Orchestra Underground: Adding Fuel to the Fire Composer Spotlight – Composer Peter Fahey

Composer Peter Fahey

As the winner of American Composer Orchestra’s 2012 Underwood Emerging Composer Commission for his composition Impressions, composer Peter Fahey has worked to develop his first commission for a professional orchestra over the past year. His composition A Mirror to Kathleen’s Face will have its world premiere at the season opening ACO concert, Orchestra Underground: Adding Fuel to the Fire, conducted by guest conductor Robert Spano.

American Composers Orchestra: What was the inspiration for your composition?  Can you tell us about your creative process for this piece?
Peter Fahey: The starting point for the piece was a recording, taken from a live television broadcast, of a former resident of an industrial school in Ireland speaking about his experiences in the industrial school system and about how he was treated by the Ryan Commission (as it is commonly referred to in Ireland), a commission set up by the Irish government in 1999 to investigate the extent and effects of abuses that took place in institutions for children in Ireland. Almost all of the musical material in the piece is informed by or derived in some way from this recording: the harmony, rhythm, orchestration, and so on. I began by simply transcribing the recording, mostly by ear, and making a short score of the piece, but later I did a spectral analysis of the recording to find out more about the harmonic structure of the voice. The results I got, using a couple of different computer programmes, gave me some good raw material to work with. I was attracted to the idea of the harmony in the ensemble coming from the recorded voice – corresponding to what is already there in the voice – rather than trying to impose some sort of arbitrary harmonic structure around it. I wanted the harmony to “belong” in a way that it hasn’t in my previous music. I didn’t take a very “scientific” approach in applying the results of the analyses to the music but the results I got informed the harmonic decisions I made.
My approach to the orchestration was largely intuitive; the raw material here was the sound of the voice as I heard it rather than something generated by a computer. Much of the time the role of the ensemble is simply to colour or highlight certain sounds or articulations in the voice, but the orchestration also adds extra layers of meaning – layers of musical meaning – to the voice. It gives the voice musical meaning. The recording itself is part of the piece with chunks of speech triggered by a sampler during the performance. The voice functions almost like a soloist at times; at other times it is less soloistic and more a part of the larger texture. Much of the composing of the piece was a sort of “orchestrating out” of the recording of the voice. The intention was to create a canvas or a space in which the voice could exist and be presented and to create a situation where the recording of the voice itself becomes music – a sort of recontextualising of the recording. The role of the ensemble is to work in tandem with the recording to produce this situation. The result is a sort of musical expression of the recording and of what is being said.
The person speaking in the recording is Michael O’Brien, a former resident of St. Joseph’s Industrial School (“Ferryhouse”) in Clonmel in the southeast of Ireland. (I grew up in Clonmel.) He is speaking from the audience during a panel debate on Irish television on the day the Ryan Report was published in 2009. The Report concludes that there was widespread and systematic abuse and neglect in institutions for children run by the Catholic Church and overseen by the Irish State. (These were institutions that existed to protect the most vulnerable people in society.) Michael spent eight years in Ferryhouse after his mother died; his seven siblings were also sent to Ferryhouse and other similar institutions. What drew me to the recording – and it wasn’t so much the specifics of what he says – were the various themes Michael touches upon. Themes that resonated with me. He says so much and sums up so much about Irish society and the institutions that define it in such a short space of time. There’s a density to it. We hear how Michael was let down by every institution he came in contact with: Church, State, the legal system, political party. In a way he sums up his own life too in expressing the defining effect the industrial school system had on him. It’s a remarkable speech – raw, emotional, and very frank. I knew Michael as the mayor of Clonmel when I was growing up. I went and spoke to him soon after I began working on the piece – still a bit unsure at that point whether or not to write the piece – to talk to him about what I had in mind and to see how he would feel about me using the recording of him speaking. He was very supportive of the project.
The title of the piece, A Mirror to Kathleen’s Face, is taken from a study by a Canadian academic, Donald Akenson, published in 1975 that looks at the Irish education system since the founding of the Irish state up until 1960. It gives a social historical perspective of the Irish educational system in the period we’re talking about, though it is limited in it’s scope because of the secrecy and lack of cooperation of the Church and State at the time in allowing access to information about the system. (The study was ignored by the Irish government.) It’s perhaps a curious title for an academic report, but I was attracted to the metaphor of the title and the potential to apply it in a musical context. “Kathleen” (or Kathleen Ni Houlihan) is a literary symbol for Ireland; it was used by writers such as WB Yeats, Augusta Gregory, James Joyce. 

In Akenson’s study, Kathleen is a beautiful woman seen from a distance, but if we look closer – much closer – we see her wizened face and we begin to realise that she is, in fact, an old hag (to put it rather bluntly!). Akenson presents the Irish school system as a reflection of modern Irish society – as an indicator of its values and attitudes and problems. This idea of a mirror image informs the structure of my piece on various levels (for example, the harmony at the opening of the second movement is a “mirror image” of the harmony at the beginning of the following section), and the idea of looking into a mirror and seeing things close-up, as they really are, informs, to some extent, the sort of “anatomical” approach I have taken to the orchestration where we hear how the sounds are produced by the instruments – the sounds of the woodwinds and brass blowing through their instruments, bowing and brushing sounds in the strings – as well as left-over, peripheral sounds, the veiled resonance or overtones of a note and not the note itself, and so on.

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