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Composer Portrait: Donal Sarsfield

Donal Sarsfield recording

Recent recipient of the 1er Prix Luigi Russolo for his work Gallivanting (now retitled as The Suitcases Piece), Donal Sarsfield is an Irish composer currently studying for a PhD in electroacoustic music at the University of Manchester on an Irish Arts Council Elizabeth Maconchy Composition Fellowship. His recent tape music demonstrates poignancy and humour in equal measure, with attention to the detail of even the most ephemeral gesture. For the second of an occasional series of profiles of composers whose music I like (previously: Nina Whiteman), Donal kindly agreed to answer some questions about what makes him tick.


Chris Swithinbank: I realise that this is not a question that you probably consider every day, but let’s start at the beginning. What drew you to write music? Is it a vocation and if so, why?

Donal Sarsfield: I always listened to music in my teenage years. I learned to play the piano myself but was always a reluctant practiser; I much preferred improvising to learning pieces. It wasn’t until I went to college and attended composition classes that I got a feeling that I could try things out on paper, and so after a few elemental exercises I wrote my first piece when I was 20. I wouldn’t call composing a vocation.

CS: Having started out writing music for acoustic instruments and voices, you are now working on a PhD in Electroacoustic Composition. What was it about studio composition that you wanted to explore?

DS: After first working in the studio during my MA in 2004 I realised that I enjoyed working with sounds as much as I enjoyed working with notes and instruments. Having been to a respectable number of concerts involving tape or electroacoustic works over the years I felt that most of the pieces I heard, though technically polished, were lacking something personal. By personal I mean either a clearly autobiographical subject matter or the more stubbornly subtle, eccentric or esoteric side to life. That’s the area that I have set out to explore in my PhD; the subject of the personal through sound.

CS: How do you deal with the disembodied nature of tape music?

DS: The photographer Garry Winogrand often said that he photographed something to see what it looked liked photographed and I try and apply the same approach to recording sounds; I record something to hear what it sounds like recorded. Even though 99% of my sounds are derived from recorded sound I never consider the sounds I use as disembodied. I think the term presupposes the “disembodied” element in a lesser light and that seems an unnecessary weight on the work.

Pro Tools session: The Suitcases Piece 230 - 351

Pro Tools session: The Suitcases Piece

CS: How do you conceive of sound in your work?

DS: I usually have some starting point or concept which I try and realise through sound. This seed evolves through a period of broad preparatory research into areas which I feel might be useful; photography, painting, American 80’s television, and that then informs the practical considerations of constructing the piece: from how and where to record sound sources, how best to transform, organise and combine sounds, and most importantly, how to resolve and structure each sound/gesture within each piece. At the minute I can’t really offer a definition of resolution, it’s more an awareness that within the piece a sound must justify itself and, if removed, would weaken the equilibrium of the work.

CS: Moving from raw recorded sound to a finished piece can be a convoluted process. How do you go about it and what role does the source sound itself play in a piece’s concept?

DS: I always aim to make something not “factually impeccable but seamlessly persuasive”, which is a phrase from John Szarkowski, the man who’s writing I turn to most often when I’m stuck. The first three pieces of my [PhD] portfolio point to an ordinary sound in an imaginative, and hopefully somewhat intelligent, manner. I try and use the sound source as the subject of the piece, rather than just using the sound object as a means to create. Matisse said that “The object is not so interesting in itself. It’s the environment that creates the object.”

CS: In The Clapping Piece (2010) the main material is the sound of applause. There is a wonderful moment just after it ends where the audience anticipates its own applause, recognises that this will be in some way a continuation of the work itself and realises something of the ridiculousness of the concert ritual. Was that a conscious aim? Is a questioning of the concert situation an important part of your compositional approach?

DS: With The Clapping Piece there was an attempt to make an audience not applaud after the piece, but I failed in that respect. I think of that piece as a rather unassuming performance piece for concert hall. More than most pieces it rewards projection within the concert hall environment more than anywhere else (for example a radio broadcast, listening at home, or online streaming).

CS: What projects have you got in the pipeline at the moment?

DS: Thankfully the PhD will be my main project for the next 18 months and I am grateful for this time to make the work as strong as it can be. Outside the PhD I have been participating in the Jerwood Opera Writing Foundation at Aldeburgh and that course culminates in a short new piece with writer Alan McKendrick and director Ted Huffman in July.

CS: What excites you about being an artist today?

DS: Waiting to see what Martin Margiela will do next.

Sarsfield at the Clockarium, Brussels

Donal Sarsfield at the Clockarium, Brussels (Photo by Sam Salem)

Unfolding musical memory

‘So, it’s done! I finished the score of June Unfolding for the orchestra of King Edward Musical Society last week and the parts are being prepared for the first rehearsal on 3 May. I thought I would take a moment to put down some thoughts on the composition process and the ideas behind the piece, especially as I won’t be at the first two rehearsals and it might be nice for the players to find out a bit more.’

Read more on adoptacomposer.org »

Announcing Cities of Sound

Cities of Sound flyer

The collective I co-founded, Raise Your Voice, has just announced its latest venture: an exhibition of sound installations plus live performance entitled Cities of Sound as part of FutureEverything Festival 2011. Read more »

…going back to the skies @ Kings Place

Trio Atem collage | Photos by Nik Morris

Good friends Trio Atem make their London début on 4 April with a concert as part of the innovative ‘Out Hear’ series at Kings Place. Gavin Osborn (flute), Nina Whiteman (voice) and Alice Purton (cello) present a programme of new music by composers based in the North West of England alongside the work that first brought them together, Helmut Lachenmann’s temA. Also included in the programme is a newly revised version of my …going back to the skies, which they first premièred last year. Here is the programme in full:

Michael Mayhew’s work comes from his series of graphic scores, The Alchemy Collection, which first premièred in the autumn at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. Here are some images of ‘Vinyl Radical’ from the series:

Vinyl Radical: To Observe, for cello Vinyl Radical: Turbulent Mischief, for flute, piccolo & bass flute Vinyl Radical: Bird Strike, for voice

It should be a great concert and I’m looking forward to it immensely, so buy your tickets now!

Listings: Venue / Facebook / Last.fm / MySpace / Songkick

Where are the women in your local music scene?

Where are the women in your local music scene? featured image

As it’s International Women’s Day, I wondered how well that most reactionary of musical beasts, the orchestra, would stand up to tests of gender equality. I wondered how many female composers were being performed by Manchester’s three orchestras this season, and then expanded my research into conductors, soloists and rank and file player numbers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the numbers don’t look great.

Let’s start with the good news. Between them, Manchester Camerata, The Hallé and the BBC Philharmonic list 193 musicians as players on their websites. Of these, 93 are women, or 48.2%. According to a 2009 Mid-Year Population Estimate available from Manchester City Council women make up 48.8% of the population in Greater Manchester, so that proportion looks spot on. It is worth noting however that gender balance within sections of the orchestra seems to vary: the strings containing more women while brass sections tend to contain more men. The proportion of women to men across orchestras is brought down by the BBC Philharmonic, whose ratio is closer to 3 women to 4 men.

That’s about where the good news ends. Of 77 soloists this season, just 27 are women, a lousy 35%. That looks even worse if you take singers out of the equation, dropping to 31.8%. That means less than a third of the musicians performing concerti in Manchester are women.

The landscape for female soloists looks a lot better than that for conductors though. That’s because if you were to take Manchester orchestras as your guide there aren’t any. Not a single woman is being employed as a conductor by any of the Manchester orchestras this year. Not one. But 34 men are.

Coming back to my initial curiosity. How many female composers are being performed by these institutions? The answer is: two. 99 names appear on programmes, some multiple times, but the other 97 are all male. The names of this apparently lucky couple are Nina Whiteman and Sally Beamish. Nina’s Windows on the Neva was premiered by Manchester Camerata in October, while Sally Beamish’s The Song Gatherer (Cello Concerto No. 2) was performed by Robert Cohen with the Hallé in December. Of course, the historical nature of orchestral programming means that orchestras will have a quick defence: ‘the absence of female voices is an unavoidable reflection of historical society.’ Hence the fact the only music by women composers played this season is by living composers. Fair enough, but 13 different works by living composers were performed by these orchestras. 2 composers out of 13 still leaves us with just 15.4% women.

So, where are the women in your local music scene? It’s not that they don’t exist, but they are being neglected by some of the most highly funded and prestigious musical institutions. In a recent article for the San Francisco Chronicle, Joshua Kosman wrote, ‘music lovers ought to be having a real debate about just what it means for an artistic edifice so grand and arresting [as the Vienna Philharmonic] to be built on a foundation of more-or-less explicit sexual and racial discrimination.’ His criticism holds true to greater and lesser extents for orchestras around the word. I would urge you to do the maths, work out what your local orchestra — or whatever cultural institution you value — looks like demographically and ask the difficult questions.

Sources: Manchester Camerata season brochure; printed BBC Philharmonic season brochure; downloadable calendar from The Hallé; player lists on the websites of all three orchestras.

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