Unlike the approach taken in books of composer interviews such as Walter Zimmermann’s Desert Plants (Vancouver, 1976) or Kevin Volans’s Summer Gardeners (Durban, 1985), where the chosen composers can be seen in a general sense to share an aesthetic viewpoint, in Different Voices Dwyer has deliberately avoided narrowing the selection to one group or type of composer.
The one thing these composers have in common is Ireland and yet even this is a loose connection as its nature varies from composer to composer; in some cases it is the place they were born, in others it is an adopted home or place where they found their musical voice. In terms of timeline, the book covers composers active from the late 1950s onwards. The chosen composers, aged from mid-20s to early 80s, are (in chronological order) Seóirse Bodley,
Frank Corcoran, Jane O’Leary, Barry Guy, John Buckley, Kevin O’Connell, John McLachlan, Benjamin Dwyer (interviewed by Kevin O’Connell), Gráinne Mulvey, Siobhán Cleary, Nick Roth and Dorone Paris. This selection results in discussion of music ranging from the highly predetermined to the improvised and from works which are easily defined in terms of genre to works which defy such categorisation. Instead of any tidy account of composition in Ireland, here the different voices jostle against each other, sometimes converging on an idea but frequently providing the reader with a series of contrasting views in quick succession.
Certain themes recur from different angles. Several composers reflect on the sometimes circuitous route they took to being a composer, while the difficulties encountered by those who wanted to study composition in Ireland as recently as the mid-1980s is highlighted by Gráinne Mulvey, who could not find any Irish institute offering lessons in composition. The composers are asked questions which push them towards clear illumination of how they have reached their current aesthetic position and they are given the space to develop their ideas. Key works are discussed by each composer to illustrate their approach, and many of the composers discuss at length what makes up their signature in sound — or, in the case of Nick Roth, he explains why he feels, “If [empowerment of the performer] means to a certain degree sacrificing a sonic signature in place of a philosophical one, of course that is a sacrifice I would make gladly any day.” The position of composers in contemporary society is also dissected and Dwyer asks most contributors whether or not a composer has a political role to play. The latter results in a wide range of answers, from Jane O’Leary’s “I really believe in art for art’s sake […] The type of music I write is as far from reality as you can get […] I can’t deal with art as a political statement” to Dorone Paris’s “I think it’s bad that people are still writing things that don’t mean anything […] Art is for reflecting what the world actually is, not trying to pretend it’s something else.” For those unfamiliar with the chosen composers’ music,
there is a supporting website created by the Contemporary Music Centre (http://differentvoices.ie/) which includes sound clips and videos of selected compositions by each composer.
Refreshingly for a book on Irish art music, the volume does not shy away from more controversial issues.
Frank Corcoran outlines the narrow sectarian vision of music in Ireland when he was young, while Jane O’Leary is frank about how long it took for her to be accepted in the insular world of Irish music and Kevin O’Connell reflects on how he felt marginalised by changes in fashion for programmers in Ireland in the last few decades. Most composers comment on the huge increase in the number of Irish composers as can be seen from the ever-expanding list on the CMC website, but while Ireland in the past has been noted for its lack of a dominant school and the great individuality of its voices, several interviewees comment on the tendency in recent years towards uncritical group embracing of particular fashions — a generation who rushed to bang on an Irish can (not to mention promoters who hope to turn 21st-century Dublin into 1990s New York) and a younger generation who have discovered the joy of spectralism. We are asked if composers are now merely aping the not-so-latest import, as Kevin O’Connell puts it, arriving at the party 15 years too late. Attendance at events such as the Free State concerts show that there is still considerable diversity in Ireland, but the tendency of composers (of all ages) to form distinctive factions with different audiences and the tendency of programmers to sustain these factional divisions tends to mean these ideas do not get debated.
And then there is the issue of what I have referred to elsewhere as the transitory or disposable nature of composition. By this I am referring to the way in which many organisations fulfil their required quota of new music by hosting a constant stream of world premieres of works which are never given a repeat performance. As John Buckley notes, “Many orchestral works proclaimed as ‘world premieres’ might well have the advertising slogan of the late-18th-century press: ‘Positively the last performance in this kingdom.'” On a similar note, Kevin O’Connell asks, “Does anybody remember Bo Nilsson? [He was] the Swedish whizz kid of the late ’50s and early ’60s […] Like spring snow, he was there, then he was gone,” while Frank Corcoran describes his teacher Boris Blacher as “the most wonderful man. He was the most successful composer in Germany until the day he died in 1975. The day he died everything stopped […] because his publisher stopped pushing him.”