Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
Many threads lead to such a decision. It is something that happens to you rather than something you choose. Certainly many people ‘inspired’ me, you might say, though I never like that word. It’s so long ago, but I always think that certain turning points stand out, such as going inter-railing for a month when I was 16 with Persichetti’s ‘Twentieth Century Harmony’ as my only book, and earlier, reading a ‘Lives of the Great Composers’. But by then I had already been captivated by the actual sounds of Debussy, Stravinsky and Bartok—and by the mystery of how music works at all. I would say that having the only record library in the country within walking distance was a tremendous accident of luck…
As for a career, I think I was avoiding the idea of a career. Quite successfully, it would seem. I recommend it to anyone who does not want a career: try music.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
The influences that really count are teachers. All the music teachers I ever had left deep impressions. Whether for piano, theory, free composition, analysis, harmony, counterpoint. Not all entirely positive, but nonetheless rather equal and ineradicable impressions, proportionate to the time spent, more than the intrinsic importance of what is said, when one is young and cannot discriminate. Many of the influences were negative, and take a long time to rinse out. While there were some false trails in my time at Trinity College Dublin as an undergraduate, the best thing I learned was to look at scores and listen to music if you want insights as a composer—analysis by ear was also stressed quite usefully. Don’t look so much into the textbooks and articles, except for orchestration and some other technical things. A very important thing is to finish works, get stuff written, early on—William York helped wth this idea. Only after some years does one realise the sheer work in producing reasonably substantial pieces of music—Kevin Volans helped with some aspects of concentration.
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
Well, everyone faces the same challenges outside of themselves: there are not enough performing groups compared to the number of composers touting their work—and other problems like that. So for me, and maybe most composers, the greatest frustations come from oneself: when one fails to put in for things due to discouragement or lack of organisation. Or one becomes distracted by the need to earn a living, or ones focus and patience is insufficient. The general scene regarding the new music world is highly problematic and worsening, but we all share those problems equally.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
All composers have the great fear at the start, the blank page. I am not afraid to take a month or six weeks conceptualising—freely thinking about the general character of the work; imagining textures and colours and energy levels etc, but sometimes you do that for some time, then the work veers off a bit once you get down to the real work. Sometimes it is better to be under heavier time pressure, forced to get on with the scoring. This time element impinges mostly on whether you plan a big departure from previous work, or to re-think certain problems and solutions learned in earlier works. The latter suits a shorter time frame, and often seems to improve you as a composer. Always reinventing everything in your methods can leave you feeling like a beginner, which feels crazy after decades of work. At the moment I have a commission and I am a bit scared about how it will be received by the commissioner, and that is unusual for me. I am becoming more humble, which I think is a good thing overall, but I don’t want to get too cautious either…
There tends to be great freedom for the composer with commissions: they have little to complain about in that department and are very lucky to have any commission—often one is writing without commission and doing whatever you like—but even with a commission, you usually have the freedom to make it one long thing, or several short things, very detailed type of writing, or freer and more general scoring, and nobody complains about that.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
Most of the performers I work with are very supportive to all composers, and I love the rehearsal stages of a work. Nowadays I usually find myself in awe of what they can do, and the time they put in before meeting up for the first rehearsal. The performers who are involved with music by living composers are a small subset of the trained performers in the world, as (of course) dead composers seem to dominate that world, so the ones who want to work with living composers are the most artistic, in my opinion, as they are looking on music as a living and evolving art form.
Orchestral conductors are the biggest single danger to composers’ fragile egos. If you get one of those who is genuinely interested in what you are trying to express you can count yourself lucky. I don’t blame them for that, their unenviable job is to always be right about everything. I enjoyed working with Gavin Maloney conducting the National Symphony Orchestra—he is very capable and also interested in the composer’s ideas. I also found it useful to go in among the section leaders and ask them their thoughts on what was in front of them—they were all interested in new work.
Singers are an interesting area. They sometimes have a lot of theories about the voice that seem a bit occult to me, but they are usually great characters and company. I have tremendous respect for the difficulty they will put themselves in with living composers. It is best to work with a singer early on in the work, to find out how you can make the work practical for them, which is slightly different with each one. Of course, it is true for all performers, that collaboration is the way forward. Best to work with performers you genuinely admire and like, and listen to them.
It takes decades of interaction with performers to relax and be helpful to them, while getting a performance polished up—you can’t be overwhelming them and expecting tons of new information to get taken in, yet you want to give a few key pointers that they will be gald to hear about. I have benefitted from running many editions of the Irish Composition Summer School, where I could observe and sometimes smoothen rehearsals and recordings with young composers. I learned a lot that way.
You haven’t mentioned the managers of ensembles. They can sometimes be more problematic. But since you didn’t ask, I won’t tell.
Of which works are you most proud?
The old cliché of the works being like children is partially true, they are all let out into the world because they pass a certain level, and those that the world most seems to latch onto, give one the biggest feeling of pride. But pride is not something composers should get too used to or interested in.
I might select a few titles: Incunabula, a commission from the National Symphony Orchestra, is among the best of the orchestral stuff
Extraordinary Rendition, commissioned from Trío Arbós, and my 2nd and 3rd string quartets among my best chamber music.
I get some pride from writing a good piece when it is a tough challenge, and I think the tough challenges are writing engagingly for solo, monophonic instruments and classical combinations such as violin and piano or flute and piano . One is proud when those challenges come off well.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
Rhythmically challenging for the performer (sometimes), very varied harmonically. Also I don’t have a single compositional language at all, but I have a number of idiolects—by which I mean self-invented compositional techniques—that create the characteristic colours and moods of the music. So sometimes things might be nervous and flightly, or elsewhere they may be gentle, or many other things, and different techniques come into play for those different types.
In general, I am looking for ways of creating satisfying continuity out of asymmetrical material in both pitch and time. Sometimes I am also very interested in blending colours .
I often try to have a texture where some element is very simple in the presence of another active element that appears fairly indifferent to it. Sometimes I am trying to remove the glue from the individual sounds, sometimes I am obsessed with ambiguity regarding skirting around diatonic flavours (e.g. Grand Action ). Sometimes I want to create built-in nostalgia in a piece (i.e. not by reference to things outside the piece, but by things inside the piece, such as Sympathetic Strings ). Sometimes blocks of highly contrasting textures abut each other abruptly (Octala, venise en hiver, Glad it Was the Sun)
Usually when composers really get on to this subject they might write a book about their techniques. Such books only tell of the original things they have worked out, and never of the things they have also borrowed or just decided intuitively. I have considered such writing, but it would take a great deal of time.
How do you work?
Invariably I imagine the approximate sounds—harmonies, timbres, lines—and moods and energies for the piece, then write diagrams or words around this as well as some macro-shaping ideas and psychological intent (which is quite a bone of contention in new music and is often a question of succesful avoidance as much as anything) and so forth, and that goes on for up to four weeks (for a ten-minute work perhaps), then I start actually writing and sifting the detailed material. It all has to have a certain buzz or it’s not right. Most composers or artists know what that is about, the flow state etc. Hard to put in the hours without that, apart from anything else. Allow a further four to six weeks to complete.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
Composers: I have been a bit obsessed with Jo Kondo recently. I think it is because he is writing in notes and rhythms, but still uncovers a new language within that (as opposed to in gestures, schema, timbre blends, noise and so forth, which is not to say that I don’t enjoy those too). Very few composers still do that. I am an admirer of Gerald Barry’s work. He too writes in notes and rhythms, but is nothing like Jo Kondo—very different! Bent Sorensen and Unsuk Chin are more examples of these. Beat Furrer and Dai Fujkura bring one away slightly into more extended techniques, but are amazingly gripping. There are fascinating composers all over the place, but it is hard not to be awestruck by some of them (e.g. Peter Ablinger), and set off-balance as a composer oneself. Perhaps there are types of work that I can imagine doing, and those that I can’t. I admire, but could not emulate; Jennifer Walshe, for example.
Lately I was also exploring electroacoustic composers such as Denis Smalley and Trevor Wishart, while making some electroacoustic pieces. When I write for solo piano, I think about Prokofiev, Bach, Ligeti, Schumann, then I try to forget they exist. When I am relaxing with people I listen to jazz trios such as Bill Evans or Oscar Peterson. But there is a lot to explore and this only scratches the surface. Everything I mention here is very recent, if I went back through more years the list would be endless.
Performers: the great advocates of new music that I have been lucky to work with include The ConTempo quartet, the Fidelio Trio, David Adams, Mary Dullea, the Crash Ensemble, the Prey Trio, Trío Arbós, the Sond’Ar-te Emsemble, Satoko Inoue, Emma Coulthard, Benjamin Dwyer, Anne-Marie O’Farrell and many others. As I implied above the artists who understand music as needing living composers are impressive and generous people.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
This will be obvious to composers reading this: for composers (except for some media ones using DAWs) the first success level is to have professional performers take on your work at all. After that comes some recognition by funders. Getting away from having to work full time at something else is the next stage, and the final stage is to write what you want without needing to work at other stuff (especially inlcuding any teaching or lecturing) even part-time, unless you want to. Only a tiny handful in the world reach that final stage.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Particularly but not exclusively for composers: raising and sharpening aural skills in all musical dimensions, exercising the imagination, listening to other composers’ work, decades of patience and persistence.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Professionally: to have a much longer list of professional recordings behind me. Personally: to be as healthy as I am now and for those nearest to be alive and as well as they are now.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Good weather, good company and free time.
What is your most treasured possession?
Thre things I spend most time with are replaceable tools. I don’t feel that I ‘treasure’ things.
What do you enjoy doing most?
Travelling and meeting musicians.
John McLachlan was born in Dublin where he studied music at the DIT Conservatory of Music, the Royal Irish Academy of Music and Trinity College Dublin. As well as piano and musicology, he studied composition with Joseph Groocock, William York, Hormoz Farhat, Robert Hanson and Kevin Volans.
His works have been performed in The U.S.A., South Africa, Japan, Peru, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Holland, Switzerland, Finland, Denmark, Portugal, Spain, Romania, Moldova, Slovenia, Croatia, Poland and around Ireland, with broadcasts in several of these countries. They range from solo instrumental to orchestral music, and have been performed by (among others) the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, Opera Theatre Company, the National Chamber Choir, the Degani Quartet, Vox21, Concorde, Sequenza, Traject, Archaeus, Pro Arte, Sepia Ensemble, Antipodes, Ensemble Nordlys, The Fidelio Trio, The ConTempo Quartet and Trio Arbos as well as many prominent soloists including Ian Pace, John Feeley, Darragh Morgan and David Adams.