Seán Doherty: A conversation on Choral Sketches

Seán Doherty 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 Seán about his participation in this project and the resulting effect on his work:

How did your career in composition begin?

No great origins story, I’m afraid—I just began to write. I always harboured a desire to compose, but I was too diffident to presume to do it when I was an undergraduate. After I had graduated, I began to compose in secret, until I was sufficiently emboldened by winning composition competitions to pursue it as a career.

How does your own background as a choral singer shape how you write for choirs?

I sing in New Dublin Voices, directed by Bernie Sherlock, and we perform a huge amount of contemporary music and much of my own work. I enjoy relationships with two other Dublin-based choirs, Laetare Vocal Ensemble, directed by Róisín Blunnie, and the Mornington Singers, directed by Orla Flanagan. I compose my choral works in the knowledge that I, or my friends, will sing it at some stage, so I strive to write music that is as rewarding for the performer as it is for the audience.

Much of your compositional work thus far has been for chamber ensembles. Is this your preferred medium of performance ensemble?

I would turn my hand to writing for any ensemble, but I admit that I do have a soft spot for intimacy and immediacy of chamber music.

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?

Tarik has been an insightful and affable mentor and has encouraged me to push the envelope when writing for masterly technical abilities of a professional group like Chamber Choir Ireland.

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

I was keen to experiment with new sounds and performance techniques without having to commit them immediately to the final piece, as would normally be the case for a commission. It is an amazing opportunity to have Paul Hillier and Chamber Choir Ireland try out my experiments; it’s like taking a Rolls Royce for a joy ride. The expert guidance of Tarik O’Reagan also attracted me to the project.

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

As a singer myself, practical considerations tend to dominate my choral-composition process—voice leading, tessitura, easily audible reference pitches, the importance of having secure entries, appropriate phrase lengths for breathing etc. These practical considerations, though still important, are significantly different when composing for professional, rather than amateur, singers, owing to their greater technical abilities. The Choral Sketches project will, therefore, allow me to expand my approach to choral composition in the future when composing for professional groups.

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 possible to get a fairly accurate idea of what a standard piece of choral music will sound like in performance without recourse to real-life performers, so I didn’t want to present such a piece. The ideas that I want the choir to try out are mainly that of extended techniques, glissandi, and gesture—which are impossible to generate satisfactorily on a computer. I incorporated these ideas because I knew that I had access to the resource of this rehearsal workshop with Chamber Choir Ireland.

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

I was keen to experiment with new techniques in choral performance, inspired by some extraordinarily theatrical performances this year at the Floriège Vocal de Tours (France) and Harald Andersén Chamber Choir Competition (Finland) where I was singing with New Dublin Voices. I have a firm grasp of the structure and the pacing of the piece, but I will decide on the new and more usual elements—the spoken words, the gestures, and the staging—during the workshop with Chamber Choir Ireland.

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

All Against All—an orchestral piece for the Contemporary Music Centre ‘Composer Lab’ project for the National Symphony Orchestra (Ireland); The Beauty (Of It)—four choral settings from the poet Paula Meehan’s new collection ‘Geomantic’ for the Age and Opportunity Bealtaine Festival 2017.

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 5 pm. Tickets are available via HERE

The workshop will also include an insightful interview led by Irish Times music critic Michael Dervan in conversation with Alice Goodman on her approach to writing text for music.