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Emma O’Halloran: Interview

ohalloranJoin us on Friday, May 29 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for the final concert of Wild Rumpus’s fourth season! One of the pieces we will be premiering is “Endless Deeps” by Irish composer Emma O’Halloran. Wild Rumpus conductor Nathaniel Berman interviewed O’Halloran about her piece, life in Ireland, and other great projects she is working on. For more information on O’Halloran, visit her website.

Being an Irish composer currently studying on the East Coast, I’m just curious to know whether there are some interesting currents of new music in Ireland that might be distinct from what you are encountering on the East Coast, or even from the rest of Europe?

Because Ireland is an island, I would say there is not a necessarily a strong connection with what is happening in Europe. There is a great spirit of internationalism, with composers taking inspiration from the States and Europe. It also depends on where you go; in Dublin there is a certain scene, and in Cork you’ll find a different kind of music.

And what about your own emergence as a composer; did it come out of one of these?

I’m very influenced by electronic music, and I think many composers in Ireland are as well. That’s really where I found my way into composing.

I understand from our email correspondence that you are currently working on a theater piece. What’s the project?

Yes, this is actually my second theater piece; I’m signed on to do two productions in Philadelphia at the moment, co-composing music with my partner Alex [Dowling]. We actually have an electronic duo together, so we are used to working together this way. We just finished up a run of Hamlet, and right now we’re in tech week for a Tom Stoppard play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which takes some of its text from Hamlet and revolves around two peripheral characters from that play.

When you work on a theater piece, what is your process? Do you start from the script and try to create ambient music for the various scenes, or is there a different way in?

It’s interesting; I didn’t really know what to expect when we got into this, but the director that we’re working with, Blanka Zizka, has an incredibly strong vision. We brought her some things that we’d previously written to give her a palette of things that we’re able to do, and she sort of picked out some things that she liked that suggested a certain direction. That was for Hamlet, and so with much of the music that we wrote, she then worked with it and sort of choreographed the action around it. Then with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, since it’s a comedy, she was interested in some sort of clichéd vaudeville piano sounds, for example, and we went more in that direction.

And did you end up recycling some of the music from Hamlet, because of its relationship to R&G?

Funnily enough, a bunch of the music has been recycled, and that was at the request of the director. In R&G you have all of these entrances of characters from moments of Hamlet, and in those moments the music we wrote for Hamlet echoes back, and that is then blended into this sort of vaudevillian music.

Moving from theater music to more abstract music, let’s talk about the piece you’ve written for Wild Rumpus, Endless Deeps. This is ostensibly abstract music, and yet you have chosen a very evocative title, and I guess there is some relation to this sense of depth and direction that comes from the big swells that permeate the music, especially in the lower instruments. Can you tell us a little about the title, and its relation to what you’ve done in the piece?

Sure; so I don’t know whether it comes from my love of electronic music, but I feel like I’m really a textural composer to a certain extent. When I was a kid, my Mother’s side of the family lived on the east coast of Ireland, which would be Dublin, whereas my Father’s side lived on the west coast, which would be Clare. I remember from my early childhood visiting these coastal areas of Ireland. They’re strikingly different; the Irish sea is really pretty calm, grey looking and beautiful. On the west coast the Atlantic can be really rough; the waves can be harsh and cruel, but breathtaking as well. I think the textures of the sea were in my head when I was writing this piece, I wanted those crazy swells at points, and then at certain times you have these cross-rhythms, which give you a sense of being pushed and pulled with the currents.

You make use Wild Rumpus’ instrumentation, incorporating the electric guitar and trombone into a group with piano, percussion, winds and strings. How did you approach bringing their sound into the ensemble?

It’s funny, but there is a group in Ireland with a similar instrumentation, so I think of Wild Rumpus as actually a little more standard new-music group in terms of instrumentation. With the electric guitar, it has the ability to be more percussive, but it’s also a string instrument that can blend into the string sound to some degree. And the trombone adds to these amazing swells. I feel like they’re actually the glue that brings the other instruments together in this piece.

What else do you have coming up? What’s the next project for you?

I’ve been working on an EP with Alex Dowling, my partner, and we’re hoping to record that over the summer and release it. And after that, I will be writing a vocal work for an English all-male a cappella group Gallicantus. That’s sort of what’s in my head at the moment.


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