October-December 2020

While these months have had a number of disappointing delays, that has meant more time to plan projects and compose, so there’s plenty going on behind the scenes!

Firstly, some album updates:

The fantastic Laura Sinnerton of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales recorded her debut album of solo viola works at the end of November in Birmingham. The CD includes excerpts from my concert-work for solo viola and VR, The Testimony of John Paton, and will be released in Spring 2021 by the Birmingham Record Company, and distributed by NMC Recordings.

My commission from the CRASH Ensemble, Cross-Purposes, a duo for clarinet, cello, & electronics, was to be recorded in December, but has been delayed until the new year due to restrictions in Ireland. The forthcoming release, Reactions, will be published on the CRASH Ensemble label in 2021, along with visual material edited by Laura Sheeran.

I’m currently finishing my piece for Claire Edwardes and Jason Noble of Ensemble Offspring: Woolgathering. It will be released in Spring 2021 on the newly formed ICC label. If you’re interested in funding the ICC’s label venture, and receiving the three CDs that will initially be released, you can donate here (link will be added once the indigogo page is live).

Plans for my first portrait album are trundling along! A special thank you to Moving On Music for all their support and patience as we’ve planned, re-planned, and tentatively scheduled. Hopefully things will kick off in February, when I’ll get into the recording studio with Cahal Masterson, and then later in the month with Chris Roberts, to record my two suites: piano (Ceaselessly into the past) and guitar (Eyewitnesses of His Majesty).

Secondly, some performance updates:

December has some online events: On December 6th my collaboration with film-maker Oliver Mezger, Direct Shipping/Crossing the Firth, will be broadcast as part of the Nottfar Midlands New Music Symposium. The same day at 7pm GMT, Choir & Organ will host an online launch of their New Music Series for 2021, including a short reflection I have pre-recorded for them about my piece Asphyxiate.

Some exciting performances coming up early next year. In the first week of January, I’ll have a short interview broadcast on BBC Radio 3 for their New Year, New Music series, where I’ll be discussing a work that inspired me in 2020, Djuro Zivkovic’s On the Guarding of the Heart. On January 13th, my piece Laniakea, which has been re-orchestrated for full-sized orchestra, will be recorded for broadcast by the Ulster Orchestra. The same week, Hard Rain Soloist Ensemble will premiere my PRSF commission, Refractions, on January 15th in the Harty Room at QUB. Later in January, I’m looking forward to recording a performance for the St. Brigid’s Day celebrations in collaboration with the Contemporary Music Centre Ireland and the Embassy of Ireland in Hungary. I’ll be performing Grainne Mulvey’s Carlow Song Cycle with the soprano Elizabeth Hilliard.

Finally, other good news!

I’m extremely grateful to ACNI for their help over these past few months, as I was awarded funds through their Emergency Resilience Programme to support my creative practice and development.

I’m delighted that my first Notation in Sibelius session has proved to be useful to colleagues involved in new music, at the time of writing it has nearly 900 views. I’ve added a dedicated page for Notation & Engraving to my website, where you can see both of the notation session I’ve done for CMC. The second also involved the composer Lillie Harris, who gives an introduction to Dorico.

That’s probably all from me for December; I’ll be busy practising for these January concerts, and finishing off my piece for the LSO, which I’m pleased to confirm has a visual contribution being created by the lighting designer Laurenz Theinert. Looking forward to playing the electric guitar at this concert in February! Have a wonderful holiday.

September 2020

I’ve been so grateful to have been able to participate in some musical activities this past month, including the premiere of a work that I didn’t think would ever be able to be heard! Thanks to a huge amount of work by Lelia Doolan, David Brophy, and countless others behind the scenes, Laniakea was recorded outside in the walled garden in Coole Park, Galway on 26th September. I was asked to re-orchestrate the work down from its original ensemble of large orchestra and choir, to a smaller ensemble which could play in a safe environment. The Coole Culture event was supported by (among others), The Royal Astronomical Society, Galway Capital of Culture 2020, and Creative Ireland. It was such a joy to hear a premiere! Congratulations also to Timothy Doyle on his excellent piece Lente, which was played, and the third item on the programme was Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony. Watch the concert at the below link.

https://vimeo.com/462541781/a6d321f721

Laniakea is performed at 8:30″

I was also able to travel to London this past month to work with players from the London Symphony Orchestra on my commission for the LSO Soundhub, and was pleased with this first workshop of materials. Plenty to do now on the piece, so it’s back to the desk for a few months as I hone this work and some other upcoming projects…

June-August 2020

Well it’s certainly not been the summer any of us expected, and although many performances of my work have been delayed or cancelled outright, I’m grateful to still be writing music. Hopefully the projects in the pipeline will eventually come to light! Just an update on where my main pieces are at:

Laniakea, for large orchestra and choir, was meant to be performed in Coole Park, Galway on September 26th, but given the size of the ensemble, and the concert itself, this is obviously not going ahead. There are discussions around rescheduling the event, so hopeful this will still happen, although as a choir is involved I might be waiting a while…

My ongoing project with the London Symphony Orchestra for their Soundhub Scheme is the next major piece on my to-do list! The rescheduled concert is now down for Feb 13th 2021, and I hope to head over to London in late Sep to work with some of their musicians on the first draft.

In June I finished up two suites of pieces, one for solo clarinet (for Francesco Paolo Scola of the Ulster Orchestra. After working together on Scamper he requested a set of short pieces) When Aslan shakes his mane, and one for solo piano. The piano suite was written for Cahal Masterson, supported by Moving On Music, and will feature on my forthcoming portrait CD in 2021. There’s been a lot of work trying to organise funding for the CD, and decisions about what pieces are possible to record given the pandemic restrictions! I had hoped initially that it might be a collection of my choral works, but the current iteration features mainly solo instruments. I’m remaining flexible with my plans for what the finished album will look like, so we’ll see what becomes of it over the next few months.

I’m putting the finishing touches on Cross-Purposes and Refractions, two chamber works that have taken up most of July and August. Commissioned by the CRASH Ensemble and the Hard Rain SoloistEnsemble, it’s been a pleasure to work on new pieces for musicians I have collaborated with on several occasions. Cross-Purposes will be released on CRASH Records sometime in the Autumn, and Refractions will feature in HRSE’s next season.

It’s always an inspiring experience for me to work with the text of Scottish poet Euan Tait, and I had the opportunity to use a poem he wrote for me, Babelsong, when I collaborated with NY-based pianist Adam Marks over lockdown. The score was an experiment in writing a one-page graphic score, and I greatly enjoyed the challenge (head over to the work’s page if you want to see it). Adam interprets the piece creatively and with nuance. I’m currently exploring a larger project with Euan which could keep me writing for quite some time, so keep an eye out for any updates on that…

And finally, the LSO gave my piece for solo cello, The Anguish of John Paton, a second, virtual outing during a streamed YouTube concert. You can watch Orlando Jopling of the LSO play it here.

May 2020

I was delighted (and pretty shocked) to pass my PhD viva without corrections this month and become Dr. McDonnell – which really means I’m just very qualified in making noises… It was a great pleasure to discuss my work (over Zoom) with Professor Paul Mealor and Dr. Zeynep Bulut. Looking forward to many post-PhD projects now!

I just put the finishing touches on my commission Courage, dear heart for the National Concert Hall, Dublin, which is part of a concert I am curating for their Beethoven anniversary celebrations. The concert (which is currently scheduled for Nov 5th, dependent on the changing situation with live performances) reflects on the interaction between composers and texts by Irish authors expressed through piano trio and soprano, and will feature works by American composer Jessica Meyer, and Irish composers Piers Hellawell, Grainne Mulvey, Ryan Molloy, and Elaine Agnew. The performers will be the Hard Rain SoloistEnsemble, and soprano Elizabeth Hilliard.

I’m very pleased to able to work with Hard Rain twice this year, as I’ve received a commission from them for a chamber trio as part of their PRSF Talent Development Scheme, for performance in late 2020/early 2021. It’s a year for chamber commissions, as I’m also excited to have been commissioned by the CRASH Ensemble to write a duo for cello and doublebass, which will be recorded for an album release and performed online in late 2020.

I hope to soon release a video that the Scottish filmmaker Oliver Mezger has made in response to my electronic piece Crossing the Firth. Oliver’s film Direct Shipping/Crossing the Firth creates a visual dialogue with my work that reflects on themes of crossing, thresholds, and in particular responds to the dangerous, often fatal, crossings made by migrants across turbulent waters.

At the start of May, my postcard Scamper, commissioned by BBC Radio 3, was broadcast three times, played wonderfully and agilely by Francesco Paolo Scola of the Ulster Orchestra.

Finally, I’m indebted to Francesca Hurst for the performance of this little piece as part of her Daily Dose of Piano series! Please have a listen, and make a donation to Francesca’s series.

BBC Radio 3 Premiere

4th May – Star Wars day, is also premiere day! My piece Scamper, commissioned by BBC Radio 3 for their ‘Postcards from Composers’ series, will be played at 8:30am, just before 4:30pm, and 10pm today. Please tune in to hear Francesco Paolo Scola, principal clarinet of the Ulster Orchestra, expertly playing this tricky little work. If you heard the piece and have come to my website to hear more, welcome, check out my Work Sample page, which has a varied selection of works for different ensembles. Hiraeth am nefoedd is in the same vein as Scamper, and I’d also recommend The Pearl and some of my choral works. If you’re interested in something more experimental, have a listen to Stutter, Esau’s Hunger, or take a trippy VR journey with The Testimony of John Paton.

April 2020

To start with the big news, my piece for large orchestra and choir, Laniakea, has been chosen for a performance in Coole Park, Galway, as part of the Royal Astronomical Society’s bicentary celebrations! The premiere is scheduled for September 26th 2020, and will feature the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, the Symphonic Waves Youth Orchestra and be conducted by David Brophy. The main feature of the concert will be a performance of Holst’s The Planets, accompanied by five new works by Irish composers for the same orchestration (of which mine is one).

I’m also pleased to share my recently broadcast interview (12/04/2020) with John Toal on BBC Radio Ulster, chatting about my forthcoming portrait CD as part of the Moving On Music Emerging Artist Scheme. You can listen here.

Yesterday I put the final touches to a piece commissioned by BBC Radio 3, as part of their new Audio Postcards Project. This project features 20 composers from across the UK, commissioned by Radio 3 to write a 30-second snapshot of music for a solo performer from one of the BBC concert orchestras: a little postcard from isolation. Grateful to have been involved, more information on that broadcast to come!

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b055v0cw Listen to Classical Connections.

March 2020

Forthcoming interview on BBC Classical Connections with John Toal: April 12th 7pm.

Rather rapidly and unceremoniously (before the printers and QUB fully shut their doors), I handed in my PhD portfolio. Such was my haste that I didn’t have time to take a proper photo, just a shot of the boxes that contain 3.5 years worth of work. Phew! The list of people I want to thank is genuinely longer than my arm: if you have been involved in any way in lending your passion and skill to help me make music over the last few years I am so grateful, especially to my wife Sarah, who has listened to every minute of it (even the really weird stuff).

I don’t know what comes next. In the crisis we are facing and the rapidly shifting artistic landscape caused by it, that sense of uncertainty is even more pronounced. It reminds me that my hopes are not in something as fleeting as music, precious and powerful as it is, but in the one who has given it: my unchanging Saviour Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever. It’s been a delight to spend this amount of time serving him by creating music. We celebrated by playing some appropriate social distancing sport – frisbee.

While March (and no doubt the coming months) featured some disappointing cancellations and delay to projects and performances, I’m very thankful to still have compositions to work on, and music to share with you! The U.S. premiere of Asphyxiate has been delayed for the foreseeable future, as has the world premiere of The Blue Bird by the Gesualdo Six in Dublin. PANIC is also unlikely to be performing at London’s Ikletick Lab in May, but I hope to have more PANIC news soon. Delighted to announce that Laniakea, a work for orchestra and choir commissioned by Coole Culture, is scheduled to be performed in Coole Park, Galway, September 26th 2020, as part of the Galway European Capital of Culture 2020 celebrations. The performance will be filmed for broadcast. Finally, I am able to share William Cole’s performance of Shards on a Beach.

Stay safe everyone!

January/February 2020

Updates on the website have been a bit slow as of late as I’ve been working on the thesis and portfolio for PhD submission – which is coming up soon! January and February saw a couple of premieres: Tearing as it is Woven by the Chamber Choir Ireland, Eloheinu by Mosaic Voices, Shards on a Beach by William Cole of the Ulster Orchestra, The Anguish of John Paton by Orlando Jopling of the London Symphony Orchestra, and a performance of Stutter and presentation with PANIC Music Ensemble down in Dublin. Three of my short anthems, Hinneni, If ye love me, and More than Gold were chosen as repertoire for this year’s London Festival of Contemporary Church Music Festival.

I was delighted to be selected as an Emerging Artist with the Belfast based organisation Moving On Music, who’ll be supporting me in 2020 for a variety of projects, including a collaboration on a new work with pianist Cahal Masterson. Several exciting upcoming performances: PANIC will be playing at the MUSLab 2020 International Festival of Electroacoustic Music at London’s Icklectik Art Lab on May 2nd, and my electronic piece Crossing the Firth will also be played. On April 9th, The Gesualdo Six will premiere my work The Blue Bird, setting the famous Mary Elizabeth Coleridge poem, at St. Ann’s, Dublin. Tickets are available here.

Next major thing is the PhD submission, and I’m working away at this year’s two major pieces: commissions for the National Concert Hall Dublin and the London Symphony Orchestra, so updates may be delayed for the next few months!

December 2019

December was a busy month of performances, Altnagelvin Hospital Choir premiered Sparrows’ Anthem, Elmgrove Primary School Choir performed my carol Children the Wide World Over, and PANIC Music Ensemble performed two pieces at the CMC Ireland Christmas Concert – Circle Machines and Where I go, I hear the noise. Recordings of these performances can be heard below.

Derek Collins conducts the Altnagelvin Hospital Choir & Gail Norris (Oboe)