LSO Soundhub's Ruaidhrí Mannion: 'Finished works and ideas share less in common than you might think'

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 Ruaidhrí Mannion tells us more about his music ahead of the concert …

'No matter who you are or what you’re doing in 2021, we’re all a world away from where we thought we’d be.

I mBéal na Toinne (Irish for ‘in the mouth of a wave’) is written for three cellos and three sine tone oscillators. It was originally conceived as the first movement of an audiovisual work that would explore our relationship to digital technologies through themes of the self, our digital avatars and our ‘shadow-selves’. However several months into the writing process my intended collaboration with renowned British visual artist Chris Boyd was visited by serious illness and also by the Covid-19 pandemic. I prepared myself to radically re-think what shape my piece would take and what relevance it could have in a landscape of emergency, sickness and lockdown isolation.

I had the idea for this piece while waking up one morning in the late summer of 2019. Ideas for pieces that come to me while sleeping or dozing are often very precise, otherwise they don’t stay with me for very long. I knew then that the piece would be entirely built on the idea of the cello trio playing in ‘unisons’ – operating as one, triads spoken together, mirrored by sine tones almost exactly. There is the cello and then there is the sine wave – the cello’s ghost, or aura, or shadow, or trail or avatar … One voice is always low, one is central and one is high – except when they exchange roles. They always speak as one – except when they stagger. There is one chord, then another, and that always leads to the cadence.

These were essentially the rules of the game as I composed the harmonies and progressions on sheets of manuscript originally labelled ‘sculptures’ (and later, files labelled ‘fractures’, ‘wave sculptures 2’, ‘sculptures reworked 23 EDIT’ etc). After that there were only the minor tasks of nailing down the notation of the cello parts, finding the exact right type of synthesis, building a Max patch to operate audio and video, coordinating with the live visuals (3D renderings of the musicians themselves to be projected onto a large screen) – you know – very small, minor tasks.

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

Ruiadhri smiles at a cellist

But last year had other plans for everyone …

The LSO Soundhub Showcase, originally scheduled for July 2020, was to be delayed. However in the midst of the confusion of the first lockdown there was much to celebrate for my wife and I when our first child – a boy, Naoise – was born in May. Taking full advantage of the lockdown I focussed on family life, putting this and other pieces to the side for those first few months, and instead wrote songs and played my guitar. It turns out making music with a young baby at home needs to be more immediate and in the moment, given that it’s nearly impossible to hold onto an simple idea for longer than two or three minutes, much less anything even remotely abstract.

When I returned to composing in the autumn of 2020, circumstances dictated that my audiovisual collaboration with artist Chris Boyd had to be postponed. As I was no longer composing music for an AV work, I decided that my task was to cut to the heart of my piece as a work of art that would be listened to. I could only compose what I now wanted to hear. I’m sure I can’t be the only artist who feels the completion of a new work has an in-built sense of mourning for the piece you imagined it was going to be, but now never could be, because you just went and finished something totally different. In some sense, finished works and ideas share less in common than you might think. Ideas revel in the shapelessness that gives them so much potential, while finished works demand the absolutism of form and solutions.

'It remains so difficult to discuss what a piece of music is all about because as creators we are often the least capable of knowing when or how these ideas took the form that they eventually did as we reflect on the points of origin.'

But it in another sense, it was the inevitability of this piece becoming something so different that allowed me to reflect on the essence of the work and ‘sculptures’ I had composed for the trio. I decided in the autumn that I wouldn’t add any more layers of information to what had been composed before, instead I would find the perfect way to shape and phrase the material, and let it speak for itself.

Three cellists perform lit by blue light

In the mouth of a wave

The title I mBéal na Toinne comes from an Irish phrase which means ‘in the mouth of a wave’ (or even, ‘at the edge of the sea’). I drew heavily on imagery of the motion and contour of quiet waves near a shore, thinking on how to represent the way the air and the sea take each other's inverted shape as their volumes meet when the waves rise and fall. So too, do the sine waves and cellos meet each other in the isolated sounding of each harmony, revealing their unique shape through the chord voicing and dynamic envelope – their attack, sustain and release. It is a partly-deconstructed musical narrative of fleeting episodes, cyclical patterns and rich harmonic cadences – a meditative space which is at once vulnerable, but also brimming with an underlying source of strength.

It’s honestly remarkable to me that we have finally arrived at a moment where the piece can be heard by an audience. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the musicians of the LSO who have helped to shape this piece – Noel Bradshaw, Daniel Gardner, Hilary Jones, Jennifer Brown, Amanda Truelove – and to cellist Colin Alexander. Colin, in particular introduced me many years ago to a great wealth of early music from the Medieval and Renaissance periods, and his own work with his cello trio Tré Voci and transcriptions of composers such as Johannes Ockeghem and John Dunstable were a tremendous influence on me in conceiving the language and atmosphere of I mBéal na Toinne. It has been an incredible privilege to work with such talented artists and the team at the LSO.

I really do hope you enjoy my piece (best enjoyed with headphones while we can’t be together in the concert hall). I’ve included a playlist of pieces which were in my orbit while writing this piece – perhaps it can also say something instructive about the different worlds that this piece inhabits in my mind.'

Ruaidhri MannionRuaidhrí Mannion

Ruaidhrí Mannion is an Irish composer and sonic artist living in London. He holds a doctorate from the Royal College of Music, which he completed in 2019 under the supervision of Dr Jonathan Cole and Gilbert Nouno (IRCAM), and generously supported by the Soirée d'Or Award. He previously studied with Kenneth Hesketh at the RCM and with Piers Hellawell at Queen's University in Belfast. Combining immersive electronic sounds with classical instruments and multimedia, his music is evocative and sometimes surreal, reflecting his unique perspective of classical music, modern electronica and ambient genres.

LSO Soundhub Showcase
Saturday 10 April 7pm GMT,

Hear Ruaidhrí Mannion's I mBéal na Toinne 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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