Strength in numbers: the story of the ICC

Sebastian Adams

The Irish Composers’ Collective, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this month, has been a force for good in the indigenous compositional community for a decade, fostering creation, collaboration and visibility for several generations of makers of new work. Outgoing chairperson SEBASTIAN ADAMS reflects on the ICC’s democratic, email-chain origins, its fiercely inclusive raison d’etre and its audacious future plans

A question I am asked with annoying regularity is: ‘So what is the Irish Composers' Collective, anyway?’ I usually groan with exasperation at this point – completely justified when the asker is a fully paid-up ICC member – but really the question is not as easily answered as you might assume.

On the surface, the ICC exists to organise concerts of new music by emerging Irish composers. This is the most concise answer and gives the gist of our general activities, but it sort of misses the point.

The Irish Composers Collective has its roots in the Young Composers’ Collective, which announced itself through a public letter from Dave Flynn in 2003 pointing out the difficulties young composers in Ireland faced getting their music heard and inviting his peers to join him in a bid to overcome the obstacles ahead of them. The first concert came on December 2, 2004, after nine months of meeting at least once a fortnight. This was a solo piano concert from David Adams in the Goethe Institut on Merrion Square. A read over the secretary’s minutes from the time reveals that he was paid in "lilies at the concert, a €60 meal voucher and a bottle of wine". The composers who had work performed that evening were Karen Power, Thomas Elnaes, Simon O’Connor, Neil O’Connor, Aengus O’Maolain and Cathy Burke.

By the time of the first concert, the core idea of what the YCC should represent was already essentially the same as it is today: it was "an organisation for the promotion of new music" that provides "all members with an opportunity to have their work performed in regular concerts organised by the collective". A key difference is that, in these early days, the YCC had no committee – it was entirely democratic, run through mile-long email threads, and had no official leadership. Incredibly, this utopian organisational structure worked until the YCC had around 40 members, and even at that point the switch to a committee-organised approach was not universally popular. It is still a democracy to this day, with artistic decisions made on the basis of the collective opinion of the members and administration handled by a committee of four people whose positions are up for election every six months. Another aspect of the YCC that was abandoned with the name change was an age limit of 35. I have deliberately left out the second (more important) half of the YCC’s original manifesto and will return to it in a couple of paragraphs.

A decade on, with well over 130 composers having passed through the organisation in the course of roughly 100 concerts that have produced probably about 500 world premieres (see Soundcloud link below), it can be stated as fact that Dave Flynn and company, and all who have followed in their footsteps, have utterly changed the landscape of the Irish contemporary music scene.

This statement might invite the argument that the ICC is simply a platform for performance, and that if it didn’t exist, various other organisations and ensembles would have breathed life hundreds of these pieces. Not so – there is one vital aspect of the Irish Composers Collective that makes it completely unique in Ireland, and quite possibly in the world: anyone can join.

This is where the second half of the YCC’s original manifesto comes in to play: "We have no artistic screening process – anyone interested in composing can join. Through its work, the YCC offers an accessible platform for young composers of new music in Ireland."

It might seem like a first principle of putting on concerts to pick only the best composers you can find, but the ICC believes, always has believed and always will believe that anyone who wishes to compose music should be given the opportunity not only to hear their works played, but to have their works performed by excellent musicians. We exist to combat the sad truth that if a composer’s music falls outside the personal taste of all of the tastemakers running ensembles and arts organisations in this country, or indeed their circles of friends, they will be left with no-one to foster their talent – a talent which may not be any less worthy of fostering than that of the luckier few.

The remit of the CMC requires that they focus their excellent efforts on composers who might already be considered established, and the nature of the curated directorship of groups such as Crash Ensemble, Concorde and Kirkos (of which I am co-director) provides opportunities only to composers whose work meets the liking of those in charge. Additionally, even a young composer whose music is perfect for Crash or Kirkos may initially find it very difficult to get themselves onto such ensembles' radar. In contrast, the only barriers to ICC membership are, firstly, the ability to produce scores readable by the performers we hire; and secondly, that prospective members have heard of the ICC and are aware they are eligible to join.

The ICC is a resource for every composer: the obviously prodigious talent, the rough diamond, the confounding outlier and the dabbling amateur – all are considered equal in the ICC. This ethos produces startling musical results - our programmes are far more diverse than those of any other new music outlet in the country, because our members are from all musical backgrounds and the composers for each concert are literally selected by pulling names out of a hat (recently replaced with some computerised headwear).

As well as providing composers in Ireland with opportunities to have their works performed by world-class musicians, the ICC provides a focal point for composers. Our members come to our concerts and hear the music of their direct peers and rivals in great abundance, providing vital food for our composer-brains; we hold workshops to learn from the wisdom of the performers we book; we meet every month and share ideas, crow over one another’s triumphs and laugh at our many disasters. We are creating our own sustainable support system, building a platform for our musical lives without relying on external factors or the generosity of others, shaping the Irish new music scene around its composers – and we have been doing so for an entire decade. Membership has grown to just under 70 and includes people of almost every age and background.

I am proud and delighted to say that the Irish Composers’ Collective is currently in fabulous health. We have a thriving, active membership, full of extraordinary, brilliant people, many of whom have already achieved great things on the music scene and many more who will begin blowing people’s socks off in the next few years. We are fresh out of ICC10, a festival of eight concerts and 40 world premieres over two days with a mouthwatering group of performers. This was an unprecedented operation for the ICC, a huge achievement and a resounding success. Thanks to this, and to a hugely successful series of concerts throughout 2014 that included a pair of concerts with New Dublin Voices and solo concerts from extraordinary musicians like Malachy Robinson and Cormac Ó hAodáin, the ICC is heading into its second decade with a new confidence and intent. In the coming years, we are planning to expand our operations to include monthly public workshops to educate audiences as much as composers, and, for the first time, to introduce an educational outreach programme, in a bid to be a catalyst for the next generation of Irish composers. In 2015, these burgeoning activities will be accompanied by concerts with a truly amazing selection of performers that I am unfortunately going to have to keep to myself right now.

Perhaps the way the ICC has most changed the new music landscape in Ireland is through nurturing a DIY entrepreneurial spirit among young Irish composers, leading to the creation of a plethora of groups, from Ergodos to Gamelan Nua. As it becomes larger and more mature, it would be easy for the ICC and its members to lose sight of its origins as a group of equals exchanging ideas. In its second decade, the ICC must endeavour not to become a group that is seen by members and others as an 'organisation', but to remember that it is a sort of amoeba of composers, an ecosystem in itself. Complacency on the behalf of its members, and a willingness to sit by, waiting for opportunities to arrive, will lead to the collapse of the ICC and a return to the bad old days where, as AIC secretary (and AIC New Music Journal editor) Peter Moran is fond of saying, young Irish composers had to leave the country in order to further their careers.



Main photo (at top): ICC chairman Sebastian Adams, centre, performing with Kirkos Ensemble as part of ICC 10, Project Arts Centre, Dublin, November 2014. Photo by Daryl Feehely