Classical Piano Music Infused with Traditional Irish Singing

An Interview with Composer Louis Ryan

On the Emerald Isle, summer arrives on its own schedule, says a popular Ireland travel blog, and may last weeks or simply hours. Yet this past May and June, rather than being outside, drinking in the erratic weather, the Irish composer Louis Ryan was inside, pouring out over the space of only four weeks his 12 Polyphonic Études. The études are joyful, reflective, and even brooding, inspired by jazz and Irish folk music, yet each of the twelve is written in strict parts: this is modern-day polyphonic music, in the tradition of Bach. GRAND PIANO PASSION™ caught up with Louis for this exclusive interview.

I want to know more about the role that Irish folk music plays in your work, but first, congratulations on recently finishing your degree in composition at Trinity College Dublin. Did you grow up in Dublin?

I did indeed! Dublin’s great. It’s a manageable size (about one million people or thereabouts), has a great culture, friendly people, and is within walking distance of the Irish Sea and the Dublin Mountains (which are remarkably small and stumpy), and there’s Guinness stout. What more could you ask for? I suppose a bit of decent weather from time to time would also be nice.

With an extra dollop of sunlight! So it seems natural that Irish folk songs would influence your music.

When I was around 19 or so, I began to develop a keen interest in Irish traditional music; elements of Sean Nós singing in particular soon began to greatly influence my work. In Sean Nós singing, much of the art lies in the singer’s ability to vary a regularized verse pattern, with ornamentation, for example, or by elaborating on a rhythm or interval. This technique in particular is apparent in many of the 12 Études; it features most prominently in the 2nd, 5th and 8th Études.

The 8th Étude is one of my favorites. I’m wondering, was Sean Nós singing originally an oral tradition?

The Sean Nós tradition in its purest sense is almost exclusively an oral tradition, remnants of which are still evident in the contemporary Irish music scene. Some notable contemporary Sean Nós artists would include Iarla Ó Lionáird, Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin, and Gearóidín Bhreathnach.

Can you describe Sean Nós singing in terms of the broad-brush categories that most pianists are familiar with, such as Baroque or Romantic?

I would be very reluctant to draw comparisons between Sean Nós singing and Western art music. I suppose the major conflict here lies between the dominance of oralcy in the former tradition, and literacy in the latter. The best introduction to the art of Sean Nós that I am aware of is undoubtedly Seán Ó Riada’s book Our Musical Heritage (also the title of a 14-part radio series he gave on Irish traditional music in 1962).

One last question: I’m assuming that you called your suite Études because it aids the pianist in developing a certain element of technique, and I’m wondering what that might be?

I feel that much of the difficulty for the performer would be less a technical and more an interpretative one; throughout the entire cycle, dynamics, tempi, phrasing, articulations, and still other musical parameters are almost exclusively left at the discretion of the performer, requiring a high level of analytical engagement with the music. As a cycle, therefore, the Études should be thought of firstly as a study in interpretative skill.

Louis Ryan is a 22-year-old professional composer and pianist based in Dublin. He recently completed a B.A. in single honor music at Trinity College Dublin, where he majored in composition and attained a first-class honours degree. He has given several public recitals across Dublin.
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