An Interview with Mary McAuliffe

Mary McAuliffe talks to Jonathan Grimes about her current projects, many of which involve close contacts with musicians in the USA and Canada.

Jonathan Grimes: Mary, are you working on any pieces at the moment?

Mary McAuliffe: I'm completing a suite of pieces for theNewfoundland Youth Symphony Choir. I'm also working on an opera that I've been writing for a number of years; I've almost reached the end of this as well.

JG: So you're coming to the end of two fairly substantial pieces?

MM: Exactly. It's tidy-up time and time to take stock.

JG: And how long have you been working on the piece for the Newfoundland Youth Symphony Choir?

MM: In 2003 I was awarded the Ireland Canada University Foundation RiverdanceScholarship. I went to Newfoundland in November of that year to research texts because we decided to take texts from both Ireland and Newfoundland. I began work on it when I was there. Some of the pieces are quite substantial so it's taken a while [to compose the work].

JG: And I'll come back to this scholarship later on in the interview because there's another question I want to ask you about it. So you're kept busy with those two projects anyway?

MM: I am. Then I'm always pottering with other things as well but these are the two main things I've been working on for the last few months.

JG: And you've been working on the opera for a number of years?

MM: I have. A version of this opera was performed a number of years ago and I've been updating and adding to it since. I feel I'm near the end now -- it's there.

JG: And how do you feel about coming to the end of something that has been with you for so long?

MM: It's nice because when you share it with people they know exactly what you have in mind. You do actually come to the end of things and feel, 'That's it.'

JG: So there's closure and then it's on to a new work or idea?

MM: Exactly.

JG: Was music always something that was in your life or did this interest come at a certain point?

MM: I think it always was [in my life]. I began to learn the piano when I was about five. I was always making things up instead of playing what was in the book. I remember in school getting into trouble in another class for writing music on the side of my page.

JG: So that sort of leaning towards the creative side of music was there from a very early age?

MM: I suppose it was.

JG: And when you were learning piano at this early age, did you write any little pieces?

MM: I used to make things up and sometimes improve on the pieces I was learning. [Laughs] That didn't go down well but I couldn't help it.

JG: Did you study piano up to an advanced level?

MM: I did it as part of my degree. Then when I went into teaching, I felt I had the opportunity to write music. I began to do arrangements and write different things for the students. That probably helped to develop the field considerably.

JG: So it was after your university studies that you took to composing in a serious way through working with the students. Did you do any composition before that in UCC [University College Cork] as part of your music degree?

MM: I did the composition and arranging as part of my degree but I never had any formal lessons in composition after that.

JG: So you're self-taught in a way in that you've accumulated things as you went along?

MM: I did. I learnt an enormous amount in university but I never even thought about going on to pursuing something like that [full-time composition]. I don't think I'd have ever wanted to do that, really.

JG: So after university, you took up teaching music in a school?



Clip 1

MM: I was teaching junior and senior school. It gave me a great opportunity to explore music for children and senior choir. I wrote lots and lots of pieces and many of these have been taken up by other people and have been performed in different places. The first school I worked in was a boys' school, and I wrote a musical, which was a version of The Prodigal Son; we couldn't find any music that was appropriate for boys. I wrote a lot of music for the students and I loved that.

JG: So writing music was easier than finding suitable music?

MM: It became easier. We felt that we exhausted the possibilities that were out there at the time.

JG: From the student's perspective, it must have been quite exciting for them to be involved in something that was completely new.

MM: When I was doing it first [composing for the students] I'd start the music and would hardly say who wrote it, I was so shy about it. I didn't know how it would be received but then when I saw it was being received very well I'd say, 'I actually wrote that.' Then I gave my music to other people outside the school and that was the breaking point. They seemed happy with it and I began to realise that maybe this stuff was okay.

JG: Are you still teaching now?

MM: No, I haven't been teaching for about twelve years.

JG: So as you were teaching, the composition part of your work obviously became more important and made more demands on your time. Did you decide consciously at a particular point to devote more time to composition or did you keep the two things going side by side?

MM: I kept them going for a while. I went down to part-time teaching so that I had more time for composing. Then I just thought, 'I really want to do this [full-time composition] and if I don't do this now I'll be too old.' I decided to go for it totally.

JG: And you didn't look back?

JG: I didn't because shortly after this my connections with America happened. I'm sorry I didn't do it years before that but maybe there's a time for these things. The music I was writing... people were performing it and wanting to commission me. I began to think, 'Yes, I can really do this.' I suppose I got confidence with it.

JG: It must be a big decision to make: leaving a job where you have security to go to a situation where there are a lot of unknowns.

Clip 2

MM: I suppose I became so passionate about it. I just felt there was no point saying in five or ten years, 'Why didn't I do that?' I began to meet so many people in the musical world and I found this very stimulating and very interesting. Like the time I went to St Peter's Square in Rome with Our Lady's Choral Society -- you stand in St Peter's Square and you hear your music performed and you think 'I want to do this more often.' You need freedom to do that. It was a huge gamble and there were many times I thought, 'What have I done?' but the other side of me said, 'It's worth the price.' I had so many wonderful people supporting me, that was the big thing.

JG: You mentioned that you began to get a number of performances of your work in the US after making this break to composing full-time. Tell me how that came about.

MM: That happened as a direct result of the Contemporary Music Centre. A conductor in Atlanta, Stephen Darsey, was organising his spring concert for that year around Irish music. He contacted CMC and they sent him different works. One of the works that was sent to him was my Mass of the Irish Martyrs and he decided to perform it. That was really the start because I went over for the performance and it was amazing. There was a big interest in the work because it had been written for the beatification of the seventeen Irish Martyrs. They were very moved by it and it was decided to use that music for the opening Mass of a commemoration of the Irish Famine the following year. Then I began to meet other people. I met Michael O'Neal[conductor of the Michael O'Neal Singers] and he commissioned myReturn to Old Ireland.

JG: From that one opportunity, so many doors opened for you?

MM: Exactly.

JG: You mentioned the Return to Old Ireland, which you completed in 1999. This work has received so many performances to date.

MM: It's had ten.

JG: That's quite an achievement: to write something that has been performed that many times.

MM: There are people talking about performing it at the moment as well. I'm hoping that it will be published. The fact that it has had ten performances by different groups in three years...

JG: Mostly in the US?

MM: Eight have been in different states and universities in the US.

JG: It must be fairly satisfying to write and work and for that work to take on a life of its own.

MM: It's so nice because the people who have performed it are all so interested and want to see if it published. They feel it has tremendous potential. They are all in touch -- that's really special.

JG: Have you gone to many of the performances?

MM: I've been at all of them except one. There was one in Elkhart, Indiana, on St Patrick's Day and at the same time there was one in Grand Rapids with the Grand Rapids Chamber Choir.

JG: On the same day?

MM: Yes, but luckily the Grand Rapids people performed it two days later so I was able to get to that.

JG: From hearing all the performances of this work, are you ever tempted to go back and change bits of it or are you completely happy to let it stand on its own?

MM: I think there is one note I'd take out of Return to Old Ireland but it's not a big deal to anybody else. I might just leave it because when you do something like this it really is a tribute to the people that took it on board first. When I was writing it, Michael O'Neal was such a support.

JG: So you worked quite closely with him?

MM: Yes. I didn't have an idea as to what the piece was going to be at all. So I began to look for an idea and then I saw this poem by Walt Whitman called Old Ireland, which talks about Ireland weeping for a dead child at the time of the Famine. But it also goes on to say, 'Don't weep for these children because they're alive and well in a new country.' Tremendous hope and everything -- I based the piece around that. I wrote the rest of the text myself. So I don't think I'd change anything in the piece apart from the one note.

JG: And I won't ask you what that note is.

MM: No, and I won't tell you! [laughs]

JG: So, you've experienced the American model of music education and performance through these numerous performances, not just of your Return to Old Ireland but also of other works, by amateur and youth music groups. How do you think the system in the US compares to the Irish music system here? Does the Irish music scene compare favourably to it?

MM: I'm sure that it does in many senses. A lot of the organisations I've worked with in America have been after-school projects, so I've been lucky insofar as I've worked with the finest [children's choirs] in the country. I've also worked with schools as well and I suppose it depends on the school. Not every school would have the same facilities for music; I suppose in a sense it could be the same here in that it can be very varied. When I was in Missouri I worked with a school choir and they obviously put a huge amount of effort into everything they did. They performed my Aililiú na Gamhna. Then the Board of Education in Fulton County, Georgia, commissioned me to write The Wave and that was taken on by a middle school that had a tremendous music department. They used to say that it wouldn't be the same in every single school, so I suppose it's a little bit like Ireland.

JG: But the main obvious difference is that it's a bigger country so there's a lot more choice in terms of choirs to work with.

MM: We have some amazing choirs here. If you go to the Cork International Choral Festival you hear them. You don't always realise what's out there -- there's a lot of great things happening.

JG: And of course your connections with North America are not just confined to performances of your work. You've had several stints as guest lecturer/composer at a number of US universities and you also mentioned at the top of the interview that you were awarded this Ireland Canada University Foundation Riverdance Scholarship. Tell me a little about that scholarship and how that whole project came about.


An Interview with Mary McAuliffe: clip 3

MM: Well, it was Eve O'Kelly [CMC Director] who told me about the scholarship. I was going to Atlanta for performances and I mentioned this scholarship to Paige Mathis, the director of theAtlanta Young Singers of Callanwolde. She knew Susan Knight in Newfoundland and thought that she would be interested in my work. So I sent Susan material and she got back to me and said she would be interested in working with me. The Newfoundland Symphony Youth Choir is such a phenomenal organisation and Susan Knight has such vision for the choir. They tour all over the world and they've just been awarded the Margaret Hillis Award with Chorus America, which is one of the top awards. The project was to create a suite of pieces for treble voices that was to have significance for Ireland and Canada. So we have three texts from Ireland, three from Newfoundland and one that's a combination of both.

JG: So you mentioned that you're finishing up the seventh movement of this suite. Is there going to be a complete performance of the work scheduled?

MM: There probably will be but we haven't got a date for that yet. Funnily enough, the seventh piece that I'm completing is actually the first movement of the suite. It's called 'Newfoundland' and the text is by E. J. Pratt, who was one of Canada's renowned poets. It's a majestic piece and it demanded a lot of attention and a lot of consideration to do it properly.

JG: You obviously enjoy setting texts and that leads into a strong interest in choral music. Is that something that's always been present in your composing career?

MM: I think so because I write a lot of the text myself. For the opera I've composed, I've written the entire libretto. The final movement of the suite... part of it is my own text and part of it is Al Pitman, who is one of Newfoundland's greatest writers. One of his poems is calledHomecoming, so the piece I've written is an anthem, Home, which celebrates the links between Newfoundland and Ireland. That was a great experience and I'm really looking forward to going back now that the job is done, or almost done!

JG: A lot of your works tend to be written for specific purposes or particular performers. How important is this personal contact -- i.e. knowing whom you're writing for -- to the composing process itself?

An Interview with Mary McAuliffe: clip 4

MM: I think if you're working on a choral work it's hugely important. There are very few things that I've written just for the sake of writing them; I don't think I'd even be interested in doing that. I think music is all about people. If you give a choral work to an organisation, they're going to spend long hours learning it. I think when you're dealing with text and choral music you're dealing more with the actual personalities of the people.

JG: Even looking back on your catalogue of works, I noticed that the majority of works listed received premieres.

MM: I don't know if I'd feel so good about writing pieces just to have them there. I get so passionate about what I'm doing that I want my pieces to see the light of day. I've been encouraged by so many people over the years that I feel I nearly owe it to them to have the music performed. That might seem strange but I've worked with some amazing people; sadly some of them have passed on. I feel a huge sense of being grateful to those people. I got great support from people that have even gone to trouble to make sure that what I was doing was performed. It's more than the music -- we're talking about people. I've made so many friends through the pieces that have been performed and I can't imagine what it would be like not knowing all these people. We've had so many visitors from the States and other places and it's all through music. A lot of it is choral music.

JG: And also working with young performers and children's choirs. Even though you're long out of teaching, you obviously still get a kick from working with young people.

MM: Well, I love it. When I wrote The Wavepeople said I should send it to Henry Leck[founder and artistic director of theIndianapolis Children's Choir]. His music is published as part of a choral series so John Egbert [Director of Choral Activities, Missouri State University] sent it to him on my behalf. Henry took it on board and performed it and now it's gone out on his Sounds of Ireland CD. The piece is also published by Hal Leonard now.

JG: And as to the composing process itself, do you have a particular way of working or does it largely depend on the piece you happen to be writing at the time?

MM: I tend to get ideas very quickly and, funnily enough, they are often the parts that I would use. I also feel that when you're writing a work for somebody it's very important to bring the people on board. I would never just hand a person a piece and say, 'there is the piece.' I want them to know from day one what's in my head. I suppose I've been lucky in that I can't remember anybody ever saying to me, 'No, I don't like that idea. Can you change it?' It hasn't happened and I've been very lucky because it's really hard to do a piece a different way if your first gut feeling was to do it a particular way.

JG: So collaboration is really important to you and the end result is that people who you've written for have a work that they're happy with.

MM: I think so. I have played things over the phone to people and said, 'What do you think of that?' It sounds ridiculous but it's actually a sensible thing to do.

JG: Many composers have a number of unfulfilled ambitions -- pieces they'd like to write or projects they'd like to do. Do you have any ambitions for the future?

MM: Now that this opera is coming to fruition I feel that it's something I'd like to do again. I've really enjoyed writing it and I think opera covers everything I want to do. When you have children's voices with adult's voices, child soloists with adult soloists -- I just love that combination and I want to do more of it.

JG: Well, we'll look forward to hearing your first opera, and then shortly after that your second one! That's all I wanted to ask you, Mary, so thanks very much.

Mary McAuliffe was interviewed on video by Jonathan Grimes in the Contemporary Music Centre, Dublin, on 11 February 2005.

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