Creative Islanders: Michael Gallen

Creative Islander Michael Gallen

(Headshot Photo: Daire Hall)

The Creative Islanders is a new interview series showcasing some of Ireland’s brightest creative talent and enterprise. It is about people who are stepping into their dreams, purpose and possibilities and embracing their one wild life. 

The interviews give a rare ‘behind the scenes’ glimpse into creative practice, motivations and mindsets- shining a light on what makes people tick, and how, collectively, Ireland is alive with creative possibility.

Michael Gallen is next up in the Creative Islanders Series, the first of 2016. A composer, multi-instrumentalist, singer and maker, Michael exudes many layers of  brilliant talent.

I first came across him through the band, Ana Gog, for which is pianist and lead vocalist. I simply love the richness and lightness of their work, its breath and depth too.  Since then it has been wonderful to follow his other compositional work for film and theatre, equally rich and even more diverse. It seems like things are just about to take a leap for Michael, with a new large scale compositional work for the National Concert Hall in the pipeline and with 2016 seeing him being awarded the Trinity College Long Hub residency.

Plus, beyond his music, he is also a gent as his words below so evidence.

So over now to Michael Gallen, and when you are finished reading I highly recommend diving in his music and videos. You will find links below.

What keeps you in Ireland? 

The answer to this question keeps changing. I lived in France for a few years and I moved home primarily to be closer to family and to the band. Returning to that intimate space made some aspects of life and work more difficult, in that there’s less of a sense of freedom, but it also brought so much richness into my everyday life. When I got back to Dublin I was very taken with becoming a part of the arts scene here – but in truth I think that I’d probably get that feeling in any city if surrounded by people whom I admire and whose work I enjoy. I think that I feel closest to Ireland when out in the countryside, away from it all. I tend to do most of my composition work in quiet, isolated places, and I get a lovely sense of belonging when I’m out for a ramble and stumble across some ruin or sacred site – or even just a beautiful view.

What makes you tick? What motivates you?

Once I’ve managed to get started on some music (which is definitely the hard part), I think I’m only really motivated by the next note, bringing the idea to life and doing it justice. I tend not to be able to think of anything else. I love performing and it’s amazing to imagine how other people might feel when listening to my music – but everything grows from that itch when I feel like I have the beginning of something in my head and life won’t be right until I get it made.

What do you do just for the love of it? 

I’ve been doing a lot of driving over the past year, and one of my favourite things is to take random turn-offs when I see a sign for a holy well or wedge tomb or the like. They’re never as close to the main road as you hope and I invariably end up trudging through several fields or spending ages trying to turn the van when a road unexpectedly just ends. I love the spontaneity of it, not knowing what you’ll find, if anything. I also love swimming in the sea – this was my first year swimming all the way through winter.

Ana Gog promo shot

(Ana Gog)

What does the creative process teach you? 

That there are parts of myself to which my everyday, conscious thought doesn’t have access. I am always surprised by the way that music sometimes pours out of me, and I often look back on periods of creation in a bit of a daze and wonder where it all came from. I know that so many aspects of the piece are shaped by my decisions, but the substance of the work seems to come from a part of myself that is much wiser than the one that regularly botches things up – burns the toast, forgets the keys, etc!

Why do you do what you do?

I have no idea. I love music, and both listening and writing have been hugely important to me from a very young age but I never made a decision to become a musician – it’s always felt like something that was already decided. I couldn’t come up with reasons for it without sounding cheesy, and because I honestly never thought about it – there was never any question of why, it was just already what I was doing.

What were some of the key moments along your own journey that helped you to get where you are today?

Ah, so so many. I’ve been very lucky in terms of some of the people I have met quite randomly who have given me direction and support – beginning with the fact that I was born into a very musical family. I remember being given some minidisks of Arvo Part and John Adams’ music by my physics teacher at secondary school-  hard music to come across in pre-Youtube Monaghan – and that was definitely around a time when music became bound up with all my ideas about adulthood and work. Meeting the band was a massive moment of course;  they’ve been by far the biggest influence on my musical life. And then all of the times when things didn’t go according to plan, when I didn’t get certain opportunities or commissions that I was sure I would; those are always the times when I’ve had to figure out whether success is necessary to why I make music. Each time I’ve gotten back to finding joy in the work itself has been a key moment.

How do you get unstuck? Any secret tools? 

I go to the quietest place imaginable and wait!

Tardigrade Action Shot

(Photo from theatre production TARDIGARDE)

Where do you find inspiration? Any hidden gems?

In the past I’ve found inspiration in a multitude of places, – other people’s music, books, nature. For the most part it in happens in solitude – I think that it’s probably just that I’m more observant when I’m off on my own, or that I’m able to devote more of my awareness to the world around me. I’m a bit of an extremist in that regard; when I’m working I shut off from the internet completely for a few weeks and ideally go off to some hideaway where I can have space. With larger work, like the orchestral piece that I’m finishing at the moment, I find that it takes a few days of silence before my mind becomes capable of hearing what it needs to or slowing down to the pace of thought that the composition requires.

How do you get through tough times? What sustains you? 

I try my best not to let myself become stagnant. I don’t think that I can say anything meaningful about sad events such as the loss of love or loved ones, in that each of those situations has been so unique in itself, and I don’t think that any of my experience of dealing with them will make me any better prepared for the next one. I have a wonderful group of friends, and they’ve been the biggest support in times like those. But I know that in terms of depression or periods of low mood, the big thing for me is to try to keep moving, to stave off the feeling of total inertia. I have one of those overactive minds that can start to turn in on itself if not kept active, so if I can, I try to weed out the tiny bad habits that I know can eventually turn into more substantial thought-knots.

What key lessons have your learned about doing business or being a creative practitioner along the way? What have you learned from your ‘failures’? 

As I mentioned above, I think that the moments where things haven’t worked out as planned have probably been the times when I developed a proper sense of vocation. I love meeting older artists who have lived entire lives of those ups and downs, and who, despite the madness of choosing so unstable a career, have also fallen in love, had families, found a myriad of different roads to happiness and still maintained a healthy relationship with their creative work.

Do you have a morning routine? Or other creative habits or rituals? 

No, I’ve never been good at keeping routines, much as I’d love to. Every now and again I make out a timetable that has me up early and keeping regular hours, and then two nights later I’ll end up staying up til 5am working on something and it all falls apart! I make big maps of all of my pieces before starting to score them out – that’s about my only regular creative habit.

What books have inspired you? Or what websites do you turn to? 

I read quite a lot, so it’s hard to whittle them down – The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Roberto Bolanos Savage Detectives, The Lover by Marguerite Duras – I don’t know whether I’d say they inspired me but I remember the reading of each of those (and a few others) as  types of events, similar to things that happened to me in “real” life. I love poetry too – starting from an obsession with Patrick Kavanagh and leading everywhere from Sylvia Plath to Rilke to Shakespeare. Actually, Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet were quite inspirational in the way that they spoke about the creative life and the challenges that it might present. I’m not really a website person I’m afraid!

Michael Piano © Sharon Murphy

Photo: Sharon Murphy

What advice do you wish you had received as you were stepping onto your own creative path? 

Practical advice, about how best to balance a life where your work is unstructured and self-disciplined. Not to worry too much about the future, and to enjoy little successes for themselves and not as pit-stops on the way to bigger things.

And what advice would you give to your future self? 

Just the same – to enjoy all things, including work, for themselves. Not to let the stuff of life pass by without being fully experienced.

What is coming up next for you? 

At the moment I’m finishing a piece for the RTÉ Concert Orchestra and Cór na nÓg inspired by Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales called Wilde Stories – that’ll be recorded in April and broadcast on Lyric FM in May, with some live performances on the cards for later this year. Over the next few months I’ll be working on a new choral commission, an installation and two dance collaborations – it’ll be fun to work with a team again for a while! We’re also mixing Ana Gog’s second album at the moment, with a view to a release either late this year or early in 2017. So lots on the cards…

Thank you so much Michael for your contribution to this series.

Here are LINKS below: 

You can read more about Michael over on his website here

And listen to some of Ana Gog’s music over here

There is also a selection of Michael’s own compositions over on SoundCloud. Here is a sample, ‘Difference in Clouds’ from TARDIGRADE.