An Interview with Frank Corcoran
Sat 1 May 2004
Frank Corcoran speaks on video to Jonathan Grimes about his upbringing on a farm in Tipperary, his development as a composer and his feeling of exile, as a German resident, which forces him ‘to go further to the brink’.
Jonathan Grimes: You talked a lot in the past about coming late to art music. How late did you come to it and what were the reasons for this?
Frank Corcoran: There was no direct music in my family on either side. I was very lucky that I went to St Finian’s College, Mullingar[County Westmeath]. I fell on my musical feet there with Father Frank McNamara, the music teacher at that time. I got first class tuition with him as a young lad. It was very academic, the Inter Cert[state examinations at second level in Ireland] and all that, but at least I did get that. I studied all kinds of things: I did a BA in music in[National University of Ireland] Maynooth. I was the only student at the time, since big music faculties had not taken off in this country yet. I came late to music in the sense that I heard my first symphony orchestra concert at the age of nineteen and my first string quartet at twenty: that’s late!
JG: Did you feel as a result of this that you had a lot of catching up to do, or did it matter?
FC: I’m catching up today! There are wonderful musics of the past that I’m discovering every day, and it will go on through my whole life: it’s a delightful experience. But I do feel that those who might have been born into a directly musical environment would have had a lot of that, so in that sense I certainly did have to catch up.
JG: And this fact that you weren’t exposed to music — you mentioned hearing your first symphony orchestra at the age of nineteen — did this make you more curious, more hungry to find out about these things?
FC: Oh, I was very, very hungry — I still am today! I still remember discovering my first photocopying machine. A photocopying machine was gold because with that I could photocopy forbidden pages from Beethoven, and this was the key.
JG: You mentioned about growing up in Tipperary: what was it like growing up there and what effect do you think this had on your development as a composer?
An Interview with Frank Corcoran: clip1
FC: My ears were clean as a young lad. I can still remember the soundscape of our farm and of rural north Tipperary: the wind coming up from the bog, the pig symphony I did not write. We had 110 pigs and the cacophony or ‘swine-ophony’ was extraordinary coming up to feeding time, from the bass-baritones right up to the highest sopranos. Even as a young fellow, although I’d no knowledge of tape recorders, I did want to write my pig symphony. So I’ve magic memories there of natural sounds, of animal sounds. I still hear the scream of the sawmill in the local village. So there was magic realism and it’s in my best work today — that energy flows in.
JG: I’m going to come back to some of the energies in your work later, if I may. Following on from your university studies in NUI Maynooth, you took lessons from Boris Blacher in Berlin. How important was Blacher to your compositional development at that point?
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FC: He was very important. I’d been through the whole Irish thing and studied at UCD [University College Dublin], Trinity College [Dublin], NUI Maynooth and so on. I’d written six million fugues, twenty-seven thousand trio sonatas and Bach chorales! I was rhythmically in big trouble; I was stuck to the four-bar/eight-bar period; I was in big trouble tonally. I wanted to develop — every young composer wants to develop — but I was terrified of going into deep water. I had a moral failure and that was the one thing that Blacher taught me. What he said was ‘Write a piece, finish it, put your name to it, and take the responsibility for that piece, warts and all.’ That’s all I needed.
JG: From that point you wrote your first major orchestral work, Three Pieces for Orchestra, subtitled Scenes from My Exhibition. This was completed in 1974, following your studies with Blacher, and it subsequently won a prize. Was this your first breakthrough as a composer in Ireland?
FC: I had already won the first Varming Prize for a chamber work. I think for young composers it’s very important to get encouragement from somebody, so a little praise is very important. The Three Pieceswere very important for me. The RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra did them here a couple of years ago and I still like them a lot. There is that scream there, that craziness, that strong, sharp…sense of responsibility also.
JG: Which you learned from Blacher?
JG: You made reference to composing in Ireland in the 1970s and the fact that it was a very small scene — a lot smaller than it is now. What was it like for a young composer working in Ireland during this time? Was it difficult?
FC: It was very difficult. It was a bit like the depression Irish writers had in [dominant Irish political figure] de Valera’s Ireland of the fifties. The big problem was — and it’s still there in our national psyche — that we didn’t have a recognition of music as one of the arts on a par with Irish poets, painters and sculptors. But I do remember when I came back from Berlin in 1971, at the old RTÉ or Radio Éireann in Henry Street, Dublin, getting a tape that had come in from Poland of Lutoslawski’s Second Symphony and it absolutely bowled me over.
JG: So that piece, hearing it back then, was very new…
FC: Absolutely new! I got a couple of impulses during the seventies. In 1977 I went to the Warsaw [Autumn] Festival and I met Lutoslawski and the some of the other Warsaw and Krakow composers. I met Boguslaw Schaeffer, old Gorecki who was still around, and Wlodzimierz Kotonski, who was head at the Radio at the time. Here was an example of a country, poor like us, under a very rigid communist system. Here were composers: it was bliss to be alive! To talk to these composers you felt the energy in them. I suppose they had luck in that the Party did not see music as politically destabilising. It gave me an incredible look at the cutting edge. This was not Germany or France, this was little Poland!
JG: So you moved to Hamburg, Germany, in 1983 where you took up the post of Professor of Composition and Theory at the Hochschule there. Did you sense then, or even looking back now, that this was a turning point in your career?
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FC: Yes, I had made my final cut with Ireland, not in an emotional or family sense but in the sense that I was, in the future, not going to pay my taxes here any longer. Although Aosdána had just started and I was one of the first composers, and I benefited straight away from that wonderful Artists’ Exemption tax bill of the early 1980s, I did feel that I was going into a dangerously deep pool where I would be totally alone and where there would be no emotional supports. This pushed me towards new territory.
JG: It must have been quite a step to take…
FC: That’s right. I had already had a year in Berlin — a composers’ fellowship — and after that I was guest professor in Berlin, then for a short time in Stuttgart, so I was easing into it.
JG: But it must have been quite a difference working as a composer in Germany as opposed to Ireland during the late 1970s or early 1980s.
FC: It was startlingly different. It was both easier and more difficult. It was easier because West Germany had so many radio stations so if you didn’t land with one station you might have a chance with another: a performance, a recording or making a programme. I made many programmes on contemporary music. It was more difficult in that Germany, contrary to what people think, has never done an adequate job in helping its composers in spite of a lot of money, symphony orchestras, ensembles or festivals. Behind the veneer of intense activity, very few composers — German or non-German — have been helped. So it was tough, I had to fight.
JG: I’d like to quote something from your current composer comment on our web site: ‘I am a passionate believer in “Irish” dream-landscape, two languages, polyphony of history, not ideology or programme. No Irish composer has yet dealt adequately with our past.’ To what extent have you grappled with this problem of dealing with our past and how has this shaped your musical evolution?
FC: There are about 27 questions there!
JG: Yes, it’s a tough one!
FC: I’m Irish; I’m also part of the world. It’s very important to keep the balance: not to be jingoistically patriotic in a narrow sense, and not to be without any orientation in a huge world and have no local identity. I’ve always been interested in the other Irish arts so I’ve seen the slow development of these arts. They had it more easily than music, say, in the nineteenth or twentieth century. I was interested in the Gaelic-speaking Ireland before that, and in early medieval Ireland and really going back to Newgrange [Neolithic burial mound in County Meath], to Neolithic Ireland. So I think that a lot of my more recent work has fed, has tapped on these sources.
JG: And taking this passion or interest for early medieval Irish history that you just alluded to: you’ve said that in the past a lot of your works have derived their energies from this period. Can you tell me why this period interests you so much?
FC: Of course we all got the bad cliché, ‘The Island of Saints and Scholars’, when we were in school, and it has never been true in this sense. But it is true that Ireland was an extraordinary place from those one hundred years of those Irish saints from St Patrick in AD 450-60 up to the time of Columbanus. You had these mysterious figures like Brendan sailing the Atlantic, Kevin in Glendalough[ancient monastic site in County Wicklow]. There was extraordinary spiritual activity going on and there was the interfacing of the old Druid order of things and the new Christianity, as they understood it. So it was an extraordinary little country with energies that we cannot explain today.
JG: Perhaps those energies are still there under the surface; or are they lost?
FC: I feel they are — they certainly got lost in the middle of Europe.
JG: Now that you’ve explained that, many of the works that you’ve written, as I said, derive their energies or inspiration from that period. I suppose the works that spring to mind, most of all, are the ones based on the Mad Sweeney epic. What is it about this story that interests you in particular, and how have you managed to write so many works on this one story?
FC: I had come across Mad Sweeney as a young man through Flann O’Brien [twentieth-century Irish satirical writer]. In 1996, I took a second look at [the poet] Seamus Heaney’s translation of the epic. Again, I was taken away by this strange little solitary figure, an ex-king who became schizophrenic in AD 637 at the battle of Moira and spent the rest of his life as a fluttering bird figure, hopping along from tree to tree in very wild country, fleeing from friends and enemies, court, civilisation; perhaps fleeing from himself. But turning his life, turning his breakfast of green cress into art. This fascinated me, because you have got to be careful turning autobiography into art: he did it!
JG: It’s an extraordinary tale and the imagery is so strong and direct. So you’ve written Mad Sweeney [Buile Suibhne], Sweeney’s Farewell,Sweeney’s Vision…
FC: Yes, Sweeney’s Vision was a big thing. Again, I was able to use the computers at the Technical University in Berlin for that. It’s a huge sound landscape from his time. There are several other works but I’ve stopped that now.
JG: That was my next question! Do you plan to compose any more Sweeney-based works?
FC: No, I’m going to leave poor Sweeney cowering there in the cold in Kerry!
JG: He’s certainly immortalised now in the medium of music! Going back to your life in Germany, do you see yourself as an artist-in-exile, in the way that Joyce or Beckett did, and what effect do you think this self-imposed exile — if I can call it that — has had on your creative output?
FC: It’s had an enormous influence. I certainly feel myself a permanent exile all the time. Joyce had that, of course: he was the prototype. Beckett had it; many an Irishman had that in the other disciplines. We haven’t had too much of it in composition. It gives me the necessary distance from the country. It does force me towards silence, a bit of cunning. It forces me with each new work to ask ‘Is this really honest? Is this a compromise? Is this just re-writing my second-last piece? Is this new territory? Have I courage to go further to the brink?’
JG: You’ve also said in the past that you wouldn’t have written a great deal of works that you had written if you hadn’t moved to Germany.
FC: Yes, God knows what I would have written — maybe better, maybe worse. They certainly would have been different. The sheer intensity and explosive power of my Third Symphony came out of an extraordinary, solitary situation: energies were stored up and let free — the dam broke.
JG: I’d like to turn to your way of working. How do you compose? How do you work?
An Interview with Frank Corcoran: clip4
FC: As a young man I was able to work at any time of day or night. I would always have paper with me and, like Paul Hindemith, get on a train and have a masterpiece ready at the end of the journey! As I get older, I get much more self-critical and it gets tougher all the time. Now a new work has to get triggered off. It could be by a literary or visual topic or it could be the sheer pleasure of play. A composer looks for building materials everywhere. It won’t be my next work but I’m certainly going to do a little work quite soon using only the tones I get from my name — Francis C — so I’ve a lovely six-note collection there just waiting to use.
JG: Like Shostakovich!
FC: That’s it! And like all the other composers: Boulez, Lutoslawski, Bach and Berg. Nowadays, when I get the ‘kick’, total possession takes over and I have to keep at that work until there is release.
JG: You don’t, like some composers, compose as part of a process. I remember Seóirse Bodley saying it was like writing a letter: you start, then you maybe scribble out something and you start again. You need that initial ‘kick’ to get you going.
FC: Nowadays I do. Of course, some of the kicks have been slumbering for many a long time. My next work, for example, is going to be a big ‘scream’ work, Tradurre-Tradire, ‘How to translate her scream’. That work has been festering in me for the last three or four years, so I have to let it ooze!
JG: Have you begun to work on this?
FC: On the first of March I will go to the Technical University in Berlin to begin it.
JG: So it’s going to be an electro-acoustic work?
FC: Yes, I don’t necessarily see myself as an electro-acoustic composer. I’m very suspicious of specialities: ‘He’s a composer who writes for the Jew’s harp and she uses twenty-seven tin whistles.’ I think you have to try everything. In my life, I did have that lucky chance to discover this very odd world of working with computers.
JG: And that was, I suppose, through living in Germany and having the facilities available. If one thinks of the facilities that would have been available to composers in Ireland during the late 1970s and early 1980s to write electro-acoustic or tape music, they weren’t there.
FC: Yes, they weren’t there. I remember my annus mirabilis, my wonderful year in Berlin in 1980. In that year I wrote my Rosenstock Leider [Cúig Amhráin de Chuid Gabriel Rosenstock], my First Symphony, I began the Second [Symphony], and I also made my tape piece Balthazar’s Dream.
JG: We’ve spoken about some of your output — you just mentioned working with tape and the works composed since 1980. You’ve also written four symphonies, spanning fifteen years from 1981 to 1996. How important are these works in your overall output? Are they central?
FC: They are central and they are very important, not because of the word ‘symphony’ as a kind of a sacred thing. Each of these symphonies is a big wad of sound and a lot of time to fill, so it was an extraordinary formal challenge every time. If you write a piece for six or seven minutes you can do it; but if you have to fill seventeen or twenty-seven minutes you’re in real trouble, so you have to find forms strong enough to bend time through your will.
JG: Do you have plans to write any more symphonies?
FC: I don’t know. I’d like to write a concerto, my dream would be a cello concerto. I’ve started a new series now, my ‘Quasi’ series: Quasi un Canto for big orchestra; Quasi un Lamento; and I do plan to do a few more, so I plan to milk the ‘quasi’ cow! It is a good image in our present situation: ‘What is a Sonata? Quasi un Sonata. What’s a Missa? Quasi un Missa.’
JG: Quasi un Symphony, perhaps?
FC: Exactly! It might be a ‘quasi’!
JG: Turning to your Quasi un Missa: you referred to this as a homage to John Cage and Palestrina. Can you tell me more about this work and its genesis?
FC: I had my tongue in my cheek when I said Palestrina and John Cage, but I will stand by what I said. Quasi un Missa is a tribute to the voice, vocal music and our whole western polyphonic tradition, and also to Cage’s Roaratorio, which is a work I’ve heard many times. It was produced by WDR [Radio] which commissioned my Sweeney’s Vision and my Quasi un Missa, so I wanted to have my revenge on John! I wanted to do it better, to do it again, as world music but also as very Irish. So that’s all in the work too. And the ‘Missa’ bit… it’s not just so many Palestrinas and thousands of Dutch composers up to the seventeenth century, I wanted to get deeper than that. Again, we’re back to the Irish island. I wanted to get back to 2,500 years of religious tradition, so I’ve used Bishop [George] Berkeley [Irish philosopher and churchman, 1685-1753], bits of Joyce and Beckett, God’s statements from medieval Irish Gaelic. They’re all there in the mix.
JG: Again, coming back to musical influences, you mentioned hearing the tape of Lutoslawski’s Second Symphony and how this had such a profound effect on you. Perhaps you might tell me of other influences that you’ve felt over the years.
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FC: Nowadays, I try to hear no contemporary music. I think that’s a wise thing to do, especially when I’m doing a new work. I can learn from the giants of the generation just before me, and of course I can learn from the greats of the past. Now that sounds a bit troglodytic: I don’t mean it like that. I mentioned Lutoslawski and Ligeti, who was a colleague of mine in Hamburg. As to older composers: Stravinsky, early Berg and early Webern. I think every composer forges his own language out of smithereens.
JG: It all flows into the one pot…
FC: Yes, it’s not a matter of re-inventing the wheel — it is important for me to know that someone has re-invented it. When you’re a young composer, you’ve got to soak up a lot of stuff, but later you’ve got to filter a lot out: I do.
JG: Which is why you try to not listen to contemporary music…?
FC: Yes, this is no way arrogance; I’m just protecting myself.
JG: And stepping out of contemporary art music, are there any other musical genres that particularly interest you?
FC: I have a great love for Irish traditional music. It’s been one of my great regrets in my life that I wasn’t born in an Irish-speakingGaeltacht. This music fascinates me still. Not directly — any time I’ve put in Irish traditional material into the music it hasn’t really worked — it’s too dangerous, too perfect. I don’t think it’s worked for other composers, particularly the older generation of mine — it was a major preoccupation for them. They came from that Vaughan Williams direction and seldom did it work. But this pure, monodic music does interest me a lot.
JG: Over the past six years a number of commercial CDs have been released, the most recent of which is Mad Sweeney’s Shadow. How important are CDs as a means to helping your music reach a wider audience?
FC: They’re very important because every composer in the world, even in the poorest countries, has to have a couple of CDs. That is the curse of it! In my next CD, Mad Sweeney’s Smithereens, I’m going to put new work and old work. I do believe in that: where I can look back at tested and tried work. This is psychically very important.
JG: And that is what you’ve done with your latest CD: you’ve mixed works from the 1970s and 1980s with more recent works.
FC: I like that: the old and the new, the sean-núa.
JG: Can you connect these periods; is there a continuum?
FC: There is. There is my preoccupation with form, and each composition is a shot at solving that very difficult problem. And of course, how do you make form? Rhythm. This is the big unsolved problem of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: how do we handle the mysterious time flow?
JG: Your most recent work, Quasi un Concertino, was premiered in Croatia last year. I’m interested to know how the collaboration with this ensemble came about and how this work was written?
FC: My connections with Croatia, a wonderful country that has many similarities with Ireland, go back to the 1970s and the Zagreb Biennale, which again in Eastern Europe was very important, second only to the Warsaw Autumn festival. It was a great meeting place for composers all over the world. So I know these people in Zagreb a long time. The leading players of the Zagreb Philharmonic make up the Cantus Chamber Orchestra and they are interested in playing the music of east and west. They’re very good — top musicians and their conductor is the chief conductor of the Philharmonic, Berislav ’Sipus.
JG: And finally, I couldn’t let you away without asking you this question: you’re about to reach the landmark of sixty years. How important is reaching this age for you, both from a personal and a creative point of view?
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FC: Up to this I always said it’s not important at all, but I now see that it is. In this mysterious time-flow that we musicians work with, it’s important to find some point, to mark something, to look back and to see good work done. Old: sean, and new: nua.
JG: I think that’s a perfect note to end the interview on. Frank Corcoran, thank you very much.
FC: Thank you.
Frank Corcoran was interviewed on video by Jonathan Grimes in the Contemporary Music Centre, Dublin, on 20 February 2004.
The views expressed in this interview are those of the persons concerned and are not necessarily those of the Contemporary Music Centre.