This year’s winner of the Seán Ó Riada Composition Competition at the Cork International Choral Festival is Cork-born, Dublin-based Eoghan Desmond. We talked to Eoghan during rehearsals about his approach to writing for choirs and the history he’s had with Chamber Choir Ireland:
Eoghan, you have a bit of a history with Chamber Choir Ireland – what are your earliest dealings with this ensemble?
I first crossed paths with CCI in my transition year of secondary school, under the ‘Composers in the Classroom’ scheme, which at the time came with a prize presented after the final concert in Dublin. I wrote a vaguely Pärt-like setting of the Kyrie, which was narrowly defeated by a much better realised piece, the name of which I cannot recall.
Did that experience colour your musical journey so far?
Very much, in that it made me more ambitious and very keen to develop the craft side of my composition. It was after that that my ‘study’ of composition really began in earnest.
How does working as a professional singer shape how you write for choir?
Something I’m very keen on in all of my music is the idea of writing music that is as enjoyable (if not more enjoyable) for the performer as the listener. Working as I do in a cathedral choir, and singing 6 days a week, I find pieces of music that are less than enjoyable really start to grate after not very long. On the other side of the coin, I try to avoid needlessly pandering to either the performer or the audience. It can be hard work striking a balance!
What do you change (if anything) when writing for professional choir opposed to nonprofessional?
I try not to think too much about the standard of the performers for whom I’m writing.
Indeed, I try not to think too specifically about the performers I’m writing for at all, unless they’re very specialised. I prefer to try to write a piece that stands well on its own, and is enhanced by such-and-such a group. Obviously if I’m asked to write for an amateur choir I have to take that in consideration, but at the same time, there are some seriously talented amateur choirs out there! ‘Mother Goose’s Melodies’ has very straightforward passages, and some more difficult passages, but I don’t think there’s anything in it that’s beyond the abilities of a good, hard-working amateur choir with a competent director: I can think of several of such choirs in Dublin alone!
How would you describe your piece Mother Goose’s Melodies in 5 words?
Sarcastic, snide, suggestive, smug and silly.
You work as a conductor, singer, composer…where do you see your work taking you in the next 10 years – still doing all three, or focusing on one – which area draws you the most?
Each area feeds very much into each other area. I get as much pleasure from music, whether I’m writing, performing or directing it. In 10 years’ time, who knows?
What are your five most influential pieces of choral music?
It’s very hard to choose only five! If you asked me tomorrow I’d probably give you a completely different list…
Bairstow – ‘Jesu, Grant me this I Pray’, based on Gibbons Song 13. The Gibbons tune actually made its way into ‘Mother Goose’s Melodies’ too!
Finzi – ‘Lo, the Full Final Sacrifice’. I actually wrote my undergraduate dissertation on this wonderful piece.
Walton – ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’, particularly the extract conducted by Walton with a fly swat at the Hoffnung Music Festival.
Tavener – ‘Mother and Child’. Very little moves me consistently quite as much the music of John Tavener, and the moment in this piece where, after about 9 minutes of unaccompanied singing, a temple gong starts chiming, and the organ comes crashing in as the choir repeatedly, ecstatically sing the word ‘ATMA’ is truly out of this world!
Pott – ‘My Song is Love Unknown’. I sang this piece in Christ Church when I was 20, and in the 2 weeks leading up to the performance it literally haunted my dreams. To this day I could probably still sing you the whole second bass part from memory.
Mother Goose’s Melodies was premiered on Friday 1st May at 7.30pm in St Fin Barre’s Cathedral Cork as part of the Cork International Choral Festival.
The work also featured in the Seminar on New Choral Music on Friday 1st May at 2pm in the Stack Theatre at the CIT Cork School of Music.