This public interview took place in the Contemporary Music Centre on 3 June 2003 to celebrate Raymond Deane's fiftieth Birthday.
BD: Raymond you were born in Achill island. How does a young lad born in the islands off the west coast of Ireland become a contemporary classical composer? Was there any environment to introduce you to that life?
RD: Well, I was actually born in Tuam, Co. Galway, just to get that precise...but I was brought up in Achill Island. Really there is no answer to that question. It’s bit like saying why did you become a bishop or why did you become a street-sweeper or something like that. It just happened. My parents insisted that everybody in the family learn a little bit of music, that we learned how to play the piano. It just happened at a very early point, at about the age of ten, that something clicked with me, and I made this decision that I was just going to make this my life and that I was going to compose.
BD: So do you feel that this initial urge to be a composer was actually an internal one?
RD: There was no external impetus at all. The second I was playing anything, whether it was Mozart or Liszt or Beethoven, I just wanted to do something like that. It was probably just a kind of an imitative urge, like what a chimpanzee has. Something of that nature. And so I immediately started writing little Mozartian or Beethovenian or Lisztian pieces, dreadful things, but it made me feel good, and I just decided this was it.
BD: Well the basis of all creative impulse is imitation...
RD: Quite possibly. Maybe if I had been taught something else I might have done something else...something more profitable.
BD: So at what age did you actually start putting notes onto paper?
RD: Ten. I can locate it pretty precisely because it was around about the time that the family moved up to Dublin. And I got up as far as Opus 11 No. 4! I didn’t actually complete any of those...well, I completed one or two of them before I’d get the idea to start the next one because I would have heard another piece that I liked, and I’d have to go and imitate that. And then I’d go on to Opus 10 No. 3! And so on and so forth. And so I had these little pieces of paper and I would hide them behind the (central heating) radiators in the house in Dublin - this was during the summer when the radiators weren’t on. Because I was kind of ashamed, I thought it was a very sissy thing to be doing. But then the winter came and they turned on the central heating and a strange smell appeared. And that was my music!...and the smell has never left since!
BD: I actually find it very interesting that at a very early age you had a fully evolved picture of ‘a composer’ in your head in a country where we have really been devoid of composers.
RD: A fully evolved composer for me was Beethoven or Mozart or Liszt...I was aware, strangely enough, of people like Brian Boydell and Seóirse Bodley and Archie Potter because these people were on the radio and I listened to radio an awful lot. So I knew there were composers...beyond the fact that I thought it was a sissy thing to do, I thought it was a fairly common-and-garden thing that composers were all over the place.
BD: It’s an extraordinary point because I remember being in school myself and considering writing music or being a musician a rather sissy thing. There was a terribly negative environment towards music or perhaps just towards the arts in general.
RD: I don’t know if that’s the case in any other country...that writing music is supposed to be sissyish. I remember my grandmother giving out to me. I had just heard Beethoven’s Leonora Overture (No. 3), and I started writing an imitation of that, of course, and I asked my grandmother could she tell me a nice name like Leonora and she said ‘you shouldn’t be thinking about girls at your age’! I was about eleven and that inhibited me even more.
BD: So I presume that by the time you hit university, UCD, that your mind was certainly made up at that stage.
RD: Oh, by the time I hit UCD I was half way through the early phase of my career. I made my debut as a composer/pianist at the very first Festival of Twentieth Century Music in January 1969 - I was still fifteen years old going on sixteen - I didn't go to university until I was seventeen and a half so I was pretty experienced by that stage.
BD: I have to say that it strikes me as extraordinary that your intentions were so fully developed at such an age when really the environment wasn’t so supportive to that.
RD: I’ve no real answer to that. It’s a curious thing all right. I suppose it was partly because he environment wasn’t supportive. I’ve always had a vaguely stubborn streak in me and I may have felt that this was a very good reason to do something. It didn’t occur to me though that I would have to continue being very industrious and keep banging my head against walls.
BD: So you were already composing by the time you hit UCD. What was life like for a young composer in university in Dublin in the 70s?
RD: Well, now that I see there is nobody from the staff of UCD in the audience....there was really no connection whatsoever between my activities as a composer and my activities as a student in UCD. At that stage, you must remember, we had set up a thing called the Association of Young Irish Composers (that eventually turned into the Association of Irish Composers as soon as the young people stopped being young) and we put on public concerts of our work from about 1972 which attracted an awful lot of attention because it was so novel at the time - I mean, you were hardly born then. There was a great upsurge of interest that coincided with the first Dublin Festival of Twentieth Century Music and which coincided with the beginning of my career.
BD: You have actually pre-empted my next question about the emergence of the Association of Irish Composers. We are now in the CMC which is a wonderful centre, it’s a great focus for young composers. But in those days really you had to create it yourselves. What was your sense of the fraternity of Irish composers? Did you feel yourself part of a completely new wave, or did you find the whole Irish scene disdainful?
RD: No. We were actually a very companionable bunch of people. We hated each other’s music bitterly...we had total contempt for each other, but we enjoyed sitting around in pubs sneering at each other. So it was very pleasant from that point of view. We performed each other’s music. There was a lot of co-operation and a lot of collaboration. We did have this illusion of public interest...it wasn’t completely an illusion, but it didn’t last. The media were interested too, we were always being interviewed by people and so on and so forth...
BD: But that honeymoon period wore off?
RD: That honeymoon period wore off very quickly, yes...by which time I had left Ireland anyway.
BD: I want to just talk briefly about your period away from Ireland and how that developed your technique and your maturity as a composer.
RD: Well, I left Ireland in 1974 when I graduated and I went to study (supposedly) in Switzerland, in Basel, with a man called Gerald Bennett, who was, himself, a pupil of Pierre Boulez. Now, by that stage, I had already (in my view) produced some of the best music I have ever written. There are a number of those works that I wrote from a very limited experience of contemporary music and a very limited technical range probably (and often written for performers who themselves had very limited experience of playing contemporary music) and somehow this combination of limitations (combined with my desire to emulate people like Stockhausen and Boulez and Berio) produced a curious hybrid music that was very self-contained and very original. So there is a handful of pieces from that period that I really value very much to this day like the Orphic Pieces for piano or Idols for organ, or Embers for string quartet that I still consider to be one of my most perfect pieces. There are a couple of other pieces also...Equivoque, Aliens...amazing pieces. So in one sense I had reached a first maturity that was based on the resources I had to hand. I then went abroad with the whole idea to broaden my experience, to broaden my knowledge, to broaden my resources. I now had a teacher who was nagging at me not to be doing the same thing I was always doing, that I should become more exploratory and use different techniques and so on, and, in a way, all that concentration that was in those first pieces fell apart. So I became an immature composer, having been a mature composer, and then had to work my way back from there which took about fifteen years.
BD: So we can blame Bennett on that?
RD: No...that was only part of it. It was all my fault anyway.
BD: I’m curious to know exactly the level of influence these composers had on you, because you cite three composers as your teachers - Bennett, Stockhausen and Isang Yun.
RD: Bennett was a nice man. He broadened my knowledge of contemporary music. He broadened my knowledge of all kinds of technical things. If I had stuck with him he probably would have been very useful in getting my work performed on the European continent. Stockhausen was totally useless because he is not a teacher. He is just a master looking for apprentices who will copy out the parts of his music and that sort of thing. And Isang Yun is responsible for the fact that if you look at any score of my music there are probably more dynamic markings and little details about how every single note is to be played - crescendos, decrescendos, mezzo piano, mezzo forte - more gradations than you will find in any other score or with any other composer outside the New Complexity composers, because he was totally obsessed with this sort of thing. You would show Isang Yun something you were doing and you would try to explain and he would say ‘no, no, no I don’t care...is there meant to be a crescendo there, is that meant to be piano, is that forte...?’ and he made me so neurotic that, as a result, it takes me much longer to write my music now.
BD: He displayed an oriental penchant for detail.
RD: Exactly. He wanted the inner detail to be very precisely notated.
BD: I’m just curious why you cite Stockhausen on your biographical notes as one of your teachers if you think he was completely useless?
RD: Well, he was completely useless, but it was a period of my life. It had an affect on me. I only spent about six months with Stockhausen. It was certainly very interesting. In a way it may have weaned me off Stockhausen because I was too strongly influenced by him at that stage.
BD: I suppose he would have been still very powerful...
RD: Well he was going through a phase of losing a lot of his power, because, in fact, I went to Cologne to study with Mauricio Kagel, not with Stockhausen, and I was poached by Stockhausen’s assistant. Which only shows that he was really hard up for students at that stage! There were only about five of us in the class. But subsequently I think he was actually kicked out of the school because he didn’t turn up often enough.
BD: Now, there’s an aspect I don’t want to dwell on too much. Maybe as a result of the growing immaturity of your work or the disappointment that you felt arriving in Europe (maybe you thought that Europe would save you but rather it loosened up your technique) but it was at this time that you got heavily involved in alcohol in a strong way for many years.
RD: Well, I already was before I left Ireland. But I had this freedom...being away from home and from my parents, and having this scholarship coming in through my letterbox, because in Switzerland some nice postman came and handed you a wad of cash. It was great!
BD: So you are not citing any other reasons for this. Why does one become an alcoholic?
RD: Nobody knows really. It could be in the genes.
BD: It seems to be a common attribute of Irish creative artists. Not so much in music...
RD: Well, there’s a certain musical history there as well. One could cite Mr. O Riada or a couple of others...Again, there is no simple answer to that one. Certainly, there is no simple cause and affect thing. I went to Europe and I had extraordinary opportunities put in my direction and I systematically and consistently spurned them all. I am sure there was some necessity for me to do so...it may all have worked out for the best.
BD: It’s perhaps true that you made some mistakes within your social milieu...
RD:It's called drinking meths with the tramps in the station...
BD: But in terms of your work, how does this self-abuse affect your mental processes?
RD: Well, in one very paradoxical way. The more chaotic my life was, the more disciplined my music became. A good deal of the work that I wrote during those fifteen years, between 1973 and 1988, was formally very, very rigorous, and I used all kinds of techniques - serial, post-serial or techniques which I had created myself often in a very rigorous way, that subsequently I didn’t bother with - which was very useful for me because at least I have these things in my repertoire now and I don’t have to think about them. So, in a sense, I was putting all this discipline that was lacking in my life into my work.
BD: One senses that the only order in your life may have been in the work.
RD: Oh yes, entirely.
BD: I’m just reminded of Yeats’s quote that we have to choose between the life and the work. You saved yourself in the work.
BD: You say yourself that your work divides chronologically into three periods. That is, an early period before you left Ireland and up to the end of your college days between 1969 and 1973 which would include among other works Orphica, Embers, Sphinxes, Idols, Equivoque, Aliens, Epilogue etc.. The second period between 1974 to 1988 which would include works like Compact, Enchainment, Avatars, Thresholds, Krespel's Concerto, Second Piano Sonata, Parallels. The third period, from 1988 to date, including Contretemps, the Macabre Trilogy, the Oboe Concerto and more recent works. Can you give me an idea of what makes each of these periods distinctive? Can we start with Embers for example?
RD: Well, there is an extraordinary limitation of the materials used in this piece, there are just a few notes, a few phrases. It’s a kind of obsessive music - it’s minimalist with a small ‘m’. It’s not minimalist in the way a lot of American music is. It sets out these very limited materials on a kind of flat surface, there’s a pause, another aspect, and it juxtaposes them. That’s what a great deal of post-modernist music does, and it never does anything else - it sets out its wares and nothing ever changes in the course of the piece. Whereas, in this piece, later on, the materials you hear at the beginning actually begin to rub against one another and it generates something completely different. The music actually changes, and there is something like a climax in it and then it turns into something totally different at the end. It ends as though a new piece were about to start rather than with a traditional ending.
BD: Does that work characterise all the music of this period?
RD: It characterises most of it in a very simple and straightforward way. But, in fact, it characterises all my music in one way or another.
BD: I was thinking that. But how would Embers differ from the other works?
RD: The minimalism of it, the bare textures and the simplicity.
BD: And so the music after that?
RD: In the middle period I tended to discard all that simplicity. I tended to use an awful lot of material. All twelve notes of the scale were being constantly circulated. It was much more complex. I don’t like a lot of music from this second period because, from my own point of view, it’s experimental, it’s music where I’m trying out new techniques. Then, I suppose you could say the latter period, since 1988, is consolidation - bringing the two previous periods together. Some of the later pieces have that simplicity as well. Most of them are rather more elaborate. The basic premises are still there, but they return in a much more clear way in the later pieces.
BD: You have just categorised your output chronologically. But I like to think that there is another way to categorise music. I would put forward three different categories - the satirical, the political and the abstract. And so I would put forward for satirical Vampirella, the Macabre Trilogy, the Third String Quartet, the first opera The Poet and His Double. The main objects of this satire would be death and Ireland – [RD recoils] – you can refute this in a moment! The second category would be your political work in Passage Work, the Oboe Concerto and, maybe to an extent, The Poet and His Double. The third abstract period which are works concentrating on instrumental possibilities like Ripieno and Stretti. Do you agree with these categorisations? Are they helpful at all?
RD: I don’t agree with them, no. I see what you are getting at. There is a certain validity, but unfortunately, it tends to obfuscate certain things rather than clarify them. I don’t like the word satirical. There is a certain grotesque, a rather parodistic and ironic streak that goes through a lot more than the works you have mentioned. That’s there in almost every piece. That sometimes turns into satire, into direct parody, into direct caricature, into direct pastiche. Sometimes it’s much more hidden. I would even regard a piece like Embers as having a slightly ironic aspect to it in that it distances itself from the material, though at certain moments that distance is removed. And that is something that some people find disconcerting about my music in that you never quite know what distance it’s from. It starts off with a certain distance, and then that distance is removed, and you are suddenly involved with something that seems much more direct, and then the distance is restored. And that’s fine by me. Abstract? Really, I don’t know what that means. You mention Ripieno. Ripieno could be equally described as a piece of programme music. It’s a piece that explores very concrete ideas about plenitude, fullness as opposed to emptiness. It’s like certain visual artists where you can’t quite see whether what they are doing is figurative or abstract. That's closer to the way I see my own work. Sometimes what you think is something totally abstract suddenly reveals itself to be the shape of a face.
BD: I was going to undermine my own categories because really there isn’t a work of yours that doesn’t have an extra-musical reference. Even your instrumental works have a lot of literary references and there aren’t many works that have titles that are neutral in character like ‘movement’. There seems to be always some connection with literature.
RD: The connection generally isn’t an important one, accept in specific works that are related to texts. It’s there, it can be taken or left.
BD: No. But you don’t really fall into the Stravinskian ideal of absolute music?
RD: No. I don’t accept these dualisms. There are differences between these things but not dualisms. They are not absolutely opposed. I am very interested in writing a piece that seems to be totally abstract and formal and that suddenly turns into a song by Schubert - I’m thinking of the violin concerto that I have just finished. I’m very interested in doing that kind of thing.
BD: You said earlier that you didn’t think that the level of quotation in your work was significant. I don’t know, it seems significant to me. And I would imagine that few composers would quote previous masters with impunity. You take on the challenge regardless of the risk. I’m thinking here of Catacombs which quotes Mussorgsky, Avatars which takes from Wolf and both your violin concertos, particularly Krespel's Concerto which quotes everything bar the kitchen sink! But you don’t just quote, you do integrate the music into the texture of the work and your own structures.
RD: Well it depends on the piece. You mentioned Krespel's Concerto. It’s a piece that is largely based on an air from Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann. The entire texture of the piece is saturated with this. I almost treat the Offenbach melody as if it were a twelve note row or something totally abstract and it becomes part of the texture. The same I do with the Mussorgsky in Catacombs. But there are other pieces in which the quotations are totally extraneous as in AvatarsAlles endet was entstehet - ‘everything that comes to pass must end’. It was the end of the piece and so I thought it was a good idea to stick that in.
BD: Well this just backs up the contention that there are these opposing energies in your work.
RD: Yes. But it’s also the idea that if you are working with heterogeneous materials, which I do, that can range from different types of musical language that you make face one another, like something tonal and something atonal, and they confront one another, and it can go all the way from that to a quotation from whatever; all the way to parody, all the way to pastiche, and all they way back to something that people would not hear as something extraneous. For me, it’s all part of the same continuum.
BD: So in a way, the act of composition is an act of synthesis?
RD: I don’t like the word, but it’s certainly an act of juxtaposition and interplay between very different things.
BD: You mentioned Minimalism with a small ‘m’ earlier. But really you have avoided the influences of Minimalism and Abstract Expressionism that two of your contemporaries have involved themselves with. I’m thinking now of Gerald Barry and Kevin Volans. Do you agree with that?
RD: Well certainly I am very, very different in my approach from either of those composers. I have great respect for them, particularly for Gerald Barry. Kevin Volans is very articulate and very vocal and he has said a lot about music and written a lot about music, but I would put myself in direct opposition to almost everything he says. So if you want to find out what kind of composer I am, read an essay by Kevin Volans about the kind of music we should and should not write and just invert everything and you get my music.
BD: Well he says you shouldn’t double a crescendo...
RD: Well, he says, for example, that dynamics should (the very word ‘should’ is dubious) only be structural and not expressive. Now, why can’t expressive dynamics be simultaneously structural? He advocates a music without depth, perspective or dialectic. But by shunning dialectic he then gets involved in this kind of dualism whereby things are always opposed - it has to be one thing, or it has to be the other. And then you get very authoritarian and you exclude all the things that aren’t in your own music (as it happens)...I prefer to avoid those kinds of things.
BD: It would also seem to exclude a whole body of work from say the likes of Berio...
RD: It would. It excludes almost everything. It also excludes a lot of Kevin Volans...
BD: I’m very curious about your relationship to Irish music and it opens up the whole question about being an Irish composer. You do make references to Irish music in your work a number of times, though not very often. The most recent example is from your third string quartet Inter Pares. I can’t help getting the feeling that it’s very satirical, that it’s a poke in the eye of Bertie’s epoch. And so the use of traditional Irish music here is really a socio-political comment rather than any integration with your ‘Irishness’.
RD: No. It has nothing to do with this idea of Irishness. It probably is a bit unfortunate that the only quotations in my work of what sounds like traditional Irish music, although there are no direct quotations of any particular pieces of traditional Irish music, are rather derisory. And certainly the movement of the third string quartet, the Scherzo, is very derisive. I was thinking more of the Celtic Tiger and certain ‘Lord of the Dance’-type manifestations of it, and so in the middle of the Scherzo you get this ghastly apparition of an Irish tune that goes mad for about forty seconds and then disappears into thin air. That’s my comment on the Celtic Tiger. In fact, I love Irish music. I don’t have any problem with it and I don’t have any fear of touching Irish music. I just don’t have a particular desire to do so. I don’t think it has a place in my work so far. It may some day.
BD: Maybe some Irish traditional musicians would be offended by your use of Irish music as a baton..
RD: I would be very sorry if they were because I have great respect for them.
where just at the very end of the piece, the very last two bars, I quote a bit of a song by Hugo Wolf the text of which is
BD: I want to ask you a question about your piano works, and it’s a question I am interested in as a composer who also performs. Avatars comes from your middle period, it’s a highly structured work and a very powerful one in my view. It stand in stark contrast to your latest piano work Rahu’s Rounds which is a rather ecstatic work, almost improvisatory. It reminds me of Scriabin and even some of the Etudes of Debussy. There’s a world of a difference here and I couldn’t help thinking of Stravinsky’s line that the hands are not to be condemned. I could imagine Deane the pianist vying with Deane the composer to write the latter work.
RD: There’s another aspect to that of course in that the latter work was written for Hugh Tinney, the pianist, who, as opposed to me, is a really good pianist. Ever since I heard Hugh Tinney playing my music...I became so demoralised that I never played another note of my own music in public since. I’m actually making a comeback in September in Italy in which I’m playing the Afterpieces. I have finally discovered that the less I practice the better I get so that by the time I’m sixty I’ll be able to make Carnegie Hall.
BD: I’m curious to know that this desire to return is important to you. When we had the recently deceased Berio visit us by telephone link, he spoke about the ‘full’ musician, about the composer who performs at a high level. He implied that it was rampant in Italy. I don’t know, it certainly isn’t rampant in Ireland - I didn’t share his optimism. It’s one of the problems that young composers have in that largely the talents in modern universities have become compartmentalised. I just want to get your response on the importance of the composer performing - and I don’t mean playing to grade six or vamping on the piano.
RD: I know what you mean. In the case of Berio, he wasn’t a performer. His potential career was destroyed during the war when his hand was injured. But he did come from a long lineage of practical musicians - his father, his grandfather. It was like the Bach family. Yes, there is a problem there that very often composers are not directly involved in the performance of music and they may have some lack of an awareness of that purely dramatic aspect of actually performing in front of a public, which, as well as being an act of communication, is also a theatrical event because a performer is an actor or actress to some degree in what they are doing. I suppose a lot of composers, particularly those who become professional composers by getting a degree or a Ph.D. in composition (whatever that means) may lack some of these dimensions.
BD: I want to ask you a question about your involvement in politics. You have set lines about deprivation by Kavanagh and lines about dispossession by Darwish. You have always sided with the dispossessed, particularly in your more recent work. In this sense you have become the ‘artist as witness’. There is a definition of witness by Heaney- ‘the witness is any figure in whom the truth-telling urge and the compulsion to identify with the oppressed becomes necessarily integral with the act of writing itself’. Is it possible for any real artist to work outside politics?
RD: Yes. I would have to...not take issue with that Heaney quotation, but, in fact, I don’t actually feel under any obligation to manifest that in my work. There are certain individual compositions where it has been appropriate for there to be an explicitly political dimension. But in general I feel under no obligation to produce politically committed music. I am politically committed, I am politically active in solidarity campaigns and advocacy campaigns and stuff like that. Occasionally, it intersects with my music. But I feel that the two things are different. I feel that a composer’s social and, in one sense, political responsibility is fulfilled to a large extent by producing the best music that composer can possibly produce, and by really working so hard at it, that he or she is offering something to people. Presumably that will embody whatever vision that composer has in some deeper sense that will incorporate their political viewpoint as well.
BD: Incidentally, that’s Heaney’s ultimate viewpoint as well. Because he came under pressure to fly the flag for the republican movement in the North.
RD: Well it is also Mahmoud Darwish’s view. It is a constantly recurring theme in his interviews, this thing of being regarded as the Palestinian national poet. OK, he accepts this as a kind of burden, but he’s really pissed off with it and he just wants to be seen as a writer.
BD: There is a sense that in the way modern life is structured that to be a composer or to be a writer in any shape or form is, in itself, a political act, because to have gotten that far you would have had to take political stances in your life.
RD: Well there is also the fact you have more or less opted for a way of life, or a profession, that keeps you well outside the ordinary market-driven structures of society because what you are doing is what the market doesn’t want. And you are not going to become rich. You are not going to be up there with Bono or with Van Morrison or somebody like that.
BD: Given what you have just said about the market-driven environment that composers are working within at the moment, do you think that there is an unavoidable pressure on composers to make their music more commercially exploitable? Because you have said before that classical music is the least sellable of the arts. Is there some quiet coercion for composers to become more palatable?
RD: There are contradictory coercions. On the one hand from the commercial side there is precisely that pressure to produce something more populist. On the other hand, let’s say from the side that dispenses public funds, there is an opposed pressure which is to conform to their definition of what they call innovation, which is very often the opposite to what appeals to the general public. So you have that paradox - that if you are going to receive public funds, if you are going to receive commissions nowadays, you are expected to produce multimedia stuff that most people aren’t interested in, quite frankly. And the idea that you might be quietly innovative by writing a string quartet is now being poo-pooed.
BD: A bit passé almost...
RD: Well, certainly from the point of view of the dispensers of public funding.
BD: In relation to Ripieno, I can’t help in thinking that this work represents a general tendency in your later work towards a deepening of the semantic function in your music. There is an incredibly sophisticated layering of ideas as opposed to more structural devises you used earlier.
RD: Well it’s a very long piece. It’s thirty minutes long in four movements. But they all carry a certain argument a stage further so it’s natural that there would be a greater range of semantic functions. There are also large transparent sections where there is not that much happening, there are quieter moments. The whole thing is permeated by what I call this Golden Chord - a particular chord that has this utopian feel to it.
BD: But it is true that in the last few works you have written, and I’m thinking of the Oboe Concerto and Stretti (which you wrote for VOX21), the Third String Quartet and indeed Passagework, that there is an extraordinary amount happening.
RD: The new violin concerto is the same. On the other hand, the Fourth String Quartet, which was written in between, is a much leaner piece.
BD: Would you say there is a tendency towards a deep flowering of the language?
RD: In a way it’s almost inevitable as you become older and less wise and more used to the techniques you are working with or perhaps more facile in your awareness of how to use an orchestra or an ensemble. Or maybe it’s that my life is becoming so complicated and layered that it’s beginning to reflect itself in the complexity of the music, I don’t know. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that my next work will be terribly complex.
BD: This isn’t the emergence of a fourth period?
RD: I don’t know. Come back in forty years’ time and I’ll tell you.
BD: You wrote a famous essay about ten years ago called ‘The Honour of Non-existence’ the title of which has come into common usage...
RD: I’ve written my will and I’ve said that this has to appear on my gravestone - ‘The Honour of Non-existence’.
BD: In the first part of that essay you basically give an overview of the scene in Ireland. That was in 1994. It makes for some pretty heavy reading because the scene wasn’t very good. You did your best not to be negative but the facts spoke for themselves. Recently I read an article in the Irish Times by Michael Dervan (The Sound of One Hand Clapping) and nearly all the same problems that you mentioned ten years ago we still have with us. Maybe there have been infrastructural developments but the situation for composers hasn’t changed too much. My question for you is ‘is it still an honour to be a non-existent composer’?
RD: Yes it is very much so. That ‘Re-imagining Ireland’ festival which took place in West Virginia, USA last month cost millions, featured all the usual suspects like Colm Tóibín and Fintan O’Toole, there were billions of writers, and painters and traditional musicians... but not one single item that had anything to do with classical Irish music. It didn’t exist as far as this ‘Re-imagining Ireland’ festival was concerned. This was organised by Fintan O’Toole and ten ‘experts’ and these eleven people together couldn’t ‘imagine’ an Irish classical dimension to this festival. So you see that the old prejudices are completely unchanged.
BD: And this is among the intellectual fraternity...
RD: Well, it’s people who have the opportunity very often to give people access to contemporary music or information about contemporary music who are simply not doing so. I hate it when I hear people talk about the inaccessibility of music, any kind of music, because music is inaccessible if you fail to give people access to it. And the failure of access and the educational system in this country is diabolical.
BD: Can I get your response on the value you place on conceptual music?
RD: Well I’m very disinclined to reject things out of hand just because I don’t do them myself. Conceptual composition like conceptual art for me is not tangible. It deals with the ideas behind the material and not with the material, whereas the interesting thing for me is what you do with the ideas and the actual materials, the thing that you produce. For me, conceptual art is completely devoid of that, and conceptual music likewise. So I haven’t the slightest interest in it. Also, it was all done by Marcel Duchamp, it was all done by John Cage, it has all been done, and nothing that anyone I know of that produces conceptual music in recent years has advanced one titter beyond what was done back in the fifties in the United States.
BD: Who are we writing for?
RD: The act of composition is a communicative act. The audience is implicit in everything you do. You may say that you are writing for yourself, but you are still writing for an audience because that’s what composition is. The definition of composition is the production of music to be listened to. Full stop.