10 for ’10: Linda Buckley

Ireland’s Crash Ensemble, founded by Donnacha Dennehy, Andrew Synott and Michael Seaver, has become a hub for an exciting brand of Irish postminimalist and electroacoustic music. Linda Buckley is one composer to have benefited in this way, and Crash are bringing her piece for viola and electronics, Do you remember the planets? to Kings Place as part of the Irish American concert series taking place this week.

Buckley is completing her PhD at Trinity College, Dublin, with Dennehy, and one senses a connection in her use of microtonal inflections within harmonically open textures, something that gives her music (many excerpts of which can be heard on her website) a combination of bold assertiveness and a smooth, glassy elegance. Planets, for viola and soundtrack and inspired by Pythagoras’s theory of the music of the spheres, is a good example: the viola part is quite sparse, dominated by strident fifths and fourths, but the accompanying soundtrack offers an alternative perspective of diffuse textures and harmonies that completely transform the solo line, opening its solidity and certainty up to question.

Buckley has just returned from China, where she spent time working on a new piece combining uilleann pipes, erhu and electronics: the combination of instruments from within and without the Western classical tradition parallels her interest in combining tonal and microtonal harmonic spheres. In the following interview, she talks about her compositional thought and method, her relationship with performers, and how influences from world music feed into her work.


Do you remember the planets? | Do you remember the planets? Viola part (pdf)

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Composing is an anachronistic career choice for the 21st century, isn’t it? Why do you do it?

Linda Buckley: I guess I don’t really think of composing as a ‘career choice’ as such, in that I don’t think I ever really conciously made the decision ‘I am going to be a composer’ – it just happened quite naturally, it chose me. It was like a natural logical progression stemming from a curiosity about sound, about harmony, about emotion.

I do it because something sparks this inside me, and I want to share it – maybe it’s an atmosphere, or a sense of magic. Something that can be expressed in sound, perhaps not so easily in the written word. I do it because when music excites me, or moves me, I want to communicate this to others, share the experience.

TR-J: How do you think composing, being a composer, now is different from 20–30 years ago?

LB: It’s difficult to say, but I imagine there’s more of an atmosphere of openness and inclusivity in the current scene than perhaps was the case thirty years ago, maybe less reactionary activity. There is a sense of boundaries being blurred now between genres which I think can be a positive thing – e.g. my experience of Irish traditional singing, Indian vocal percussion, Javanese Gamelan, medieval organum as well as electronica and postrock has definitely filtered down into what I do. I compose music, but I also sing, play gamelan, perform electronic improv – it’s all about embracing the total experience of music making. For me, I like the human connection aspect – perhaps moving away from the image of solitary isolated composer figure removed from society!

TR-J: How important for you is it to work with performers on a new piece? And what happens when that piece is taken up by another player/group?

LB: This is very important to me – a lot of this is to do with getting to know each other as people, as well as the musical composer/performer relationship. That’s why I love working closely with performers, developing the piece with them, exchanging ideas, honing the craft. I also like to work with particular performers/ensembles on more than one occassion, building up a dynamic with them. I think this make rehearsal much more interactive and means that more of the original feeling and intention of the piece can be conveyed meaningfully to the audience in performance.

I’m always excited to see what happens when a piece is played by different performers. For example, this piece Do you remember the planets? for viola and tape is probably one of my most performed – from Tasmania to Dublin to New York and beyond! Every time I hear it played by a different violist. I hear something new in it – it really keeps it alive and fresh for me, as it written five years ago which feels like a long time ago now. Some players really go for its almost raw electronica-like energy, others connect more to its medieval influence, and purity.

TR-J: What is musical material for you?

LB: This can come from anything – from the sound of a gate creaking, to wind blowing through pipes, or a single chord that seems to extend out, like a blurred vision. Sometimes it’s like having ‘aural hallucinations’ when you can internally ‘hear’ the sound you wish to create, in the early stage of the process. Then you try to capture that initial experience – to ‘sonify’ it. That’s all part of the excitement, moving closer and closer to capturing that aural idea … sometimes it’s almost like trying to remember a dream. But in a more practical sense, eg. when working with instruments, it could be something like the sound of a single note played ‘sul tasto’ on cello – this can then trigger more ideas. Or in electronics it could be a type of granulation – perhaps extending a short simple sound into something more harmonic and expansive.

TR-J: A lot of composition is about ways of proceeding, extending an idea in time. What sort of decisions are you dealing with as you compose?

LB: I suppose major interests for me would be thinking in terms of parameters to explore such as timbre, rate of change, harmony etc. When dealing with pitched material, how the horizontal relates to the vertical and vice versa.

TR-J: What projects are on your desk at the moment?

LB: I’m writing up my doctoral thesis at the moment so that keeps me busy! I’ve also just returned from China where I worked with traditional instrumentalists on a new piece – exploring ways of combining Irish traditional instruments with Chinese instruments, and electronics … so that will have further developments in the future. I’ll also be working on a new piece for the Irish National Symphony Orchestra, so I’m excited to immerse myself in the large forces and possibilities of the orchestral sound world. Future work includes new choral music, as well as more performing with live electronics.

TR-J: Here’s a middle C. What do you do now?

LB: Extend it out, into a sea of lush microtones …!

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