Artistic Research

AEC“Artistic research may be defined as a form of research that possesses a solid basis embedded in artistic practice and which creates new knowledge and/or insight and perspectives within the arts, contributing both to artistry and innovation.” (AEC)


RIAM Piano Immersion Day 2016

Prepared piano

We all know the grand tradition and repertoire of the instrument, but what about the piano now? The RIAM’s Piano Immersion Day (15th May, 2016) attempted to address this important question with events featuring improvisation, prepared piano, toy piano and new pieces for young players.

Martin O’Leary gave a marathon recital of recent Irish piano music affirming the instrument’s continuing importance for our composers, several of whom, like O’Leary himself, are also accomplished players. To draw any one direction from the variety of pieces would be impossible: the modern piano boasts as many styles as it does composers.

Izumi Kimura (a RIAM alumnus) gave a mesmerizing account of Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes. For this performance Jonathan Nangle filmed the inside of the piano, enabling the audience to see an entrancing choreography of dancing bolts and screws. This work is often described as a kind of exotic clacking and tinkling, but Kimura rightly talked about its often dark emotional language. It emerged in this performance as a cycle to bear comparison with Messiaen’s Vingt  Regards, the two works forming a pianistic West-East divan. (Messiaen incidentally was fascinated by Cage’s prepared piano and it may have influenced his music of the later 1940s.)

The session for young players attracted the largest audience of the day. Fascinating it was to see our composers interact with these young players to discuss points of interpretation The challenge was to express themselves simply, often within the restraints of the five-finger position. I was one of the composers played, and I came away from this event admiring even more the genius of Bartok, Schumann and Kurtag in writing gems for this level of performer. It is not easy to do.  The show-stealer was Brendan Breslin’s Emoji Music, a funny combination of live playing and computer story-telling that riveted the audience.


Izumi Kimura

Kimura also dazzled in a live improvisation workshop. She is among the few classical pianists who risks improvising as part of a concert, and she also fielded searching questions from the audience. From her many quotable observations: ‘I want my improvising to sound like real composition, and my rehearsed performances to sound like improvising.’

The duo of David Bremner and Kian Geiselbrechtinger brought the long day to a close with an American programme of Cage, Tom Johnston and Glass and a work by Sebastian Adams. The few survivors felt that they had been made an epic journey together. And if they are like me, they will never again look at or listen to a piano in the same way.

by Kevin O’Connell


Jonathan Nangle, Composer


Jonathan Nangle

Jonathan Nangle

In early 2014, composer Jonathan Nangle was commissioned by Kate Ellis to write a piece for the Crash Ensemble for a performance in The Dock, a cultural arts centre in Carrick-on-Shannon. The proposal involved more than just a standard composition.

“They wanted a piece that could be performed by the group, but could also form part of an installation in their gallery space, following on/prior to the performance. I have created quite a number of installations, from interactive sculptural pieces using 3 double pendulums to solar activated bells. After some discussion, I proposed a piece for a quartet of violin, viola, cello and double bass and video ballet. I felt, with some interesting staging, I could create an engaging piece that could exist as both an installation and a performance piece.

Through my teaching, I knew a young Irish ballet dancer called Jamie Haughton. He had just graduated with a Degree in Modern Ballet from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Jamie and I met in August of 2014 and, over two days, shot raw footage for the video, which would form the visual element of this piece. To create the background for the dance piece, I set up a black box space and lit this from the four corners and above using LED tubes. I was then able to sequence the lights turning on and off, creating an ever-evolving fall of light on Jamie.


One of the amazing things about dancers is their incredible ability to remember complex patterns of movement after just one or two repetitions. With this in mind, I would give Jamie a vague set of instructions, such as move from this corner to that. Jamie would then devise a movement and then repeat this over and over while I filmed it from different angles. Due to the low light levels and ever shifting lighting, beautiful shadows and blurring effects in camera would occur. Once we felt we had exhausted a gesture, we would move on to something new.

Musically, as with many of my pieces, I started out with little fragments of ideas and a general sense of what I wanted to achieve with the piece. In some cases, these fragments went on to become main elements within the piece, while in others they merely acted as a launch pad to new musical terrain. Some of my inspiration came from an interesting evening spent recording the pianist Fiachra Garvey, shortly after I began work on the quartet. One of the pieces Fiachra recorded was the 3rd Movement from the ‘Concorde Sonata’ (1919), subtitled ‘The Alcotts’ by the American composer Charles Ives (1874 – 1954). I must admit I wasn’t particularly familiar with Ives as a composer and, prior to that evening, I had not heard a performance of ‘The Alcotts’ or any of the other movements from the ‘Concorde Sonata’. The very nature of recording meant that I got to hear the movement, in its entirety, quite a few times that evening, in a very sensitive and engaging performance by Fiachra. I was transfixed by the piece and struck by its beauty and the complexity of the harmonic writing. The following day, I purchased a recording of the piece and downloaded a copy of the score in order to study it. There’s a moment, early in the piece (a small two-bar phrase), that floated out and wrapped itself around my ears and I found myself constantly humming it. This fragment of material led me to the idea of transforming it, as a means of generating material for my own piece. It was harmonically rich and rhythmically interesting and, in a sense, followed on from Ives’ compositional practice, where he would use known hymns and folk tunes in his music.


So the composition process began. I wrote a simple maxmsp patch that would playback the short snippet of material, which I could then chop up, and reorder in lots of different ways. I played with this while recording the output until I felt I had created some interesting results. I then listened back to this material and selected moments that held my interest. I notated these, while also smoothing some of the irregularity out, baring in mind the instruments I was writing for and their capabilities. These fragments of material then served as the material from which my piece grew. It was at this point that the idea of basing the piece around data glitches came to the fore. The material would mimic small fragments, played from a damaged CD, with the laser skipping over sections and irregularly looping portions. Material is often repeated and frequently with unusual looping points. Material reoccurs, but is presented with slight variation- be it shuffled about, a change to the looping points or with added or subtracted material from elsewhere.

Once the musical component of the piece was completed, I set about cutting the video to fit with the audio. I followed the same principle – that of a VHS video stuck on pause. Small segments of video loop over the audio, shifting scenes from one section to the next, as if the video has suddenly skipped ahead several minutes. The video also follows the compositional process, scenes loop but with small variation and the return of musical material is not necessarily mirrored in the visual part.

The work is included in a concert tour Crash has been giving around the country, entitled ‘Born in the 80’s’. In reference to both the tour title and VHS-like elements of the video, I decided to present the installation on multiple CRT Televisions. Included in the gallery are two other of my pieces, ‘(sighing): oh…but we were monsters’ for 4-Channel tape and 2 resonating snare drums and ‘Breathe’ for 12 DC motors, propellers, plastic bags and arduino.”

(Jonathan Nangle, October 2015)



Bill Dowdall

Bill Dowdall, Flautist

Airs and dances from Dublin Castle: Spackling Band

The halls of eighteenth-century Dublin resounded with this music, now rediscovered and recorded for the first time.

A collaborative artistic research project devised and led by flautist, Bill Dowdall, has resulted in a CD of eighteenth-century music for flute and continuo. The CD features three RIAM staff: Bill Dowdall (flute), Lisa Dowdall (Baroque viola) and David Adams (harpsichord), as well as guest performer, Malachy Robinson (viol)


Airs & Dances from Dublin Castle: Spackling Band

The project was inspired by a reading of Brian Boydell’s A Dublin musical calendar, 1700-1760 which led Bill to visit the National Library of Ireland in the hope of uncovering forgotten eighteenth-century music. These early visits were initially in the nature of lucky dips. RIAM Librarian, Philip Shields, succeeded in identifying flute repertoire in the Joly Collection of the National Library which helped to narrow the search. While trying to locate Dubourg’s famous set of variations on Eileen Aroon, references led to Dr Barra Boydell who pointed towards an eighteenth-century “gig book” of R. W. Wilson, His musick book. Nicholas Carolan and the Irish Traditional Music Archive were also generous in supplying information. Further research revealed a wealth of repertoire and information of a musicological and iconographical nature, culminating in the production of the CD entitled Airs and dances from Dublin Castle: Spackling band. (“Spackling” Dowdall was an eighteenth-century ancestor of Bill’s and Lisa’s, a musician of dubious repute, who was a member of the State Orchestra in Dublin Castle around 1720).

Another research interest of Bill’s is in the area of organology, dealing with the history and construction of the flute. This has resulted not only in the study of extended techniques for flute, but also in a pioneering collaboration with Robert Dick, working on the development of the flute with glissando head joint, an instrument for which Bill has commissioned and performed a number of works.


Therese Fahy

Thérèse Fahy

Thérèse Fahy, Pianist 


As a small-handed concert pianist, I have found that much contemporary music seems to be designed for large hands. Handprint is an exciting, challenging collection of newly-commissioned pieces written for my hands by six wonderfully diverse, major Irish composers: Raymond Deane, Bill Whelan, Siobhán Cleary, Grainne Mulvey, Michael Holohan and Benjamin Dwyer.” (Thérèse Fahy, 2014)

HandprintHandprint was an exciting recital programme by Irish pianist Thérèse Fahy, born of the realisation that much contemporary piano music is  composed for pianists with large hands. Thérèse commissioned six major Irish composers to write new works for her, enriching the musical landscape by enhancing the piano repertoire with a highly innovative collection of piano pieces specifically designed for smaller hands – something which had never been done before.

The six commissioned works by Irish composers Bill Whelan, Raymond Deane, Siobhán Cleary, Benjamin Dwyer, Grainne Mulvey and Michael Holohan received their world premieres at a recital as part of the New Music Dublin Festival in 2014. Ahead of this, Fahy and the composers showcased elements of the new works in a series of public workshops in association with the Contemporary Music Centre, in which they discussed the background and creative process from composition and pianistic points of view.

As well as workshops and premieres, the project continued at the Hugh Lane Gallery with Handprint: Before and Beyond, a three-part concert series which explored not only the commissioned music, but the repertoire that inspired it. Each recital featured the work of two of the composers, alongside pieces chosen by each to shine a light on their own music – pieces that influenced them, moved them or inspired them, including pieces by Debussy, Schoenberg, Ravel, Scarlatti, Messiaen and Scriabin. By marrying the old and new, contemporary and non-contemporary masterpieces can thrive together in performance, and the new pieces, seen in this light among the shining gems of the past, will be launched into the standard piano repertoire of the future.

Premiere Programme:

Raymond Deane – Legerdemain

Siobhán Cleary – Leda and the Swan

Benjamin Dwyer – Étude

Grainne Mulvey – Calorescence

Michael Holohan – The Forge

Bill Whelan – Waiting for Riad


Kevin O’Connell, Composer



Responses to Pierrot Lunaire

Responses to Pierrot Lunaire 

What more can be said about Pierrot Lunaire? Little perhaps, if we confine ourselves to words. But composers from Berg to Britten to Boulez to Maxwell Davies to Roger Marsh have gone on responding to it in notes.

The RIAM’s Pierrot Project (5-7 May, 2015) carried on this already long tradition. Unlike the other time-bomb of its era, The Rite of Spring, Pierrot has gone on sounding strange. We have assimilated it without ever completely absorbing it. The thrice-seven poems of Albert Giraud retain their lunar, and often lunatic, oddity. Schoenberg’s innovatory sprechstimme technique (actually a borrowing from German cabaret) suits the guttural German translation more than it would have done the original French, and adds to the nightmarish aura. The RIAM student composers, who each recomposed one of the songs, took this process a step further by setting the poems in English (with the exception of one student whose first language is German).


Singer, Sara di Bella

I deliberately did not ask the students to ape Schoenberg’s expressionist mannerisms, though some settings reflect familiarity with his vocal and instrumental manner. To add a further frisson, each of the RIAM singers who undertook to learn one of the new songs also tackled the corresponding Schoenberg song.

The RIAM student singers worked under the tutelage of Sylvia O’Brien and the project was rehearsed and directed by Pedro López López. The result was a Dublin-Viennese tandem-ride. The journey was an intriguing one.

Conductor: Pedro López López

Alluna Ensemble: Jessie Grimes (clarinet), Joseph Houston (piano), Anna Menzies (cello), Kay Stephen (violin/viola), Rosanne Ter-Berg (flute), Katie Slater (voice)

RIAM Student Composers: Balzer Collenberg, Andrew Myles, Max Matthews, Terry Meakin, Brendan Breslin, Sanne Saajos, Robert Coleman, Gavin Brennan, Aran O’Grady

RIAM Student Singers: Sarah Shine, Michelle Smith, Sara di Bella

Vocal Coach: Sylvia O’Brien


Dr Paul Roe, Clarinetist

It’s good to talk: collaboration as a creative process

Paul Roe Clarinet Teacher RIAM

Paul Roe

The established method of creating new music is shifting towards more collaborative modes of working. Composers need a collaborative model if they really want to search for new sounds, while performers need to feel that they have a genuine input to the creation of a piece of music. Paul Roe has commissioned many composers to work with him collaboratively in the creation of new work.

“Collaboration is a multi-faceted phenomenon that is not well understood, as it is used to describe so many kinds of activities and relationships. Collaboration has had a significant impact on me as a performer. It has felt like working from the inside, gaining insights into the creative processes of other musicians which in turn encouraged me to reflect on my own creative practice. I try to listen and perform music not as a functional instrumentalist but more as a creator of sound, focusing on shapes, colours, lines and emotional intensity.”


In the stillness of time: music of Jane O’Leary features a piacere for bass clarinet, composed in collaboration with Paul Roe

“I have worked closely with Jane O’Leary (Composer) over many years as a member of Concorde and also on two solo pieces she has written for me. The process of working together and thinking about how to integrate individual skills produced an understanding not possible through individual effort. Collaboration has a way of increasing imaginative discourse, where motivation is improved and creative risks are taken.”

“The experience of collaborating with composers has brought about both conceptual and attitudinal changes in my approach to performance. I have enhanced my expressivity through engagements that have stimulated my aural imagination and encouraged me to think and play with a creative spontaneity.

Research by Paul Roe

Roe, Paul, ‘It’s good to talk: collaboration as creative process’, paper presented at the Orpheus Institute Seminar, York, 2010.

Roe, Paul, ‘The creative performer – the listening composer: searching together‘, paper presented at Performa: a conference on performance studies, Aveiro Portugal, 2009.

Roe, Paul, ‘A phenomenology of collaboration in contemporary composition and performance’, (PhD dissertation, University of York, 2007).


Useful Artistic Research Links


Journal for artistic research

Key concepts for AEC members: artistic research. An AEC Council “White Paper” 2015

Key concepts for AEC members, no 1: artistic research. An AEC Council  “Green Paper” 2014

Polifonia Working Group for Artistic Research in Higher Music Education 

Research catalogue: an international database for artistic research