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music/Maker with Tyler Kline

  • Writer's pictureTyler Kline

music/Maker with Tyler Kline // Episode 3

Updated: May 1

Storytelling and Emotional Strength in Music

with Emma O'Halloran


Headshot of composer Emma O'Halloran with an overlay saying "music/Maker with Tyler Kline, Episode 3: Storytelling and Emotional Strength in Music with Emma O'Halloran."
Photo credit: Alex Dowling

 


LISTEN



 

On today's episode of music/Maker with Tyler Kline, Tyler is joined by composer Emma O'Halloran.


If you’re not familiar with Emma or her music, you’re in for a real treat. There is definitely a quality to her work that could be described as magical: it’s buoyant, effervescent, nostalgic—there’s a lot of good in it, which is really a reflection of who she is as a person.


Irish composer Emma O’Halloran is interested in joy, wonder, hope, and connection, and her music is driven by a desire to capture the magic of what it means to be human. Freely intertwining acoustic and electronic music, Emma has written for folk musicians, chamber ensembles, turntables, laptop orchestra, symphony orchestra, opera, and theatre, and her work has been described as “intensely beautiful” by the Washington Post and “unencumbered, authentic, and joyful” by I Care If You Listen.


In this conversation, Emma and Tyler discuss how she views storytelling through music as a way of capturing emotions and hard-to-articulate feelings; her experience as a composer in both the US and in Ireland, and how those two countries are different for composers; the joys of collaborating with others; of course, her artistic path as a composer, and so much more.


Emma is on the web at https://www.emma-ohalloran.com/


 

Media mentioned in this conversation


 

Transcript

Disclosure: links to products that appear throughout this interview may be affiliate links. By purchasing an item discussed in this interview via one of these links, you support this podcast and network.


Tyler Kline:

Emma, I'm really glad to be talking with you today. I just want to say how much I appreciate your time and giving us an opportunity to get to know you a little better - and, also, what makes you you as an artist. I mean, that's really what this is all about.


Emma O’Halloran:

I'm really excited to talk to you today. This is… when you've described what this podcast is going to be about, I just love it. So, I’m happy to chat.


TK:

Yeah, thanks.


You know, one thing that I always wonder about when I meet artists or, you know… we're both friends with tons of people, and it's like, the question that I always want to ask, but, it never comes up or no one ever talks about it.


It’s what I think of as these kinds of seeds in our youth that led us to do what we do today. So. I'm wondering, what is your earliest artistic memory? And I guess the thing that, when you look back on it, you realize that might have been the seed that led you to become a composer today?


EO:

That's such a great question. Let me ramble a little bit.


TK:

Yeah, yeah, please do.


EO:

I don't have super early memories of composing. Like, I didn't know what that was, but when I was a kid, I was always making things and that extended beyond music. I was always drawing and painting and dressing up and putting on shows for my family, and I did a lot of ballet and dance, and I think that… I loved music, so, dancing, for me was a way to be close to the music.


I’d choreograph routines for me and my sisters and drive them kind of crazy. But, one memory that does kind of stick out - and it's a weird one - it’s when I was around nine, my teacher at school announced that we were going to be doing a musical of Oliver Twist. And I went home that evening and I spent hours writing out a plan for how exactly I thought she should stage it.


So, I think I probably wanted to be, like, a director, as well. I think it's kind of funny in a way, because as I got older, my focus really narrowed in on composing, and I think in a way that probably had to do with a few people telling me to pick a lane and stick to it. But actually, now I feel like my practice is broadening back out again, and that feels really refreshing.


TK:

What you're describing as a child, coming up with this super plan for Oliver Twist, do you find that when you compose now, do you make plans like that for your pieces? I mean, you also write operas, so I'm sure that's a thing that you do, as well, right?


EO:

Yeah. Ah, I think it's like… I mean, I'll start with the plan, maybe, but it'll end up being tossed aside as I continue writing. But I think it's almost like if someone got in touch about writing a piece for them, I can almost see what it will look like at the start. And if I feel that and feel fired up by it, then I'm like, “yeah, cool, I'll write this piece.” And, I think that's what it was. When she said, “I'm going to do a musical of Oliver Twist,” I was like, “I can see it all now. This is what it should look like.”


TK:

So, you were doing musicals and dance and drawing and stuff like that. What was your entry point into music? I'd imagine maybe school band or orchestra or something like that? Maybe choir?


EO:

Right? I come from the Midlands of Ireland, so we didn't really have orchestras. Now, I think there are probably orchestras now, but when I was growing up, there certainly weren't. But a lot of people from my era, their first taste of music would have been learning the tin whistle. When you were about six or seven, you had to get a tin whistle. And then there would be maybe a class of, like, 25 to 30 children trying to play, which is a wild sound now. And I'm almost like… “I think that would sound so cool in a piece,” but it was just chaos. But I remember just really enjoying learning how to play the tin whistle.


And then I think from there, I asked Santa Claus for a flute and, you know, played flute for a while. And then as I got moodier, I moved to the guitar, played emo in bands and stuff like that. So, yeah, think the first glimpse into music making was probably playing the tin whistle.


TK:

It's funny, because in the states we have the recorder, the little plastic piece of crap thing.

(Clearly, there's professional grade recorders. I don't mean to bash on recorders or recorder players).


But the big joke is, like, parents hate it. You go home and you practice your little recorder. And so I can imagine, like, a tin whistle being almost worse than a recorder.


EO:

Yeah, it's like the recorder…. what I would have given to play the recorder over the tin whistle.


TK:

So, growing up in the Midlands, in this, what I imagine is a small town in Ireland, did you have any sort of interaction with composers in your formative years, or is that something that came a little bit later?


EO:

Yeah, it's definitely something that came later. And this is… you know, I grew up in a time when there was no Internet.. And I'm actually glad, in a way, for my mental health that I did, but, I didn't know that people that were alive wrote music. Like, I didn't know that that was a thing.


So eventually, in, high school, you know, I would have taken a music class and you'd have heard about people like, Mozart and that sort of thing, but I just presumed they were all dead. And, you know, there was either that, or you were in a band. But I didn't really understand what a composer was or did. So, I think my only real glimpse into music in the family was probably… my dad was really into musicals, so he would perform with the musical society in Athlone, and he was a really good singer, but that was really it.


TK:

Yeah, I think for me, it took me… obviously, I knew about composers through playing in high school band. I had the opportunity to meet composers - mostly white dudes, by the way - but nevertheless, it wasn't really until grad school, when I was maybe 21 or 22, that the whole world kind of broke open for me. And, you know, I had this really amazing teacher, Baljinder, who thankfully accepted me into the program. And just, that whole first semester was hell. I remember hating every second of it and loving it at the same time, but just, it was like, living under a rock my whole life and then suddenly finding out, “oh, there's actually a solar system out here,” right?


EO:

Oh, yeah, that was the same for me. You know, college was just… I think there was, like, maybe one or two people in my class who were writing music, and I was like, “What? You could do that?” And, you know, it really felt like a whole new world started to open up. And I think it took me even a little bit later, like maybe 22, 23… I met my first woman composer, and I was like, “oh, my God, this is amazing. Okay, cool. I can do this, too.”


But it was really… at a time, again, where there was… I didn't grow up with Internet. I couldn't really find information about how people did it. You know, meeting somebody who you can identify with, who's doing a thing that you want to do, suddenly just… you can see that it's possible for yourself, and that’s an incredible thing.


TK:

And I know from our love of manifestation, which I hope to talk about later, there's a word for that. And so I want to dig deeper into that, but for now, I want to stay in the nineties a little bit because I'm waxing nostalgia about, the Internet at that time, which was barely anything.


You know, we both grew up in the nineties, and I can't help but bring up your piece, Constellations, which is maybe my favorite piece of yours. I just, I love it because you've sampled a [REDACTED] song in such a brilliant way in this music. So, I'm wondering, what ways would you say that nineties music has influenced your work? Is it only this piece specifically in this way, or is it much broader than that?


EO:

That's a great question. Just side note. When I was in primary school, which is like the equivalent of elementary school in the States, I was in a [REDACTED] tribute band. So all we would do is learn the dance routines and, perform it in front of our classmates or whatever.


But, yeah, those were very important in my youth… I think I'm one of those people who, you know, if I like a song, I'm gonna listen to it on repeat, like, 10,000 times until I'm completely sick of it. So, I think, for me, music has that power of freezing moments in time. And maybe growing up in the nineties, I feel like my body soaked up all of that energy and that sound is just a part of my musical DNA.


Nineties music, for me, is going to have a… like, a flavor, of who I was back then. So if I'm trying to tap into that mood for some reason, I might incorporate elements from it, but it's never really done in a pre-planned way. It's more like, “oh, I'll just grab a bit of that color and see what happens,” and I'll go with my gut. So, I think for me, it's just sort of… I will have strong associations with certain pieces of music from certain periods in my life, and, maybe I want to evoke an emotion for me that's there, and I'll try and grab some of the elements that feel right for it.


TK:

I think what you do so beautifully in Constellations is, at least to my ear, when I listen to it, there's a familiarity about it. But, it's not [REDACTED]. I mean, it is, but it's not the song. You know, it's like, you've manipulated it in a way where, you're right. It's, like, just a little bit of that flavor, and anyone who knows that music - at least, I think, and for me personally - it's like, you pick up on that immediately. I think that's why I love it so much, because I also love nineties music, so….


EO:

Oh, yeah.


TK:

What other.… You know, there's a lot of nineties music out there. There's a lot of different kinds of nineties music. What else do you like? What’s- I know it's like, putting you on.


EO:

That's like, you know, when someone's like, “What's your favorite movie?” And I'm like, “have I ever watched a film before in my life?” It just. It really depends. I think what I'll do if I'm trying to start a piece or whatever, usually I'll almost make something like a Pinterest mood board. Like a mixtape, for sure. Yeah. And I used to make a ton of mixtapes, and, that would be the nineties grunge, like, all of that sort of stuff.


But, I don't know… It's just a wide mix of things. I remember when I was a kid making a mixtape- my dad was in the army, and he'd be overseas a lot, so, maybe in the summertime as we'd go and visit him in different…. like, he was stationed in Lebanon one year, and I remember making one mixtape that we had to listen to the entire time, and it was like, Led Zeppelin Stairway to Heaven into The Backstreet Boys. So it was, like, chaos. But, I think I like to be open, to be able to grab bits and pieces from everything, you know?


TK:

Yeah, I love that. And I love that, you know… I know some pieces in the contemporary classical repertoire, I guess, for lack of a better word, that it’s very overt, and that’s… That almost sounds abrasive to my ear. And so I just, I just have to just keep doting on how much I admire the way that you do it.


EO:

I appreciate that. Thank you.


TK:

So thanks to you and your partner, Alex, my wife Susanna and I got to come to Ireland last year because of your wedding. And, one of the many things that I loved in my travels to Ireland - and it was my first time there - it was the folk music, and both in my research and trip planning, and also all the advice that people who had been to Ireland gave me, it seemed like the Crane Bar in Galway was an essential stop. We spent a few days in Galway and people were just like, you got to go for the music, you know?


And so, I just remember Susanna and I going into this pub, and there was a five piece group playing downstairs. And that was great. But the vibe felt maybe a little too… chill for us? It was like these older folks playing, you know, kind of just… really almost relaxing trad music. So we decided to go upstairs, and there was this group of maybe 20 musicians playing music. And these were all people our age. And so we grabbed our pints of Guinness and just stood there. We didn't even find a seat. We just stood there and overlooked this room full of people playing fiddles and these drums and flutes and I guess, the little accordions. Is that the concertina?


EO:

Yeah.


TK:

Yeah. And so, we just stood there and just, like, took it…. We didn't talk. We just took it all in. And afterwards we were talking about it, and both of us were like, “were you crying? Like, I was crying.” We were both crying. Just, like, taking it all.… It was so good. And, we still talk about how different that felt than the music making that we're familiar with in the states, especially music in bars. It's like night and day.


So, I guess that's all to say…. I can imagine the importance of this music to you as an Irish person, but I'm also curious to know what kind of impact it has had on you and whether that's consciously or subconsciously. So, what would you say is your relationship with Irish trad music? What is that like and how does it impact your work, if it does at all?


EO:

Again, I love this question. You know, I feel like for how it's impacted my music…. I feel like that's something that a musicologist or a music historian or something would have to tell me because I'm so close to it. But growing up, there generally would be a lot of family, friends and stuff would have instruments and you'd play. I grew up surrounded by various people that play trad music.


But, I think if we're sharing, I feel like for me, more than anything else, I associate trad music with falling in love because I met my partner Alex nearly 14 years ago- so, this is kind of going back to you coming over for the wedding. But I met Alex nearly 14 years ago and at the time we were both living in Dublin and we kind of discovered that we had both just randomly bought cheap fiddles and were starting to learn how to play trad tunes. We decided that it could be, fun to hang out and play together and practice, because you don't want to go into a pub and, like, be the bad trad player while everyone else is making beautiful music.


So we used to just hang out and we'd play trad tunes together and kind of like… romance blossomed from there. And, when we were living together in the early days, we would play Martin Hayes -who’s an amazing trad fiddle player - play him all the time when we cooked food for each other. And I think I'll always associate trad music with being in love.


And it's funny because… recently in an opera that I've written, the opera is called Trade. There are some elements of… someone was calling it the “diddly idly music," and he's like, “it's so Irish, it's so river dance.” And I was like, “no, it's not.” But then I was like… that’s the love music. And then I was like, “oh, okay. Yeah… maybe that's how trad music has sort of filtered into my thing." It's more of an emotional thing, you know?


TK:

Yeah. And we keep saying trad music, but that's like traditional-.


EO:

Traditional Irish folk music. Yeah.


TK:

Yeah. So I grew up in Kentucky, kind of not quite… well, I guess it's technically Appalachia, but, the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. And so, I'm the only person in my family who's made a life out of music, except I have a couple great uncles - they’re no longer with us - but one great uncle I can think of in particular who was a bluegrass musician. So, you know, Kentucky bluegrass is, I guess, my equivalent to Irish trad music. And I never played bluegrass. I love it. I love to listen to it, but don't really listen to it a whole lot, but there’s… in some pieces of mine I'll listen to, especially pieces with strings where I'm like, “there's a little bluegrass in there. How did that happen?”


It's like a subconscious thing. And so when you're talking about this moment in your opera, it sounds like that was also… you didn't really mean for that to happen, but it did, and you're kind of like, “yeah, let's go with it.”


EO:

Yeah, yeah, just go with it. If it works, you know, don't try and fix it.


TK:

So, speaking of your operas, you have two, is that right?


EO:

Yeah, I guess I do. I've done a few short operas, but I have one that's 30 minutes and one that's an hour long. So, those are the two big ones.


TK:

And your uncle was the librettist for these. So, I'm wondering, what has it been like working with a family member on something that's as large scale as an opera? And how did that working relationship begin? Did you just call up your uncle and say, “hey, you want to help me write an opera?”


EO:

It was a lot more random and haphazard than that.


So, for people that don't know, my uncle, his name is Mark O'Halloran. Mark has written a lot of film and tv. He's an actor, as well, and I love his stuff. I think he is really… he's sort of like an Irish treasure, you know, if he's not heard of in the States, he really is well known in Ireland.


And I think it happened for me when I entered a competition which was being run by Beth Morrison Projects, an independent opera company in New York. And I'd sort of been progressing through rounds of this competition, and I had gotten a little bit of money to write a monodrama… like a 30 minute monodrama, and I honestly just didn't have money to pay a librettist. So I was like, “I'll write the libretto myself. How hard can it be?” You know, that sort of, like, when you're so ignorant about how things work that you're super confident, and then you're like, “oh, God, I've really bitten off more than I can chew.”


But, I was trying to think of an interesting topic for this opera, and I remember seeing a really short play that my uncle had written called Mary Motorhead. And it took place in… I don't know, if you were in Dublin, if you got to go to Bewley’s Cafe, but there's a very… it's kind of in the very center of Dublin, on Grafton street, which is, like the famous kind of shopping district. And Bewley’s have this theater, like, a teeny, teeny tiny theater, on the second or third floor, where at lunchtime, you can get soup and some brown bread, and you go up and you'll sit down and you're slurping your soup, but you're watching a play.


So that's where I saw Mary Motorhead. And it was really… the woman who played Mary was fierce. And I just was like, “wow, this would be so cool if I adapted that.” So I asked Mark, I was like, “hey, I'm, doing this thing. I know you're busy. Can I just use your play and adapt it?” And he just wrote back and was like, “yep, here you go.” So he gave me his play and I made the libretto out of that myself. And I think maybe in spending time with his words, I was like, “gosh, he doesn't speak in flowery language.” It’s simple. It's direct. It's easy to sing, and there's space for music, but also there's a poetry to it, and it just kind of hits you hard in really unexpected ways. And I was like, “wow, this is actually brilliant.”


So I think when I got the opportunity to do a larger piece, I asked Mark if we could adapt a different play, a longer play that he had written, into an opera, and if he would do it. And Mark is… It's funny because people are like, “what's it like working with your uncle?” But, like, I don't know Mark that well, because my dad’s side of the family, there was, like, ten children. And also Mark was always traveling with work or busy so, you know, I'd see him every so often and be kind of in awe of him as the only artist in the family.


But, you know, we really didn't know each other that well, so when we got to work together on trade, it was just sort of… He was like, “I don't know, is this an opera?” And I was like, “I don't know.” Like, let's just make this thing together. And it was very without ego. And he was like, “you know, if you need to cut a line, cut a line.” And I was like, “okay, cool.” So it was really beautiful. And he was sort of like, “this is your thing now. So, you do your thing.” It was very… Just trusting and a very, sweet process, actually.


TK:

Has your relationship with him evolved because of this, or is he still kind of… I don't know… the mysterious uncle that you never really see?


EO:

I think Mark is always a little bit mysterious. It's funny, there’s a new show coming out with Julianne Moore called Mary and George, I think. And Mark is in it starring alongside Julianne Moore as Sir Francis Bacon. Like, he kind of just writes plays and films and stuff, and he jets around the place, and when I see him, it's great. And, you know, we have the shared history of his father is my grandfather, you know, like that sort of thing. And he knows my dad, obviously. So we have kind of a good shared history, and, we'll have nice moments, but then I won't see him for, like, a year or two. So it's interesting. Yeah. But we are working together…. He wrote a play in 2021, and he asked me to write the music for it, which I was actually kind of shocked. I was like, okay, cool. And I've asked him now, “do you want to make that into an opera?” So I think we'll continue to work together.


TK:

It's always amazing how those threads kind of unravel, right? Yeah, I love that.

Were you interested early on in writing an opera, or is that something that came about because of this opportunity through Beth Morrison Projects?


EO:

Yeah, I honestly… I think I didn't really love opera up until that point.


TK:

That's why I'm interested in this question, because, no offense to the opera lovers, but I can't stand it, so…


EO:

That's kind of how I feel. It was, like…


Look, I don't think in a creative life you can really plan things out and I feel like my life has been a series of stumbling into things and then figuring out maybe I like them or whatever. So, when I saw this call for scores from Beth Morrison Projects, for one, I actually didn't know who they were, but I was finishing my studies in university, and I was like, “oh, man, I gotta pad out my CV. I'm gonna apply to this thing.”


So I kind of found myself in this world where I'm like, oh, okay. So, a director helps with the thing, and then the lights tell a different part of the story, and, you know, staging makes something really cool, too. and then I was like, “oh, you can really do a lot when you've got words.” Like, you can layer a lot of meaning in the music that can do really cool things, like, be sarcastic or just show that someone's lying.


And then I was like, this is probably everything I've wanted to do and I've been doing, but without words, and now I get the chance to do it, so it's really… And, like, I love being in a room with other people. I love just… I love listening to a director pull stuff out of the singers and the actors, you know, where you're discovering more about the piece itself through the conversation. I love that sort of nerdy…. like, “what does this line mean to you? And what does this line mean to you?” And, that's really exciting. That's my favorite part, actually. I'd rather just be in the rehearsal room for the month beforehand, and I don't really want to see the show on the stage because it's too stressful.


TK:

Yeah, no, I get that. The collaborative process is definitely more fun than sitting in the audience.


And also, I just got to say, because I was expressing my displeasure for opera… That's like a Verdi and Puccini thing. Right? Like, the stuff that you, and contemporary opera composers, are doing is way different than what I think a lot of people think of when they think of opera.


EO:

Right, absolutely. And there's so many new, exciting composers writing opera. There's a lot of really, really cool stuff, and I think, my eyes have been open to it, and I try and catch as much of it as I can now. So it’s… Yeah, for sure. It's very different than the woman gets murdered, everybody sings, you know, curtain call kind of thing-


TK:

… the weird, racist stuff…


EO:

Right, don’t love that.


TK:

Yeah, yeah, that's not good.


So, you kind of just touched on this a little bit. And in opera, it's easy to kind of see how you do this - how somebody would do this - but in your bio, you use the word “storytelling” to describe your music. And like I said, it's easy to see how one might tell a story through an opera. But how does storytelling… how does the way you think about storytelling… impact your non operatic music, like the music that we don't often think of as would be telling a story?


EO:

I had a conversation with a director last year who was involved in a project of mine, and she has, a type of synesthesia where she'll experience colors when she hears music. And she said to me that I write music the way emotions feel. And that is, like, both the greatest compliment I've ever received. But it's also exactly the way I think about my art.


So, in terms of storytelling, I feel like I'm sensitive to my surroundings, and I can pick up on people's emotions fairly easily, and that's something that I chase in music. So I'm always trying to capture emotions that are hard to articulate and then understand the flavors of them through the music. Storytelling, for me, is a way for us to understand ourselves and each other, and then, maybe, ask questions in a container where we feel curious and open and that’s what I love as well.


When we talk about the collaborative process, it's a way to connect with people and get to know them better, because often I might take something from a story and then somebody else receives it in a completely different way. And that's fascinating to me, as well. So I like the sort of sharing aspect of it. And, yeah… so, I don't know. I didn't really answer your question-


TK:

No, I love it. I think as composers, we all think about narrative in different ways. And there's, you know… I think the reason that contemporary music - and I will say my observations are, this is changing rapidly right now - but, you know, over the course of the 20th century, composers were writing very, abstract and obtuse music, which I love, by the way. But sometimes it's hard to pick up on a narrative structure, almost. So, I think about storytelling in music as a structural, formal element. But it sounds like the way you think about it is a little bit different than that?


EO:

Well, obviously, when there's words, there is a structure, but, like, if it's wordless it might be like trying, to do some inner child healing work or whatever, where I'm like, when I was a kid, this is how I felt, and, this made me feel this way. And the emotions layered on top of each other are kind of like, bittersweet, anxiety, something else. And, I want to create a way where there is some feeling of resolution, but, I'm kind of feeling all of those things and layering them in a way that I feel a little bit healed afterwards. Like, it might not be something that anybody else picks up on, but that's the sort of story that I'm telling.


TK:

Yeah, I love that. I mean, we are writing music for ourselves. You know, it serves a purpose for us as artists, as well.


EO:

Actually, funnily enough, I never think about an audience, and I'm kind of like the… Do you know, there's like, that David Bowie quote where he's like, “never play to the gallery,” and I'm like, I absolutely, 100% agree. I'm just like… the minute I try and impress somebody else, the music suffers so much.


So it's kind of like, I think that everybody is completely unique and they have their own rich inner world. So if you have the urge to create something, trust that and trust that there is a reason for that and just go with that rather than, like, wondering if the person in Row Q enjoys your arpeggio. I don't know.


TK:

Yeah, I've always felt that, you know, whatever I do, whether that's composing or curating a concert or making a podcast like this, I feel like as long as I'm being true to myself, being genuine, people will get it. People will receive that. And so you're right. I also don’t… I don't think too terribly much about an audience.


EO:

You can think about the audience afterwards, for sure.


TK:

Yeah. Right.


EO:

Where you're like, “I hope people listen,” but, you know, when you're in the middle of it, I'm not like, “what would someone think of an F Major chord here?” You know?


TK:

Right, right.


When did you know that you wanted to make a career out of music and being a composer?


EO:

I think it was probably always there, you know, at whatever point we're like, “you have to get a job. What do you want to be? A teacher, a doctor, whatever?” I think I always wanted to have something to do with music. So I think probably when I was a kid, I was like, “I'll be a music teacher. And this is how I will get to spend time with music." And then, you know, in my teens, I was like,” I'm going to be a famous rock star.”


And then I think when I started to meet some other people that were writing music, I was like, “this is definitely… this is what I want to do.” I can't really- I don't have the imagination to think of anything else. Like, it feels like the thing that I can do. But I will say there was a very long time where there were a lot of limiting beliefs of “artists are poor, starving creatures, artists can never have happy relationships, artists are tortured,” and, you know, there was a lot of, like, kind of trying to undo those things to be able to have a career, you know?


TK:

Yeah, I'm really interested in hearing about your path. We know that it's not as simple as, “all right, I'm gonna do the thing,” and then you do it. What were the twists and turns from the point that you decided, “I'm going to be a composer” to the composer you are today?


EO:

Oh, gosh. you know, it's almost like… I think the question for a really long time was like, “can I be a composer?” And when Alex and I started dating, he very quickly had applied to grad school in the States, and he went over and at that point, I was like, "is that a thing you can do?”


And, I think my entire life has just been meeting people who do things, and I'm like, “oh, I can do that. Okay, I'll do that.” So, Alex went and a friend of mine, Amanda - Amanda Feery - who's a brilliant composer, she also went to grad school in the States. And I was like, “okay, I'm just going to apply because apparently you can go to places that give you scholarship.” So I applied and I got into a school that had a scholarship. It was like the first time for me where I was like, I'm kind of getting paid a very small amount of money to be able to write music. And, I'm not even sure if I have received a paid commission while I was going through that because I didn't know you could charge or I didn't feel comfortable putting an amount of money on it.


So, I think as I was going through all of this I started asking people what they charged for things and tried to be open or, like, maybe have a group of people where you're like, “how do you do this? And how do you navigate a website? How do you do..?” So I think starting to just talk to musician friends about how they charge for things and, like, navigate some career things helped a lot. And I think when I graduated, I was like, “well, you kind of have to just take the leap now.” I think you can be entrepreneurial. There’s… There's actually…. You do this a lot, like consortiums… consortia.


TK:

Yeah, we just make it up as we go. it's a random plural.


EO:

Yeah. I think it was really empowering to think, “oh, I don't have to wait for somebody to ask me to write music,” and, just to be like, “well, I've got this idea, I'm going to talk to a friend, and then maybe we can get more people involved.” And the cool thing about running a consortium or being involved in it is that you'll get a lot of performances and you meet a lot of people through that, and stuff like that has helped a lot.


And then, I set up a mentorship program, so I was able to pay myself a bit, you know, so there's different things where you're like, this is one avenue. Commissions are one stream of money, but there's all of these other elements as well. And I think just talking to people and being transparent about, like, what you charge for things is really, really helpful. And I feel like, for people starting out, just ask people and… there's people on YouTube that will talk about what they've earned for the year, all of that sort of stuff. Like, get that information. It's really helpful.


TK:

I appreciate what you're saying about just going for it. Like, “oh, I want to write this piece. I'll find one person who's interested and set up a commissioning kind of model that. That a bunch of people can take part in,” you know? And you're right, that's something I turn to a lot because… I'm impatient. I don’t… I don't want to wait for that commission to come through. I just want to write what I want to write. And the same thing kind of goes with institutional support through grants and stuff, you know. It's like, I personally don't want to rely on that, so I have to figure out those entrepreneurial routes to take in order to be the composer that I want to be.


Because, I mean, frankly, there's a lot that's kind of stacked against us. I mean, it’s… There's a lot of composers, and at the same time, there's a lot of musicians who would rather not have anything to do with new music. There's a lot of brilliant musicians who do love contemporary music and specialize in that, and, you know… so I just appreciate you acknowledging the challenges that we face.


EO:

Absolutely. But I think it's like… I think I've reached a point now where I'm like, I just want to be the person that's leading. I'd rather take on the work, the administrative and project management work, of making sure I get to write exactly what I want to write, because there was a point, too, where I would get a call and was like, “hey, do you want to write this piece?” And the theme is, like… pelicans, and can you make it about Florida?” And I'm like, “well, like, that's really asking me to write… You know, do you want me to write a piece that I'm excited about, or do you want me to write, like, Pelican Florida piece?” You know?


So it’s… I think being able to have that agency, as well. Like, I understand that ensembles are- They want to have cohesive programming, and I get that. But it's not… Unless it's something that I'm really excited about, I wouldn't say yes to it anymore. And there are other ways to figure out how to get paid.


TK:

Yeah. Saying “no” is very powerful. And it’s a lesson that took me a long time to learn, and I think that it's a long lesson for a lot of people. And… And, by the way, there's plenty of Florida composers who might not have the opportunity, who would be happy to write Pelican Florida music.


EO:

They're so excited about!


TK:

So, you spent some time in the United States going to school, and then you've returned back to Ireland. What would you say is the differences, in your experience, of being a composer in the United States versus being a composer in Ireland?


EO:

It's hard to know because the States is so big. I think, like, maybe in certain… I don't even know if this is the case anymore. Maybe, like, 20 years ago, it was the case where there was definitely, like, an American sound of music. I don't think that's the case anymore, really. It's, like, kind of anything goes, but, Ireland was a weird one because it's its own little island, and it's kind of on the edge of Europe, but also, we look to the States, as well. And often you would have composers, you know, leave Ireland to get their education elsewhere and then come back.


And so you would have, for such a tiny island, a very weird amalgamation of sounds. You'd have people that were really influenced by, like, the Darmstadt school in Europe, and then you'd have people that were like, “yeah, minimalism!” and, or… you know, there was a group of artists down in Cork that would be really influenced by Alvin Lucier. So, it was just sort of like people looking outside of themselves, outside of the island, maybe to, like, have a style.


But in terms of how money works or whatever, like that sort of business side of being a composer, it's different in Ireland because there… So for one, there is an artist exemption, there's a tax exemption in Ireland, so you can earn up to, like, 50,000 Euro tax exempt as an artist, which is just like a Godsend. And then there's government funding. There's an Irish Arts Council, and you can apply for various types of funding throughout the year. And, you know, it's not enough to live on, but, like, you can get some really great projects funded and with a bit of help from a few bits and pieces, you can make a living as an artist.


I think in the States it's maybe a little bit more competitive. You might rely on donors and things like that. And you have to… you kind of have to be a little bit better at, like, hustling, I think. I don't know. How do you feel?


TK:

Well, I've never been a composer in Ireland or anywhere else, but… But the hustle. The hustle thing is real. I mean, and it’s- you know, it's something I've been thinking a lot about lately because I'm starting this new thing with this podcast, and… And I guess you could argue that's like a hustle. And, you know, I have a day job and I still want to maintain my creative practice as a composer. And that… that makes the composing thing more of a hustle.


And at the end of the day… I'm trying to figure out the best way to say this… It’s- I'm very tired all the time. But also, on the flip side of that, I don't know what my life would be like without it. Like, it's like a… It's a core thing at this point. And, if I sit around doing nothing- like my wife Susanna, her birthday was just a couple days ago, and so we kind of gave ourselves the weekend to have fun. And by the third day of having fun, I'm like, antsy and anxious and I don't want to… I'm just like, I'm trying to live with boredom and enjoy it and enjoy the fun things, but in the back of my mind it's like, “why aren't you doing anything? There's stuff to get done.” And so to me, that's kind of a dark outlook on it…. I love it. I'm sure that as I get older, it'll continue to change and it has changed since my twenties. But, yeah, it just feels like it's just a part of life at this point, right?


EO:

Yeah, it's definitely like taking days off. Like, you kind of work all the time because it's not a nine to five, but I think… doing so much traveling at the moment, I feel like every few days I'm examining like, “what is life? What is my definition of success?” All of that sort of thing. And it's like… I think if you can keep the overheads low, I don't need to make a million dollars and I can have a nice quality of life. And I think for me, it's like, I love collaborating with people and I only want to work with people. I really like… I'll figure out how to make enough money to survive and, then, you know, keep the overheads fairly low.


So, like, I don't live in New York. When I lived in New York, I was stressed. Twenty four seven. And I was taking on projects where I was just like, “okay, you want me to write this piece that I don't want to write? Okay, I'll do it.” You know, and you're just like trying to make rent and that felt kind of like just… it felt like it was depleting me and I was getting really burned out. But, now, it's like I'm excited about everything that I do and I don't really care about- I feel like we as a culture, like we're really, you know… and you're saying, like, in your twenties there's this drive to whatever and it's like, by 30 you need to have achieved this, this, this and this.


Like, I'm so not into that at all. Actually, it's interesting because Alex, every so often we'll share interesting things that we've found online, like weird stuff or whatever. And, he's been watching this YouTube channel that is Great Art Explained. So it's like 15 minute videos that explain great works of art. And it's kind of like a nice way to just procrastinate for 15 minutes every so often. And we were both… We were looking at this one video which was about the Japanese artist Hokusai. You probably-


TK:

The Great Wave.


EO:

Yeah, The Great Wave, exactly. So the piece was about The Great Wave, and it was really cool to just see the context of how it all came about. But what I loved about Hokusai was that he has a quote that's, like, “all I have done before the age of 70 is not worth bothering with.” And I was like, “right, okay, cool.”


So he started work on The Great Wave, which is part of a larger bunch of work. It's, like, 36 Views of Mount Fuji, so there are, like, these wood block prints, so 36 different perspectives of Mount Fuji. He started this at 70, and he was convinced that the older he got, the better his work became. And, this was a person who lived to be 89 at a time when the average lifespan was 50. And that, like, energizes me where I don't feel like I need to tick off, like… I need to write for this symphony orchestra before the age of 40 or, you know, like, that sort of thing. I'm like, I just- I'm excited. If I make it to 60, how much better am I going to be then, you know? And, that, to me, is, like, that's a reason to keep going.


TK:

Yeah. I love that.


I'd like to dig a little bit deeper into your kind of artistic ethos. You know, get a little, maybe cerebral here a little bit. So I'm wondering - and this is a question I ask everyone - but what is a piece of music or a song or a book.. What is an artistic object, if you will, that changed the way that you thought about how you approach art? Or I guess, a more dramatic way of putting this: What's that thing that split your world open and changed your life?


EO:

It's more like a quote, that I heard a few years back that I wish I had heard when I was starting out. So it's sort of like I heard it after the fact, but I was like, “oh, my God, this would be so helpful.” And it's a thing that I share with anyone who's like, you know, I'm thinking of starting to compose or whatever.


So it's by Ira Glass, who, you know, for people that don't know, would have been, like, the host of This American Life and a bunch of other public radio things. And he has a quote about The Gap. Have you heard of this quote?


TK:

No, I don't think so.


EO:

I'll paraphrase it because it's maybe two or three minutes long, but there’s… if you Google, like, “Ira Glass, The Gap,” people have made beautiful little videos to go with it. But basically what he says is, all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste, but then there's this gap when we're starting out. So you have the good taste, but your early work isn't, like, meeting your expectations, and you feel disappointed by that. And that's when a lot of people quit. And, they're like, “I'm not meant to have a creative life,” but this is part of the process.


So his advice is, the best thing that you can do is make a lot of work and, focus on the quantity as opposed to focusing on the quality. And by making a lot of art, you will close that gap, and then your work will start to be as good as your ambitions. And that, to me, was like, “I wish I heard that ten years earlier.”


TK:

Yeah, I love that.


EO:

Yeah. So that, to me, is like, yes, that's what I struggled through for, like, ten years because, like, when I started, I remember feeling so frustrated. And also you have these stories of, like, “Mozart heard the melodies and his… on the wind and…” you know, blah, blah, blah. You're just like, that's, not how it works for me. I'm obviously, like, a terrible artist. But, no, it's like, you keep making. You learn stuff with each piece and you get better, and that's the way it goes. So it kind of ties in with the Hokusai idea. But, like, I really think, don't be afraid of the gap. Make bad art. Make lots of it.


TK:

And, I think… well, first of all, I'll say that as a composer, that feeling never really goes away. It's like, you always fall short of what you're really trying to get across in your head. Actually, I had a teacher once who told me that you have to make things on the page, on the sheet music, like, the most extreme version that you can. Because going from your brain to tapping it out on a piano or an instrument to figure out the notes and the rhythms to putting it on the page…. And then, a performer performing it off the page, he's like, “there's so many degrees of fidelity loss compared to that…” right. That you just… If you put the most extreme version you can dream of on the page, then someone…


That's not- That's not like an argument in favor of super complicated music. But it's just… But even then, you know, every piece I write, it's like you go back and listen, and it's like, “that could have been better." And for me, it's like… that's the lesson to take on to the next one. Like, you're constantly evolving, you're constantly changing. But, yeah, I think the whole idea of the muse kissing you, it's bogus. But I think a lot of people, a lot of musicians, maybe even they don't realize that as composers, we have to practice, too.


EO:

Yes.


TK:

Like, musicians practice an instrument. And I think what you're talking about is actually practicing. I mean, I don't know about you, but there's a lot of stuff that gets trimmed and left on the floor. You know, the cutting room floor. And to me, that's just… That's practicing the piece to get it where it needs to be.


EO:

Yeah.


TK:

I wanted to ask you, what would you describe as the primary pillars of your creative practice?


EO:

Okay, let's see. How many would I have? I have a few. So, the first would be, like, filling up the well. So I feel like I have to expose myself to finding things that spark something inside of me. Often it's like trying to find a feeling I've never had before. So, like, learning something new. I might not so much listen to music, but I want to, like, have weird facts or learn about the etymology of a word or, you know weird stories, or visual art. So it's like, something that gives me something to ponder and… I'm doing a lot of travel at the moment. My favorite thing is just, like, walk down streets I've never walked down before. And what can I discover? And then I feel like I've absorbed stuff that will kind of percolate and eventually will come out in a new way. But, like, that… That needs to be… the well needs to be filled up. If I was to just, like, sit in my room for a month, I'm not gonna have any good ideas. So there's that.


So there’s filling up and then there's emptying out, which for me, is, like, I need to be in an open and receptive state to do creative work. So, if I'm really pissed off about an argument that I had with somebody, I need to clear out the energy. So meditation is really important. I'll try and do that every day. if I'm feeling really… I don't know, anxious or whatever, like cardio, lifting weights, whatever you need to do, kind of with your body to ground it. And I feel like when you do that, you have a clear channel to make cool things. The ideas might not come, but, like, you're putting yourself in the best position to do that.


Something that's really important for me is, like, discover something new. And it's so important for me to feel curious and, like, I'm pushing myself with everything that I create. So I kind of need to feel a little bit out of my depth, a little bit past my comfort zone. And that, to me, feels like I'm in the right place. So it feels horrible, to be honest. It's like, you know, I don't know how I'm going to write this piece. And then you do write the piece, and there's, like, a sense of achievement. So I'll try and ask myself questions like, “what would happen if…?” And that usually allows me to get something new.


And again, like you said with the cutting room floor, some of the ideas are terrible, but, like, I've learned something from that. I think we talked about this already.. the, like, be authentic, and I think, you know, just right for you. And then the last thing would be just show up, because there will be good days and there will be bad days, but you gotta keep showing up, or it ain't gonna happen for you, you know?


TK:

Yeah.


I think what you're talking about, like, this kind of philosophical kind of idea, is a great segue into my next question, which is, you know… one of our shared interests is what I would describe as “woo woo” things. things. Like, manifestation. Something you introduced me and Susanna to is My Human Design, actually… that's been, like, really… the work that you've done with me on that has been very helpful to my life, actually.


So I'm just wondering, when we think about these kind of really, I guess, woo woo things, do these sorts of things play a role in your creative practice? And I guess, also it would help to define, like… what’s your definition of these sorts of things that I'm talking about?


EO:

Okay, well, we can talk about Human Design a little bit. I think, for people who don't know what it is, it's, like, a combination of astrology and, like, Myers Briggs. Yeah, I kind of got into it over the pandemic where I was like, I just want to do something that's not music. And I heard some people talking about it, and I was like, “what is this?” And it's kind of like, you can find your own unique birth chart online. And it's like a map for the best way that you can use your energy. And alongside that it just shows you what your gifts are, like, what you've kind of… What tools you have that you can kind of share with the world.


And it's not really… It doesn't really, like, tell you what to do with your life or anything like that. But I think it's, for me, it was, like, a beautiful way to connect with people because I start… I did a reader trainer course and I actually- So, like, I read your chart and I read Susanna's character chart, and I've kind of, like, I use it as a party piece. And it's like feeling seen in a way, or it's like a permission slip to be exactly who you are. And I think, every so often, I'll go back and be like, “oh, yeah, I am good at it.” And it's sort of like things that I feel like society, like, values certain gifts more than others. Like, if someone’s really good at making money or whatever, you know, like that. Like, that’s… better value than someone who's just, like, good listener, you know, or something, you know?


But it's sort of like everybody has all of these gifts that might come so easy to them that they don't even value them at all. And it's kind of like reminding each other of that you are inherently valuable and worthy as a person. And I think for me, especially, like, having that during the pandemic when all of the musical projects that I was working on were cancelled, and I was like, "who am I without music?” And I was like, “I better figure that out.” And then I was like, “oh, yeah. Like… I do have all of these things that I'm kind of good at,” as do everybody.


And, yeah, so, I don’t… I don't know how it feeds into my music. I think maybe one of the things, like… one of my, quote unquote “strongest gifts” is listening and then taking that information and channeling it into stories. And I feel like it's interesting that I… That I'm so into opera now and I kind of found that way. But also, one of the things about my chart is there's all these different energy types and best ways to use your energy. And, like, my particular chart is, you're kind of meant to be a multi-passionate person who likes things that don't necessarily connect. And I used to beat myself up about being flaky or, like, I'd start a thing, or I'd have, like, five books that I'm currently sort of half reading or whatever, and it was like, “no, that's exactly what you're supposed to do,” and you take what you need from it, and then you can move on. So it's like a permission slip to be myself and that… And that, in a way, made me a bit more fearless with my musical choices, probably.


TK:

Well, that's what I wanted to say. And I will also acknowledge that, you know, anytime you talk about anything that's related to astrology, for example, there's a lot of skepticism. You know, I get it, folks. Like, I'm not telling you that you have to believe in it or buy into it, but I do have to say, Emma, when you… When you read my chart for My Human Design, I don't remember what all it said entirely, and this isn't really the space for that anyway. But one of the things that you shared with me about myself is that I have to wait for the invitation for something. And I'd spent, like, the bulk of my post-grad school years as a composer, doing what felt like beating my head against the wall. I thought that as long as I work hard, as long as I write great music and write a bunch of music and so on and so forth, that, well, people will recognize that and start commissioning me. And what I learned was, that's not happening. That didn't happen.


I mean, I had people commission me, but that's kind of like where the consortium stuff came from, and, me getting impatient. Like, I just want to write, you know, I don't want my… I don't want my value and role as a composer to be limited to people- Like, waiting around for people. Right?


So when you shared with me, you have to be invited to do something, like, people aren't going to, I guess, come to you or whatever. Like, you have to be confident in yourself. And it changed the game for me, and it was very… It was very liberating, like, what you're saying about yourself. And so it- I don't know. I think it's worth looking into. If anyone is curious, I'll put a link somewhere.


EO:

Do. Or, like, get in touch with me, and I'll read your chart for you.


It's funny, actually. There's one thing… so something that I used to beat myself up about so much was that- So, like, one of my biggest energies is enthusiasm. It's like, I'm supposed to be really enthusiastic, and I would be like, “that's not how a composer is.” Like, I see so many moody composers that are, like, super cool and aloof and like, yeah. That is, like, completely the antithesis of who I am. And then when I was like, well, do you know what? Like, I'll just be myself.


It's just, you recognize a lot of things in the chart. And, gosh, like, last summer, I was doing a workshop with a bunch of choir conductors and singers and stuff, and we were kind of chaperoning a bunch of teen singers, and it was like, a really long bus journey, and I was like, “sure, I'll read your chart,” for a bunch of the people. And we ended up going through the entire bus and, like, reading people's charts and everything. People were weeping and, like, cheering. Someone was just like, “my strongest gift to this…” And everyone's like, “that is exactly who you are!” And it was beautiful because people were like, “yes, you…” Like, one of the lead conductors, his greatest gift was fostering togetherness. And everyone's like, “that's what you do! You're so good at that!” And it was basically, everyone was just telling each other how great they were, and it was such a nice vibe.


So I feel like it’s… Even if you absolutely don't believe in this stuff at all, it's a nice sort of permission slip to remember who you are and just be more yourself, because I think we're told that you have to do certain things in certain ways. Like, hustle 24/7, and that's gonna get you whatever your version of success is. But actually, like, maybe you don't need to work as hard. Maybe you just do it in a different way that's more authentic to you, and you'll have an easier time and you'll enjoy it, and you won't feel like you're bashing your head against the wall, you know?


TK:

Yes. that's what it's all about is, like, an effortlessness. That's my goal now with everything I do. I just want it to be effortless.


And, also, what you say about the stereotype of a composer, like, I really, myself… I want to combat that, too. Do you find that when people meet you and find out you're a composer- or not find out, but, like… if in these situations where you show up as a composer, do you find that people are surprised at who you are? Do you feel like it defies expectations?


EO:

I don't know if they- Well, they haven't said anything to my face.


TK:

Yeah.


EO:

But I definitely, you know, I think in, like, listening to interviews and stuff, I think I had an idea of what a composer is, and I thought,” well, that's not me, because I'm just, like, an enthusiastic person who is not very cool.”


TK:

You are cool, by the way.


EO:

But now I feel like when I embrace that and I'm like, you know what? My enthusiasm is very good for mentoring young people, and it's very good at, like… I'm very good at spotting what other people are good at and steering that. So there's things where I'm, like, I'm ready to step into that and embrace that. And, things have been going great, to be able to do that. You can see how if you start living a bit more, like, whatever you feel like is who you are, people find that magnetic.


TK:

Over the course of our talk today, you've mentioned being able to see yourself in others and also be a model for someone to see themselves in you. And you just mentioned magnetic…


I want to talk a little bit about expanders. Can you tell us what an expander is and why it's so important to, I guess, your creative practice, but also all of our creative practices?


EO:

This is so funny. This is like me outing myself as, like, so “woo woo.” Like, it's gonna be like-


TK:

Me too. Nobody knows this about me.


EO:

It's all good. Well, actually, like, my close friends do, it's fine.


This is, again, during the pandemic, I stumbled across this brand, like a program called To Be Magnetic. And it's like, there are teachings by this woman called Lacy Phillips. And it's sort of… It's about manifestation, but in a way, it's about overcoming limiting beliefs, you know, like, achieving the things that you want to achieve and being yourself while doing that. And, it's quite scientific in a way. And I was like, I'm gonna just, like, try this thing. And I really got into it because it made a lot of sense to me, kind of like, after the fact.


But they have sort of like three pillars of… If you want to manifest, like, you want to manifest like a commissioner, I don't know, whatever- whatever it is you want, you have to unblock, your limiting beliefs. And that could be anything from childhood stuff- like, for me, artists are always poor or, like, artists can't be happy. So, you know, you have to examine that and you do some inner child work, and then you take aligned action, which is like, you know, there's certain things that you… that'll pop into your head that you're like, “I need to do this if I want to get next step.” Like, it's obviously take action in the physical world, and then there's expanding your subconscious and finding people that are expanders or expansive moments.


And I remember, like, it's seeing someone that you identify with doing a thing that you want to do or having success in an area that you want to have success in or whatever. And for me, like, meeting my first woman composer, I was like, “oh, my God,” I could literally feel my mind open up and go, “I can do that now.” And it's happened… Like, I can literally feel it when it happens. Where I speak to someone and I'm like, “oh, this is how they make this cool thing.”


And now I know it's just… you can listen to, podcasts are a great way to get expanded by people. Asking people questions, like, all of that sort of stuff, but really, like, it's a game changer for me. And I'm always trying to find other expanders. I'll have things that I want to achieve. Or it's like, maybe it's like, write an opera. And then I'm like, “I'm going to talk to someone who's written an opera and they're going to tell me how hard it is,” or what I need to do or.. you know.


TK:

Well, right. It kind of flips the idea of, like, teacher/student on its head a little bit because it's rather than one person giving information to another person, it's almost like you can look to your friends, you can look to acquaintances, you can look- you can look to teachers and mentors and, like, it kind of opens up the world that… you know, everyone is special at something and unique at something. And you can, if you're comfortable with it, I guess, you can turn to those people and you can become better. Like, there's always a lesson to learn from everybody.


EO:

Oh, yeah. Like, anyone is there. Everybody can be your teacher in whatever ways, but it's a beautiful thing. And I feel like, yeah, like… I'm sure plenty of people think the whole manifestation thing is a load of garbage, but I really feel like I, as an artist, like, this mode of life is magical thinking anyway. And I would prefer to live in a more magical world than a less magical world. And, you know, I've been getting attuned in Reiki, which is, like, a healing modality that deals with a lot of energy. It's like energy work, and I've seen some really weird things happen, so I'm just kind of like… I just don't even know what is real and what is, you know… like, there is a lot of magic out there, and, why not embrace it?


TK:

Totally, totally agree.


I have two closing questions for you. The first one being, is there a tool that you use in your practice that you think everyone should know about and that you feel that everyone else could benefit from?


EO:

Okay, so to my point about everyone being unique, this will not probably be something that everyone wants, but if you're like me and you don’t… So with My Human Design, I work better when I have stuff to respond to. So having a blank page when I'm starting a piece just fills me with absolute dread and anxiety. Like, it brings me back to, “I'll never be able to write a piece of music again. How has anyone ever done this?” So, for me, it's like generating a bunch of material as quickly as possible. So, like, speed is key, and then I have something to respond to.


So I write almost entirely in Ableton, which is a digital audio workstation. And I'll use some of the plugins in Ableton as compositional tools. Now, some people probably do this anyway, but, if I want to generate material fast, I will set up an arpeggiator in Ableton, and I will hit record, and then I will start firing chords into it and then messing with speed, the amount of octaves that's happening, I'll maybe randomly jumble up the notes, and I'll record about 20 or 30 minutes of material in a very childlike way where I do not have an editor's hat on. I'm just like, “try some stuff and see what happens,” and then I'll go back and I'll listen to it, and then I'll respond. And I might only get 3 seconds of something that feels interesting, but I will use that as a starting point. So, for me, I think that is super helpful in terms of just generating material.


TK:

So, since you've brought it up, because, you know, I purely wrote acoustic music before entering the world of electroacoustic music. And I know that you’re… You kind of live in between and around all of those worlds. As a composer, how does working in electroacoustic formats influence your acoustic music, and vice versa? Because what you're describing with the work you do in Ableton is very much like electronic music, but you're describing it as a tool for any kind of music that you write.


EO:

Oh, you know, talking about process and the tools that you use to make your stuff is so fascinating to me. And I used to - again, in terms of looking for expanders - I would say, “how do you write? How do you write?” And I'd ask, like, all my composer friends, and I'd have some people that would use, like, a big sheet of paper and would graph things out with pencil. Other people would write immediately into, like, Sibelius or Finale. And I would try all of these different things, and I feel like everybody should just try because it will make you write differently in whichever form you do.


Like, if I sketch something out with pencil first, I'll have a different structural set. Like, I'm looking at the big picture before I zoom in. But for me, I think what was happening with using a software notation program first was that my music was starting to sound really square, because I would try and make it look really pretty. But rather than, like, I'm more on the aesthetic of what the score would look like. So after about ten years have landed on, I write everything in Ableton because I don't look at the bar lines or anything or what key signature. It's just going by instinct. And I used to, with every bit of money I'd get from, like, a commission or whatever, I'd spend money on sample libraries. So I have really good sample libraries. So I would write an orchestral piece in Ableton, and then I would notate it afterwards. And I think it's really helpful just to be able to move the material really fast.


Like, I can write a thing and be like, “oh, I hate it in the cello, I'm just gonna put it up an octave and put it into the flute and see what that sounds like.” And then actually, “what happens if I layer these things or if I flip it backwards or if I randomize the notes?” And you can do it so quickly that you're not really, like, married to any bit of material. I remember there was this quote by… do you know, like, the comedian Mitch Hedberg? Like, years ago.


I kind of loved his kind of stonery, stuff. But he had this thing where it was something along the lines - I'm going to ruin this joke - but it was like, “I write jokes for a living. When I'm in my hotel room, I think of a joke, and if I like it, I'll go and I'll get my pencil and I'll write it down. But if the pencil is too far away, I just have to convince myself that the joke's not funny.” And I feel like it's that, like I might have a great idea for something, and if I had to notate it in Sibelius to kind of get a sense of what it sounds like, and it's going to take me an hour to do that, I'm like, “nah, I'll just… It's not that good.”


TK:

Yeah, I'm the same way. And that was me. I would always compose directly into Finale, and it worked for me for a while. And then I got to grad school, and the first exercise in my composition lessons was, write a whole piece by hand. And it changed everything for me, and now I'm the same way as you, except I still write everything by hand. I find that to work the best for me.


But, yeah, as soon as I start putting stuff into Finale, it's like I go from creator to editor, and, it takes so much longer to compose, so I just… I stay away as long as I can. And then you're right. Once you start, notating it and engraving it, it's like you want to make it look pretty, you want to make it look presentable, and, yeah, it takes a long time to do.


EO:

Everybody will have their own process. And that's the beautiful thing about it. It's like, don't feel like if you're trying to write in a certain program and it's not working well for you, maybe you haven't found the right tool yet and try some other things. And, don't beat yourself up that you're not composing in the exact same way as your friends or whatever.


TK:

Yeah.


My last question is, what is something about your art that you've never had a chance to say or share with anybody that you've always wanted to, that you've always wanted to share with people?


EO:

Oh, I think you probably have mentioned it in this podcast where I think, for me, I try to channel how feelings feel into music, and I think that's really, like, the core of my work as an artist.


TK:

Emma, this has been, this has been really amazing. And, I'm sure we could keep talking for a very, very long time. So maybe we'll have a part two later-


EO:

Come to Ireland!


TK:

Yeah, I'm hoping to again! No, seriously, Emma, thank you so much for your time today, and I'm looking forward to hearing more of your story in the future.


EO:

No problem. This is so much fun.


 



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