG: How do you actually work with planning out an electronic piece? Does it involve pencil and paper or does it all happen on the computer from playing around with sound files?

LB: I would normally have some idea of the kind of sounds that I want to produce and then I will sit down with paper, completely away from the computer. I think it’s dangerous to start composing directly at the computer; I’m a bit old fashioned in that way. With anything I’m doing I will sit down with a piece of paper and graph out overall structures and types of sounds that I want to create. I think it’s definitely helpful to come back to that as you’re working with a piece. But sometimes a piece takes on a life of its own and goes in its own direction.

BG: So you would normally plan out the overall shape of a piece first and then fill in the details?

LB: I would normally but sometimes that does change, depending on the kind of material you’re using. Sometimes it takes you in totally new directions that you never expected. But often I would try to have an overall plan.

BG: One of your pieces that’s been performed quite a lot is a piece for viola and tape from 2004 called Do You Remember the Planets? I’m always quite intrigued by the metaphysical title of that piece. Can you tell us a little bit about that piece and about what the planet reference has to do with the actual music?

LB: A lot of people ask me about the title -- it seems like quite a strange title and people ask me if it is related to Holst's The Planets, and it’s not at all, it’s nothing to do with that. The actual title itself comes from the subject title of an email that I received from David Midean, who is a viola player in New York. I wrote the piece for him and met him at the Bang on a Can Summer School in 2004 in Massachusetts. He wanted me to write him a piece for viola and electronics and I remembered a conversation that we had about a recording that he was telling me about, about the sound of planetary motion. I was fascinated and really intrigued by this and that informed the whole concept behind the piece. I was always fascinated by Pythagoras and the whole idea of planets rotating at different speeds and producing different frequencies, some higher, some lower, while combining to create this beautiful harmony. Often people will say they can almost get that sense of interstellar activity when they hear the piece. I’ve been looking at a lot at Kaija Saariaho's work and this idea seems to crop up a lot in her pieces too, where she’s almost depicting the night sky. So that’s something I’m very interested in -- creating something that almost seems to come from another world.

'I think a lot of my pieces seem to be concerned with the tension of opposites.'

BG: I suppose if I was to make a generalisation about any of your pieces that I know, many of them seem to be very multi-layered and have very many different sorts of musical material in them. So sometimes they’ll be quite melodic and you’ll have quite a beautiful little turn of phrase in the melody; other times the same piece might also deal with things like steady states or textures or even noise textures to various kinds of filtered noise. Is that the way you think about music as being all of these? Like a world that contains all these different elements?

LB: I think a lot of my pieces seem to be concerned with the tension of opposites. Often they will move between points of chaos to points of stasis and I explore the journey in between those two points. That feels quite natural for me. Often in my pieces you’ll get very, very dense, rich textures and then very sparse austere textures.

BG: Two of your most recent pieces that I’ve heard -- the Crash Ensemble piece, Stratus and Stop What Started -- both seem like they’re dealing with very big musical territory. Does there ever come a point when working on a piece where you get a bit lost in all this amazing sound world you’ve created and can’t quite find your way to the end?

LB: Kevin Volans came to give a talk recently in Trinity [College Dublin] and he talked about how it was dangerous to fall in love with your material. And I think sometimes there is that danger when you’re working with electronic material that you can become so immersed in the sound world that you almost get lost in the middle of it all. So it’s a question of taking a step back, getting a sense of perspective and looking at the overall structure and how the shape is going to come about because I think there is that danger of becoming lost.

BG: I wanted to ask you a little bit about the various experiences you’ve had with your music outside Ireland. You’ve always studied in Ireland, first of all in Cork and then in Trinity, where you’re now doing a PhD. Have you found it valuable to go outside the country to places like the Bang on a Can Summer School in the US, or the composers’ meetings in Apeldoorn, Holland where you were a prize winner in 2005?

LB: Absolutely. I think it’s of extreme importance for any composer to experience what’s going on outside of their own country. It was amazing to go to the Bang on a Can Summer School and meet so many other performers and composers from all around the world, and to listen to the music that they’re creating and discuss it. That was hugely important for me. Also to meet David Lang and Julie Wolfe and Michael Gordon, whose music I had always been interested in. And Terry Riley of course was there that year as well. So it was really important for me as a young composer to hear their music and to hear the sense of boundaries being blurred between more popular genres and classical genres. I remember the first time I heard Michael Gordon’s piece Weather and when he introduces these big electronic beats I remember being very shocked and excited by this as a young composer, and thinking that these things are possible. So it was very exciting to be part of that environment in Massachusetts and to meet other like-minded composers as well. In Apeldoorn there were more European composers so that gave me a different slant and it was fascinating to have lessons there with Louis Andriessen and Richard Ayres.

BG: Do you find that you lean more towards Europe or America in your general musical outlook?

LB: From contemporary music, I think Ligeti has been a huge figure for me. I think he has such an amazing balance of intellect and intuition in what he does. Even though you can sense that the pieces are so well constructed there’s also a very real emotional response to the music as well. The raw viseral energy of some Piano Etudes and the very ethereal qualities of something like Lux Aeterna. So that has been very significant for me. But in terms of Europe versus America I don’t really think of it like that actually. I see myself as existing in the world internationally and don’t really make those distinctions.

BG: I know you are working on something for orchestra. Can you tell us a little bit about what that piece is and how that came about?

LB: Well a few months ago I finished a piece for the Gateway Orchestra in Wexford, conducted by Fergus Shiel, which is related to the Wexford Sinfonia. That piece is quite loud and bombastic and in your face with lots of metallic percussion. This next piece, in a way, is almost the antithesis of that -- Iit’s very slow and textual. This piece is specifically for my PhD because I want to use this time to really develop and explore my orchestrational ideas.

BG: What other kind of projects do you see coming up in the future? Have you got any other musical ambitions that you haven’t yet realised that you want to get started on?

LB: I’ve a number of projects in the next few months. I’m performing with an improvisation group in Berlin and Venice as part of the festival NWEAMO, the New West Electro-Acoustic Music Organisation. I think that will be very interesting. It’s with some Berlin based musicians. There will be circuit bending and I’ll be performing flute and live electronics. Then I’m going to be working on a project which will eventually go to Jordan and I’ll be doing a residency and installation in Jordan in August. So that will be an inter-disciplinary project with visual artists as well. So I’m very excited about that. Also I’m going to be working on a multi-media piece for a concert in June with the Spatial Music Collective, a group that has been set up with mainly Trinity- based composers or former Trinity students concerned with performing music that is spatial, whether spatial electronics or spatialisation of live performers, which is a very interesting idea. Also I’m going to be working on a piece for voice and electronics for Natasha Lohan as well. So there’s a lot of interesting projects coming up.

BG: Great. You’ve been teaching recently at Trinity College in Dublin. A lot of composers end up doing some sort of teaching, obviously partly out of necessity and partly because they want to. How do you feel that has affected your working as a composer, if it has? Do you find there’s a tension between having to spend time teaching and wanting to be free to compose?

'I don’t think I could lock myself away for years on end and just compose these great symphonies and never see anybody outside of my house.'

LB: I think that the balance is very important for me actually and I need that balance. I don’t think I could lock myself away for years on end and just compose these great symphonies and never see anybody outside of my house. I think it’s very important to have that social interaction and feedback and I find it very inspiring actually to teach and I learn even so much from my students. It’s always so exciting for me if I’m introducing a piece of music to students for the first time that I’m very excited about. Then I see their enthusiasm as well and it feeds back into my own work. So I think it’s of vital importance for me. I think you need to have that balance.

BG: Do you feel the same way about performing? That’s something that obviously you’re possibly going to be doing more and more of as time goes on. Is that something you feel is beneficial for a composer, to actually be out there as a performer?

LB: I think so, definitely. I feel for me, particularly with improv, that the live spontaneity of it is very important for me. It’s like spontaneous composition really, which is very different to sitting at home in front of your computer or piece of paper. It definitely feeds back into my own work as well. Performing with other musicians as well and just having that level of social interaction is really important.

BG: If somebody was to come to you tomorrow with a blank cheque book and commission you to write any piece you wanted to do, of any sort, what would it be?

LB: I would love to write again for Javanese Gamelan. I worked on a piece with them when I was in my undergrad degree and I always wanted to return because I’m so fascinated by that sound world.

BG: What is it about the Gamelan that fascinates you?

LB: It’s such a beautiful sound world and it’s so deceptively simple in a way. When you listen to the music it’s so hypnotic but it’s all multi-layered and there’s so many complex resulting patterns that are going on within the music. I still perform with the Javanese Gamelan -- it’s just been a huge influence in my life. I’ve always wanted to return to it and write for it again.

Linda Buckley was interviewed on video by Bob Gilmore in the Contemporary Music Centre, Dublin, on 4 May 2007.

Bob Gilmore is a musicologist, lecturer and pianist who writes about twentieth and twenty-first century music. He teaches at Dartington College of Arts, Devon, England.

The views expressed in this interview are those of the persons concerned and are not necessarily those of the Contemporary Music Centre.

Listen to the full podcast here:

Episode 1:

  • Early musical experiences
  • Time as a music student in University College Cork
  • Meeting other other young composers at International seminars

Music excerpts used:

0:00 & 1:57 Do You Remember the Planets? (Karen Dervan [vn]) © Linda Buckley
4:34 Telephones and Gongs (UCC Gamelan Ensemble) © University College Cork

Episode 2:

  • Discovering electronic music
  • Compositional influences

Music excerpts used:

2:34 Libera Me (David Bremner [org], MMT Chamber Choir, conductor Edward Holly) © Linda Buckley
5:29 All Collisions End in Static (Ríona Ó Duinnín [fl], Nancy Johnson [va], Geraldine O'Doherty [hrp], Keith O'Brien [live electronics]) © Linda Buckley
7:30 Do You Remember the Planets? (Karen Dervan [vn]) © Linda Buckley

Episode 3:

  • Upcoming projects for 2007/2008
  • Compositional style
  • Future works

Music excerpts used:

2:08 Stop What’s Started (EAR Ensemble: Lioba Petrie [vc], Antonio Cafolla [ssax], Bryan Quigley [db]) © Linda Buckley
6:31 Telephones and Gongs (UCC Gamelan Ensemble) © University College Cork

Linda Buckley was interviewed on video by Bob Gilmore in the Contemporary Music Centre, Dublin, on 4 May 2007.

Bob Gilmore is a musicologist, lecturer and pianist who writes about twentieth and twenty-first century music. He teaches at Dartington College of Arts, Devon, England.

The views expressed in this interview are those of the persons concerned and are not necessarily those of the Contemporary Music Centre.