".where Fennessy studied with James MacMillan."

David Fennessy studied composition at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama with James MacMillan. On Tuesday 18 January, their works will be performed alongside each other in the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra's Horizons series 2011. It's set David thinking.

You see this written a lot in composer biographies - "such and such studied with such and such". Mine is no different but this concert in the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra's Horizons Contemporary Music Series 2011 has got me thinking a bit about it.

It's a funny thing to have your music performed alongside your teacher's. This is only the second time I can remember it happening. It's tempting to draw parallels between the work of the teacher and the student, to find things in common, to identify those areas where the student has adopted a technique or been influenced in some way by the aesthetic of the teacher. If you know anything about Jimmy MacMillan and his music you might be surprised to know that, in the two years I studied with him, we never once mentioned Religion (although we did talk about football occasionally) or Plainchant or Folk Music or Socialism. We did look at the music of other composers (Birtwistle, Andriessen, Gerald Barry) and some pieces of his own but most of the time it was about my work and how I might find my own solutions to my own problems. In fact, I went out of my way to eschew any references whatsoever to Jimmy's style in my own music (and by doing so no doubt failed). I remember I would get very frustrated when all I wanted was clear answers. I wanted somebody to tell me "this is how you do it". I can see now that he was trying to get me to think for myself.

I think most composers would admit privately that composition is largely self-taught. You sit there at the desk or the piano or the computer or whatever and you try to chase that split second where an idea showed itself to you. I suppose that's the one per cent inspiration, ninety-nine per cent perspiration thing you hear people talking about. But it is through working it out that you teach yourself. Of course, it never turns out exactly as it was in that perfect, imaginary state when you glimpsed it. Perhaps composing is the act of failing to realise those perfect objects. By working on the idea, you imprint yourself on the music and in the end you act as a kind of filter.

I sometimes think that every piece has its own individual technique, that you can't apply a pre-existing formula to a new and unique situation. I don't feel bound by a certain 'school' or approach but believe instead that any and all modes of expression are available to me (I think I might have borrowed that line from the English composer Richard Ayres. Does that make me Postmodern?). Sometimes the best way to express an idea is with a solo fiddle and sometimes it is with a symphony orchestra including full chorus, soloists and live electronics!

However, certain things tend to keep cropping up in my pieces. When I think I have done something radically new I am always somewhat alarmed when a colleague points out "no, it still pretty much sounds like you". The thing is, it's difficult for me to identify those traits because I have absolutely no degree of objectivity, especially when it's a new piece. It's a bit like watching your own hairline recede - you know it's happening all the while but when you look in the mirror you can't tell how fast or slow it's happening or if you're just imagining it.

These days I teach composition at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. I am often taken aback by the strength of the ideas of the young composers there. The hard thing is helping them realise those ideas. My colleague Gordon McPherson once likened teaching composition to method acting. He reckoned you almost have to become that person you're teaching for the duration of the lesson - try to see things as they see things. I think he might be right.

As well as thanking Jimmy, I would also like to take this opportunity to thank Dr. Eibhlis Farrell who was my first composition teacher at the DIT College of Music in Dublin. When I went there first, I thought all musicians composed and I thought that all composers performed. I was wrong of course but I still don't think it's such a crazy idea. I was so naïve then but Eibhlis, along with John Feeley who was my guitar teacher, showed a lot of belief in me. They were really the first ones to point out to me the subtle differences between my arse and my elbow.

David Fennessy
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