My eldest daughter, Maebh, studied at the University of St Andrews in Scotland and must have left a fair impression, as the Director of Music, Michael Downes, asked me to write something for herself and orchestra to mark the opening there of The Laidlaw Music Centre. The premiere was scheduled for the autumn of 2020.
In order to fund this, I applied to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and was awarded a Major Individual Award, the highest honour they can bestow on an artist. Wonderful all round, the planets aligning to enable this most beguiling of concepts become a reality. After some initial gestation, the idea of writing a violin concerto began to emerge. From the outset, I strongly suspected that it must be rare enough for a composer with enough experience and temerity to undertake the writing of a concerto, to write it with his or her child in mind as the soloist, and where that child has the necessary experience and skill to be able to play it. This added greatly to the excitement of it all.
As someone who spends most of his working life composing to commission, I almost always set out my stall in advance, to some degree at least, to indicate to both myself and the funders what it is I plan to write, giving some sort of suggested direction. So, a happy narrative arc began to evolve, broadly telling the story of my daughter’s life, from pre-natal times through childhood and school and university, to her setting out on her own life and career. Much thinking and incubation went into this, many hours spent not actually writing, just trying to formulate and process the scale and depth of the multi-layered collaboration. In time, musical ideas started to appear, sketches took shape and a productive period was spent in the glorious isolation of the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, an artists’ retreat in the middle of Ireland. A positive and largely cheerful concerto was emerging.
Then, Covid 19 unleashed itself and everything changed very rapidly in the world. We are still in the savage throes of this right now, and we none of us have any idea how we’re going to come out the far side. But we can be sure of this – the world as we all knew it has now changed. And forever.
Regardless of my determination to keep the concerto in the now-established cheerful domain that I’d mined, I found the timbre of the music changing – it became darker, moodier, harmonically less anchored, less sure of itself. It got odd and frustrated and spikey. I wasn’t deliberately encouraging this and yet I didn’t feel I should resist it. Perhaps it was me trying to work these surreal times out through the music – I certainly know I am deeply frightened for the future, for my family, for the world. Whatever was going on, I felt that I shouldn’t disregard the impulse to try to communicate something of it in this music, those greater forces relentlessly pushing at me. Of course, it’s to be expected that such unknowable times will have a profound effect on anyone trying to create art, and the story of my daughter’s life is now caught up in it this turmoil. Her narrative has changed. Mine has. The world’s has. Art must and will reflect that – the world beyond the artist demands an echo of this new existence.
Yes, we can temporarily escape from the unrestrained brutality of this crisis and glean comfort and sustenance from music in these dark days, but that same brutality won’t let us ignore it for too long either. The world inside the head and the one outside of it inevitably meet, clash, meld, cross-contaminate. And albeit both disturbing and seductive in equal measure, sometimes if you close your eyes long enough and hard enough, those very borders of distinction blur.
When the relentless tsunami of this pandemic abates and live performances begin again, for those of us lucky enough to make it through, music will forevermore carry a deeper-reaching and altered significance – for both performers and audiences. We will all have been through the wringer.
I dedicate this concerto to my daughter, Maebh.
dall’ombra – from the shadow – journeys across its three movements – i) allegro moderato ii) adagio iii) allegro – from opening notes of agitation and edge to the aspiration for a brighter and more positive world.
At the time of writing this note, the world premiere is penciled for April 2021.