When the film is over, with the lights still off and the low buzz of people leaving the room, I like to stay in my seat while the credits roll. There is a special kind of magic hidden in the image of thousands of scrolling names, like a vibrant tapestry carefully knitted, carrying the ideas of countless people working together for one single creative outcome.
American writer Kurt Vonnegut once said, ‘We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.’ I find this phrase to be a very concise and accurate representation not only of life in general, but also of creative practice and expression. Sitting in front of an empty page, hands hovering a few centimetres above the piano, scattered thoughts trying to form an idea, all often feel like standing in front of a cliff, both terrifying and exhilarating. I find that when other people enter the scene the picture changes substantially.
I am standing just a couple of steps away from the cliff, and I get to see one, two, three, seven, or even ten jumpers. Displayed right in front of my eyes, there’s a whole new collection of movements and wings; I want to try all the different shapes and colours; I can jump on my own or hand-in-hand with someone, eyes closed, eyes on the ocean, or facing the sky with my back turned around – the possibilities are infinite. It still is terrifying, it still is exhilarating, it feels new and different every single time.
The entire neighbourhood is out of power, Néstor and I are stuck in the rental house with a huge set of lighting equipment to carry, the recording starts in a couple of hours, and it’s pouring rain outside. The team is scattered around the city in pairs, each with a mission, each with a problem or two to solve. I can feel the energy, I can feel the tension, the impetuous movement, and the meticulous detail. After almost an hour of anxiously waiting, we manage to find our way out and get to the church in Rathgar. Everyone is in motion, the room swirls with zeal. Cables rolled on the floor, music stands upright, paper lanterns hanging, fog machine on, mics in place, parts laid out. I am standing in the second row, score in hand. We all are in position and ready to charge when I see the silhouette of the baton coming down and the music starts to play… nothing else matters.
When the credits roll and the room is dark, I can see the names scrolling. And if I read between the lines, figures start to emerge in my mind; a playground full of curious children, a pool for stirring sparkling thoughts, a collection of manifold imperfect pebbles washed up by the shore, eleven jumpers facing the edge of a cliff and ready to develop wings on the way down.
Néstor Romero Clemente
The throne room of the Aljafería Palace is a serious place – it was, after all, meant to be one. I have vivid memories as a child, listening amongst the audience, and gazing upwards at the golden pinecones that hung from the ceiling. They looked heavy. Would they fall and smash my head? I was often suppressing a cough, terrified to disrupt the revered atmosphere of the moment, but always enjoying the music. As a kid, I was lucky to attend a couple of old music concerts that took place in that room. My mother’s mentor, Jorge Fresno, was an Argentinian guitarist – a pupil of Narciso Yepes and good friend of Tomás Marco – and used to play there quite often. It is safe to say that Jorge was one of the greatest guitar players to grace the concert halls (and throne rooms!) of Spain.
I must have been eight-years-old or so at the time. It would have been unlikely for someone my age to be spotted in that room, not for lack of access, but for lack of interest. Often, in these concerts, the room was half empty. The thought would have seemed unlikely too of me and my friends recording our music in that very same place almost twenty years later.
I often feel that composers and musicians are unlikely beings, but I hesitate to word it that way, for I am one them. And the thought of naming them as such invokes a narcissistic feeling in my gut, which I dislike. I don’t want to feel special, nor meaningful – that would be distracting – and I don’t think I am. I don’t mean unlikely as a synonym for ‘better or worse than.’ What I mean by ‘unlikely’ is that it requires a succession of demographically unusual events for someone to not only want to be a composer or a musician, but to be able to pull it off to the extent that it becomes a liveable existence. There is a lot of drive, hard-work, discipline and all that. But I feel that there’s also a lot of luck. You have to be lucky to be given the opportunity to do this, to grow up in a place where it is a possibility, where your family and friends support it, where you can share it openly and sincerely, where you can progress academically, professionally, mentally, emotionally… Actually, maybe the word isn’t ‘unlikely’, but ‘lucky’!
Either way, to me, the formation of our collective is a consequence of two things. On the one hand, that very series of unlikely situations happening simultaneously in each and every one of our lives. On the other hand, once together, a great reciprocal need to share between the people that form our also unlikely group of friends. Matan comes from Australia, Caterina is Colombian-Italian, Haku is South Korean, Jan is German, Ciaran is Irish, Edu is Brazilian, Rekha is Malaysian, Guillaume is Belgian, Rob and Jeremy are American, and I myself am Spanish. We all come from tremendously different cultural backgrounds, educations, faiths and musical traditions. And we share so much. Above all, a great friendship, fuelled by our common interests and passions, and by that need for sharing them all with each other, to keep in touch, to collaborate and make things together, music, films, whatever comes. If the path is shared, then it is special and meaningful. And I dare now say this, for it is common, and it is shared.
Back in the throne room, during the recording, there were some new faces, and many familiar ones as well. Some of these musicians had held me as a baby on their laps. A few of them I had just met. My mother, my uncle, my childhood mate at the town’s children’s orchestra, my new composer friends. And the lovely members of O’Carolan. How unlikely that a local band which I listened to on repeat as a kid – the very one that introduced Irish traditional music into my life – was in that room, as members of the ensemble, smiling as part of this unlikely project of Irish conception. Ireland has been a blessing to me as a composer, filmmaker and in general as a person – but that’s a story for another time… That day I was as sick as I’ve ever been. I had a terrible fever and I was feeling nauseous. And I felt like the happiest person, lucky to be sharing with all these people, back in that room that all of a sudden didn’t seem that serious.
And that’s really what it’s all about. Sharing and learning together. Meeting new people, reconnecting with old friends, making music, filming stuff, and having a good time together.
Sadly, Jorge passed away in 2015. I only met him a handful of time, but I somehow miss him so much – he played such a huge role in my life, and he didn’t even know. The image of Alba, his daughter, playing her Viola da Gamba next to my mother, first in Aljafería, and then in the Christ Church down in Rathgar, bringing to life the music of this wonderful group of people, makes me feel that perhaps it wasn’t all that unlikely. It was such a gift! Being a musician, a composer, is indeed an uncertain path. However there is something that I know for sure within all this. If I grow to be an old man, I will joyfully look back on a life well shared.
Strength in Numbers
The common thread, it can be argued, which unites most music composers and their creative practice is that, in most instances, their work unfolds in intense isolation. Sure, there may be elements of collaboration – rehearsing with an ensemble, working with a writer whose libretto you are setting to music, or, in the case of music for film and media, working closely with the director to achieve a common vision. However, when it comes to the nuts and bolts of composing, the actual meeting of pen and paper, when small black dots, lines and dashes are applied to an overwhelmingly blank manuscript, it is these extended periods of time which most commonly occur in laborious solitude.
This idea of walking a singular (and at times lonely) path is often reinforced by the tertiary institutions which train us, in their critiques/feedback/emphasis that we should be aspiring to find a ‘unique’ and highly ‘individualised’ compositional voice – no pressure! And so, going against this dogma can feel somewhat counterintuitive to many young composers in the early stages of their careers.
And yet, this is exactly how Sonic Gate Studios came to be. As we reached the conclusion of our 12 months of full-time study together, two things became abundantly clear:
- With most of us being international students and having left our families behind in our home countries, we found a deep friendship and kinship with one another – we had become a family, and an incredible support system that we could each depend on. This was a serendipitous meeting of souls, one which we were eager to nourish and grow well into the future;
- Each one of us had a unique skillset and ‘area of expertise’, which were fully complementary and compatible – so why not make the most of it?
And so, the idea to form SGS, to go ‘into the world’ as a united collective of multidisciplinary artists, came quite intuitively and organically. It has been a means for us to keep in constant contact, even from all corners of the globe (we have fortnightly SGS Zoom meetings). More so, it has held us all creatively accountable, both individually and collectively. While many of us were faced with the challenge of having to re-integrate and re-settle back into our local creative communities in our home countries following graduation from the course, our SGS projects have enabled us to expand our horizons while lessening the distance which separates us.
To date, we have created a music-driven non-narrative film exploring the history and significance of the Aljafería Palace in Zaragoza, Spain (in collaboration with musicians local to the area); we orchestrated the music for a Malaysian horror film, which was recorded by a 60-piece orchestra in Sofia, Bulgaria (for which we typeset and prepared all the music); we have recorded an EP in a church in Rathgar in collaboration with Irish musicians – a ‘love letter’ to the country in which all members of SGS met; we have composed bespoke music for the 2020 European Press Prize, celebrating the best journalistic stories to come out of Europe in the last year; and we are currently composing a suite of works in collaboration with a Belgian-based Piano Trio, to be performed and recorded in Ireland next year, as well as a number of choral works (composed by our female members) with texts by female Irish poets, also to be performed in Ireland in 2021 – with each passing project, it feels as if the distance between each of us diminishes, enabling us to ‘visit’ parts of the world we may not otherwise have been able to.
In light of the unprecedented global pandemic which has severely impacted the whole world at large this year, as well as the serious climate concerns, social and political unrest we are witnessing, the idea that ‘strength lies in numbers’ perhaps rings true now more than ever before. Our ability to weather these storms and reach the other side as intact as possible will heavily rely on our putting aside our differences and coming together in support of one another. With the global arts industry being one of the first and hardest hit, and which will likely be the last to fully recover, our ability and desire to collaborate with one another (as we do in Sonic Gate Studios) will go a long way not only in extending our individual arts practices and revitalising and rebuilding our industry, but in reminding the world of the magnificent beauty that exists all around us – and this is something which we shouldn’t have to experience in isolation.
Sonic Gate Studios is a collective of international sound artists engaged in interdisciplinary projects.
The team comprises:
Néstor Romero Clemente (Spain, based in Ireland)
Caterina Schembri (Colombia/Italy, based in Ireland)
Guillaume Auvray (Belgium, based in Ireland)
Haku Yeo (Korea)
Edu Prado (Brazil, based in Ireland)
Jan Pfitzer (Germany)
Matan Franco (Australia)
Ciarán O’Floinn (Ireland)
Rekha Raveenderen (Malaysia)
Jeremy Plott (USA)
Robert Taylor (USA)