Something new is happening in Dublin. At least, it will be at the start of March, when the city’s foremost contemporary music festival, New Music Dublin, returns for three-and-a-bit days of adventurous music-making.

New Music Dublin is a relatively new festival, beginning just five years ago, and since its inception it has been run by a tripartite group comprising Irish broadcaster RTÉ, the National Concert Hall and the Contemporary Music Centre. Even within that short time span, the festival has essentially reinvented itself on a yearly basis. In 2013 the festival was organised by a committee, 2014 put Donnacha Dennehy in charge and in 2015 US composer David Lang so demonstrably took the reins that the festival was entirely renamed, not entirely subtly, to “What?...Wow: David Lang’s Festival of Music”. The festival then took a break in 2016 before returning last year with Thomas Adès overseeing things.

Such a peripatetic approach to concert curation can be problematic, but the constancy of the festival’s three key partners is something that its new artistic director, John Harris, believes to be hugely advantageous, combining the considerable performance potential provided by the National Concert Hall (which Harris describes as a “rabbit warren” replete with an old mortuary; in an earlier life, it served as a medical school) in addition to RTÉ’s impressive performance groups, the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir, the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. With specific regard to new music, Harris regards the RTÉ Concert Orchestra as particularly valuable: “They do so many different things: one lunchtime they’re playing light music, the next moment there’s orchestral raves, and next they’re doing hardcore contemporary music. They’re a very, very versatile bunch, and their mindset is very ‘can do.’”

Harris’s pedigree in new music is strong. A composer himself (though, interestingly, his academic background is in materials science), he served as artistic director for the Paragon Ensemble and general manager for the Hebrides Ensemble, and is currently artistic co-director and chief executive of Red Note Ensemble. Red Note’s successes on his watch have been considerable, including major new works from James Dillon (most recently premièring his Tanz/haus : triptych 2017 at last year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival), Maja S.K. Ratkje and Benedict Mason.

Just putting those three composers’ names together indicates also that Harris’s musical outlook is unconventional and experimental, not dictated by perceived cultural trends. “If there’s an idea running through the festival”, he says, “it’s about stylistic inclusivity. I’m not genre-driven, I have no kind of sense of the ‘right way’ for contemporary music to go.” His criteria for good music is altogether more straightforward: “Does it grab my attention, and does it hold it? It’s both the art and the craft: does the composer or performer have a compelling idea, and then can they structure it? It’s that simple.”

The diversity that such an open outlook as this will inevitably produce can be seen in the range of music featured at this year’s New Music Dublin, where the familiar and the iconoclastic don’t merely feature but sometimes both occur even in the same concert. Among the more ambitious is David Fennessy’s electroacoustic orchestral piece Conquest of the Useless. Inspired by Werner Herzog’s reflections on the creation of his film Fitzcarraldo, this will be the first complete performance of the work, including the composer himself playing electric guitar. James MacMillan will also be present to conduct his 2013 choral work Credo, as well as the Irish première of his setting of the Stabat mater, on successive nights. Deirdre Gribbin’s hour-long percussion concerto Goliath is the clear highlight of the festival’s opening night, while Stockhausen’s two-hour epic Natural Durations will be challenging audiences during the closing weekend. Challenging them in more ways than one, moreover, as John Harris has decided to take a unique approach at this particular concert: “It’s a lock in – you can go to the toilet but you can’t come back in!”

Everywhere else, though, Harris’s intention is that audiences should find the festival a welcoming and relaxed experience. “The vast majority of people don’t put themselves into uncomfortable situations – and why should they? We have to find a social situation where people don’t feel trapped, so they can be comfortable and receptive, and then something really interesting will happen.” He regards an emphasis on the social aspects of listening to and engaging with new music as a vital part of this. “The Irish are renowned for their hospitality, so why would you have a festival that doesn’t have discussion and sociability and generally having a good time at its heart? We want people to come, evaluate the music, make their minds up and chat about it, and you can say I hated it, or I loved it – or I just didn’t get it!”

The guiding principle is rooted in Harris’s own first encounters with new music. He recalls, “I remember the first time I heard Boulez’s Rituel In Memoriam Bruno Maderna, and I was like, ‘I had no idea that was possible’, and the same thing was true for works by Stockhausen and Jonathan Harvey: ‘I had no idea this existed in the world’. That’s what I want for New Music Dublin, that’s what I’m aiming at, that sense of wonder.”

One of the most unexpected events will be taking place late on Friday evening, bringing together the seemingly incongruous pairing of Unsuk Chin and Kevin Volans. What connects them is that each piece features a traditional instrument: Chin’s Šu the Chinese sheng, Volans’ Gol Na mBan San Ár (receiving its world première) the Irish uilleann pipes, played by Wu Wei and David Power respectively. Harris notes that while Volans and Chin “couldn’t be more different stylistically”, the aim of the concert is “looking at ways in which those two composers sonically deal with the instruments alongside a symphony orchestra. They’re both very quiet, and how do the tunings fit? Also David Power doesn’t read music – so how does a performer who works entirely by ear work with a conductor? There are endless interesting things there in terms of crossover, things taken out of their conventional places to somewhere new.”

Harris is keen to reinforce the role Ireland plays in contemporary music, particularly with regard to the country’s home-grown composers who are no longer resident. “People leave Ireland: Donnacha Dennehy goes to America, Ann Cleare to York, Linda Buckley to Glasgow, Jennifer Walshe to London, and the connections are not necessarily made back to their home country, so it’s about remaking those connections.” Beyond this, Harris has clear aims to establish a more equal representation of music by women composers. “It’s true that there has been a massive inherent bias, not just in music but in all the arts, towards male creators, and that has enormously bothered me.” This year’s programme is by no means equal, but that will soon change: “I’m aiming for parity next year, or maybe slightly over. I don’t think it’s hard, the music and the composers are out there.”

On the one hand, as Harris admits, there’s a lot to do – as there is for all new music festivals – in terms of attracting and winning over audiences to contemporary music. Yet his confidence in what he calls Ireland’s “exploratory sense” is strong: “James Joyce’s Ulysses is like a national book, everybody has encountered it. Which other avant-garde writer is as celebrated anywhere? So you have a sense of the avant-garde being a good thing in Ireland.”

Unlike his predecessors, John Harris’s role as artistic director extends to two years. Therefore, New Music Dublin’s fifth birthday may turn out to be the start of an important new chapter in the life of the festival, one that sees its vision become more focused and eclectic than before. But whatever happens, Harris’s intention, above all else, is that “a good time will be had by all”.

Click here to view a selection of events taking place during New Music Dublin. 


Article sponsored by New Music Dublin.