Eamonn Quinn, the self-described “oddball” who founded the Louth Contemporary Music Society in the northeast of Ireland in 2006, is neither a composer nor a performer. It shows in the best way. Quinn, who works in education, was introduced to new music through his wife Gemma while studying at Queen’s University in Belfast, beginning with the works of Arvo Pärt. He has since developed a taste in contemporary music that is refreshingly personal and iconoclastic. Where many contemporary music festivals appear curated by name-recognition or based on highly abstract intellectual concepts, the concerts at the LCMS are guided mainly by Quinn’s ear.
Quinn’s charisma has brought composers such as Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt, Terry Riley, Salvatore Sciarrino, and many others to the festival. In 2018, he received the Belmont Prize from the Munich-based Forberg-Schneider Foundation, a prize that has gone to such consummate new-music professionals as Alex Ross and Jörg Widmann. The 2023 edition of the LCMS festival, titled “Folks’ Music,” features new works by Linda Catlin Smith and Cassandra Miller; Caroline Shaw’s “How to Fold the Wind”; pieces by Clara Ianotta, José María Sánchez-Verdú, the unknown Greek-Argentine composer Graciela Paraskevaídis, and more. “All of us: the audience, the musicians, the composers, the door staff, the person who writes the program, the people who make the tea and coffee, the taxi drivers, the critics, make invaluable contributions,” Quinn wrote me in an email. “The door staff who smile as the audience arrive. They are priceless. Hence the title for this year’s festival, ‘Folks’ Music.”
I spoke with Quinn by phone call in February, shortly after the death of his father in January (Quinn also added some thoughts later by email). It is perhaps representative of Quinn’s personality that most of what he recalled about his late dad in our conversation was related to the best jokes they told each other.
VAN: How did you develop your taste in the kind of contemporary music that’s performed at the Louth Contemporary Music Society?
Eamonn Quinn: I have a hat and I usually just throw names in. [Laughs.]
What I’m trying to do, if I’m not being pretentious, is to give the audience a unique experience; to give them as wide a flavor of the music as we can. I try not to focus too much on one school or what’s the zeitgeist—that doesn’t give good rewards. It’s better to mix things up.
Some of the best concerts have been things which you and I probably would know would be good, like Kurtág’s “Kafka-Fragmente.” It’s only a voice and one instrument and my God, it just blows your mind. I don’t know why some things work and others don’t. It’s just this magic that you can sometimes tap into, and it’s kind of life-changing for everybody.
I went to conservatory and studied things like “Kafka-Fragmente” in class. How did you, coming from the outside, become familiar with these kinds of works?
I think that musical curiosity has always been there. I’m curious about the whole composition process. But a lot of times, I rely on my own intuition and my ear: just what I think is good. And that’s a terrible thing to say, isn’t it? It’s terrible arrogance to say what I think is good.
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Do you think of yourself as a concert curator?
Sometimes I call myself the head dishwasher. [Laughs.] I sort of end up doing everything at the festival anyway. I have a classic photograph after a recording session where I’m hoovering the church. The engineer gave me a really important job to do. [Laughs.] I suppose the other thing is that Irish people find it difficult to deal with praise. [Someone will say], “The festival was great. I really loved it.” And I’ll start nitpicking at it…
But calling you a curator isn’t praise; it’s a job description.
Yeah. Well, I suppose I could call it a lot of things. [Laughs.]
But it seems like more than head dishwasher, for sure.
Often programs are curated by performers, and to me it sometimes feels like musicians decide their programs based on what makes sense for them to play, not necessarily what is great for the audience to hear in a coherent program. That’s why I ask about your curation.
No, I would always curate the music and the concerts. It sounds very selfish, but it’s what I want to hear. If I’m not getting that back from the music, I’m not really sure what I’m doing. People propose things and to me, it doesn’t matter who they are or how famous they are. I’ll just say no. I’m trying to make these things unique. I never really take a tour. I want [the festival] to be an individual experience for the audience member. You could have the JACK Quartet touring a really good program, but I’m thinking, Nah, let’s do something different. Let’s make this unique for this audience who gives me their time to come here to this festival. It can cause problems at times as well, but I think it’s worth it.
That makes sense.
I don’t want to say it in a bad way, but especially after my father died…your time becomes more precious.
A good relationship is to work with a composer and to come up with a program which both like. I think about the acoustic setting, what’s available at the venue. We did that with Sciarrino and it worked brilliantly. I was asking him, “Where are you going after this?” And he said, “I’m going to La Scala.” And I just started laughing.
Did your dad ever come to performances at the festival?
Yeah. My whole family, they’re all quite professional people, doctors and headmasters and stuff. They look at me sometimes like, You think he’ll grow out of this? [Laughs.] When I won the award from the Forberg-Schneider Foundation I still found them to be really puzzled by it.
What’s it like applying to grants from established new music institutions as a passionate listener or amateur?
I’m almost afraid to ask for too much money. We got around €7,000 [from the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation]. And I thought, God, this is great. And then when we went through the budget, I thought, I should have asked them for more. We’re within about €500 of incomes and expenditures.
We’re getting a lot of support from the local Arts Council here, especially the music staff. They give us funds, but they also give us support to try and develop the organization. You can talk to them, and they’re really nice people. Sometimes things can get very stressful—it’s performance, everybody’s on edge—and they’re very nice about it.
After my dad died, they were genuinely concerned about my well-being. They gave me really good advice: [Take] time out, talk when you want, look after yourself; walks, cycling, yoga and meditation are all good. One suggested a book as I had high blood pressure, palpitations, and panic attacks after. I couldn’t figure out what was going on as I had a great relationship with my dad. But it is grief manifesting as anxiety.
I was thinking about the people who help me at the door at the concerts, like Alannagh Brennan. She’s been doing it for probably about 10 years now. To me she’s as important as the composers and the musicians. What we’re trying to do is to build a music community. The composers are there, people are really curious, and they can just chat away with the composers. And Irish people love chatting, so they never really stop. [Laughs.]
How far in advance of the Festival in June do you take time off from your job?
Probably by the Wednesday before it. [It starts on a Friday.—Ed.] By that stage, I’m probably on driving duty getting the artists from the airport. I got to the airport last year, it must have been five times in one day, and I couldn’t find the car. I was just walking around and there was a musician, and I kept saying, “I’ll be a minute.” I was like, Oh my god, where’s this car? And I got home and I thought, I’m having a nervous breakdown. And it hasn’t even started.
As I’ve got older it has taken a lot out of me. On the last day you’ll just be exhausted. But you’re still dealing with the travel arrangements, making sure everybody gets out of the country.
In 2017, you told The Guardian, “LCMS needs support or it will fade away, or I’ll leave, because the workload is too much.” Do you still think about stopping?
Yeah, on a daily basis.
What keeps you going?
[Without missing a beat.] Oh, I think it’s the money. [Laughs.]
That’s a difficult question. I don’t know. I think it’s still the music. The music keeps you going.
Do you have a white whale composer or artist whom you’ve never been able to bring to the festival or commission?
I think Cassandra Miller is quite an untapped source. One composer whom I think needs to be re-discovered is Avet Terterian from Armenia. I would love to commission the following, but it’s unlikely to happen, so I’m just dreaming here: Steve Reich, another piece for electric guitar or guitar quartet or a Sextet Two; Hans Abrahamsen, Schnee Two; Clara Iannotta, a work for string quartet and electronics; Arvo Pärt, String Trio; Kurtág, anything; Sciarrino, a small opera with small forces or a song cycle; Saariaho, a small opera; Meredith Monk, a work for Chamber Choir Ireland; Lachenmann, something for two guitars; Lucia Ronchetti, a new action piece or work for choir…
What’s it like dealing with some of these high-powered, busy artists at your smaller festival?
Some people get it more than others and really help you and work with you. For example, Gavin Bryars. I commissioned him to write “Wittgenstein Fragments,” and I said to him, “Why don’t you come over and perform ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet,’ and we’ll do it at the end of the festival?” We were working with a group of children who are from a multicultural school; a real mix of kids, some coming from disadvantaged areas, in Dundalk. [Some of] the children rushed out after the rehearsals to go to a hall to get fed, because they’re not being fed at home. So I said to Gavin, “Would there be any chance that we could include these kids in the performance? Their abilities are really limited. They’re only probably first position on violin or maybe open strings.”
And he said, “Sure.” He wrote parts out for them. He wrote words out so they could sing in the background. We had a facilitator and Gavin would come over and work with the kids. At the end, we had basically a run-through with the professional musicians who were all lovely with them, and we held the performance. It was so emotional. There were people crying in the audience.
Gavin understands that you have to do these things to build a community. We’re all in this together. We really have to be. CD sales are nothing. Spotify is not going to give a musician an opportunity to live. Things are getting narrower and narrower. We say to everybody, “We are in this together.” And once you get to come together, then it’s wonderful, and it works, and everybody has a great time, and you can go home and say: “That was great. I’m never doing that again.” [Laughs.] ¶
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