Rhona Clarke and Ronan Guilfoyle on turning 60

Rhona Clarke and Ronan Guilfoyle both turned 60 during 2018. To mark this significant birthday, CMC spoke to each of them about reaching this milestone.

2018 marks your 60th birthday year. Have your marked this musically?

RC: Not especially; a portrait CD of chamber music with the Fidelio Trio was launched in 2016 and I am planning a CD of choral music, also on the Métier label. Coming up towards 60 may have had some part to play in getting these projects off the ground. But really, composing is an ongoing thing - not just for big birthdays! As it happens and coincidentally, there have been quite a number of performances this year.

RG: Hugely. In March I started with releasing a recording of solo bass guitar pieces on Bandcamp on the day of my 60th birthday and making it available as a free download.

Also in March I had the premiere of Entente, a kind of sonata for improvising flute and piano that was premiered in the Hugh Lane Gallery by Dominique Pifarély and Izumi Kimura. In May, I played two nights in Arthur’s in Dublin with four different groups performing music composed from different periods of my life. In April I wrote Pipe Dreams, a new concerto for improvising flute and chamber orchestra that was performed in four different venues by Michael Buckley and the Irish Chamber Orchestra in October. I toured a new suite of pieces in November, marking the 60th birthday milestone, called Life Cycle, and we performed it in the Center Culturel Irlandais in Paris and in five venues around Ireland.

Looking back over your composing career to date, do you see a logical progression in your work up to this point, or are there some directions you have followed that surprise you?

RC: I don’t see a simple linear progression but perhaps it takes a musicologist who is detached from the work to figure this out. Every new work has its own requirements and problems to be solved.

RG: I’d see it as a linear development and I think my music has evolved in quite a logical way, taking in various influences along the way as I worked with those influences. As a composer, I am always influenced by my concurrent life as an improvising performer, and things that appear in my performing world will often appear in my compositions and vice versa.

Are you still concerned with the same issues in music that you were in, say you 30s or 40s, or have these changed?

RG: Some things have remained the same in that I still like to have a sense of spontaneity in my composed pieces, and blend the improvised with the written. I am still very enamoured by rhythmic intrigue and groove. On the other hand, I am less concerned with consciously introducing specific techniques and devices into particular pieces, and I feel my compositions evolve more organically these days.

RC: If there is any difference in my approach, it is that I am prepared to take greater risks and use any technique that serves my immediate purpose. For example, in writing a piece for Aylish Kerrigan a few years ago (voice & tape) I used a very strong, loud hip-hop drum loop for the opening. Although I think the element works extremely well in that piece, I have not used it again. Issues only concern the piece currently being worked on, without any thought for how it fits in relation to other works I have composed. However, increasingly I find myself asking the question, “Could this have been written 40 years ago – is it ‘of now’?”

Teaching has been an important part of your work. Has this in any way influenced the type of composer you have become, or do you see it as a separate side to your work?

RC: When teaching, you are also constantly learning. The fact that teaching has brought me into contact with wonderful students and colleagues, a number of them esteemed composers, and musicians and academics, has enriched my life and musical experience. The Fidelio Trio were Musicians-In-Residence at St. Patrick’s College, DCU for a number of years and this had a direct influence on my work, especially on my fourth piano trio, A Different Game which was written for them. Watching them rehearse new works by established and emerging composers from Ireland and abroad and hearing them discuss the scores gave me a great insight into how music works from the players’ viewpoint.

RG: I see teaching, performing and composing as all being parts of the same musical construct. As I got older I became more aware of the aesthetic and art of music and less concerned with the craft. But in teaching I believe you have to impart elements of craft to students in order to give them the tools to express their creativity. So if I were to see a difference in my approach to anything it would probably be in teaching. I understand better the importance of craft in servicing the art, and am less interested in craft for its own sake.

To what extent has the music scene today changed compared to the early part of your career? For example, is there anything now that you wished you had when you were starting out?

RC: Music Composition is now taught al all levels of education, which didn’t exist when I was at school or in my undergraduate days. There are definitely more opportunities for emerging composers today: workshops, calls for scores and more scope in relation to funding opportunities (Arts Council Project Award & Music Bursary and Local Authority grants). As well as this, there are schemes such as Composer Lab and Choral Sketches which allow composers to try out ideas for symphony orchestra and professional choir. Working with electronic resources has become so accessible. Nowadays, a laptop with suitable software, a controller keyboard and a good set of headphones is all you need.

Where established composers are concerned, ensembles such as Concorde, Crash, ConTempo, Kirkos and more recently Hard Rain provide many opportunities for chamber music performances by Irish composers, and Music Network continue to commission new works for visiting soloists and ensembles. However, opportunities have not increased much in relation to the commissioning and performance of large scale works – in fact, there may be even fewer possibilities than before. It is encouraging though to see the development of New Music Dublin - I do hope that this will continue to be supported.

RG: A teacher! When I started there were no jazz schools in Ireland and bass guitar was not an acceptable instrument for classical conservatory training, so I had to figure out everything for myself. As to the first question, the changes in the music scene over the past 15 years have been huge and the subject is far too big for this article. We’re witnessing the death of the recording industry, the reduction in revenue streams for musicians, the reluctance of the public to pay for music, huge competition from stay-at-home entertainment such as Netflix, young people rarely listening to music together, the rise in music apps for learning music (a very positive development), and the role of technology and social media in both promoting music and concurrently reducing the abilities of listeners to concentrate on it.

Are there any particular projects or works that you haven’t yet had a chance to do or compose that you would like do?

RC: I would love to work with a choreographer - it actually surprises me that I have not yet done so! I would also like to explore all aspects of vocal music. Although I have written a reasonable body of choral music to date, I have only completed one set of songs with piano.

I look forward to working on more collaborative projects involving visual art and to having the space to concentrate on something large scale … perhaps a cantata.

RG: Too many! A clarinet concerto, another string quartet, and something that is markedly absent from my compositions, a decent size piece for voice or voices. I also need to write a solo cello piece - I’ve written solos pieces for violin, viola and bass, so a cello piece would close the circle.