Donal Sarsfield: Off White

Discover Donal Sarsfield, one of the four composers on the LSO Soundhub Scheme 2019, as he gives us an insight into his composition Off White ahead of its premiere on Saturday 20 July.

Donal Sarsfield It’s rare to get the opportunity to write for whatever you want and however you want to, and have your piece slowly realised by talented people who believe in you and your work. This nurturing atmosphere that of the LSO Soundhub Scheme is an amazing shield from the brutality of putting your work out into an often indifferent and busy world.

As a composer, my job is to transform and organise sounds. Whist my initial intention was to write another series of solo instrumental pieces, it made more sense to write one quartet rather than two solos. But for what!? Choice is exhausting! In the end I decided upon piccolo, trombone, bass clarinet, and banjo – including LSO’s Pasha Mansurov who will switch from the piccolo to alto flute to hedge my bets. When I told other composers about my quartet of choice they all thought I was mad. The banjo raised a few inconveniences, although Natalia, the angel and administrator of the scheme found the right banjo player.


Somehow I began writing the piece. I found a series of diatonic lines which are all related, harmonically, although there are small differences. I start overlapping one upon the other and the similarity of the lines means that when they do they end up right beside each other, often at the interval of the second; do, re. These seconds are everywhere. I cut the lines up and organised them until I was satisfied. I used pages and pages of manuscript paper (which goes up in price every year). Without any doubt music is becoming more valuable! Once I had a draft, the first step is to workshop it with the players. It went well and most of my ideas worked! The players are incredible. Hearing the quartet sound confirmed what I imagined to be possible. My quartet is not mad, just different. There were too many ideas.


Over the year I attended as many LSO rehearsals as I could and only wished where I live was closer to London. Having access to attend LSO rehearsals is like getting the Golden Ticket from Mr Wonka. Hearing works, especially the ones you dislike, taken apart and rehearsed in their component parts is such an invaluable experience to a composer who wants to learn. I took what I learned and applied it to second draft of my piece.

A second workshop was held at LSO St Luke’s. Somehow there were more ideas, and each has its own character. Hearing my music slowly take shape before my very ears in such a venue felt immensely decadent. However, how all the ideas relate as a whole was still unclear. As the music was challenging, another rehearsal was requested and arranged. It’s rare that the music dictates what is required.

I began to organise how each part relates to one other. It felt a bit like arranging a large family for a photograph. Getting everybody to fit in the frame was proving to be difficult - I moved grandpa and grandma over to the left and I took a picture of the whole. It unsatisfied me, so I moved the kids to the front and took another shot. This I was happier with; the composition was more balanced, everybody looked well. Some smiling, others too old to smile. I realise after taking the pictures that some relatives weren’t in the photo but needed be – what of it? There is always another family, another photograph.

I could thank the scheme’s patron a hundred times and it wouldn’t be enough. Without people like her, our world would sound less alive.Special thanks to my mentor Bryn Harrison who gave me the some of the greatest advice a composer could ever receive: canons always work, that's their flaw! A reason why I applied for this scheme is that having composed mostly for organised sound or choir over the past few years, I had felt apprehensive about approaching musicians with my work. Thanks to the experience over this past year I now feel more confident or at least less insecure about approaching musicians. This has been an incredible year.

Donal Sarsfield
Donal Sarsfield was born in county Mayo, Ireland. As a composer he primarily records, transforms and organises sounds. His achieved his PhD in Electroacoustic Composition at the University of Manchester, which involved composing a series of pieces focusing on one particular sound source, be that the sound of clapping, doors, or snare drums. His work has been performed by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, Ulster Orchestra, Chamber Choir Ireland, Scottish Ensemble, Crash Ensemble and at various festivals such as The San Francisco Tape Music Festival, Sonorities Belfast and ISCM World Music Days. His recent work focuses on stimulating a perceptual link between the listener, the work and the world in which we live.

Donal Sarsfield's piece Outrenoir II: Appetitus (2019), devised through LSO Soundhub, will be premiered on Saturday 20 July at the Soundhub Showcase: Phase I 2019.