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.

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(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!

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(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. 


Limits & Liberation: On learning to push the comfort zone.

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‘Yes, of course I will do that’, I said, receiving the phone call.

I put down the phone and immediately wondered, ‘Why on earth did I just say yes to that?’

In the past, ‘yes’ has been a brilliant tool for enabling opportunities but on this occasion it nearly pushed me right over an edge; the edge of my comfort zone.

‘Yes’ felt scary, big, and I didn’t feel ready for it.

It? Well it was an opportunity to paint at a festival alongside a musical score by Jim Moginie (formerly of Midnight Oil) with his electric guitar orchestra to a piece called ‘The Colour Wheel’. The idea is beautiful- live performance, live audience and painting in response to the music. However, whether I could actualise that beauty was an entirely different conversation…

My challenge was that I had never done anything like this before. In saying ‘yes’ the critical voice raised a very loud roar, bringing up so many of my vulnerabilities. ‘Me? Painting in front of an audience? In response to music? With everyone looking at me? What if the painting just looks like mud? What it someone starts to heckle? What it I f**k it up? What if… ‘

I have known these voices before; they visit frequently. Thankfully, with experience, I have learned to name them and have figured out that we can reposition to critic too: ‘This is fear speaking, how can I help you?’

Fear can teach us many things. When we lean into it, fear can expand our capacity to act by gradually, gradually, pushing our comfort zone into new territories and calling us to investigate our edges further.

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On this occasion the fear was dense. About five days before the festival I was on the brink of ringing up Cornelia, the event organiser, to say that I was not able to do it. I had started to make excuses in my head. One of those excuses even went so far as, ‘Well, I’m only five foot tall- how on earth will I be able to paint at scale?’ Seriously! Fear really can make the most comical of augments.

Luckily I realised that indeed this was fear speaking. So, I asked myself, ‘What can I do to minimise the fear and bring it back to ‘yes’?’

Two main solutions presented themselves. Firstly, the idea of boundaries– ‘Simplify and reduce your options; create restrictions’. And secondly, an understanding that this is not going to be an exercise in perfection but an experiment with process.

I rang an artist friend for advice too (thank you Eimear). Her kind words of friendship were a balm.

So, with the solutions in mind, and Eimear’s friendly cheerleading, I decided to limit my colour palate and choose a motif to work with- in this case circles (since the piece was called the colour wheel). In setting some ground rules for myself, suddenly came freedom. ‘With those parameters, what can I do? What patterns can emerge? And how can I push the motif to create something new?’

Over the next few evenings I experimented a bit at home- first making small quick drawings in my sketchbook, then larger colour experiments to test my palate, and then creating large scale drawings while playing Jim’s music in the background. On the third evening a pattern or idea began to emerge, one which I knew I could transfer to the real event, and a sense of the possible emerged again. We were back to yes.

As in art, so in life.

The whole experience served a huge reminder to me: when we place some boundaries and restrictions, creativity can flourish and freedom arises.

It seems contradictory to limit ourselves to liberate ourselves, but somehow it works.

 

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It was a reminder too of why I continue my own practices- that daily route back to my yoga mat, whether I am in the mood or not, if only for a few minutes. The practice is a boundary to create the freedom and is an enabler for creativity to flow. Practice, you come to realise, does not make perfect. But practice does lead to a place beyond it all, where there is no such thing as perfect, which is in fact perfect in and of itself. This is the circle of things.

So there I was on Sunday, painting in front of an audience. What I produced was no masterpiece, in my mind it was far from ‘perfect’, but it was me showing up with all my vulnerable and stepping right up to the edge of my comfort zone. In doing so I stepped across it and will, I hope,  have forever expanded it, with fear and imperfection at my five foot nothing side.

I’ll raise my hand and confess that I don’t love what I created but I loved the experience, and I love too that I did not let fear take me over. Rather I let fear have its own rightful place, as an aid and an ally.

Plus I got collected that day by a rock star. And I’m pretty cool with that too! Merci Jim.

(Special thanks to Jim Moginie and Cornelia Mc Carthy for facilitating this experience- my edges are grateful and my comfort zone is relishing in its new found sense of space!)

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Photos by Cornelia Mc Carthy.


Creative Islanders: Emmet Condon

Emmet Condon

The Creative Islanders is an 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.

………………

Next up is Emmet Condon– DJ, Founder of Homebeats, Another Love Story and Fading Light festival organiser, avid tea drinker, surfer and dog lover.

Having jumped ship on a career path in physiotherapy, for the last number of years Emmet has been popping up in people’s homes and quirky spaces, bringing beats to unlikely venues. He has also collaborated to bring Another Love Story boutique festival to life, initiated the Fading Light Festival in West Kerry and most recently had a dream come true when he hosted his own stage Tree Haus at Body & Soul Festival.  But beyond the music, it is the way Emmet operates which has been part of the appeal and growth of his ventures- with an open heart, a collaborative spirit and a sense of adventure, bringing community together in meaningful, musical ways. He can certainly get a crowd dancing too.

Now over to Emmet…

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What makes you tick? What motivates you?

In terms of motivation, to be honest, a sense of lost time. It took me a long time to find the courage to go after what was in my heart, so I’m still keenly aware of making up for a lot of time spent not persuing the right thing.

What makes me tick? Attention to detail and commitment to a small but perfect vision. That, and the want to present music and spaces in a way that opens them up to the audience and the artists. Following on from that the incredible buzz of seeing it all come together and people being happy.

Last week’s adventure on our Tree Haus stage at Body & Soul Festival was perhaps the ultimate experience of this so far – Avril Stanley & co’s dedication to making Ballinlough a wonderland sets the bar high for anyone producing something there, especially for the first time. I can honestly say that the Homebeat team that worked on every facet of it put their hearts and souls into it. To see the stage in full flight at the woods at 3am in the morning was something that might never leave me. There are many difficult parts to being involved in the events industry, but the ability to truly create magic with friends in a place like that is just an incredible buzz- and that’s the feeling that you keep looking for and that keeps driving you to do it the right way.

What does the creative process teach you?

I think mostly it has thought me the hard won value of patience. When I was younger I was sure that people created art without any effort; that great artists, no matter the medium, simply exhaled a piece of art in one perfect, concise breath. Learning that everyone has and needs exactly that – a process, was a very profound thing for me.

What keeps you in Ireland?

I’m really glad to say, so many things. First and foremost the incredible bunch of creative people I’m blessed to know here, and especially so in Dublin. It’s a community that seems to be growing closer and denser over the past number of years and the genuine inspirational innovation and support amongst that group is something that would take years to encounter and foster somewhere larger and less connected like London or New York or even the hallowed ground of Berlin.

Secondly, I suppose it’s the feeling of growing something with Homebeat. It took me a long time to find my way in terms of a career, and though I would be hard pressed to legitimise the adventures I’m having at the moment as a “career”, I’m certainly invested in it enough to feel like it’s the vehicle for my dreams here and I suppose a lot of work has gone into even getting it to this lowly level. I would hate to leave that behind right now.

Beyond those two things, obviously friends and family, but also the incredible little island that we live on itself. Dublin town, my adopted home, is nestled twixt mountains and sea, and if one manages to escape the heady attractions of incredible music, art, pubs and clubs of a Friday night, not to mention the incredible burgeoning coffee and food culture every day of the week here, you can be walking next to a giant red lighthouse, or flying down a mountain bike trail in under a half hour from your kitchen. And that only begins to explain the wonder of getting up even a little bit earlier on that Saturday morning, jumping in a van and finding yourself surfing in Sligo, Clare or Kerry by mid-morning, amongst friends in uncrowded waves, and in the most beautiful setting possible.

Festivals, music, Guinness, our natural humility- I could go on and on. I travelled for a long time to find the day that I decided this was undoubtably the place for me on this planet, and I’ve never looked back since.

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Photo: Chequerboard at Fading Light (Ruthless Imagery)

How do you get unstuck? Any secret tools?

I don’t know if I feel I get necessarily stuck, more fatigued from having a few projects on the go all at once. If you are working in the field that you are most interested in, it’s hard not to be inspired. Certainly I’m someone who feels like he’s completely making it up as he goes along so talking to peers helps a lot in terms of advice and reassurance. But if genuinely stuck for want of headspace, it’s time to pack the van, head west and jump in the sea for a few days.

What do you do just for the love of it?

I’d say DJ but there’s definitely an element of ambition in that, so purely for the love of it –  surf, snowboard, read the sports pages, golf, drink tea, make it my business to talk to most dogs I meet on the street.

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Where do you find inspiration? Any hidden gems?

Most certainly in what’s happening here at the moment. I truly believe we are living through a golden age of Irish music and culture, not only this, but my generation has been paradoxically empowered by the recession I think – the drop in commercial rent prices during the recession meant places like The Fumbally Café, and our beloved Mabos sprung up. These spaces are real hubs of incubation and inspiration – at the end of the day it’s all about the realisation that people and their interactions is what make it all happen – and most of all it’s people who are true to their voice and their passion (stand up Donal Dineen & co.) who inspire me continuously.

But outside of people:  good design – be it a pair of runners or a café, nature, and a gazillion websites / instagram accounts / blogs / magazines. I actually find Instagram a really handy source of visual inspiration.

Great music obviously is something that brings me to a different place, though that might be more emotional inspiration rather than a creative one (usually it makes me feel creatively stupid!!)

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

Sitting myself down and breaking things into small bits. Lists. Lots of lists. Once I do that I feel like I’m in control of the situation and the panic tends to subside a little. This and tea. Gallons of tea (this is probably the substance that sustains me also). I’ve learned the hard way that I’m not someone who can leave their troubles behind readily, so I’ve got to face them and break them down or I end up driving around the country trying to run away from them but not being able to escape!

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Photo: Ruthless Imagery at Another Love Story

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

Trust your own artistic vision – it’s the only thing you have that makes you stand out.

Trust if you do it well, more work will follow, if not immediately, then soon after.

Always over deliver and follow through to the very end – the extra attention to detail is what people remember.

Say yes often, say no sometimes.

Always go!

In terms of failures, often (as in most things in life) you already know in your heart if it’s not going to work.

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

Wake, tea, check mails / facebook for anything new that has been announced or popped up. MORE TEA. Generally I need a space to be pretty tidy to think, so there’s a lot of straightening magazine / notebook edges involved.

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

One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Crossings – Michel Kew (the best travel book I have ever read)

Grapes of Wrath – John Stienbeck

Vernon God Little – DBC Pierre.

Websites – Monsters Children | Resident Advisor (brilliant podcast series on djs and promoters) | Soundcould

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

As I said earlier, that I had realised very few get it 100% right immediately, and that the confidence you get from the very simple act of just trying is huge.

And what advice would you give to your future self?
Try to stay patient. If you do it right, trust that the work will come. Always be grateful! Trust yourself!

 

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Emmet’s links: 

Homebeats

Another Love Story (in collaboration with Happenings)

Fading Light

Thank you Emmet- see you on a dance floor soon!