Michael Gallen: A conversation on Choral Sketches

Michael Gallen is one of the participants in this year’s Choral Sketches project, a unique partnership from Chamber Choir Ireland and the Contemporary Music Centre providing professional development opportunities for composers wishing to develop their skills in writing choral music with mentoring from renowned composer Tarik O’Regan. We talked to Michael about his participation in this project and the resulting effect on his work:

In your compositional practice, you meander between many different musical styles. What route have your sketches taken you on with this project?

My sketches are based on the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, so a lot of the music I’m imagining is concerned with the expression of natural movements – flutters, flows, murmurations – and states of stillness. I find that Hopkin’s bird images, in particular, are leading me towards unusual forms of ornamentation and a loose temporality that I probably have in me from sean-nós and slow airs – but it isn’t so much a conscious decision as something that’s bubbling deep below the surface!
In the past, you have composed large-scale work for the RTE Concert Orchestra & Cór na nÓg. How have you found the process of writing for a smaller chamber choir – what difficulties/changes did you encounter?

I always enjoy composing for chamber choir; having sung in choirs for a few years during and after my studies, my first commissions were for chamber choral works, and there’s probably a creative immediacy there that have to work a bit harder for when composing for instruments that I don’t play myself. One of the interesting tensions when composing for a professional group like Chamber Choir Ireland is that between the desire to find new sounds and expressions in the music and the wish for the piece to have an afterlife when it will perhaps be sung by choirs of a lesser technical level. Tarik’s input has been particularly rich in that regard.

How did you find the mentoring process with Tarik O’Regan benefited your compositional practice – what elements do you think will stay with you once this project ends?

I’ve enjoyed working with Tarik immensely – he has been extremely generous with his feedback and is a genuinely lovely, warm-hearted person! It has been so rewarding to work with someone with his degree of fluency in choral writing, and his experience in working with multiple choirs has given him a great understanding of the journey from imagination to score to performance. His score-setting advice will certainly become a part of my compositional practice, and some of his professional advice will (I hope) have an impact on the decisions I make as my own career develops.

What attracted you to the Choral Sketches project and what do you hope some of the outcomes will be from the project?

The opportunity to work with practitioners of the quality of Tarik, Paul and the choir was one that I immediately jumped at. It’s an honour to have them engage with my music, and it is also lovely to have the little surge of creative energy that their interest brings. Life as an emerging composer involves its fair share of solitude, and so the value of an opportunity like Choral Sketches exceeds any easy measurement – it affirms some of the madness of creative life! I hope that the relationships that I build through the project will flourish into the future and that the eventual choral work will do my collaborators proud.

How do you think it will enhance (or otherwise!) your choral composition approach in the future.

This project, more than any before, has given me a sense of the richness that can come from allowing a trusted external voice to enter the creative process before the piece has been finished. Tarik’s insight opened up new possibilities in my imagination, and I imagine that the workshop with the choir will do likewise.

What do you hope to get out of having a choir try out your ideas – how does that inform your process knowing that you will have access to that resource.

It’s a great luxury. As a performer with various musical groups, I am aware of how much fine-tuning occurs in the rehearsal room, and how the most carefully considered ideas can end up sounding very different from how they were imagined. In a lot of cases (e.g. working with orchestras or larger ensembles), these realisations occur on the day of the first rehearsal, with very little time for adjustment. I know that I will leave the Choral Sketches workshop with many great ideas having been debunked, but with an armful of new possibilities that I couldn’t have conceived of working on my own. I would love to have this possibility with every creative project.

Tell us about your sketches – how have they developed thus far and how do you anticipate them moving forward?

I’m bringing three different sections of work, all inspired by GM Hopkin’s poetry, to the Choral Sketches workshop, and in each case, I’m focusing on more unusual musical ideas that I want to test for worth and workability. There is a particular richness of timbre and texture in Hopkin’s writing that is beginning to open up quite a particular soundworld for the piece, and it has required that I rethink my methods of transmitting the music on a score. I’m hoping that these sections will become part of a large-scale choral work.

What are you working on currently external to the CS Project?

At the moment I’m putting the finishing touches to my first opera, a collaboration with director/choreographer Philip Connaughton called Extraterrestrial Events. The piece will have previews in Paris at the end of March and will have openings at the Samuel Beckett Theatre in May and Cork Opera House in October. I’ll be beginning work on another opera and a few smaller pieces later in the year, and will be releasing an album with Ana Gog as well as launching a new solo performance project under the name Wells of Oriel.

Choral Sketches from Amanda Feery, Michael Gallen and Seán Doherty will be the focus of a public workshop led by Tarik O’Regan with Chamber Choir Ireland and Artistic Director, Paul Hillier on 24 February 2017 in the Royal Irish Academy of Music, Dublin at 5pm. Tickets are available via HERE

The workshop will also include an insightful interview led by Irish Times journalist Michael Dervan in conversation with Alice Goodman on her writing process as a librettist