Acclaimed for his work with the Dublin Guitar Quartet, Dubliner Brian Bolger also plays electric guitar with Crash Ensemble, while building a reputation as a formidable composer in his own right.
We caught up with Brian to find out more about his new Music Network commission Lawra, which receives its premiere performances on a nationwide tour this month.
Why and when did you first become interested in music, and when did you take up the guitar?
After a few years of piano with Mrs. Loghnain on the Crumlin Road, I took up guitar at around age ten with more formal classical training from age fourteen. I kept in touch with it in a casual manner until age nineteen, when I seized on it as an opportunity to escape a printing apprenticeship and do something more adventurous.
Listen: Brian Bolger plays with Dublin Guitar Quartet
At what point did you decide you also wanted to compose?
I first got the inkling that composition was a possibility on discovering Frank Zappa at the age of fifteen or so. Before discovering Zappa, I actually wasn't aware that there was such a thing as new classical music and being a composer was something you could do. I started to explore composition towards the end of my undergraduate degree.
How would you describe your compositional style, and what or who has influenced your music the most?
I wouldn’t single out any one person as having the greatest influence on my style but I would be able to point at any bar of my music and tell you where its DNA comes from. For example, the first movement of a piece I wrote recently for Crash Ensemble called Either Way was influenced by the unusual pausing in the third movement of Philip Glass’ Seventh Symphony. The second movement owes a good deal to a band from Chicago called Shellac. And I’m definitely channeling Slint’s Spiderland album on the last movement. For the harmony for all three, I’m using the octatonic scale that characterises much of the likes of Mussorgsky and early Stravinsky but I’m using it in the way composers of Bulgarian choral music of the 1950s-1970s would, with lots of close harmony involving narrow-range melodies clashing against fixed, repeating pitches. The Bulgarian thing comes up a lot in my work these days.
Listen: Brian Bolger plays with Dublin Guitar Quartet
What music have you been listening to?
I keep going back to the Kronos Quartet recording of Philip Glass's String Quartet No. 5. The Selenography, an album by a band called Rachel’s from Kentucky is beautiful. Then Rachel’s band member Rachel Grimes’ Book of Leaves is also fantastic. I love a piece entitled The Corner Room on that record, and have transcribed some movements from this for Dublin Guitar Quartet.
What’s the toughest thing about composing?
Actually sitting down and starting work and staying there for a decent amount of time in spite of the unrelenting catalogue of tedious obligations and attractive distractions.
Listen: Dublin Guitar Quartet perform Philip Glass
What have been your career highs to date?
The majority of my work in classical music is performing with Dublin Guitar Quartet. Touring the US nine times and having a record released on Philip Glass’ record label is up there. Doing the 'Piltdown Man' screaming bit from Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells through talkbox with the guitar quartet in Whelan’s this year was memorable.
Your Music Network commission for musicians Ben Johnson and Sean Shibe is titled Lawra. Tell us a bit about how this piece and its title came to life?
I was very excited to receive the commission from Music Network, Ben Johnson and Sean Shibe. I wanted my piece to celebrate the occasion of the tour by having my piece connect with the rest of programme in some way. This was made easy by Ben and Sean’s inclusion of When Laura Smiles by Philip Rosseter and the obvious connection to my own partner Laura Sheeran. I searched for another 'Laura’ poem to use and was delighted to find the sonnet Rose-cheekt Lawra by Rosseter’s closest friend, fellow lutenist and collaborator Thomas Campion (1567-1620). Small world! I kept the old english spelling ‘Lawra’ to reference the centuries long interval between the artists and muses involved and in doing so emphasise some universal constants of human experience while also racking up some major brownie points with my own partner.
Watch: Dublin Guitar Quartet play NPR Music's Tiny Desk sessions
Does knowing who will premiere one of your compositions influence your writing?
Very much so. I was aware of Sean’s technical abilities and wanted to make sure I gave him something somewhat sophisticated and satisfying to play. The performances I’ve heard by Ben and Sean are very deliberate and tasteful in expression so I wanted to provide some fodder for that. I tried to match the meaning of Campion’s text musically as much as possible so they could feel more connection with the text.
What’s coming up next for you?
I’m off on a US tour with Dublin Guitar Quartet and vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth in January. I’ve been collaborating with Nico Muhly on a reduction of his work How Little You Are. We premiered this with Conspirare choir, LA Guitar Quartet and Texas Guitar Quartet in Austin in 2015 and I made a more portable reduction for one guitar quartet and vocal ensemble that we’re taking to Michigan, Vermont, Utah and Connecticut. The Dublin Guitar Quartet are also doing some new early-period Gyorgy Ligeti transcriptions on this tour. I’m also on electric guitar duty performing some Ed Bennet with Crash Ensemble at the Other Voices festival at the end of November.
Tenor Ben Johnson and guitarist Sean Shibe will give the world premiere performances of Brian Bolger’s Lawra on tour with Music Network from 21 - 27 November 2019, alongside music by Bach, Walton, Dowland, Beethoven, Schubert and more. Performances will take place in Waterford, Tralee, Dublin, Kilkenny, Castleconnell and Clifden - find out more here.