Interview with composer, Michael Gallen

Michael Gallen is a composer and musician from County Monaghan, Ireland. Currently based in Dublin, he organises his time between his band, Ana Gog, classical composition, and the busy role of working Artist-In-Residence in The Hub at Trinity College, Dublin. He’s had a hectic year; recordings with the RTE Concert Orchestra, Choral sketches, The Wilde Stories, 1916 Commemorations, Chamber Choir Ireland project, as well as recording a new album with Ana Gog. I caught up with him Christmas week to find out what 2017 holds for this multi-talented artist.

What made you decide on this career path? I was always into music, my mother writes musicals and I would have been part of those from a young age. I started writing songs when I was thirteen or fourteen and from that point onwards, there was never really a question of what I was going to do. A teacher gave me a mini-disc when I was in Transition Year, and on it was the music of Arvo Pärt and John Adams. This was my first experience of modern classical music, and I realised that this was a job people could do in the 21st century. I started recruiting for a band fairly early in college.

This was to be the beginnings of Ana Gog? Yeah, the bones of it. I met Ciaran (Mc Cann, keyboard player) on the first day of college, Colm (Keenan, Drummer) I knew from home, and had been playing music with from a young age. The band was a big part of college and then for a period it lagged. There were a few changes in membership; about five years ago, we ended up with the current line-up (along with Rob Molumby on bass, and Adam Fleming on electric guitar), and everything changed; the feeling of the band, the sound, it was suddenly much more exciting.

We all work on other projects and everyone brings something of their own experiences back to the band. It’s a very different world from the classical side, and I really like that. Having people, you’re close with personally, that you play music with, you don’t feel like you have to have any kind of persona. The band has always been amazing for me; I tend to take myself too seriously, they’re very down to earth and they’d deflate you quickly if they thought you were getting too big for your boots.

ana-gog-band-pic
Ana Gog

It must be difficult straddling two very distinctive genres; how do you balance it? I’ll always enjoy having a diverse range of projects; it keeps everything fresh.  Over the years, the two worlds have become less separate; in the past I was worried that ‘band frontman’ wouldn’t really fit with the image of a composer. But the world is changing a lot in how it sees the division between genres, a lot of artists are taking inspiration from the contemporary classical world and visa versa.

Next year I have a solo piano project; for me it’s merging the two; my love of composing, and performing. The mixture is something I value, but you can find yourself spread very thin. It’s lovely that it’s all coming together in one creative pot.

What do you think of the new government arts project — Creative Ireland? I haven’t read the document yet so I can’t judge it. Any increase in public awareness and support of the arts, is great if the type of art being made isn’t over-prescribed. Ireland is very far behind in terms of arts funding. We have one of the lowest per capita of arts spends in Europe and that’s absolutely unacceptable. I think that’s what the government is coming around to; acknowledging the importance of art is a step in the right direction. But it should be art for its own sake and not because it generates tourism.

One of the problems with the centenary was that so much funding was given to one area. Most of the work was truly brilliant, but some of it felt like it wouldn’t otherwise have been made. That’s not a good way for the arts to work; it’s very limiting. The arts should always have some distance from government; part of their role is critique. I would be wary of the possibility that critique would be negated by specific funding. When new branding is rolled out for the arts, there is a part of you that worries whether something is being taken away with one hand even as the gift is given. We need to be careful that our voice isn’t taken away even as it’s been supported.

Do you think commercial success can inhibit artistic expression? I would fight against the idea of doing something just because its commercial. The music industry is so flagrantly capitalist now. Often something emerges that feels like the voice of a movement, but then it gets taken up by a label and you’re being sold that as an idea. It takes the edge off the politics of it. Being savvy about your work is important, but in terms of maintaining integrity, you have to keep in touch with why you’re doing it in the first place; it’s about self-expression, you can only do that if you stay true to yourself.

It’s a prevalent topic; there is a level of discontent among artists, not with their own personal lot, but more with the ideology of the society they’re living in. I feel very strongly about using it as a platform to discuss ideas I’m struggling with myself. You have to believe in what you’re saying or your relationship with your work can get very complicated. For me that involved turning down work this year, even though it was financially ridiculous, because I kind of felt I didn’t want to be a hired musical gun.

But isn’t it necessary to compromise a certain amount? When you start working you’re not sure what your creative voice is and you tend to listen to others. It’s less about compromise but rather experimentation I suppose. As you get more established you do become more clear on what you believe the truth of the work to be, and secondly, you gain the right, and responsibility, to argue for that.

I’ve been lucky in the last few years, collaborating with people who have a similar artistic vision, and with my PhD, which helped me to set up good practice. It’s basic living, but having work commissioned feels like a victory. It’s lovely that people have the belief in your work that they’re willing to take a risk on it.

What is good practice for a working musician? I try to approach it in a ritualistic way; as opposed to putting pressure on every piece to be my Magnum Opus, or worrying that it’s not good enough. I think of it in terms of an offering; you make a small offering every day through your work, and create a bit of music. There’s something very comforting in the idea that I will continue doing this for the rest of my life and love it.

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Michael at the piano. Picture by Sharon Murphy

You were used to writing music with the band, is it a lonely experience when you’re working on a classical composition? I suppose it’s funny but the more work I do the more solitary I become. When I was composing the orchestral piece last year, I moved out to the west coast for the guts of five months, and didn’t really see anyone. It’s a very particular thing with composition, it took me about two weeks before I was quiet enough in myself that I could hear the music.

When I’m in the city, I can’t really get to that place in the same way. There are times you have to switch off and be reclusive. One of the necessities of good work is to get rid of all the other voices in your head and be clear on what your own one is. Then you come back to the interviews and concerts. So that end of it is very social but the actual work is the opposite.

You’ve been Artist-In-Residence at Trinity College, Dublin since September, where you wrote Rivers Unseen. How did that come about? It’s been really interesting; I responded to research that was being done in the Hub. I saw there were at least three that were all about the limits between people, languages, and countries. Underneath the building there is a corridor, which was intended to connect the buildings, they tried to seal it but water keeps getting in from the river; it kind of plays upon that idea of this invisible movement that happens through borders. I don’t know why, but I’m obsessed with borders at the moment, I think it’s probably growing up where I did, and the migration crisis as well. It sets you thinking about the limitations of Europe.

Rivers Unseen (Trinity piece) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=76_2qXSubZg

Did growing up along the border have a certain impact on you? You get a unique feeling going into the North; you notice that, although it hasn’t been a hard border for so long, the ways of life are so different, and growing up five minutes from the border contributes to the way you understand the world. It does feel like a part of your brain is sort of ring-fenced for the north. I got so used to thinking of the border as something symbolic, as opposed to a physical thing. And then we had Brexit, which is going to have an immediate impact for Ireland.

What advice would you give your 15-year-old self? Well, I would tell him not to take himself so seriously. I wasted a lot of time in my early twenties being anxious about whether I was working hard enough, or progressing enough. There’s no way of quantifying it. I realise now that all that stuff comes naturally if you really care about it. Basically, young Michael should be a bit easier on himself and have the craic. Enjoy the baby steps, as opposed to demanding giant leaps, be a bit more present with the work and cherish the little discoveries and successes. A real gift of the last couple of years, was doing residencies and stealing little bits of wisdom like this from the more established artists I met.

Who inspires you musically? I remember particular moments; the mini disc with Arvo Pärt was a huge rush. And the first time I listened to Bjork, I didn’t go to college for three days, just listened to her albums. I loved the combinations, the attention to detail in sounds, how she generates the beats. Interesting arrangements and extended techniques, have beauty that’s more difficult to get at but, when you do, it really hits you in the stomach. Famous Blue Raincoat by Leonard Cohen is another favourite. The song is only three minutes long but you feel like you’ve swallowed an entire life when you listen to it.

What’s been the highlight of your career to date? Wilde Stories was amazing for me as my first large orchestral piece. There’s something lovely about those pieces being broadcast into people’s kitchens, and having positive feedback from it.  And the Rivers Unseen piece really came together beautifully. In terms of touring, a serious highlight was in India with Ana Gog at the end of 2013. Performing for an audience who have no previous experience or cultural ties to your world, it really comes down to whether you’ve captured something true in the song. It’s the best feeling when you know you’re communicating through your music.

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Michael playing at the Unitarian Church

What can we expect for 2017? In last two to three years, I’ve been busy enough to call it a career so from that point of view it’s all very new, and I want to follow it to see where it goes, take the opportunities while they’re there. I’m doing an opera in Paris next year, and it will be my first professional project there in a number of years, so I’m excited about that. It’s called Extra-Terrestrial Events, with Philip Connaughton directing and choreographing the project. It’s to be performed in the dance festival in Dublin next May, as well.

I’ll also be working more on the Choral Sketches as well as several projects for the Chamber Choir Ireland. I’ll be continuing with the arrangement for a larger scale opera called A Month in The Lock, which is set to premiere in 2018. And of course, with Ana Gog, there’ll be an Irish tour with the release and a European tour at the tail end of next year.

Links to Michael’s work can be found on his pages: www.michaeljgallen.com and www.anagogmusic.comTwitter: @gallenmusic

Or click below to view:

How to go off (like a rocket) (from Wilde Stories) – https://vimeo.com/171544040

Invocation https://soundcloud.com/michaelgallen/invocation

Difference in Clouds (from TARDIGRADE) – https://soundcloud.com/michaelgallen/difference-in-clouds-choral-in-museum-building

Ana Gog live: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxKUP26D13g

Aine Ni Mhaoileoin is a Galway-based writer. A recent graduate of the MA in Writing from NUI Galway, she has twice won the six-word story competition in The Irish Independent and her flash fiction has appeared in Sin and Ad Hoc Fiction. As well as being a co-founder of Dodging The Rain, she is working on a number of longer projects, with a view to publication. An avid reader, she has yet to conquer technology, and deals with social media in intermittent bursts of activity on Twitter and Facebook. When not writing, or reading, she enjoys playing with Snapchat filters that call her age into question. Twitter: @udar1981

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