Deirdre Gribbin – in conversation…

Written by: Colin Anderson

Determination and vision might encapsulate Deirdre Gribbin. The only photograph I’d seen prior to us speaking suggests her focussed on some far-away place, a future commission perhaps or mentally resolving a current piece. Deirdre was born in 1967 in West Belfast, “which is 100 percent catholic; I went to school on the Falls Road, which is probably the most famous road in the world!” When we spoke, London-based Deirdre was in the midst of composing a film score for a Sky Pictures release, My Kingdom, with Richard Harris. “It’s pretty manic at the moment … it’s the King Lear story based in contemporary Liverpool, it’s quite violent … I’m just doing what I normally do.”

What Deirdre normally does, it seems to me with a very limited knowledge of her music, is to paint with music’s colours and timbres, exploring their interaction to form ever-changing sounds. “I did a lot of painting, in fact I was going to go to Art College. At the last moment I studied music – it was only at that point that I thought of composing. I think it was the transference of the creative process of making things visually to exploring a soundworld. Sounds are very important to me; it’s like building up a mass of colour. I’ve often described my work as looking at a canvas and blending sounds as you might with water colours seeping into each other.”

To begin at the beginning – an influential aunt, regular Ulster Orchestra concerts, wide-eyed parents and music bridging the two religions. “I walked to school through the hunger strikes because my mum was adamant that we would not miss school, and there was a strong feeling that we weren’t taking a political stance. My parents are quite special in that they have a very global perspective.
The troubles got very close but I went to a school of music which was across both religions so I developed friends who were non-Catholic; I don’t think you’re conscious of this when you’re 10, 11, 12. I played flute and piano and had an amazing aunt who really encouraged me to play and we took off to the Ulster Orchestra concerts every Friday to hear classical music – that really seeped into my being. I used to make up songs and sing them but I never wrote anything down, nobody ever said. It wasn’t until University that we had an opportunity to write for the Ulster Orchestra and that was that.”

To the new-found composer from a musical family – “my father’s family were all traditional musicians; my mother’s were very cultured people” – Deirdre added a Scandinavian layer through contact with Poul Ruders and Per Norgard, both Danes, the latter “a real genius. He’s got an incredible intellect and looks at music with a global perspective and is very aware of the fantasy world of being a composer. I’ve got a lot from him by just being at rehearsals of his music … an important time.”

The two pieces the Philharmonia Orchestra and Martyn Brabbins play on 14 June, prior to Roger Norrington conducting Mozart and Mahler, are Tribe and Celestial Pied Piper – “[Music of Today] is a great initiative; it’s in the Royal Festival Hall and not saying that new music is something different and should be somewhere else”. Tribe is Deirdre’s “reaction to the first Dumcree stand-off. Ironically I thought this would be an isolated incident; I’d never written anything about the political situation in Northern Ireland”. Deirdre points out that the 18-minute, 18-instrument Tribe is “not world music-influenced” despite the “strong Irish language, very modal sounds”. The folk melody “is my own” – she never quotes – and percussion “emulate the Lambeg drumming. There’s a brutality about the piece; it’s a conflict between the marching and folkmusic worlds and they come to a real climax and then emerge as different voices”. It’s called Tribe “because it expresses the single-minded determination of supremacy, but it’s not a political judgement on this situation.”

The 12-minute Celestial Pied Piper is a clarinet concerto and something of a rarity in contemporary music – an extended piece of fast music. Why is that such a phenomenon today? “It’s the speed of the bass line. No matter how fast the texture above is, if you haven’t got the bass progression moving really fast then the illusion of speed doesn’t happen”. Pied Piper is a New York piece – Deirdre was “confronted by this barrage of sounds, which have crept into the piece and I wanted them to be there in the end. The whole essence of writing the music was of the place as well, whistles, sirens; the harmonies are very New York, very American”. If New York provided the sounds, it was comets that supplied the idea: “I’d been reading a lot about comets and planets. Pied Piper is a response to a concept of erratic motion and a big turning point in my musical language. If one star distorts then it could lead the others to the point of destruction, but it’s not about destruction, it’s a very playful and energetic piece … the clarinet tries to assert itself above the others.”

From space to water – Deirdre’s piano trio How To Make The Water Sound has an illustrative and composer-challenging title – the work is inspired by “the water’s actual sound”. That piece is on a Black Box CD (BBM1015) with other chamber music of hers. Along with the film score, Deirdre is writing a violin concerto, a big piece for the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland and something for the Ulster Orchestra – there’ll all have descriptive titles: “Titles are really important, I find it hard to start a piece if I haven’t got one – the real force of the music is about the words that describe it.”

Deirdre composes largely in her head, the composers’ ’fantasy world’, but writing it down is a full-time job. Deirdre accepts that she is “always composing … it’s ethereal and lovely-sounding but the deadlines, getting up really early, going to bed really late or not at all … it’s very lonely in the middle of the night, but you have to get it finished. That’s when you question your commitment, but there’s the deeper level of having a real need to do it, otherwise you wouldn’t”. Deirdre is fascinated by musical argument: “I set myself little tasks, I keep notebooks, a music journal as I’m writing; I might come across a concept about time or a structure relationship … ’OK, that’s for another day, when I’m ready to explore that idea’. Yes, there’s the programmatic element but that’s not enough to sustain my life as a composer. I have to set myself intellectual problems all to do with musical structure and form. I’ll always hear some big structural part of a piece very clearly.” There’s also what she describes as “slightly Cageian, the idea that no two events are ever the same and no two perceptions of an event are ever the same. I love to build that into the music.”

For all her first-love with nineteenth-century music, Deirdre is now pre-occupied with Bach, Palestrina and Monteverdi – “the real innovators of language. I find it sad that there is sometimes ignorance of that great musical history and the depth of possibilities. Bach I would love to have met – I just find the concepts behind his music are much more profound; I could play any of the Preludes & Fugues and spend the whole day trying to work out what he did. I’m sure you can do that with Brahms; maybe it’ll be something I come back to.”

The art of orchestration is another fascination for Deirdre. Although she currently jumps from pre-classical music to the twentieth-century, via Mendelssohn for whom Deirdre retains particular affection, she admits to being “really interested in orchestration” and “loving composers who really use orchestration” and cites, in this respect, Berlioz, Richard Strauss, Debussy, Ravel, Bartok, Janacek and Sibelius.

Deirdre has a refreshingly honest approach to composing in that she hopes the audience will find her music, not vice versa. “It’s a very slippery path to try and please a mass of people. I always think of that little phrase from Hamlet – ’to thine own self be true’ – it’s been a strong benchmark for me throughout my creative life. If you write what you hear inside your head, then it’s got a real freshness about it.”

And what is Deirdre Gribbin striving for? “I feel that my Irish background is very prominent and I’m curious about going from austere chromaticism and dissonance to a very strong tonal basis, a language that knits both together – this middle-ground is going to be my life-obsession. I’m incredibly fortunate that I’m doing something I love.”

Originally published in Fanfare, the magazine of the Friends of the Philharmonia Orchestra, and reproduced with permission

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