Northern Irish composer Greg Caffrey
in conversation with Robert Beattie
Northern Irish composer, Greg Caffrey, has won a number of awards for his compositions including First Prize at the Concorso, Counterpoint, Italy in May 2012, the Taukay Edizioni Musicali International Composition Prize in 2012 and the Musica Domani International Composition Prize in USA. Greg was also a finalist in the ISME-IVME 2nd International Composition Contest, Brussels in 2008. His works have been performed across 18 countries and are represented on 12 record labels.
Greg was a founder of the Hard Rain SoloistEnsemble which is a Belfast-based contemporary music ensemble made up of musicians drawn from across the UK and Ireland. Hard Rain recently launched their first recording, entitled A Terrible Beauty, which features two compositions by Greg along with a number of other compositions from Irish composers (review).
I spoke to Greg about his role in setting up the Hard Rain SoloistEnsemble, the Ensemble’s first CD and some of the works which feature on this, and their plans for the future. I also discussed with Greg his own works as a composer and some of the things which inspire him to write music. I asked Greg about what role the contemporary Classical composer might have in reflecting the modern world and how they might make contemporary Classical music more appealing for modern audiences.
Robert Beattie: Congratulations to you and the Hard Rain SoloistEnsemble on your recent recording ‘A Terrible Beauty’. Can you tell us how this project came about?
Greg Caffrey: The Ensemble have, with funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, commissioned a number of new works for quintet or sextet (where we also use percussion) over the last 9 years. The recording is the culmination of that commissioning process. It brings all of these commissions together and presents them to a wider audience.
RB: How was the Hard Rain Ensemble formed?
GC: I formed the Ensemble in 2013. Prior to this I had been in Paris working at an artists’ residence. There were over 300 artists working there from all over the world. Many of the cities in which these composers were working had more than one professional contemporary music ensemble. I thought it was important to have such an ensemble in a city the size of Belfast and when I came home, I set about forming the ensemble.
RB: How did you select the players for the Ensemble?
GC: I had previously worked with most of the players and had, therefore, strong existing musical relationships with them. The membership of the ensemble has changed slightly since its inception, but quite a few of the original members are still there.
RB: I noticed on the recording that you parachuted in a number of additional players and that the players you use changes from piece to piece. Can you tell us why this is the case?
GC: There are 6 core members of the ensemble including the conductor. All their biographies are on the Hard Rain SoloistsEnsemble website. Obviously, these musicians are busy professional freelancers outside HRSE and are often engaged in other performance activities and therefore sometimes must be deputised, although we all try to keep this to a minimum. After all, in chamber music performance, it’s important that there’s continuity and that players can build a strong relationship as a group. That said, we were pleased to be able to bring in some brilliantly talented musicians with expertise in contemporary music to perform on this album.
RB: Can we turn now to some of the new compositions which feature on the recording. Two of your own compositions feature on the recording. Can you tell us about these compositions and what inspired them?
GC: One of the pieces is called A Terrible Beauty and it is based on poetry by WB Yeats. These are poems which I have admired for a long time, and I wanted the music to reflect on them, although I did not necessarily want to depict the poems or create a narrative in the music. You might say that while the music is abstract it uses the poems as a creative springboard. The other piece is entitled Three movements on the works of William Scott, based on paintings by the Northern Irish painter. I saw his paintings at an exhibition in the Ulster Museum and thought they had a beautiful static quality. The music which I created in response I hope reflects this sense of calmness.
RB: Can you tell us a little bit about the other composers who feature on the recording and their compositions?
GC: There is a wide range of compositional styles on the recording. The selection includes, for example, a very slow, still piece by Ryan Molloy called Gortnagarn II reflecting his interest in Irish traditional music. By contrast there’s vibrant piece with a great sense of frivolity [Zeddy Dance] by Simon Mawhinney, which was inspired by a dance his daughter did when she was young. I mention these pieces as they represent polar opposites within the recording. It is sometimes invidious to single out individual pieces as I love all the works on the recording and couldn’t possibly identify any as favourites. Suffice to say the album offers a good snapshot of new music in Ireland today.
RB: You talked about the recording being the culmination of the commissioning process. Where does the Ensemble go from here?
GC: Unfortunately, currently there is no funding mechanism to commission more works through the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. Public finances are stretched to say the least in these difficult times. However, I hope that more funding will become available in the not-too-distant future to commission more new works in the coming year and in the future. Next year is the Ensemble’s 10th anniversary so it would be good to commission more new works to celebrate that important milestone. Commissioning more music would suggest another new CD featuring these works. Given that we have started a process of commissioning and recording new works, I would very much like this process to continue.
RB: What opportunities have the Ensemble had to perform the pieces on the CD in public?
GC: We have performed all the pieces several times in public and a number of them four or five times. It is our self-imposed remit to perform this music live and indeed the focus of the group to date has been to introduce this music to local audiences. We often programme music by Irish composers alongside some of the international luminaries of modern and contemporary music, so our concerts have included performances of works by Boulez, Reich, Sciarrino, Cage, Feldman, Gaubaidulina, Carter, Ligeti, Messiaen, Pärt, Saariaho, Takemitsu, Xenakis and many, many others.
RB: Are any performances of these new works scheduled to take place?
GC: Yes, the Ensemble will be performing at the ‘New Music Dublin’ at the end of April and this concert will feature three works by the Irish composer Frank Corcoran. We will be performing his Nine Looks at Pierrot which featured on the CD. We’ll also play his Melodies and Mobiles, which we commissioned earlier this year, and a new Corcoran piece commissioned by the NMD Festival for us, entitled Caoines and Canons. In the same set we’ll give another performance of the recently commissioned pieces Non-Stop by Rhona Clarke and Elaine Agnew’s Green, also commissioned for this season. After that we have another Belfast Concert featuring two brand new works by composers Amy Rooney and Eduard Zatriqi commissioned for us by New Horizons Music. This concert also features a previous HRSE commission from Ian Wilson. In our final concert of the year, we give new airings to John Buckley’s Three Mobiles after Alexander Calder, Piers Hellawell’s Ground Truthing and Jane O’Leary’s Beneath the Dark Blue Waves. So, you can see that even works that we commissioned several years ago are constantly being revisited.
More recently we performed a number of new works at the Sonorities Festival in Belfast. We did a call for new scores through the Sonorities Festival and new works were submitted from all over the world. All the scores were submitted anonymously, and we chose to perform five of these at the Festival. One of the works is from Northern Ireland and the other four are from Latin America.
RB: You mentioned that a number of the new scores came from Latin America. Have you had opportunities to perform this music internationally?
GC: We had advanced plans to perform in Chile just before the Covid pandemic, but unfortunately these plans had to be shelved. We are currently revisiting the possibility of the Chilean appearance now that Covid measures have relaxed a bit and we are hopeful for a performance at a contemporary music festival in Amsterdam in June of 2023. We anticipate that there will be more international opportunities over the next 10 years and the ensemble will be increasing its focus on this kind of activity.
RB: You are a composer yourself and you have won a number of prizes for your compositions. Classical composers have often reflected the spirit of the age as in the Classical or Romantic periods. What role do contemporary Classical composers have in today’s world?
GC: That’s an interesting question. Most people would probably say that our role is to push at the musical boundaries, which of course is true. This may be in terms of the use of new technologies, in terms of new sounds that instruments can make employing extended techniques or utilising new formal or organisational compositional approaches. As a composer, I also feel there is an obligation on us to look backwards and to be inspired by the best and most original music of the past.
RB: Do contemporary composers have a role in terms of reflecting and influencing the world around them?
GC: We all write what we feel able to write. Certainly, there is much music being created now that seems to make political or moral commentary. Composers may be stimulated by themes such as the impact of Covid, the war in Europe, climate change or whatever. These are very valid ideas. Personally, I go back to what I said earlier, that my own music is simply music. My own experiences presumably filter into the artwork somehow, unconsciously, and I certainly have many experiences to draw upon growing up in Belfast during the Troubles, but in my case I prefer to think that any reflection of the world around me through my own work takes place organically. The exception perhaps being my music that sets texts, that’s obviously more explicit in terms of having meaning – an example being my recent settings of poetry by Seamus Heaney or Ciaran Carson. In short I don’t feel we have a responsibility to do anything other than create art, but I understand that some composers feel strongly that they can make a difference through drawing on topical issues.
RB: Contemporary Classical music is sometimes seen as being niche nowadays and it has sometimes been difficult to find an audience for some of these works. What balance should contemporary composers strike between fulfilling their own musical conceptions and pushing at musical boundaries while at the same time making their music more accessible in a way that might attract larger audiences?
GC: That’s a good question. The most important thing is that contemporary music is performed well. No badly performed music will appeal to any audience. That is why Hard Rain is so important to me. It is a vehicle for myself and my colleagues to have accurate readings of our works. I think a composer or an ensemble can ask a lot from an audience in terms of the difficulty of the music or the progressive nature of the works performed as long as it’s all performed with well and with integrity.
There’s a lot being done now to make the concert hall a more inclusive environment and to attract new audiences. There’s nothing wrong with this provided the music is not watered down in order to simply appeal. Contemporary music will always be a struggle for an audience, that’s why the majority of them come, to be challenged. The fact is the music is not easy for performers and it’s not even easy for composers. It’s always been like that historically. Composers need to write what in all honesty they need to write, but honesty is the key word. Audiences have a responsibility to work hard too. They don’t need an in depth musical education, they just need to be open to possibilities.
RB: You don’t want to dilute or adulterate the art to make it more popular.
GC: No. There are some genres of contemporary music which are more digestible for audiences, for example, the minimalism of Steve Reich and the composers who have followed on from this. This music is always more appealing to audiences who perhaps don’t have a background in Classical music or perhaps have come to contemporary music through more popular forms. Its regular pulsed nature and recognisable harmonies are familiar to them. We have performed Steve Reich’s Double Sextet in concert, for example, and it has attracted perhaps our largest audience. However, it’s important to perform a range of contemporary music. At our last concert we performed works by Xenakis who is at the other end of the spectrum to Reich. In fact, some years ago we performed The Double Sextet alongside Eliot Carter’s Triple Duo in the same concert – now there’s contrast! It’s important to me to perform a wide variety of contemporary compositional styles – in that sense I see Hard Rain as a kind of contemporary repertory group. I wouldn’t want to get ghettoized into performing one single representative approach to new music. The diversity afforded in our artform is too important for that.
RB: There are many popular contemporary composers nowadays such as Arvo Pärt or Ligeti. Equally you can listen to pieces which are not immediately appealing but appreciate its value. I remember listening to Shostakovich’s First Piano Sonata and thinking how much I hated the work but then thinking afterwards that this was the reaction the composer probably wanted.
GC: Sometimes it takes time after listening to a piece before you begin to appreciate or like it. This can be very true of many contemporary works, where it is sometimes a slow burn. When I first heard the music of Toru Takemitsu it meant nothing to me, he’s now one of my favourite composers.
RB: What are the Ensemble’s plans for the future?
GC: As the Ensemble approaches its tenth year, we take enormous pride in our already significant legacy: a string of commissions, a well-received double CD, countless concerts featuring an enormous variety of music from Schoenberg to Zorn, not to mention the educational work the ensemble has done. However, we do have an eye on the future. We’re happy with what we do and will continue to improve on that. But we look forward, too, to exciting new collaborators, appearances at great new international venues and most important of all, working with a greater and more diverse range of new creators. The future plan is to make more music!
RB: Greg, thank you very much for talking to us.
Photograph of Hard Rain SoloistEnsemble: Stuart Calvin