An Interview

Michael O’Neill

This interview with Michael O’Neill was conducted at the Songlines office on June 23, 2006.

TR: Let’s find out about your background, Michael. When did you get really interested in music?

MO: I was always interested in music, we got a piano when I was 5 and was immediately interested in that. I used to what you would call play it – improvise. I started taking piano lessons, but they were tough, they weren’t that interesting and in retrospect I think it was the music…although I was very interested in reading about other musicians, which meant famous dead composers – Beethoven, Mozart. We had a mobile library that used to come to our elementary school and I used to take out musician’s biographies, and that’s when I thought that I’d like to be a musician’s biography.

TR: [Laughter] So what instruments did you end up liking and working on?

MO: I was interested in rock bands so I played guitar and couldn’t resist drumming. Other than that, everything centred for me on the piano. That’s the instrument I really played until I was about 13. Coming from Calgary, I used to hear bagpipes in parades, the Calgary Stampede parade, and my father played bagpipe records, so I really did love hearing that sound, I thought it was an amazing sound, especially the cliché of hearing them very faintly in the distance and having them become louder and louder as they came closer. And then have them pass by and have the sound change so that you hear the drones. If bagpipes could travel as fast as a car in a parade that would probably make a wonderful Doppler effect. Even up at Simon Fraser University when the band is practicing in the rose garden at Burnaby Mountain Park, it’s a great sound to hear them in their nearly perfect tuning, to hear the sound of the chanters and the drone change as they’re walking past you, but to be very close to them.

TR: So tell me more about your teenage years.

MO: I was pulled in different ways; I did play in the high school band, we had a rock band with brass, and I would do the arrangements, that was the best ear training I think I ever had. I was playing a Wurlitzer electric piano that had, I think of it as a speckled kindergarten paint finish, and the metal reeds were always breaking and I had to lug it in for repair. The idea of playing piano seriously was looming, I was studying with someone who had a lot of the best pupils in the city and I’d hear them play wonderful piano pieces, I especially remembering hearing a Prokofiev sonata. Finally the music was inspiring in the piano lessons world. I learned really fast because he gave you wonderful pieces and expected you to know them fast. And I let the rock band thing go and concentrated more on classical piano.

TR: When did you start composing, was that much later?

MO: The part that I haven’t talked about is playing in a pipe band. Compared to piano lessons the whole approach to music was significantly different. And I think that’s where I first experienced the large gulf between the traditions. At piano lessons I could hardly say the word bagpipe without feeling they’re not really an instrument, and at pipe band practice piano seemed like such a sissy thing. But with the pipe band, it was an ensemble, and it was great fun working and horsing around with the people in the band, who were mostly around my age. And the band trips were the real exciting part, going to small towns around Alberta and playing for parades and rodeos.

So composing: the first attempt I think I made was back in elementary school when I was asked to do music for a play about the history of Canada. The teacher asked me to write something, and I wrote this little tune but for some reason it wasn’t used. Well it just so happens it had its premiere yesterday, forty years later, as accompaniment for a poetry project at my daughter’s elementary school. A small band including my daughter played the song.

From then until I enrolled in university I was writing the odd piano piece but really started to write – still piano music – a lot in university, University of Calgary.

TR: So were you contemplating a career in music at this point?

MO: Yes. It was pretty early on at university that I decided to do composition.

TR: Who were you studying with there?

MO: A few people; Gregory Levin was my first comp teacher, I think he ended up having a skiing accident and I don’t think he’s active anymore. William Jordan was my other official comp teacher. I had a friend who was also a piano player, totally untrained in music, who was writing long piano pieces, tonal with a biting use of dissonance. He could only play it, couldn’t write it down. But I found our discussions about composition very inspiring, and I composed pieces at the piano also without writing them down, following his lead, which got me into trouble with my composition teacher. I told him, “Listen to this new composition,” and he said, “Forget it, I don’t want to hear it till it’s written down.” But I wasn’t playing pipes anymore, I’d put them away. I remember pulling the chanter out in a history of music class to demonstrate a mixolydian mode, the mode of Scottish pipes. There everybody got a kick out of it, including the teacher.

TR: Where were your aesthetic impulses taking you then?

MO: Around this time I was very interested in late romantic piano works, and then I met someone at the uni who introduced me to Marcel Duchamp, early minimalist composers (Reich, Riley, and English composers Michael Nyman, Michael Parsons and Howard Skempton). Together we organized small concerts playing these works at the university, including in the art gallery – this was the late 70s. So my aesthetics took a dramatic turn towards contemporary music.

TR: So eventually you graduated, what was next for you?

MO: After my final performance I heard that there was a composition course in Banff with a composer that I’d grown to like, Gilles Tremblay. By this time the course was full so I went to Banff for the first meeting anyways. One of the students didn’t show up and even though I wasn’t first on the list I was there and they took me in. After this course Tremblay invited me to come to Montreal to study at the Conservatoire de Musique de Montréal. Which was another big turning point, because Tremblay had been to Bali, and played recordings of Balinese gamelan in his class. It was in a record store in Montreal that I saw this new LP which had picture of Einstein playing violin on a beach. I almost bought the record just because of the picture, the aura around the package, but went back for it later and ended up doing a big analysis paper on Einstein on the Beach, even though M. Tremblay couldn’t stand Glass’s music. But he still encouraged me to go ahead. I needed the score so I arranged a meeting with Glass in NY. So analyzing EotB was a door into another world of music-making, to really understand how another composer’s working. The one thing I remember was talking with Glass about Robert Ashley’s music, and I thought it was ironic that Philip Glass would ask me, “Oh, what’s Bob up to these days?” probably because he was so immersed in his own work that he hadn’t heard.

I also played with a group called Sonde that built their own electroacoustic and acoustic instruments. We would improvise on them. A wonderful instrument was what they called a sahabi. It was a bed-shaped metal frame with dozens of strings stretched across a metal bridge…we would all play it at the same time. One of the members, Charles, was talking to someone who didn’t speak English very well, and Charles was asking what instruments he played. He listed the usual ones: piano, violin, …as a hobby. And the guy thought the guy had said “a sahabi,” so that’s how it got named.

My time in Montreal ended after three years. My father was sick and I came back to Calgary in 1982. He died and for a few months I wondered what I was going to do next. But when I heard Martin Bartlett, whose music I was already familiar with, was going to be teaching at SFU (along with Barry Truax – I’d already been speaking with Barry about doing a graduate degree by Special Arrangement, though they didn’t yet offer a Master’s of Music), I decided to come out here. I enrolled in a course with Martin but found I was so saturated with school I couldn’t continue at that time. I started playing music for dance classes and I did audit Martin’s computer music class. It was a very early course with personal computers (rather than the really big computers that Barry was using) – this was pre-Commodore, I’m pretty sure it was an Aim 65 computer, with practically zero memory. It was too primitive for me, the results weren’t immediate enough, there was no interactivity yet.

The next thing I did, I was invited by a student choreographer to do music for a dance piece. The only instrument I had with me was my old set of bagpipes, but now even though I didn’t know it at the time I was in bagpipe land, with the extremely promising up-and-coming SFU pipe band. I got my pipes fixed, bought a new practice chanter and started in on this piece. Somehow playing the pipes is such a…the movements are so restricted, with only nine notes, you don’t move your hands around at all, so your fingers end up just moving so easily in these habitual patterns that it’s hard to think of a new piece, especially outside the tradition of highland piping. So I turned to John Cage’s method of flipping coins to generate pitch material. I flipped a few lines, played them back, and found that they fell into minimalist, almost Glass-like phrases. I would start with a short riff and add the next three notes of the line, and repeat that, and produce these accumulating melodies. Since writing that piece I haven’t stopped writing for pipes. It seemed liberating working with them, dragging them into another tradition.

TO: Pretty soon you also found a way to get involved in gamelan.

MO: Hearing Balinese music live at the 1985 Asia Pacific Festival made an extremely big impression on me. It was the music that accompanies shadow play, and of course there was the shadow play too. The music sounded very eerie, other-worldly. And the next year, when a friend, Kenneth Newby, announced in a post-card he was coming back from Bali with these shadow play instruments (genders), I knew that I was going to learn how to play them. And shortly after he came back, Expo 86 started, and I ended up inheriting a pass to the grounds, and I went every day for those three weeks to the Indonesian pavilion where there were performances of Balinese, Javanese and Sumatran music and dance. During Expo there was a gamelan intensive with Pak Cokro, a very famous and honoured Javanese musician. I remember him sitting across from me at the bonang, which I’d never played before, and he started whacking the pots and expecting me to play them instantly, and getting irritated that something seemingly so simple was a problem to learn. At the same time there were Balinese gender wayang sessions with Wenten. We’d hang out on the grass outside towards the end of the day and learn some of the shadow play repertoire.

TO: Let’s jump ahead and talk about your compositions for bagpipes, at least the ones that we’ve recorded. They were composed over a fifteen year period, weren’t they?

MO: Yeah. This recording starts with the first piece that seems past the trial-and-error stage, “Horse of a Different Colour.” Somehow the most Glass-influenced piece, with short motives repeated, but with as much dissonance as I could get out of the bagpipes at that time – clusters of major and minor 2nds, but within a riff that’s repeated and played quickly so you don’t hear the dissonances as you would if they were sustained. I was also using hocketing devices that I think were in my mind from Balinese gamelan. I constructed the hocketing sections so that single notes of the melody would come from each of the four bagpipes in sequence. Kind of creating a traveling melody.

The next one to be composed was Being and Doing. I was always fascinated with the pipes because you can walk and play them, I like hearing the sound change as a piper walks. Then I heard Jurgen Gothe, a CBC radio host, suggesting that composers write new music that could be used in parades or while walking, and he talked about a new age, granola type of music. I was interested in the walking part but not the granola! I wrote three simple pieces that I thought would be good for walking, each one slightly faster than the other. And then at some point I got the idea, I guess because pipes are such a ceremonial instrument, that years of experiences gleaned and absorbed when playing at these special occasions, were what these pieces I was working on were really about. I realized I could make a piece that would mirror a journey walking through life, and that I could also speculate through music on the afterlife, and create a cycle of a whole set of pieces starting with those three. I called the part about life Being, and the part about death or the beyond Doing. I finished the whole Being section and realized that there was no marching or walking to it, because what I thought was simple to play wasn’t really, when it came to marching. The Doing section came later, and the idea was to create a piece that didn’t really move very much, or was more about sustain and tuning than actually trying to get anywhere. I’d always been kind of inspired, if that’s the word, by Hare Krishna drumming and chanting and so I asked a friend who played tabla, Andreas Kahre, to play the piece, and I played cymbals Hare Krishna-style. It wasn’t performed at the time but we made an initial recording. I always planned it to be a very long piece, so I wrote the first part for four pipers and all the rest of the piece for three pipers, thinking that the extra piper could spell off the others at certain points in the piece. We’ve got a recording of the piece but it seems an actual performance is still a ways off!

“Jedaya”: I had the bright idea of asking the SFU pipe band to commission me. The piece was inspired by sailing trips in Georgia Strait with a friend who’s a very good sailor. On one trip we had a recording blasting out from down below of music that was largely percussion and drone (from the Halcyon Days CD, by Steve Roach, Steven Kent and Kenneth Newby). It made a perfect soundtrack for what was going on in the boat – blustery day, with us all sitting on one side of the boat, tilting way over – hiking? – to keep it balanced in the wind. So that’s the kinetic effect I’m trying to recapture in the piece. When I got home I put on the recording and improvised for a while on practice chanter, coming up with the melodic material. The end section also draws on a sailing trip with an incompetent sailor who crashed the boat into the beach after turning it over in the lake, and it was this sobering experience that I drew on for the dirge-like end section. That, and the other thing that really sparked that section is flying in a small plane over Flores Island on the west coast. With no warning, the pilot turned the plane over and flew upside down, and then straightened up, leaving us in a state of shock which kind of translated into the transition from the sailing section to the dirge.

Finally, “Luffness,” which is a collaboratively composed piece in a different key than pipes usually play. I’d built extensions for my drones in order to be in tune with Evergreen Club’s Sundanese gamelan’s gong, so I wanted to do another piece using these extensions. The piece was a collaboration with the Vancouver new taiko group Uzume Taiko, which I’d been working with since 1995, playing bagpipes and touring and recording. I wrote an initial fast section and Uzume wrote the taiko part; then in reaction to that section, other people came forth with proposals for additional sections. Another piper wrote a chordal introduction, Bonnie Soon of Uzume wrote both the pipe and taiko part for the concluding section, and Boyd and I added another section for the small, high-pitched shime drums. For the recording I lengthened some parts and knitted it all together. The shakuhachi intro was added for a performance of part of the piece. We were all working with an image in mind, suggested by a well-known Scottish musician, Phil Cunningham, to Uzume in a bar in Aberdeen: a pipe band and a taiko group encountering each other on a misty moor.

By lowering the drone note you get a new mode, a major scale in fact. There’s no flat 7th anymore, which is a very distinctive and delicious interval on regularly tuned highland pipes. The advantage is that it’s phenomenal to hear the pipes with a lower drone after thirty-five years of playing in the same key. Somehow it has a depth and resonance that’s quite hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck raising. But it makes a pelog mode sound very good, it’s a good tuning to do pelog in, which you hear in the section with didjeridu. And then elsewhere I just avoid using the 7th altogether, and it gives you a nice pentatonic sound in a different key. Another thing that happens is that we’ve created chord progressions. Sometimes a sequence of triads change by having the players take turns changing notes. Other times each chord in the sequence is reiterated by playing grace notes which make little melodies around the chord tones.

It’s a collaboration with a taiko group, and taiko groups called their pieces ‘songs,’ the pitches of the drums create melodies. So for this recording the drums may seem louder than drums usually played as accompaniment, because they’re equal partners in the composition. You just accept so easily that if it’s bagpipe music the pipes are in the foreground, but when I’m a soloist with Uzume Taiko, I’m the extra voice and the drums are in the foreground. With this piece we’re trying to equalize things, have both the pipes and the taiko in the foreground. Please turn it up loud!

TO: Talk a little bit about your gamelan compositions and when those two worlds came together at the Sound Symposium.

MO: Well, as often is the case, it was an event, the Spring Sonoral concert in Vancouver in 1995, that got everyone in the Vancouver Community Gamelan writing new music. Of course I happily took on writing a piece for that. For years I’d been playing the opening melody of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin on the piano. I’d play the same riff with both hands and play it like Steve Reich’s “Piano Phase” (for two pianos), where one hand would go faster than the other. Somehow I got the idea to try this melody out on gamelan. But a gamelan doesn’t usually play melodies this fast, except in Balinese music. So I tried splitting the melody up between two players as they do in Bali, but here one player is on a slendro instrument and the other on the pelog instrument. Combined, they create a new combination of pitches, kind of like having some of the chromatic notes that you have on the piano. I’ve kept the idea of cycling, which gamelan music is based on, but the cycling is happening at a much faster rate than in Javanese gamelan. This became the second and third sections of “Lessons of the Garden” (recorded on New Nectar). For this piece I’m starting with a western structure and carrying it into the gamelan soundworld. A lot of people, even western composers, seem to approach it the other way around, starting with gamelan structures.

For the 1998 Sound Symposium in Saint John’s, the artistic director Don Wherry realized that since a gamelan, the Evergreen Club, would be there and I’d be there with Uzume Taiko, that I might be interested in writing a piece for bagpipes and gamelan. He got that right! Evergreen had just purchased a new Sundanese gamelan and their old one in the same tuning was here in Vancouver. I tried my bagpipes with it and realized that my chanter had all the notes of the gamelan but the drone was a note the gamelan didn’t have and that this was a big problem. The gong creates the drone foundation for the gamelan. So as I mentioned before, the drone extensions were born.

After the first piece I wrote for gamelan (“Lessons of the Garden,” subtitled Gateway, Path, Waterway for the three sections) I realized I could create a set of pieces for gamelan on other aspects of the garden. So when the commission for Evergreen Club came through I used the opportunity to continue the series with “Forest and Field.” I’ve since continued the series with two pieces for gender wayang ensemble called “Maze and Mound.” I’m going to return to Javanese gamelan to complete the set, a new, as yet to be written piece set in the garden’s grotto.

I realize I’m going on a bit here but this refers back to my studies at SFU. I did eventually do an MFA there with Martin Bartlett, Barry Truax and Martin Gotfrit –he’s an interesting composer working in the interactive electroacoustic field. For my final project…I wanted it to be quite interdisciplinary as I was very inspired by Robert Ashley’s operas for television and his very balanced integration of music, word and visual images. As I was mulling over ideas I came across an introduction by Jean Houston to a book – Trialogues at the Edge of the West – these wildly speculative discussions between Terence McKenna, Rupert Sheldrake and Ralph Abraham. In the intro Jean tells the story of when she was a young girl accompanying her father to ventriloquist Edger Bergen’s hotel room with her father, who wrote some of his scripts. When they arrived, Edgar was sitting on the edge of his bed talking with his puppet Charlie McCarthy. Jean remembers it as a very deep discussion with Edgar asking ‘The Big Questions’ like “Who created the universe?” Apparently Charlie answers the questions very wisely, and moments later when Jean and her father interrupt, Edgar reveals that he never knows how Charlie is going to answer and that he’s the wisest person he knows! Ha! Anyway I was so impressed with this that I thought here was a way to approach the multi-disciplinary challenge that would bring together many of my interests at the time, like Balinese shadow play, alchemical opera, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, and gamelan music. So I had a local artist, Lionel Doucette, build a ventriloquist figure using actor David Garfinkle’s face as the starting point. Hi David. I rushed into producing this event, I think a little too soon. I was not ready to perform as a puppeteer – I kept thinking about the years of training and strategies for preparing oneself for the task of performing that Balinese dalangs – puppet masters – do. I would like to work again with this wonderful puppet who has sat patiently in my closet for years. So I think it would be the perfect way to conclude the Lessons of the Garden series – a ventriloquist puppet performance in the grotto of the garden.

TO: To get back to Ontophony, there were some unexpected problems with the recording…

MO: Yes! Unexpected problems happen so often in my experience of the piping world that I’m tempted to call them expected unexpected problems. The day before the recording, during a rehearsal with one of the other pipers, I stepped out for fifteen minutes and when I returned I saw that the other piper had helped me out by customizing my reed – the thing is, he’d got my chanters mixed up and it was the wrong reed; he’d planed the wrong reed with a knife. The next day the reed collapsed and I had to use a different one, and my part in the recording was quite out of tune. However, because of the way we recorded it (with extensive multi-tracking) we were able to fix the tuning in the editing process. And doing the tuning work confirmed my belief that the bagpipe plays in a just intonation system. The well-tempered system used in classical western music, especially on the piano, uses intervals that are consistent in all twelve keys. These pieces are in a just-intonation scale, with intervals in simple ratios, specifically, starting with the fundamental tone (tonic): 1:1, 9:8, 5:4, 4:3, 3:2, 8:5, 7:4, 2:1. The reason people have a strong reaction to pipes is because they’re hearing these very well-tuned intervals. Bagpipes and bagpipe music are all about tuning. Pipers spend half their piping lives tuning. As an example, at a competition where they’re playing the classical style piobaireachd (anglicized it’s ‘pibroch’), the judges have a box with two lights. As a piper is tuning up, a yellow light will go on after about five minutes, meaning that the piper is nearing the end of their allotted tuning period. When the red light goes on they have to start playing the piobaireachd within one minute. That’s a long time to tune for a ten minute piece but it has to be just right.

TO: But you also tuned some of the other pieces and the other pipers during editing. Why was that?

MO: Everybody was out of tune a little bit. We don’t play in a pipe band together, so our tuning isn’t worked on twice a week. We use some pitches in these pieces that they don’t normally use, so everybody has a different conception of what that pitch is, since this isn’t the well-tempered world. In “Luffness,” because we’ve changed where the drone sits in relation to the chanter, we have an extra high note which nobody is used to tuning it in relation to this modified drone. To complicate matters, pipers tune their highest note slightly flat so it just stands out from the drone. This habit becomes a problem in this new key, because the note has a new position in the scale. Different pipers want to tune it differently (using electricians’ tape over the hole – all pipers use it by the way).

TO: You’ve put together a few groups of pipers to play some of these pieces before but you’ve never had a stable performing ensemble. Mearingstone, the piping group on this record, is that group. What are your plans to get this music played and toured?

MO: I feel like the ensemble has been around since the mid-80s when I approached the SFU pipe band for players to perform a new work of mine. One of those players is still part of my group which I’m now calling Mearingstone (the name means ‘stone of boundaries’ and originates in the gaelic phrase Aill na Míreann. Mearingstone I first encountered in Finnegan’s Wake. I’ve since found that there is a rock in a field in the geographical centre of the island of Ireland, on the Hill of Uisneach, and the stone is called Aill na Míreann. It’s a famous locale, almost a sacred site in the Celtic world. Of course, as a gamelan player, miring has another meaning, a specific mixing of notes from outside slendro in certain pieces. So there may be a Joycean pun there somewhere in relation to my world music world.) Anyway, Andrew Bonar has been involved with my music since then. The other players are recent recruits.

Because we’ve just finished the record, we know the music and so we want to play it. And if we can travel and play it, all the better. So one plan is to create a concert largely made up of the music on the record, and have Uzume play some strictly taiko works to give the pipers a chance to catch their breath. The plan is to tour Europe, Italy in particular, playing in new music contexts and maybe bagpipe festivals. Europe is much more attuned to bagpipes than North America, since each country has its own pipe tradition. There are several large bagpipe and Celtic festivals. And of course we’d like to arrange a Canadian and North American tour as well.