John McLachlan: Reflections from the CMC Composer Residency at the Centre Culturel Irlandais, Paris

CMC Composer John McLachlan presenting work to fellow artists in residence at the Centre Culturel Irlandais, Paris.

John McLachlan shares reflections on the origins and inspirations for a new piece completed while on the CMC Composer Residency at the Centre Culturel Irlandais, Paris.

In June 2023 I travelled to Paris to spend a month at the Centre Culturel Irlandais as part of the regular CCI/CMC composer residency scheme. But my story starts more than a year before: when I heard that I had been selected for this great opportunity. I started to brush up on my rusty French, and also to think about the ideal form a work written there might take.

I had applied with a plan, to research the letterists who morphed into the situationists: considering the dérive of the psychogeographists as potential source for ideas, and so forth. By December 2022 this idea had evolved and transformed. The world events of 2022, the threat to existence, started to shape the interior monologue: why and how do artists continue to make art during world wars?

Rather than pursuing the 1950s figures of the situationists, I started to realise that they were a postwar phenomenon of cynicism and disillusion—yes they fed into the 68ers and all that, but what about the likes of Kupka and Kandinsky, producing their vibrant and positive work during two world wars, much of it in Paris itself?

Drift is a process/non-process that the situationists extolled, and I drifted into the poetry of the surrealists next. At the same time, I was preparing by listening to the French pioneers of musique concrète and their successors, intending to write into the tradition there.

My own work had, in the recent years, headed into using spoken text: usually using my own voice predominantly, and texts from my mother Leland Bardwell, as I lined up for her 2022 centenary. I wanted to use what I had learned, but also branch out, with texts in French; and to find other speakers. I reached for the bilingual volume that I had hung onto since my teens: "Mid-century French Poets" published in 1955: a starting point. When I was a callow youth I read, in a starry-eyed way, Leon-Paul Fargue going on about wandering the streets of Paris, and Paul Éluard turning his friendships with Picasso, Max Ernst and Jean Miró into poems filled with surreal imagery. I would attempt an impossible synapse: a leap across my young self and my sensible self—over a considerable void: paths not taken.


Meanwhile I asked other composers what was it like to be at the CCI? I wondered would I function, or go off the rails, how would I get around to making anything in such rich surroundings?

By early May I was finding native French speakers living near me in Donegal, and recording them reading my expanded selection of French texts. I also had some contacts in Paris from previous trips and small chamber pieces performed with texts in French in 2016 and 2018, so my first aim was to record many voices reading from my sheaf of pages — as many pages as politeness would allow in a busy city. Let me fast forward: over 23 days I gathered a good selection of readers' voices and was knitting them into a piece made from sounds nearly all found in Paris. The piece became
Le dernier bourgeon de l'avenir (the last bud of the future, a line from Éluard's Victoire de Guernica).

During my stay I met many artists of all types also staying at CCI, who made for great company and conversation, and generally did not feed into, nor distract from, the work; but provided relief from it. However, there was one event that fed right in: some poetry during a Festival of Ideas that the CCI held mid-month. I heard a poem entitled Imperia, (in Russian and then in English) from a talented young Ukrainian writer/journalist, Nikita Grigorov which, for me, exemplified the theme of continuing to make your art during wartime—this completed my piece. I presented it to resident artists on June 30th on the excellent sound system in the CCI's Salle de conferences, and decided at that point that it was finished.


John McLachlan - Le dernier bourgeon de l'avenir on Soundcloud

Words and images courtesy of John McLachlan.


The composer residency at the Centre Culturel Irlandais is offered in partnership by CMC and the Centre Culturel Irlandais and is open to any composer represented by CMC. The residency was established in 2015, and previous recipients include Greg Caffrey, Ailís Ní Riaín, Michael Gallen, Amanda Feery, Finola Merivale, David Coonan & Karen Power. Composers Irene Buckley and Anselm McDonnell were selected for the 2024 composer residency. The next call for applications runs from mid-November 2023 to mid-January 2024.

For more information on artist residencies at the Centre Culturel Irlandais, please visit the CCI website here.