An Interview with Marian Ingoldsby

Marian Ingoldsby talks on video to Jonathan Grimes about her current projects, her love of setting texts, and how she ended up composing three operas.

Jonathan Grimes: Are you working on a piece at the moment?

Marian Ingoldsby: I am. I'm completing a set of six pieces for Cór na nÓg [children's choir] with small chamber ensemble for broadcast in March 2005. It's a setting of various anonymous texts.

JG: And is this a commission?

MI: Yes. It was commissioned by RTÉ Lyric FM. They recorded myLily's Labyrinth for broadcast in 2004. Afterwards I spoke to them and they were keen to commission something similar in a smaller format with choir. It's a lovely medium -- SSA with flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano used in various combinations. I'm also working on a choral piece for the Irish Youth Choir and it actually has a Newfoundland connection. It's for piano and SATB and is a setting of poems by Al Pitmann. He's a poet I've come across and I've really grown to like his poetry. That will be performed in the New Year. I think they're coming to Waterford with it because the city has a connection with Newfoundland.

JG: And are you working simultaneously on those pieces?

MI: Yes [laughs]. There's a certain overlap -- I've completed the Lyric FM commission and I'm just notating it. I don't normally work on things simultaneously but in this case it's fine because they're both choral.

JG: So they both take that same approach, compositionally, which is why you are able to work on them at the same time?

MI: Yes, plus I love setting texts. I've always felt very at home with that. But it's always a question of not wanting to say no. Obviously if I had a third piece on I would be in some trouble.

JG: It's interesting because John Kinsella, the composer I interviewed last, said he can't work simultaneously on pieces and that he really admires people who can.

MI: I find it almost exhilarating because you might be on a different section or stage in a piece. I don't think I could start two pieces at the same time though. There could be a danger of putting into two pieces what should be in one.

JG: Do you devote yourself exclusively to composition or is there another side to your work?

MI: Well I lecture in the music department of WIT and I teach in the music school there. I teach a lot of younger students piano and I also teach composition on the degree course with Eric Sweeney, as well as other related subjects. That takes up eighteen hours of my week; the rest of my time is devoted exclusively to composition. What I normally try to do is have a very busy working day where I know I won't compose. Then I'll have at least one free day where I'll get up in the morning and compose. I've always worked like that.

JG: It seems to me that being able to divide your time between composing and teaching comes quite naturally to you.

MI: Yes. But you can suffer incredible tension at times when you're very busy at work and you're dying to get something down on paper, or you're late with something. Also, if a piece is not quite working out, you have to leave it there -- you can't just get up the next day and continue working on it. I don't know if I would like to devote myself exclusively to composition. In a sense I had the chance to do that when I was in York [University]. Ironically I had all the time in the world and I got writer's cramp for a good long time. It's possible that one compliments the other -- I find that it does.

JG: That was my next question. Eric Sweeney talks about how his teaching very much informs his composing. Do you feel that it's the same for you?

MI: I write a lot of piano music and I sometimes get ideas in lessons -- I probably shouldn't say that! I do think that discussing student's plans and structures helps your own work at the time. I do tutorial work with my students; I don't take classes. You can discuss things and get insights from the students. I think one compliments the other, you just have to be very disciplined and organised -- that's the unfortunate thing. If you loose that then it becomes very difficult.

JG: As to the composing itself, do you always compose or do you wait for the inspiration to strike?

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MI: I used to think...“It's not happening and the muse is not hitting me,” and I'd go off shopping or something like that. Now I don't. John Kinsella was visiting UCC [University College Cork] some years ago and I was telling him I was having trouble writing. He said that[spending] a half-hour a day, even if you don't want to [is useful]. I always do that [now], even if there's nothing in my head. By the end of the time you might have something; you might bin it as well but at least you're doing something and it might all add up. I would be a firm believer in not waiting. I'd always think you could find things to be doing in a sitting, even if it's just contemplating the duration [of the piece] or what might happen in this minute. Then you have these moments when it happens and it works. One of the six little pieces[for Cor na nOg] I'm doing at the moment just wrote itself. I had no difficulty [composing this].

JG: And as to your method, do you compose at the piano or away from it?

MI: I used to be completely piano orientated but not now. Was it Stravinsky who said that fingers are great inspirers? And I suppose they are but they can also confine you because you can't imagine. I think what I love most is imagining the sounds of the instruments and the voices, and you can't do that on the piano.


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MI: I've often gone to poetry. It might not necessarily be setting a poem -- a piece could be inspired by the sentiment in a poem or the rhythm of it. That might just get me going and then I'll leave it [the poem] aside. I suppose nature and landscape [are important] and I keep coming back to those for some reason. Sometimes I love to write a purely abstract piece of music as well because I think it's good not to be too programmatic.

JG: Now here's a difficult question, which you're perfectly at liberty not to answer if you don't want to! How do you see yourself as a composer?

MI: That's a very difficult question. Do you mean my opinion of myself, or my vision?

JG: How would you like to be defined or categorised musically?

MI: Lyrical writing for different instruments -- I love the specific character of each instrument. I suppose I might be old-fashioned -- I think I was called this many years ago. I like a tune and harmony and I think I'd be lost without some kind of harmonic structure. I know that doesn't really answer the question.

JG: That's a very good answer -- not in the least bit evasive! Going back in time, were you always interested in composition or did this come at a later point?

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MI: A very scary realisation [came to me] when I was looking at my list of works. The very first piece I wrote, Two Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, dates from 1984, so I'm at it [composing] for twenty years. That was when I started composition; I hadn't been doodling or anything beforehand. I had the good fortune to study with Gerald Barry in UCC. [At first] I didn't know he was a composer and I barely knew what a composer was [back then]. We had these lunchtime concerts and one of the first pieces I heard there was Berio's Sequenza III for voice. I remember saying 'I didn't know you could have music like that.' I came from a background of the musicals and I had done my Royal Irish Academy [of Music] exams. I decided to try composition with Gerald because, actually, with some of my harmony exercises he got very interested in them. I got bitten by the bug; I loved it.

JG: So you came to composition relatively late.

MI: Yes. I never thought at all I'd be a composer. When I was very young we went to stay with one of my uncles. I got up in the middle of the night -- I was told this -- and there was a door, which had a fantastic squeak. So I was up -- I think I was three at the time -- and was pulling the door back and forward; and I woke the whole house.

JG: So that interest in sound was there from an early age?

MI: Yes. I remember eight or nine people on the landing just looking at me.

JG: What a good image? You mentioned having tuition with Gerald Barry in UCC. I think that was the only time that Gerald was involved formally in teaching.

MI: I was very fortunate to have him. I didn't have him for that long -- that was 1984. I graduated in 1985 and I started a Master's with him; at that stage he was moving on. I was at sea after he left but I still kept at it. Then I applied to the Arts Council and I eventually got funding to study in London. So I steered my own path then. Gerald was definitely a big part in my doing composition. I found him very inspirational.

JG: And then fast-forward a number of years after that: you went to York University.

MI: I did, well actually it was a number of years later. When I graduated [from UCC] I went out to work. I was living in Cork and wrote a lot of choral commissions for the choral festival. It was in the nineties that I applied for the Elizabeth Maconchy Composition Fellowship to study in York, so I had actually been composing a lot before I went. I went to study with Nicola LeFanu in 1996, and I was there for three years.

JG: Looking back on that now, was it a turning point in your career?

MI: It was a different point in the sense that I had been doing an awful lot and writing without knowing what I was doing. Getting a chance to study consolidated a lot of that for me. I'd be reluctant to say turning point because to the outsider I suppose I just came right back to where I was before I went. I did find it very rewarding, getting the portfolio together. During that time, I wrote a huge amount that I couldn't have done had I been at work. I read a lot of composers' writings, something I had never time to do before.

JG: Turning to your works in more detail, among your vocal works, which is the biggest section of your output, are two chamber operas and one children's opera. Opera and music theatre are genres that you seem particularly drawn to: why is this?

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MI: I've always had an interest in theatre. Maybe I just like the dramatic in music. Even in one or two of the choral pieces I wrote, people said there were dramatic possibilities. I fell into it [opera] in a way in 1991 with Hot Food with Strangers. I was a very young composer at the time and it was the biggest thing I'd ever done. I found it very interesting collaborating with someone, and for that I collaborated with Judy Kravis, who was in the English Department at UCC. And later [I collaborated] with Ben Hennessy [for Lily's Labyrinth]. He was so experienced in theatre and his words had so many possibilities for me. I've always been drawn to opera. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I grew up with the musicals. From a very early age, I was exposed to all that. I know it's a different genre...

JG: But still, there's a connection with the staging.

MI: Exactly. And theatre. In York, we had Roger Marsh who has the group Black Hair. They performed a number of brilliant music theatre pieces by Aphergis and Berio, and I was very taken with them. I'd love to write something like a monologue but I've never actually managed to do that yet. The operas, as I said, happened by accident. The middle one was October Purim, which was based on the life of Esther from the Old Testament. I always like to juxtapose, say the Old Testament with the New and opera gives you a chance to work in a collage-type way, so you can put things together without having to justify them.

JG: Lily's Labrinth: how did that work actually come about?

MI: It was an Arts Council commission. WIT suggested I collaborate with Ben Hennessy, so we got together in March of that year and it was performed the following January during Waterford New Music Week. There were a number of things that led up to that. First of all, we have two departments in the college. There's a music school with two choirs, a junior orchestra and several very talented young singers. We wanted to bring them all together with the music students [in the music department]. There were huge forces involved -- a Pierrot Lunaire chamber line up, a junior orchestra, several characters and the two choirs, dancers, and so on. For the first performance we needed four conductors [laughs]. We went to the[National] Concert Hall the following June with it. I think the people enjoyed doing it. It was extremely hard work and I wrote it very quickly.

JG: And you mentioned that it had several performances. It must be quite satisfying when you write something that almost takes on a life of its own.

MI: Yes. It was performed about three or four times during Waterford New Music Week and they put it on later in the year. And then of course, Lyric recorded it, which was great for everybody.

JG: You mentioned earlier about setting text and how you're drawn to this. Does your approach to writing for voice depend on the actual text you're setting?

MI: That's a question I find hard to answer. Do you mean the way I set things?

JG: Yes, depending on what the text is or the style of the text, does that then have an impact on how you actually set that text musically?

MI: I would hope so. I'd say the specifics of a commission would determine this more than the text. When you get these specifics you go and find a suitable text. There was occasion where a text just wouldn't fit a commission and I had to go back and find something else.

JG: So this interest obviously involves a lot of reading on your part.

MI: I'd read a lot of contemporary Irish poetry -- Eavan Boland, Eithne Strong. Recently I've gone towards older anonymous texts -- you don't have copyright problems!

JG: What about musical influences? Are there composers that have been influential to you over the years?

MI: Very definitely. I would go back to the earlier twentieth century -- Berg, Schoenberg, Webern to a point, and then the Americans: Copland -- I'd be a big fan of his for his rhythms and orchestrations, and Charles Ives, to name a few. In piano, Debussy -- I'm a lover of his piano music, and more recently Mompu.

JG: And looking back over twenty years of composing, are there any works that stand out for you?

MI: This is slightly amusing because we've been talking a lot about text, but two of the works that would stand out have no text connection at all. One would be my Overture, which I wrote in 1994 for the NSO. I can't exactly say why but it really sticks out -- I suppose it was my first departure into orchestral; and then,Waterscape for violin and piano. Oddly enough both works are from the same time. Another work would be Red Shoes...

JG: Which, again, is another work that's very much taken on a life of its own with so many pianists playing it.

MI: That's right. With that work there was the influence of text in the background -- there's the story of the red shoes. It's not in any way programmatic. I suppose those would stick out in my mind as pieces that I would be happy with. Recently, I've done a setting of The Old Woman of the Roads and I've really enjoyed doing that. I'd have a lot of stuff I wouldn't be proud of as well.

JG: I won't ask you about those! And are you a reviser of works?

MI: I'd rarely rework anything. I did rework one piece for uilleann pipes and string quartet. That was a reworking of an earlier piece but I was happier with the reworking than the earlier piece. It was like taking something asunder and making something better out of it.

JG: And are there any works that you haven't yet had the opportunity to write which you'd particularly like to write for in the future?

MI: I've always wanted to write more piano music. I also haven't really had the chance since I finished my PhD in 2000 to write an orchestral or concertante piece. And as I said earlier, I'd like to write a theatre piece, not an opera but a monologue-type work -- something more experimental. I think I'm texted out at the moment. I don't always want to use text and the next thing I'd like to do is something that doesn't involve text, and the medium would be orchestra or solo piano.

JG: In 2005 you mentioned the Cor na nOg and Irish Youth Choir commissions. Is there anything else that's potentially going to happen during this year?

MI: Well, there might be another choral commission but it's not formalised yet. I worked with Thérèse Fahy [pianist] earlier this year for the Composers' Choice series. I wrote a short piano piece for her, which I want to extend to make a set of pieces. I hope to do that in my spare time next year. It was a very short piece called About Five and it was expressing frustration at the world in general. You find in life you waste so much time -- sitting in traffic, on the phone, waiting for a train to cross, queuing...

JG: So that's where the title comes from?

MI: Yes, but I also use a 5/8 time signature and five notes but the general feeling in it is annoyance. [laughs]

JG: OK, that's all I wanted to ask you. Thank you very much, Marian.

Marian Ingoldsby was interviewed on video by Jonathan Grimes in the Contemporary Music Centre, Dublin, on 13 December 2004.

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