Conversations blog #1: Donal MacErlaine

the bubbles of the whirlpool break, and form again, and disappear again 

The Text

The text is from the opening of a beautiful memoir written by a Japanese hermit Buddhist in the twelfth century by the name of Kamo No Chomei. This man renounced material possessions, leaving the city to live in the wild sometime in his thirties. He spent the remainder of his long life there playing music, meditating, and writing poetry. As far as I'm aware, this memoir is his only prose, and the only documentation of his existence.

The text itself is simply one line of Kamo No Chomei's. 'The bubbles of the whirlpool break, and form again, and disappear again.' This idea of perpetual change is one of the central messages of Buddhism. Within a universe described as this, it is logically impossible to identify things as fixed, and therefore giving a name to things denies this truth. So in the line is a paradox: as a whole it speaks of impermanence; but in its detail it denies this by supposing that things such as bubbles and whirlpools exist as entities. Much of the Japanese tradition of Buddhism focuses on paradoxes such as these, often in the form of koans. As the act of composition is, in a way, measuring out time, I thought it was an appropriate text. It works then as a sort of vague self reference.

Process of writing

I had done another choral work, but that piece had chewed up the text so much that I don't think it would be possible to hear it through the musical texture [Solomon Grundy, recent winner of the Sean O'Riada Composition Competition]. That suited it, in a way, as the text was absurdist. In this piece, however, the words do have a poignancy which I'd like to maintain and allow to shine through, which is why the full text makes up the title. In this way, then, the audience has already been given the plot. There are no surprises. I threw lots of material out when writing this piece. In the end I opted for a much simpler piece than I had originally intended, and that I usually compose. Despite this, some elements remain, such as the tremolo material that weaves itself through the piece as a whole.

Working with NDV

Working with this choir and Bernie was a fabulous experience. I was surprised at how insightful some of the singers' comments were in terms of composition. Unfortunately I didn't get to hear the whole rehearsal, but some of the other pieces I did hear were of astounding quality. I often find workshops and rehearsals of my work more interesting than concerts. This is partly because the informalities of rehearsing mean a better interaction between people generally, but mainly it's down to the way that ideas are questioned, stretched, trampled upon, and kicked around. It's a fun process. It's the same as the act of composition itself in that it's the way material is treated rather than something inherent in the material that makes a piece interesting. Just consider how much Beethoven got out of his 4-note motif which opens his Fifth Symphony. And three of those notes are on the same pitch!

Composition is essentially a lonely process and it's experiences exactly like these that reinvigorate and re-energise composers. It's inspiring to hear your own piece performed by such a talented choir. And it can be even more so to hear others' pieces – and see the diversity of design that arises when a group come together to organise sound.

- Donal MacErlaine

the bubbles of the whirlpool break, and form again, and disappear again   will be performed by New Dublin Voices on 5 April at the University Church, Stephen's Green