Composer Portrait:
Donal Sarsfield

Recent re­cip­ient of the 1er Prix Luigi Russolo for his work Gallivanting (now re­titled as The Suitcases Piece), Donal Sarsfield is an Irish com­poser cur­rently studying for a PhD in elec­troacoustic music at the University of Manchester on an Irish Arts Council Elizabeth Maconchy Composition Fellowship. His re­cent tape music demon­strates poignancy and hu­mour in equal measure, with at­ten­tion to the de­tail of even the most eph­em­eral ges­ture. For the second of an oc­ca­sional series of pro­files of com­posers whose music I like (pre­vi­ously: Nina Whiteman), Donal kindly agreed to an­swer some ques­tions about what makes him tick.


Chris Swithinbank: I realise that this is not a ques­tion that you prob­ably con­sider every day, but let’s start at the be­gin­ning. What drew you to write music? Is it a vo­ca­tion and if so, why?

Donal Sarsfield: I al­ways listened to music in my teenage years. I learned to play the piano my­self but was al­ways a re­luctant prac­tiser; I much pre­ferred im­pro­vising to learning pieces. It wasn’t until I went to col­lege and at­tended com­pos­i­tion classes that I got a feeling that I could try things out on paper, and so after a few ele­mental ex­er­cises I wrote my first piece when I was 20. I wouldn’t call com­posing a vocation.

CS: Having started out writing music for acoustic in­stru­ments and voices, you are now working on a PhD in Electroacoustic Composition. What was it about studio com­pos­i­tion that you wanted to explore?

DS: After first working in the studio during my MA in 2004 I real­ised that I en­joyed working with sounds as much as I en­joyed working with notes and in­stru­ments. Having been to a re­spect­able number of con­certs in­volving tape or elec­troacoustic works over the years I felt that most of the pieces I heard, though tech­nic­ally pol­ished, were lacking some­thing per­sonal. By per­sonal I mean either a clearly auto­bi­o­graph­ical sub­ject matter or the more stub­bornly subtle, ec­centric or eso­teric side to life. That’s the area that I have set out to ex­plore in my PhD; the sub­ject of the per­sonal through sound.

CS: How do you deal with the dis­em­bodied nature of tape music?

DS: The pho­to­grapher Garry Winogrand often said that he pho­to­graphed some­thing to see what it looked liked pho­to­graphed and I try and apply the same ap­proach to re­cording sounds; I re­cord some­thing to hear what it sounds like re­corded. Even though 99% of my sounds are de­rived from re­corded sound I never con­sider the sounds I use as dis­em­bodied. I think the term pre­sup­poses the “dis­em­bodied” ele­ment in a lesser light and that seems an un­ne­ces­sary weight on the work.

Pro Tools session: The Suitcases Piece 230 - 351

Pro Tools ses­sion: The Suitcases Piece

CS: How do you con­ceive of sound in your work?

DS: I usu­ally have some starting point or concept which I try and realise through sound. This seed evolves through a period of broad pre­par­atory re­search into areas which I feel might be useful; pho­to­graphy, painting, American 80’s tele­vi­sion, and that then in­forms the prac­tical con­sid­er­a­tions of con­structing the piece: from how and where to re­cord sound sources, how best to trans­form, or­ganise and com­bine sounds, and most im­port­antly, how to re­solve and struc­ture each sound/gesture within each piece. At the minute I can’t really offer a defin­i­tion of res­ol­u­tion, it’s more an aware­ness that within the piece a sound must jus­tify it­self and, if re­moved, would weaken the equi­lib­rium of the work.

CS: Moving from raw re­corded sound to a fin­ished piece can be a con­vo­luted pro­cess. How do you go about it and what role does the source sound it­self play in a piece’s concept?

DS: I al­ways aim to make some­thing not “fac­tu­ally im­pec­cable but seam­lessly per­suasive”, which is a phrase from John Szarkowski, the man who’s writing I turn to most often when I’m stuck. The first three pieces of my [PhD] port­folio point to an or­dinary sound in an ima­gin­ative, and hope­fully some­what in­tel­li­gent, manner. I try and use the sound source as the sub­ject of the piece, rather than just using the sound ob­ject as a means to create. Matisse said that “The ob­ject is not so in­ter­esting in it­self. It’s the en­vir­on­ment that cre­ates the object.”

CS: In The Clapping Piece (2010) the main ma­terial is the sound of ap­plause. There is a won­derful mo­ment just after it ends where the audi­ence an­ti­cip­ates its own ap­plause, re­cog­nises that this will be in some way a con­tinu­ation of the work it­self and real­ises some­thing of the ri­dicu­lous­ness of the con­cert ritual. Was that a con­scious aim? Is a ques­tioning of the con­cert situ­ation an im­portant part of your com­pos­i­tional approach?

DS: With The Clapping Piece there was an at­tempt to make an audi­ence not ap­plaud after the piece, but I failed in that re­spect. I think of that piece as a rather un­as­suming per­form­ance piece for con­cert hall. More than most pieces it re­wards pro­jec­tion within the con­cert hall en­vir­on­ment more than any­where else (for ex­ample a radio broad­cast, listening at home, or on­line streaming).

CS: What pro­jects have you got in the pipeline at the moment?

DS: Thankfully the PhD will be my main pro­ject for the next 18 months and I am grateful for this time to make the work as strong as it can be. Outside the PhD I have been par­ti­cip­ating in the Jerwood Opera Writing Foundation at Aldeburgh and that course cul­min­ates in a short new piece with writer Alan McKendrick and dir­ector Ted Huffman in July.

CS: What ex­cites you about being an artist today?

DS: Waiting to see what Martin Margiela will do next.

Sarsfield at the Clockarium, Brussels

Donal Sarsfield at the Clockarium, Brussels (Photo by Sam Salem)

This entry was written by Chris, posted on Friday, 6 May 2011 at 3:42 pm, filed under Composer Profiles and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.