Ahead of the premiere of Dominic McGonigal’s two string quartets the 26th of September at Lumen by Kings Cross he has completed this Q&A. Video to follow.
If you would like to come along to the premiere please get your ticket here
1. What were your first musical experiences?
My earliest memories are visiting my grandparents who had a piano. I loved just sitting there, playing two notes together and hearing how they sounded.
2. In terms of composing, who inspires you and which scores do you love?
I am inspired by so much, from Gregorian chant to the latest wave of British contemporary composers. I owe a great debt to Bach, Messiaen, Prokofiev, Arvo Part, Beethoven, Victoria. Sometimes it’s a specific thing. In the slow movement of the first quartet, In Conversation, I was thinking of the ravishing slow movement of Schubert’s quintet. In the last movement, it was Ravel’s quartet, where he has the melody in double octaves. I end the Finale with the melody in triple octaves. In the first movement, it’s Bach for his contrapuntal writing, Shostakovich for that angular sound and Messiaen for using different scales, both melodically and harmonically.
3. When did you decide you wanted to compose and when/how did you start?
When I was 4, I announced that I wanted a piano and a television, in that order. My parents bought an old piano when I was 6. Unfortunately some of the notes didn’t work (for example, E and F below middle C). That meant that I couldn’t play most ‘normal’ music, so I started making up my own pieces.
4. Which piece of music are you most proud of?
That’s a tough one! How do you choose between your children? I can still recall the frisson listening to the first quartet In Conversation played in a private performance. It was an incredible emotional journey. It had already taken on a life of its own and I remember saying to myself, “did I really write this?”
5. Can you give us insight into how you compose (methods you use, etc.).
It all starts in my head. I normally have some fragment of music going round inside me, either something I’ve heard recently or something I’ve made up. Then I ‘doodle’, throwing ideas or fragments of ideas at some manuscript paper or my notebook. That could be a melody, a harmony or a rhythm or even all three. I work up the material on Sibelius which I use for creating scores and parts. It’s a powerful programme, rather like word-processing for music.
6. What would be your ideal composing gig?
Anyone who wants me to write something they will perform. When I compose, I like to have a specific sound in my head, like a piece of clay that makes a sculpture. When I was writing In Conversation, I had Pat’s [Halling] crystal clear violin tone ringing there, waiting to mould into a line. For the second quartet, Mathilde, there is an added soprano part and Charlotte Bröker gave me the sound for that. Writing for Philomel, I have six soprano voices all going round at once.
7. Can you describe your collaboration with Euan Tait?
Euan has been an inspiration. We met at a wedding, where I was conducting. I was in the middle of writing the first commission for Philomel, or rather I had hardly started. I told Euan about the project and the next day he sent me the words for Night Song. From that moment, the music flowed and the piece was completed a few days later. Now we are working on an opera, Burnt Image, based on the love triangle between Arnold and Mathilde Schoenberg and artist Richard Gerstl. It will be a companion piece to Dido and Aeneas, with similar scoring and similar length. It’s a beautiful but sad story. Euan’s words bring the characters to life. Each word and phrase has a resonance which allows the music to develop with the text.