Eamonn Quinn previews the 2022 Louth Contemporary Music Festival with Robert Beattie

The 2022 Louth Contemporary Music Festival

Every year, the Louth Contemporary Music Society runs a mid-summer Festival in Dundalk in the Republic of Ireland which is dedicated to contemporary Classical music. The Festival returns to in-person performances this year on 17 and 18 June, after a 3-year gap and an online iteration last year. The theme of the Festival this year is, ‘Nothing has Changed. Everything has Changed’, the title inspired by the philosopher Wittgenstein.

Over the years, the Festival has managed to attract world renowned composers such as Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt, Kaija Saariaho, Christian Wolff, Alvin Lucier and Salvatore Sciarrino, as well as also world class performers such as the Kronos Quartet, Neue Vocalsolisten, Camilla Hoitenga and Matteo Cesari among others. The year will be no exception and the Festival will feature a number of world premieres by Andrew Synott, Gavin Bryars and Siobhan Cleary.

Eamonn Quinn (c) Andy Spearman

Eamonn Quinn, Louth Contemporary Music Society’s Artistic Director, has been organising the Festival since 2014 supported by funding from Ireland’s Arts Council and local support from Louth County Council’s ‘Create Louth’. I spoke to Eamonn about the background to the Festival, the new works which will feature this year and also about the future direction of Classical music.

Robert Beattie: Thanks for agreeing to talk to us. You organise the Louth Contemporary Music Festival each year. Can you tell us about the background to the Festival, why you founded it and what sparked your interest in contemporary music?

Eamonn Quinn: Louth Contemporary Music Society has been going since 2006 and we have run the festival since 2014. It was really a consolidation of events which we were holding throughout the year; we thought it was better to just host one big event.

My initial interest in contemporary music was ignited when my wife Gemma took me to see the Ulster Orchestra playing a piece by John Adams. We moved to Dundalk some years ago and it was increasingly difficult to get to concerts in Belfast or Dublin, so Gemma suggested organising something in Dundalk. I said to her that I didn’t know anything about organising a music concert but that’s how it started.

RB: You managed to attract some high-profile figures to the Festival in the past including Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet. How did you go about getting them to write things for and participate in the Festival?

EQ: I suppose being naïve and without any inhibitions, I just got in touch with their agents and asked them. I thought Pärt might be interested in setting some Irish sacred texts to music, so I sent his agent two pieces of text including Saint Patrick’s Breastplate. A friend, Fr. Louis Hughes was also instrumental in selecting the texts.  Pärt’s agent said he was very interested but then I panicked, thinking ‘how much is this going to cost?’ and ‘how am I going to pay him?’ However, once he accepted, we got funding from the Arts Council. And I have to say the Arts Council has provided a huge amount of support over the years.

The Festival has been driven by my taste in different kinds of contemporary music. For example, I commissioned a piece from Linda Catlin Smith a few years ago, called Meadow which was a really important work and will be performed in this year’s Festival. It ended up in The New Yorker’s list of the most notable recordings of 2020.

RB: Can you tell us about any other notable compositions which have emerged from the Festival since you started?

EQ: There are so many of them and it’s difficult to pick out individual pieces.  I did invite Valentin Silvestrov to the Festival and he wrote his String Quartet No. 3 for the Kronos Quartet. They did perform it although they never recorded it, but we made a recording of it last year with the Carducci Quartet.  I regard that as quite an important piece. Jürg Frey wrote an amazing work, I Listened to the Wind Again; Michael Pisaro-Liu’s work for Gothic Voices; and Salvatore Sciarrino also wrote an important composition for flute for the Festival.  In terms of what is coming up, there is a piece by Gavin Bryars which has been in gestation for some time.

RB: Can you tell us about the theme for this year’s Festival?

EQ: The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is the pervading influence on this year’s Festival and that influence is reflected in the title of the Festival, ‘Nothing has changed, everything has changed’. The title seems very apt post-Covid, when one considers what all of us have gone through.

The new work for the Festival, Wittgenstein’s Fragments has words by the Irish poet and playwright Vincent Woods. Woods’ words are influenced by fragments of texts and letters and different aphorisms which Wittgenstein wrote while he was in Ireland. He spent a period of time here writing some of his most important works which were published posthumously.  Gavin Bryars, who composed the new work based on Vincent’s texts, actually studied philosophy so he was my main choice as a composer.

In a way, the work is marking Wittgenstein’s time in Ireland. And it is also appropriate to do this through music as the Wittgenstein family in Vienna had regular musical salons in their home to which they invited luminaries such as Mahler, Schoenberg and other key musical figures of the day. Ludwig’s brother Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm, commissioned a number of works for piano left hand including the concertos by Ravel and Prokofiev. The family were keen supporters of the arts and Ludwig Wittgenstein also composed a short piece of music himself.

RB: Do all the pieces at this year’s Festival have some connection with Wittgenstein or are there other influences?

EQ: No, just the title. Though there is more philosophical influence in another concert as one of France’s leading composers, Pascal Duaspin composed a song cycle O Mensch, using words by Nietzsche. Other highlights are Muto Infinitas, a work by Catherine Lamb which is for double bass and quarter-tone bass flute. Pieces like that can change the way in which you listen to music. The two Icelandic improvisers Bára Gísladóttir & Skúli Sverrisson’s concert in the Spirit Store at 3pm on Saturday should be amazing. I’m really looking forward to it. The day time concerts are only €5 entry fee so they are accessible to everyone.   The Estonian choir Vox Clamantis are performing an LCMS commission, The Deer’s Cry and some other new works, including one by Siobhan Cleary and Lou Harrison’s Mass for St Cecilia’s Day which is a really gorgeous piece.

RB: Are there any other pieces you want to mention from this year’s Festival?

EQ: Three players from the Esposito Quartet are performing Linda Catlin Smith’s Meadow string trio at the first concert. They recorded the piece during the pandemic and are keen to perform it in public. They are also performing Flow by Sam Perkin which was also recorded and released by LCMS during the pandemic. No matter how much I love both recordings,  these pieces only come to life when they are performed live and we have really missed having the interaction with the audience these last few years.

RB: Like many other venues you were badly affected by Covid, but you managed to get around that last year by filming the works.

EQ: Indeed. The performances were great but it felt very weird recording the works rather than performing them live. Personally, I felt it was more akin to watching a concert on TV. I liked them but did feel slightly dull and empty at the end. It’s the audience who make these concerts.

RB: Yes, I agree it’s very important to have a live audience for these works.  For those who aren’t able to attend the concerts is it possible to download the works or to buy recordings?

EQ: Meadow and Flow are both available on CD and it’s possible to download them as well; Catherine Lamb’s piece is also available to buy or download. There are new pieces by Andrew Synott and Gavin Bryars which are due to be premiered at the first concert on Friday, so they aren’t available – yet. Pascal Dusapin’s O Mensch is a really great song cycle and is widely available. I absolutely love it and the singer Mitch Riley is fantastic. But I’m not sure how many people will know the composer’s work in Ireland. That’s all the more reason to perform it of course.

RB: What in your view should be the future direction of contemporary Classical music? Do you have any views on where we can go from here?

EQ: There’s so much contemporary Classical music being produced that you cannot keep up with it all. If you look at Band Camp, you get so many alerts about new music coming out. I often find new music finds its own way to audiences. Not all of the new music is very good but some excellent works are emerging. I think it is important to keep your ears open to it all.  There are parts of the world which we haven’t focused on which are producing very good contemporary music, particularly South America. We tend to have a very North American and Euro-centric view when it comes to contemporary music.

RB: People often have a view of contemporary music that it is abstract or inaccessible but there is such a wealth of music and it takes so many forms.

EQ: It can be, but that is more to do with focusing on one school of music. I don’t do that so I find there is such a wealth of music. I tend not to focus on whether the music conforms to any particular school of musical thought but how it will work in an intimate setting in Dundalk. This intimacy – of the acoustic environment and of the relationship between musicians and listeners – is also, of course, part of what makes the concerts extraordinary for the audience, as well. We have performed widely contrasting pieces at the Festival, from very quiet pieces composed by members of the Wandelweiser collective of composers or Jakob Ullman to Kurtag’s HiPartita.

RB: I think many people will be interested in the fact that there is such a wealth of new music emerging.  We probably need to do a lot more to give some publicity to these new and emerging pieces. Are any of the works at this year’s Festival world premieres – I think you have mentioned some already.

EQ: There are three world premieres. There is Siobhan Cleary’s Storm in Devon for vocal ensemble, Gavin Bryars’ Wittgenstein Fragments and Andrew Synott’s I follow, I follow.

Each has the potential to be interesting, challenging and beautiful at the same time.

RB: Andrew has written some works for Wexford Opera Festival.

EQ: Yes, his second opera, Dubliners, premiered at Wexford Festival Opera in 2017 and was nominated for an Irish Times Theatre Award in the Best Opera category.

In 2019, with the premiere of La cucina, he became the first living Irish composer to have an opera performed on the main stage at Wexford Festival Opera. In 2020 Wexford commissioned the chamber opera, What Happened To Lucrece, for filming and broadcast during Wexford’s 2020 Festival in the Air.

He is also one of the nicest people I know. He has conducted for LCMS a few times so it was natural to commission him to write for the festival. LCMS has a tendency to do that, to work with people on a few projects. LCMS has been working on a few projects with the Esposito Quartet and, hopefully, in 2023 Chamber Choir Ireland.

RB: How do you see the Festival developing in future?

EQ: The Arts Council support is key to our future. They have been so supportive during the pandemic. They have provided really excellent support for the arts, and during the pandemic they really stepped up to provide practical advice and assistance as well as financial support. I don’t see the Arts Council as a funding body but part of a bigger picture which is trying to promote new music to the wider community. It’s the same with the musicians and composers: we all try and work together as a team for the common good. It’s particularly important to do that in a rural setting such as Dundalk.

RB: Anything else you would like to mention about this year’s Festival?

EQ: I think the two improvisers, Bára Gísladóttir and Skúli Sverrisson have potential to add significantly to the Festival. Because their work is improvised it really has potential to surprise and amaze the audience. A huge amount of music is made by just two musicians listening to each other.

RB: Eamonn, thanks very much for talking to us.

Robert Beattie

All tickets for the upcoming Festival (17-18 June 2022) are available via Eventbrite.

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