One of three winners of National Sawdust’s inaugural Hildegard Competition for emerging women and non-binary composers, Emma O’Halloran is an Irish composer, producer, and performer whose work moves freely between acoustic and electronic forces. O’Halloran has written for orchestra, folk musicians, chamber ensembles, turntables, and laptop orchestra. Her work has been performed at the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival and the MATA Festival, and she has collaborated with artists such as Crash Ensemble, PRISM Saxophone Quartet, and the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra. In addition to concert music, she composes for film and theater, and she performs with her band Games Violet, a duo of producer-performers that make hybrid rock/electronic music. O’Halloran considers much of her music to be reflective, often trying to map real or imagined moments in time to gain a deeper understanding of her own personal experiences. She is currently completing a doctorate at Princeton University.
Invited to choose her own interviewer for this National Sawdust Log profile, O’Halloran selected her Hildegard Competition mentor, Angélica Negrón, a Puerto Rican-born composer and multi-instrumentalist who writes music for accordions, robotic instruments, toys, and electronics as well as chamber ensembles and orchestras. In a recent conversation, they discussed how O’Halloran got her start in music, where things led from there, and who was responsible for the music that changed her perspective completely.
ANGELICA NEGRON: I’ll start with the basics: what inspired you to pursue composition?
EMMA O’HALLORAN: I feel like I got into composition a little bit later than most people. I started in my early to mid twenties, and I got into it through electronics, just experimenting with stuff. I was doing a degree in music, and it was mostly training people to be teachers or whatever.
So, more music education?
It was mostly music education, so a lot of people that would have graduated would have gone on to become music teachers. I hadn’t a very strong background in music, anyway, and that was a way into music for me. One of the classes that we did was basically how to figure out your way around a computer, using audio software and stuff, and I really liked that. That’s where I began, because I didn’t really have any experience with notating music. So it was like a way in for me.
Did you grow up playing any instruments? I know you sing.
I was really into music when I was a kid, but it was mostly through dancing. I did a lot of ballet, and I used to choreograph dances at home in my bedroom. I had sort of a dance group with some of my neighbors, like a Spice Girls tribute band.
Oh, really? So, full circle… it’s all making sense now. Welcome back to the Spice Girls!
I would have initially done a lot of stuff with dancing, and then I started to pick up instruments because it felt like a way to get closer to the music. I still do really like moving to music, but the act of creating it just felt like you got that little bit closer—like you’re almost touching it. I played flute, and eventually my aunt gave me a guitar, and I spent a lot of my teen years paying angst ridden rock music. So that’s my musical background.
You mentioned the angsty rock music and also the Spice Girls, but what other things were you listening to at that time?
It was a really weird mix, because my parents would have listened to a lot of random stuff. Like, my dad did a lot of musicals. He has a really beautiful voice and he would’ve been involved with the Athlone Musical Society, and so I would have listened to a lot of musicals. And then my mom was really into Bryan Adams and stuff, so there’s sort of like tapes that were being played on the radio, that sort of thing. But I guess I hadn’t really listened to any classical music until I was about 16 or 17.
And how about when you started composing, when you discovered that you were interested in experimenting with sounds in that class that you were talking about and using technology? Were you trying to recreate some of the things that you were listening to?
I would have listened to a lot of Aphex Twin, electronic artists, or Björk. But I felt like that was a little bit too out of my league to be able to create. [laughs]
We have a lot of things in common, then.
I definitely found them incredibly inspiring, and the sound worlds that they created felt like an opening to explore and try to do stuff yourself. So that was really exciting for me.
Following up with your initial steps in composition, did you have any mentors that helped you along the way at that time?
I had teachers – there were composition classes in the program that I took. But I was pretty much the only female in my year, or that I knew of, that was trying to do stuff like this, and it wasn’t until maybe towards the end of my degree that I even encountered a female composer. It was a strange thing – I definitely received criticism that my music was too “girly.”
What do you think they meant by that?
Maybe too emotional or something?
You mean like too good? [laughs]
[laughs] Maybe, I don’t know! But there was definitely a lot of soul searching when I started out, because I was like, what is too girly? And there were a few years where I was writing music that would have been what I thought I had to do – maybe overly complex, or something that seemed sort of macho, that would be okay with the people that I was composing around.
What do you think happened to make a shift to the type of music you’re making now?
I was going to tell this to you another time, but I remember when I was in college, towards the end, I heard of this Bang on a Can school, and was like, oh, these people seem really interesting. And I was looking on their website, and they had featured a piece of yours on it, Bubblegum Grass Peppermint Field.
You’re gonna make me cry! [laughs]
I remember listening to it and being struck… it was really like a shock to me. Firstly, it was an awesome piece. It was really beautiful. It had amazing colors, and there was like joy and whimsy in it. But what struck me about it most was the fact that it seemed like the composer that had written it was was being true to themselves, and it was a really genuine piece of music. That sort of planted the seed for me that I could write stuff that I just like myself, and I don’t have to be what other people expect me to be.
I’m so honored to hear that. I feel like I have a very similar journey to you, in my initial attempts at writing music, of feeling like I was really not writing for myself because there’s all these other things that come into play. And definitely now I know that being a woman writing music, and perceptions of that, are a big part of it, but at the time I couldn’t see that. So it took me a while to get to that point, too, and I’m really honored to hear that also inspired you to find your own voice and to be true to who you are. In composition we spend so many hours working on things, and it’s so absurd to put so much time and effort into something you’re not connected to, and you don’t feel like it’s part of you.
I totally agree with that, which is why I feel like this Hildegard initiative is so exciting. I hope that with an institution like that shining a light on a really diverse array of female or non binary composers, there might be budding composers out there that just find someone – the styles are so different that maybe they’ll find someone in that group that sparks something for them, where they’re like, Oh, this is totally what I could do, and I want to be that.
And if they start seeing people that look like them – if people see themselves represented in the music – then they also might see that as an option for themselves, which is huge.
I think I only realized that later. All of my early twenties, it felt like if you want to be part of the club, you need to write music that is acceptable by the dudes. But now it’s like, if you can be visible as just who you are, it’s so much more powerful, and it can inspire all these other people. So as I have entered my thirties, I’m slowly kind of figuring things out. [laughs]
Well, you’re well on your way. I feel like there’s a lot of possibilities for you, and you’re not only doing that for yourself, but you’re also paving the way for other people. And I’m sure when people hear your music, they will have similar experiences and connect to it in very special and meaningful ways.
That means a lot.
We talked a little bit about what it means to write in specific places that are populated by very specific kinds of people that write very kind of specific music. I’m wondering, more outside of those spaces and in terms of the audience in general, if when you write a new piece, do you think about your audience? And if so, in what ways?
Weirdly enough, I don’t think about them at all until I get into the rehearsal process—and then I’m like, oh no, will people hate this? [laughs] But I think usually I get so into it at this point that it’s I’m trying to like figure something out, or work through something in the music, that it becomes sort of all-consuming. Maybe this is a terrible thing, that I don’t think about the audience that much, but I don’t, really.
It’s not a terrible thing. I think as long as you’re being true to who you are, that honesty will translate to the audience.
Yeah… I think I probably cared more when I was writing music I didn’t really like. [laughs]
I understand exactly what you’re saying. If you’re not thinking about your audience – which I don’t think I do either, at that stage of composing – what’s your main concern when you’re starting a new piece?
It varies, piece by piece. I never have a title before I write, but there might be some idea. I’m not the most coherent person; I find it hard to capture and put into words certain feelings. And it’s those feelings – maybe it’s a smell that reminds you of something – it’s those hard to describe feelings that I usually try and capture in my music. So it’s sort of a process of working through what would convey that. Have you ever looked at The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows? It’s this beautiful site online where this guy creates words for really complicated emotions. They’re really beautiful, and he’s started making videos for them and stuff like that. I feel like as we grow older, maybe you’re more capable just through life experience of having these more complex feelings. And for me, I try and figure that out.
I hear you—and I hear that in your music, too. That Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows sounds like a great kind of resource, or source, for a new piece too.
I think a few of my friends have used it.
I was going to ask, because that’s like a composer’s dream right there. [laughs]
I’m wondering if you can tell me a little bit more about the piece that you wrote for the Hildegard concert, and the inspiration behind it. I know you also wrote the text; maybe tell us a little more about that, too.
The piece, when I was thinking about what I wanted to do, stemmed from a Twitter trolling. I had mentioned that I just basically was unaware that women could actually even be composers until like my early twenties, and someone came back to me and said, “This is crazy, you must have been born and lived in a cave for this to have happened.” And I just started thinking about what it would have been like to live in a cave. [laughs] I started reading a lot, all these different articles about cave people, and I came across this National Geographic article that was discussing recent discoveries that the majority of the art, the cave drawings in these old places, had been created by women. It was something to do with measuring the size of their hands and stuff like that. That just really struck me, in such a male-dominated world: if you go back, back, back, back, back, back, back, there are all these women just making art for the sake of art. I thought that was really beautiful.
So that was the idea, and seeing all those hand prints, seeing pictures of them, they just looked like constellations to me. That’s what inspired the piece. And then the piece became about what it was like for me… it feels like a time-travel piece, where I’m thinking about when I was a kid, and when you think you can do anything as a child, and then as you get a little bit older maybe realizing that that’s not possible. And I feel like that’s me working through how I struggled to figure out how I could be a composer, and then going further back and taking strength from the art that was created by these women, and thinking that, well, you can do anything you want to do. You just have to do it. [laughs] It’s a bit grand.
I am very tempted to say “Girl Power,” which out of context would sound super cheesy. But I’ll use that as a bridge for you to tell me a little more about one of the sources that you’re using for this piece, which is another kind of random connection we have. I had a lot of platform shoes, I still do, and I was very much into the Spice Girls craze. And this is something that I didn’t notice in the piece when I heard it, but that you shared with me in secret—and I’m now putting it out publicly. [laughs]
I hope I don’t get sued for this!
Oh, it’s a micro sample. It’s totally fine. Where did the sample come from that you’re using for the piece? And what does it mean to you that you’re using it in this context?
Maybe this has been one of the first pieces that I’ve tried to do it, but two years ago I took a little bit of a break from writing chamber music and I spent a lot of time with my partner, Alex [Dowling]. We recorded and produced two albums together, and I really got into that.
Then returning back to this world, I wanted to figure out a way that I could do both things. I love writing for acoustic instruments; I think there’s just so many different colors and textures that you can create. But I also really, really love audio production. So I was thinking about how I could make something that would be all the different elements that make up me as a composer. And I wanted to reference something from my childhood, when I thought I was superhuman. [laughs] I feel like this is the only thing that’s going to come out in this article, is just the Spice Girls! I wanted to have a feminist undertone, the power of reference, so I thought it would be really kind of funny for me, and interesting, to include vocal samples from a Spice Girls song. I kind of sampled them up, and they’ve become these sort of really punchy rhythmic elements, and later on more like a counterpoint to play against. I’m really excited by it.
I think it works really beautifully in the piece, and if you know about the reference, or if you get the reference by listening to it, it just adds to the fun. It works in a musical way, but it also works in a way that… I feel something about your music and your spirit is that concert music sometimes takes itself too seriously, and your music certainly doesn’t, but it still conveys a lot of emotion and a lot of beauty. Those things are not mutually exclusive. You can still just have fun with what you’re doing. I think we forget that.
Well, that’s what I love about your music, actually. I feel like you’ve been like the most wonderful mentor to have in this process. I know our music sounds different, but I feel like we have maybe similar enough sensibilities in the creative process. There were definitely points where we were discussing the project and you articulated things that I didn’t even know I was trying to do, but it definitely was what I was aiming for—I just hadn’t figured that out yet. So it was really just so wonderful. I had such a great time working with you.
I’m glad to hear that. I learned a lot from you, too, and I’m so looking forward to being in the same space together, not through Skype, and listening to the awesome piece that you wrote being played by great musicians. We have a lot of things in common. This is one thing that we don’t have in common and that I’m kind of fascinated by, other things that you do besides music. So I’m wondering what are some of the other things that you do besides music that maybe influences influence or not the music that you write.
Over the past few years, I have been like slowly but surely training at various aerial circus schools, and I’ve been playing around on trapeze and silks and lira. I feel like that has been part of a change in me; for one thing, I have a low-key fear of heights, so it’s been a weekly exercise in facing my fears. But also, there are things that I never thought I could do, and after a while, if you stick with them, it’s possible. And even though we probably experienced this when we’re composing, it’s always good to see that from another activity, or another part of your life.
So I’ve been doing that and it’s been great, because I can sort of dance again. It’s a physical thing that I can do that sort of relates to music, and it’s really creative, and it’s generally populated by really strong women, which I’m a big fan of: they’re wonderful and a lot of fun. I guess it made me take more risks in my own composition. And down the line at one point… aerial opera. That’s the dream.
Oh my god, yes, please!
[laughs] It might be a while.
That’s awesome. One last question: I’m super curious to know what’s a song that you’ve been listening to for the past couple of weeks?
On repeat, I’ve been listening to Janelle Monáe’s album [Dirty Computer], which is amazing. And today on repeat I’ve been listening to Oneohtrix Point Never, “Black Snow.” I went to his gig in the [Park Avenue] Armory the other day, and it was really amazing. So that’s what’s been on repeat. I usually listen to a song on repeat until I can’t listen to it for a few days.
I’m with you on that. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me, Emma. I’m so looking forward to hearing your piece come to life.
Emma O’Halloran’s music will be featured in the Hildegard Competition Concert at National Sawdust on June 12 at 7pm; nationalsawdust.org