LSO Soundhub's Anselm McDonnell: Folding Northern Ireland's parade culture into contemporary music

Experience never-before-heard music from composers of the here and now on Saturday 10 April. Premiered on our YouTube channel, LSO musicians and friends perform four new pieces, the product of 15 months of development, change and discovery for their creators. Composer Anselm McDonnell tells us more about his music ahead of the concert …

'Within Northern Ireland’s heady mixture of religion and politics, music has always been an important mode of expression for the community: for political statement or protest, indicating allegiance to a cause, a celebration of significant historical events, and – in its most menacing forms – a means of intimidation and demarcating territorial boundaries. The most visible manifestation of this is the culture of parading. At different times of the year nationalist and republican marching bands fill the streets, bedecked in regalia and political iconography. The flourishing musical culture around parading has produced competitive amateur musicians of the highest calibre, but the controversial nature of the practice provokes deeply personal responses from Northern Ireland's diverse communities.

'For some pieces I feel that noise is a more appropriate language. … Timbres associated with parading are at the forefront here, their conventional sounds impossible to extricate from their cultural context'.

My piece for LSO Soundhub, The Union is our God, folds musical references and symbolism from our parade culture into a work of contemporary music. It contains personal memories from my upbringing: snare drums drilling their incessant tattoos behind our house every Saturday morning and the fascinating, visceral hum of our native drum, the lambeg. The sounds of my piece, I’m afraid, are quite aggressive and blunt. While I am fond of writing languid melodies and rich harmonies, for some pieces I feel that noise is a more appropriate language. The Union is our God uses heavy symbolism in its choice of sounds and instruments. Timbres associated with parading are at the forefront here – piccolo, lambeg and snare drums – in a way a form of musical iconography, their conventional sounds impossible to extricate from their cultural context. Other, more unusual sounds – such as feedback from megaphones, pitches from shattered glass pieces, the distorted voices of well-known politicians, amplifier static and a screaming electric guitar – are aural symbols that, for me, evoke protest, iconoclasm and violence.

Watch on YouTube on Saturday 10 April 7pm: LSO Soundhub Showcase

A musician speaks through a megaphone, another plays tuned percussion

In workshops with LSO musicians as part of the LSO Soundhub scheme, we explored a variety of improvised soundworlds which I then moulded into this finished piece. It was a pleasure not only working alongside these excellent musicians, but also performing with them (I wrote the electric guitar part with the intention of playing in the premiere – particular thanks to guitarist Tom Ellis who has stepped in last minute because of travel restrictions). My thanks to the LSO Members and the whole team at the LSO for their support and constant re-planning over this time, my mentor Benjamin Dwyer and my collaborator Laurenz Theinert, who created the visual element of the work.

'Fifteen months is a period in which a musical voice can change dramatically.'

The process of composing feels as if it has been constantly dogged by Covid-19. Restrictions and delays meant the piece was created in a stop-start fashion over 15 months. While not the creative path I would have chosen, composing a piece over such a long timeframe has been a beneficial experience. I usually work on one or two pieces at a time until they are finished, but the enforced staggering of this project gave plenty of space to reflect on the piece’s direction. At this early stage of my compositional career, 15 months is a period in which a musical voice can change dramatically, and I hope that my numerous returns to the work have honed the piece to a more mature and personal expression than when I first drafted my ideas.'

A conductor stands in front of four musicians

Composer Anselm McDonnell turned away from cameraAnselm McDonnell

Anselm McDonnell is a composer of Irish/Welsh heritage currently based in Belfast, who has composed over 60 pieces for orchestra, chamber groups, choirs, soloists and electronics. His music has been performed in Canada, Finland, the Czech Republic, Japan, Russia, France, North America and various locations around the UK and Ireland. A diverse range of interests have led to the creation of work in collaboration with lighting designers, theologians, poets, filmmakers (including 360 VR and spatialized sound), improvising musicians, dancers, fashion designers and actors.

LSO Soundhub Showcase
Saturday 10 April 7pm GMT,

Hear Anselm McDonnell's The Union is our God in our online concert on Saturday 10 April, alongside music by other early-career composers. Watch for free on our YouTube channel, and join in with the live chat from 7pm GMT, where you can ask our four composers about their pieces and experiences on the LSO Soundhub scheme.

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> What is the LSO Soundhub scheme for early-career composers? 

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