An Interview with Rachel Holstead

Just before travelling to Antarctica to research a piece based on the life of Antarctic explorer Tom Crean in January of this year,Rachel Holstead spoke to Jonathan Grimes about growing up in Kerry, composing for classical and Irish traditional instruments and her work in education.

Jonathan Grimes: Rachel, you’ve just returned from a two-month residency at the MacDowell Colony in the USA and you’re just about to go off to Antarctica to research a piece you’ll be writing. 2006 looks set to be quite an eventful year for you, doesn’t it?

Rachel Holstead: Absolutely, I’m having lots of exciting things happening at once. So yes, I think it’s going to be pretty busy.

JG: Are you ready for it?

RH: I hope so. I keep thinking of things I’ve forgotten about but so far I’ve enough things ticked off the list to prepare myself. And I had this wonderful stay at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire before Christmas, which gave me a chance to step back and take stock and prepare myself for the year ahead. So that timing was just fantastic.

JG: Tell me a little bit about that residency. What was involved in it and what did you do while you were there?

‘As a kid I grew up playing fiddle and taking violin lessons at the same time. And it was really through playing sessions in pubs and improvising that I started composing.’

RH: The residency is funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and they offer one [residency] each year. The Colony itself is this amazing place, which was established by Edward McDowell, an American composer, and his wife Marion almost 100 years ago. They set out to create the ideal working environment for composers, artists, writers, architects, etc. and that has continued. You’re given a little studio to work in and nobody is allowed to visit you without a specific invitation. You’re fed a wonderful breakfast, your lunch is delivered in a little basket and you’re fed this wonderful dinner in the evening. And you’re in the company of all these really happy, relaxed artists and writers -- it’s just the most amazing place to be in.

JG: And while you were there, did you have anything that you were working on? Did you set yourself any specific task or was it more of a case of standing back, taking stock and preparing yourself for the eventful year ahead?

RH: Yes, I ended up spending the time quite differently to what I had thought I was going to do. I had intended to go there to work on a piece for the Irish Chamber Orchestra. And just before I left, that piece was pushed back a little bit time-wise. I ended up spending the first week finishing Ardee Dances for the Irish Baroque Orchestra, which was performed last November. So my first week was spent finishing that, sending things back across the Atlantic, being in touch by phone, and recovering from jetlag. I gave myself a few days after that and then sat down to start work on the chamber orchestra piece and found there was just nothing there. I had to stop and take a break, as I was not ready to begin [a new piece] again. It was the first time I’d really had a chance to stop and take in what I’d been doing and start looking ahead to what was coming up this year. I realised that I really needed that time and it was the ideal place for it because I don’t know if I would have taken that time for myself otherwise. So I went out and did some recording. I made some wonderful contacts with filmmakers, artists and writers, and was able to experiment a little bit and try out some new ideas. I came back feeling refreshed and I’m dying to get my teeth into the next piece now, so it’s great.

JG: So the residency allowed you to stand back, take stock and see where you wanted to go next?

RH: Very much so.

JG: And how much of a factor was the environment in helping you to achieve that? Was being able to mix with other artists something you found quite stimulating?

RH: Very much so. That was one of the most important aspects of the residency for me, especially meeting artists from different disciplines. Quite a number of my friends are composers and it’s lovely to get to chat and compare notes; to do that with writers, artists and filmmakers was fascinating -- everything from working processes to how they actually live and survive as artists. And also how it works for people in the States at the moment as well, because it’s quite a different set up. So to get a window on that was fascinating.

JG: And did you find any similarities?

RH: Yes. In terms of working processes and experience of art there were a surprising number of similarities: the way you approach things, the way you think about ideas, the way you develop ideas. That was really interesting and really stimulating.

JG: You mentioned the piece for the Irish Baroque Orchestra that you were writing during the first week of your residency. Can you tell me a little bit about that piece?

JG: Fantastic. You mentioned that the piece includes a traditional fiddle part. This isn't the first time you've combined traditional Irish instruments with standard orchestral instruments. Are you particularly drawn to doing this or is it something that’s happened by accident?RH: That was such a lovely project for me. I was so happy when that commission came through because I’ve been really interested in period instruments for ages. And this was a commission for traditional fiddle and baroque orchestra. Fiddle and Irish fiddling is something that also interests me a lot, being a very lapsed fiddler myself. As well as the instrumentation, the actual players involved were really interesting. There was Gerry O’Connor, the fiddler, who’s from Dundalk, which is quite close to Ardee, and I really liked that idea of having somebody who had a connection with the area. Elizabeth Wallfisch was guest director of the Irish Baroque Orchestra for the festival and she was just amazing. I got an opportunity to meet both of those players before I started working on the piece, and as soon as I’d met them I knew that they could lead a lot of the music and that the music would work around them as players. So that was the approach I took to the piece, as well as having fun with the sonorities of the period instruments. During the festival I got to spend a week rehearsing with the orchestra in Ardee, which is so luxurious to have that time with players. They were so lovely to work with. They have a very different approach to players who play more modern repertoire. They’re working with facsimile scores, often with no dynamics or expression marks so they’re used to interpreting the music. I was keen that they would take that approach to my score as well; I wanted them to find their way into it. It was so exciting seeing that take shape. And then I got to tour with them for a week, which is just as much fun again.

RH: I actually started composing in the first place because of that mixture in my own life. As a kid I grew up playing fiddle and taking violin lessons at the same time. And it was really through playing sessions in pubs and improvising that I started composing -- so it’s really at the core of my own background. About three years ago, while I was studying in Queen’s [University Belfast], I got an invitation to write for a chamber music festival [Chamber Music in Retreat Lodges] at home in Kerry. And the invitation was to write for two traditional players and string players as well. It was the first time I had come back to that combination since I was a teenager. And it really made me sit back and take stock and think, 'Where do I stand with this relationship of musical styles [contemporary classical and traditional]?' I went down to Dingle [County Kerry] and spent a summer writing the piece. While I was writing it I realised that aside from the combination of instruments and styles, that the audience's reaction and relationship to the piece was very important to me. That started this whole train of thought about the social background of the music and the relationship between the listener, the player and the music. It's still something I’m working through in my head in relation to my own work and I think it’s going to continue for quite a while.

‘In Dingle you have a very intelligent musical audience who will tell you exactly what they think and if they like it or not. It’s lovely to get a really straight, honest reaction to a piece, and you really appreciate that more when it’s a positive one.’

JG: So you enjoy the challenge of combining these two very distinct traditions, and seeing if it's possible to create a new way of expression or a new form?

RH: Very much so. Because of my own background it doesn’t seem like such a strange thing for me to do; in my own head it’s a perfectly natural thing to do and it’s perfectly natural for me to respond to the context of any piece, whether it involves traditional players or a string quartet or purely electronic resources.

JG: And how has the audience reacted to that? You mentioned the commission you wrote for the Kerry-based Chamber Music in Retreat Lodges.

RH: I actually ended up doing two pieces for them. The first was Thar an bhfarraige gheal (Over the Bright Sea), which was related to the Blasket Islands and the second piece was The Tune Ship, which was related to the Vikings. The audience reaction has been really nice. It’s really good getting out of the urban centres like Dublin and working with a completely different audience. In Dingle you have a very intelligent musical audience who will tell you exactly what they think and if they like it or not. It’s lovely to get a really straight, honest reaction to a piece, and you really appreciate that more when it’s a positive one.

JG: Another important aspect to you work is education. Do you enjoy writing pieces that have an educational dimension, whether it's giving workshops or working with amateur musicians?

JG: You mentioned that you’re originally from Kerry -- what part of Kerry did you grow up in?RH: Again, I don’t necessarily think of this as something separate. It’s all part of the same thing and whomever I’m writing for, whether it’s professional players or amateurs or school kids, I’m approaching each project as a musical and compositional challenge. But I do particularly enjoy projects that have an educational aspect. It’s such a great way of really keeping your feet on the ground, going into a school or going into a community group and having someone say, 'Why should we bother about this? What’s cool about this for us?' It’s great to respond to that. Last year, I did a piece for orchestra, piano, violin and a school choir [If I Could Rule the World] from Rathkeale in County Limerick and we had so much fun with it. I was able to go into the school before I started writing the piece. I got the kids to come up with the words and they came up with all these great ideas. When it came to presenting the music to them these ideas were worked in and they really felt that they owned the piece. Because of that they really put so much into the performance. When it came to getting up on stage with an orchestra they were superb because this was their piece and they were going to make sure they did it well and they weren’t going to let themselves down. And it was a fantastic experience from that point of view.

RH: West of Dingle -- Ventry.

JG: And was music always a part of your kind of life from the earliest stages?

RH: Absolutely. My mother is a piano teacher and there was always music in the house. There were a lot of baroque oratorios as well as my parent’s old Led Zeppelin albums, which are fantastic.

JG: Nice mix!

RH: Absolutely. And of course we were in the west Kerry Gaeltacht[Gaelic-speaking area] so we were surrounded by music. And more than that, everybody either wrote or sang or danced or painted. The arts were just a part of everyday life and I think that has really informed my approach to a lot of things.

JG: And then you studied in Trinity [College Dublin] initially where you did your undergraduate degree. Following this you went to Queen's [University Belfast] where you spent time doing a PhD in composition with Michael Alcorn. How did you find studying with Michael?

‘I do particularly enjoy projects that have an educational aspect. It’s such a great way of keeping your feet on the ground.’

RH: Oh, it was wonderful. I actually went there specifically to study with Michael. I had encountered him at the Ennis Composition Summer School, which is now the Irish Composition Summer School. It was the electric-acoustic music course there and I found Michael to be a fantastic teacher. So when the time came to think about what to do next, Queen's seemed like quite an attractive option. So I went and said, 'Can I come and study with you?' I was lucky to have a little bit of funding from a Gaeltacht grant so I was able to get myself up there without starving in the process.

JG: And you’re still technically based in Belfast, even though you’re travelling for the last number of months.

RH: Yes, I’m in transition. I’ll be in Belfast for a little bit longer and I’m looking to move. I’ll maybe make a base in Kerry for a little while and travel out of there. So it’s an exciting time right now. I’m in between and all options are open.

JG: And how did you find Belfast in general?

RH: It’s a very different scene to Dublin. It’s much smaller, which in many ways is really nice because it actually means you can get along to more music events. And a lot of the time they’re a lot cheaper and more accessible as well. You can get involved, you can get to meet people very easily and it’s a really lovely little scene. It is small but it’s very nice and it was lovely to get to know what’s essentially a whole different community of composers up there. It still amazes me how separate the two places are and I still find that a bit strange.

JG: You mentioned earlier about a commission that you have received to write a work celebrating the life of your fellow Kerryman, Tom Crean. Tell me a little bit about this project and how you ended up getting this commission.

JG: So you’re flying out tonight?RH: It was one of these lovely accidents. There is a society called the Tom Crean Society and they’re based in Annascaul in Country Kerry, which is where Tom Crean, the Antarctic explorer [member of the Shackleton polar expedition], came from. They had come across some of my work through the Chamber Music in Retreat Lodges Festival. So they approached me and we met up a few days later and talked about this idea, and it grew and grew and grew, to the extent that I’m flying to South America to go to the Antarctic tonight, which is still not quite real in my head. So it’s turned into this lovely commission. There’s still a lot of work to do on it logistically but the first phase of it is that they’re bringing me to the Antarctic to do some recordings and to get a feel for the place. This will hopefully result in a large work for orchestra and tape to celebrate the memory of Tom Crean. So it’s a very exciting project. It’s lovely in that it’s come about in a slightly unconventional way.

RH: Yes.

JG: Via Madrid and then to?

RH: Down to Buenos Aires and then after a few days, down to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego and then after a few more days we get on a boat and we will live on that boat for two weeks and paddle around the Antarctic Peninsula.

JG: And what you’ll actually do when you’re there is make field recordings?

RH: Yes. I’m bringing my microphone, my recorder and I’m just going to record absolutely everything I can. It’s hard to get a real idea of what I’m going to find but one thing I’m really interested in are all sorts of ice noises. You find references to them in a lot of the diaries around the Scott and Shackleton expeditions -- lovely references to creaking, groaning and scraping ice noises.

JG: And how will you actually get hold of those? Will you have to get off the boat?

RH: Yes. We’ll be making two or three landings daily at different points along the peninsula and we’ll be able to take little hikes up to higher points and see various parts and penguin colonies and all sorts of things. So there’ll be plenty of opportunities for exploring and I hope getting some good sounds.

JG: And in terms of your approach to the piece, do you have any fixed ideas at this stage as to what the piece will be? Or are you very much keeping an open mind about it until you actually get to Antarctica and begin to record the sounds?

‘It is a lovely thing working with recorded sounds: so often they make the decisions for you and lead you into particular directions.’

RH: It’s a mixture really. Yes, I am trying to keep as open a mind as I possibly can about it until I’ve soaked in as much of the background as I can. I’ve been doing a lot of reading and looking at some video material and already some ideas are beginning to form. But I don’t want to let anything form too concretely until I’m there and I have the sounds, and I really want them to be an integral part of this piece. So yes, I’m trying to keep it open.

JG: So you’ll record these sounds and then you’ll go to Banff, which is your next port of call. How many months will you spend there?

RH: I have two months in Banff -- February and March. So I’ll get back here the second week of April I think.

JG: And what will you do with those sounds?

RH: First I’ll catalogue them and clean them up, then start working with them -- processing them a little bit and just playing with them as material and seeing what they suggest themselves. It is a lovely thing working with recorded sounds: so often they make the decisions for you and lead you into particular directions. It can be a very intuitive way of working, which is quite exciting, as opposed to having this idea that you want to impose on sounds, which sometimes really doesn’t work. So you have to trust the nature of the sounds themselves a lot of the time.

JG: And you’re obviously very comfortable with working with electronics because a large part of your studies with Michael [Alcorn]involved this. Which are you happiest with -- writing purely electronic music or writing electronic music that involves a live element of performance?

RH: That’s a good question. I guess more recently I’ve worked with combinations, but that’s really been more circumstantial than anything. To be honest, I enjoy both -- it all depends on the context. There are times when I’ve been writing straight instrumental stuff, where I’m just dying to get into a tape piece and immerse myself in the studio. Other times the contact and the interaction with performers is so stimulating. So I’m lucky I guess in that I have the opportunity to do both and I really enjoy the interaction between the two as well. So it’s hard to pick one over the other.

JG: The other project that’s coming up as well is a commission for theIrish Chamber Orchestra, is that right?

RH: Yes. In fact, that’s most probably what I’ll be working on in Banff and the Tom Crean material will be worked on a little bit later. This project has been on the cards for a little while and will be a concerto for orchestra. I know where I want to go with that now in my head, so I’m really dying to get stuck into it. They’re [the Irish Chamber Orchestra] such a lovely bunch of players. It’s really, really exciting to get to work with them.

JG: And this will be your first time working with the Chamber Orchestra?

RH: It will. I’ve worked with a number of the players in different projects but not with that ensemble.

JG: You mentioned earlier you had begun work on it and then you had to stop. Are you starting afresh again or are you continuing on with the work you had begun earlier?

RH: Essentially I’m starting afresh. I’ll pick out little bits of previous material but I have a new idea for it, which I think will carry me through it. So fingers crossed, hopefully that will work.

JG: With so many fairly large-scale projects on the go how important is the approach to composing those works? Do you have a standard way of approaching a piece of that scale or do you have to vary it depending on the actual commission brief?

RH: It’s always different. Each piece is a response to that particular context so they do all tend to be approached in quite different ways, depending on the performers involved, the performance context, the time you have to write it. And yes, it is always different and I think that’s important. I think it would be dangerous to find yourself doing the same, in the same pattern all the time -- I think I would get bored. I get bored really easily so I need to always find new ways of doing things.

JG: And can you work simultaneously on pieces? Are you one of these composers who can bring one project to one level and then work on another piece at a different level? Or do you basically work on one piece at a time?

RH: I have to do one at a time. I have tried working on two pieces simultaneously and it just breaks my head entirely. Normally while you’re working on one piece you’re maybe tidying up details of the last piece or sending off scores and sorting out recordings and things like that. And then you’re also setting up the next piece in terms of working on contracts or deciding on basic things like that. So there’s always so much going on in terms of just administrating other projects that you need to keep your head clear creatively for the actual work you’re composing.

JG: So coming back to the Tom Crean work, when do you think that will be performed? Is this a 2006 project?

RH: No, it will be 2007 at the very earliest, possibly -- within the next two or three years is the goal. It’s a question of finding exactly the right situation in terms of performers and performance, so rather than really rushing this we’re just working very carefully on getting this right.

JG: And will the Irish Chamber Orchestra commission be performed this year?

RH: Yes, we’re hoping it will be done during May of this year.

JG: And after that what are your plans?

RH: It’s flexible at the moment. It depends partly on what the time-scale turns out to be for the Tom Crean project. And there are two or three other things which all are shifting around that. It will all settle hopefully once one or two things are confirmed. There are one or two projects based at home in Kerry and possibly something in Cork as well. So yes, it’s all quite flexible ahead. Lots of different options but getting them all exactly tied down is the next thing. I think I’m going to have enough to keep me going anyway.

JG: I’m sure you will. Well that’s all I wanted to ask you. The best of luck during 2006 and good luck with your trip to Antarctica.

RH: Thank you very much.

Rachel Holstead was interviewed on video by Jonathan Grimes in the Contemporary Music Centre, Dublin, on 16 January 2006.

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