Interviews

PRXLUDES | Aileen Sweeney

Aileen Sweeney – ‘Above the Stars’ (2020), performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

“I just try and write something that is, in any shape or form, going to be enjoyable.” -Aileen Sweeney

Aileen Sweeney (b. 1994) is an award-winning Scottish composer, accordionist and arranger based in Glasgow. With a practice deeply rooted in Scottish folk tradition, Aileen’s unique compositional style embodies an unapologetic blend of styles, genres, and conventions seamlessly sewn together; Aileen’s work has recently won two awards at the Scottish Awards for New Music, and she has worked with and been commissioned by ensembles such as the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Red Note Ensemble, Hebrides Ensemble, The Carice Singers, and Psappha. Aileen plays in folk fusion band Eriska, and co-runs podcast Ear to the Ground alongside pianist Ben Eames. Aileen spoke to PRXLUDES about her influence from Celtic mythology, her ideas on tonalism in compositional discourse, her folk background, and her work with Eriska and Ear to the Ground.

📸 Lemonjelly Photography

Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hey Aileen! How are things on your end — what have you been up to recently?

Aileen Sweeney: What I’ve been doing since I last [saw] you… I’ve just finished a piece for Red Note Ensemble, which [was] done at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in November. That was a bit stressful, though — I say a bit, it was very stressful. There were a lot of genuine tears, I’m not joking. -laughs- [the commission] came in quite last minute, so it was a tight turnaround, but I did it!

Yay! But was this tears from your side, or their side, or both sides?

My side. Definitely just my side. -laughs- I’m laughing right now, but I get really stressed starting new pieces. I despise it. And sometimes I end up crying because I get so frustrated… -laughs- So yeah, I just finished that, and I’m starting an accordion concerto — it’s a twelve-minute [piece] for accordion and string orchestra… a concertino, I guess. So I’m just starting that today. I’ve not cried — yet. I probably will. -laughs- I haven’t put any makeup on, in anticipation for tears, so yeah. That’s what I’ve been working on since I saw you last!

What’s the themes behind this piece you’ve done for Red Note? I’m quite intrigued as to if anything in particular brought the tears… -laughs-

It’s called ‘The Land Under the Wave’, and it’s called that because I was reading about the ancient Celtic people — as I always do when I get stuck with pieces, I’ll just read about ancient Celts. -laughs- ‘The Land Under the Wave’ is one of their mythical beliefs [about] the “otherworld”: in Celtic mythology, they had otherworlds in different locations that exist alongside our world, and certain phenomena such as sudden changes in weather — or the appearance of a weird animal and stuff — signalled that you were “at” the otherworld. And they thought that the veil between these otherworlds were thin in certain places, and near water was one of these places.

So in the otherworld, “the land under the wave”, apparently there was everlasting youth — I’ll take that — everlasting health — I’ll take that [too] — health, abundance, and joy. But funnily enough, the piece doesn’t actually sound that joyful, in the end. So there you go!

That’s absolutely fascinating — where did that interest in Celtic mythology initially come from? Is it a recent development?

It’s fairly recent, maybe in the last year or so. In the sense that I find it really difficult to start a piece, in general. But I find it even more difficult if I don’t know what the piece is about — title, [or] what I’m trying to do. Since graduating, I’m essentially having to write more pieces and so I’m having to find more things to write about. I’ve stumbled upon Celtic mythology around this time last year, and since then, I’ve just found it really interesting, and weirdly relatable… even though I don’t believe in Celtic pagan mythology. I was raised in a very Catholic house, but I weirdly find this more relatable than any other religion I’ve came across.

How do you find it relatable?

A lot of the ways they describe things, and the names they had for things, are quite poetic — and lends themselves to a bit of pondering, really. The first thing I stumbled upon [was that] different trees that they knew of, they believed to have different powers: for example, the aspen tree has a very particular shape of leaf which rustles in a distinctive way in the wind, and they thought that was the whispers of their ancestors. Things like that. But they had symbols for each tree, and that actually formed their alphabet, called ogham. And I just found that really relatable, in the sense that they essentially worshipped trees; they were sacred because they were sources of shelter, sources of food, sources of medicine. And in this day and age, we could all pay a wee bit more respect to trees. -laughs- I keep finding wee nuggets of information about it, and I just find it quite interesting. So I always delve into it when I’m stuck for a piece, basically.

Aileen Sweeney – ‘Pale Blue Dot’ (2021), performed by Sarah Wagner and Neil Sutcliffe.

Something I’ve noticed about your work is how unapologetically “tonal” a lot of it is — is that a conscious decision on your part?

It’s kind of funny, actually. At the networking thing after Cheltenham [Festival], I got talking to a guy who runs Presteigne Festival, and it actually quite nicely turned into a commission. But I was chatting on the phone to him, and he said “I think your music would fit in great at our festival, the music’s quite light and accessible.” I take that as a massive compliment. I often feel that a lot of stuff that I write stands out like a sore thumb at concerts amongst other contemporary music. Because there’s a lot of major chords, there’s a lot of minor chords, and there’s even… perfect cadences. -laughs- So I quite like it when my music is programmed in a concert with other pieces that are of a similar nature.

If anything, that’s radical right now. I remember I told someone in Barcelona my music was tonal, and the guy thought I was joking. -laughs-

Yeah, I know. It’s like… new tonalism. It’s the new wave. Jump on it.

Either we’re horribly behind, or we’re really ahead of the curve. And I can’t tell which.

I think ahead. I’ve spoken to lots of people about [new tonalism], and I think that contemporary music is gonna diverge again. I think other people will “regress”, so to speak, because I think it has to. We’ve all [gone] so far, there’s only one [other] way to go and it’s backwards again. -laughs- I’ve been in interviews for schemes and things, and they ask that question — “what makes you write music, what is it you try to do in your music?” — I say [that] I just try and write something that is, in any shape or form, going to be enjoyable. Personally, I think that the enjoyment aspect of music has been a little bit forgotten — sometimes. Not all the time, of course. I just sometimes think “god, what’s wrong with writing happy music?”

I personally find that whenever I go to “contemporary” concerts, I don’t really like an awful lot of it. I would rather to go to the pub and hear some guy strum three chords on a guitar, you know what I mean? [But] it’s just taste, at the end of the day. And my tastes are different from other peoples’ tastes, and other peoples’ tastes are different from mine. But I do feel like there’s this pressure to push the boundaries, be “outside the box”. And I just think “why?” — be in the box…

Or better yet, be the box. Have everyone follow you.

Be the box! But let’s place a bet — I bet fifty pounds that in fifty years, the majority of composers will be writing tonal music. Let’s see.

Shit. Let’s make sure we’re both alive in 2071. -laughs- Has your music always embodied a tonal style — or at least had those inflections — or is it something you’ve returned to, so to speak?

I mean, when I was starting out doing Composition at uni, in my undergraduate, it was second study composition so I wasn’t focusing on it solely. But I certainly experimented in the more atonal side of things — purely because I felt like you had to. Or that was what composition in this day and age was. And I guess you’re “copying” other people when you’re learning, copying what’s going on around you from other students, or your teachers, or whatever. And I think the more confident I get, the more tonal it becomes. But in saying that, I also do lack confidence to do it, as well. I’m starting this concerto today, and it’s thirty seconds in, and it’s essentially just been a Dsus4 chord for twenty-seven seconds, and I’m like “oh god, is this shite? Is that what a school-kid would write?” — and I’m like, well, I’m enjoying it, so fuck it? -laughs- But you do flip back and forth — because you think complexity means better — but if you’re enjoying hanging out on a Dsus4 chord, then why the fuck not!

There’s a beauty in that kind of simplicity.

The thing that’s funny about it is, I feel like if you’re writing tonally, people think that you’ve not developed [a] harmonic palette. I submitted the piece I wrote for the LPO (‘Above the Stars’) for a scheme I was never successful in — [and] I asked for feedback, and the feedback was “the piece used a modal, simplistic, ‘filmic’ harmonic palette. You should explore expanding and developing your harmony”… Which is fine, but I just think that it doesn’t need [to be that way]. And yeah, maybe it does sound filmic — but so what? What’s wrong with something sounding like film music? People love film music — it’s the only time the concert halls are full! -laughs-

It just goes to show, right? The divide between the “elites” in contemporary music, and then everyone else…

It’s a funny balance to strike. I feel like it’s a funny place to be — [to be] a contemporary composer writing music just for people to listen to. It’s a really tricky place. It’s hard to remember [to] just fucking write stuff that you like — it seems like a simple thing to do, but it is hard. I often hear composers saying, like, “I don’t think about what the audience think, I don’t care what the audience think” — and I believe those people, I’m sure they don’t care — but why would you not care? What would you rather, a concert hall of a thousand people walking out and hating it, or a concert hall of people saying “I really enjoyed your piece”? I know Stravinsky had riots and all that, but I don’t think we’re in the day and age of riots. I am thrilled when people come up to me and say “I enjoy your music”, so why would I not strive for that?

Aileen Sweeney – ‘Siku’ (2020), performed by Simone Seales.

I’m interested in how you’ve explored that in your work — this idea of simplicity in your compositional process. I know it can be scary; how do you approach that without losing confidence?

I totally know what you mean about that lack of confidence — especially in those early stages of writing a piece. I think what I’ve found is that, say you’re working on an idea — and you’re like “oh, is this too simple? The harmony hasn’t changed for two minutes…” — but as you work into the piece, you start opening doors, you’ll start making changes in another way. Maybe it’s rhythmic, maybe it’s dynamic. And yes, the harmony might be simple, but that doesn’t matter, because you’ve actually made something really interesting over here, with rhythm, or whatever. It’s okay not to have everything going at once — rhythm, harmony, dynamics — and somehow, harmony is the one you get worried about the most. Because of the whole fucking atonal/tonal devil on your shoulder. But if you work through an idea hard enough, and long enough, either you scrap it after a couple days, or you realise “yeah, the harmony is simple, but actually the focus isn’t the harmony — this is the piece here”. You have to get over yourself [about] the harmony, because something else will reveal itself, I find.

How have you utilised that in your practice, particularly in terms of the forces you’ve worked for?

I guess it depends on the situation. And by that, I mean the orchestration, the instrumentation, what you’ve got to work with. Since it’s the most recent thing, the piece [I wrote for] Cheltenham — ‘Canntaireachd’ — I don’t think it’s groundbreaking or anything, it is harmonically simple, but the interest is very much in the words and the rhythm. That’s the two things. I remember getting some feedback on the piece, and the feedback was “maybe you could explore pushing the harmony a wee bit more”, but I didn’t, and to be honest, I’m glad it didn’t. I think that piece would be an absolute bitch to get together and perform — more so than it already was — and I always have to think to myself, this is a four minute piece… How much work are people gonna ever put in to a four minute piece? And if you’ve got, essentially, made up nonsense words going really fast with time signatures changing every bar, and you’ve got the pitch jumping up [and down], nobody’s ever gonna do it. And if they do do it, it’s gonna be a mess. -laughs-

I get you, you’ve already got so many parameters.

Like, the LPO piece again — the harmony is simple, but I really went to town on the orchestration. I really dug into that, and worked into that; I tried to make it colourful with what I had. So it’s always like, looking at what you’ve got and finding ways to tart up your simple harmony. -laughs-

That’s the thing, right? Pieces can be complex without sounding “complex” — pieces can be complex without needing to be unlistenable, or inaccessible.

It’s funny though, because I really love minimalism — this “new minimalist” stuff that is going on, Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon… all those guys. I love that. But somehow because they’re established, no one bats an eyelid at them. Hacking away at a chord for minutes on end… -laughs- So I’m hoping that if I become a superstar in twenty years, people won’t hark on about my harmony. We’ll see.

Aileen Sweeney – ‘CEILIDH’ (2019), performed by Red Note Ensemble on BBC Radio Scotland.

You’ve mentioned how you’ve incorporated many folk traditions into your musical practice. How did that interest and facet of your practice develop?

It’s a tricky one, because people ask that — “oh, how do you weave this folk-y stuff in, when did this interest develop” — but I grew up in a very folk household. I was taken to these Irish music classes, and forced to play the tin whistle and accordion (I picked the accordion, in fairness), I was taken to Irish dancing classes. That was very much what my understanding of music was for a very long time; obviously, I knew that other things existed, but that was very much my upbringing, and what I considered music to be, essentially. And it wasn’t really until I was about 14 or 15 that I even started looking at “classical” music; but even then, it wasn’t really classical music, it was like French musettes and Italian polkas. It probably wasn’t until I was in my final year at school that I actually played something by Bach. So I find that the folk music is very much engrained, and I actually have tried to not do stuff that’s folk-y… -laughs- But I don’t know! I can’t get rid of it.

I feel like I’ve developed a style I’m quite happy with at the moment, but I hope that I’m not just writing in modes for the next fifty years until I die. I obviously accept that part of me will [always] love it, and enjoy it, but I’d like to find other areas of music that I can feel as comfortable to pull on, as well. But for now, it’s all modes — specifically lydian, mixolydian, and dorian. -laughs-

That’s so interesting, though; like it’s not that you’ve incorporated folk music into your classical practice, but rather you’ve incorporated classical music into your folk practice.

Yeah, yeah. It was definitely the folk stuff [that] came first, and then I learned about classical music. It was the same when I was doing my undergraduate — there was a time when I was like “I am doing classical music, so I must write this” — but I don’t really think about those pieces anymore. They’re just sitting on my hard drive, never to see the light of day, because everyone does that the first couple of years… they write stuff that’s shite and not very true to them. -laughs- And I guess the only stuff that feels like my thing is the folky stuff that I’ve done. So we’ll see how it goes.

Seeing how you evolve is gonna be so exciting, then!

I feel like the thing about Scottish music, or Celtic folk music, is: it either exists on its own — folk music in a pub, or a ceilidh, or whatever — and then when classical people with no background in folk music take it, and say for argument’s sake write a jig for orchestra or a reel for orchestra… it’s twee as fuck! It is twee as fuck. Like, it’s the equivalent of a man in a kilt on a mountain on the Highlands eating haggis and irn bru… there’s no nuance to it. And I can always tell if a tune has been written by someone who’s not folky. Cause people think “oh, it’s dead simple, it’s those eight bars, and those eight bars, and those repeat, and it’s quavers and crotchets”… but you can just tell, you know what I mean? -laughs- They see a formula and they take it, but it just sounds dry and twee and shite. And I don’t feel like there’s many people in the middle, straddling the two styles well. There’s certainly only a few kicking around. I would consider myself in the middle. Certainly, I know for a fact people think I’m twee as fuck, but I don’t think I am… -laughs- Because I think I’m one of the folk who’s trained in classical music, [but] has played trad music for a really long time.

As someone from that traditional folk background, do you feel like that can be appropriative sometimes?

Not really. I don’t think it’s appropriative, I just think sometimes it’s not done well. -laughs- The thing is, I think folk music’s for everyone. I think all music’s for everyone. I don’t like this idea that “this music isn’t for you, you’re from England so this Scottish music isn’t for you, or you’re from Scotland so this Indian music isn’t for you or whatever”… I think music now is global, culture is global, and everyone should be able to dip into whatever they want. As long as you do it well, [and] you’re not being a dick about it I don’t see a problem. All music comes from somewhere: we should all feel able to take influence and be inspired by other people and other cultures.

You mentioned you’ve had significant practice as an accordionist — are you still keeping that facet of your work alive?

My bread and butter is playing in a ceilidh band, that’s playing trad tunes and stuff for weddings. But I’ve got my band Eriska, which I started five years ago, and that’s still going — slowly but surely. We all write our own music for that; as far as trad music goes, it’s kind of out there. We’ve actually got an EP out [last] month — I was gonna say “new EP”, [but] this stuff we’ve been trying to record for three years, so this stuff isn’t new!

But going back to that appropriation-y question — the band is a mixed bag. I’m in it; the guy who plays bass did the jazz course at RCS [Royal Conservatiore of Scotland]; piper’s very much a traditional, grew-up-in-pipe-bands type of playing; the fiddle player’s from America, she’s got a much more americana-bluegrass kind of upbringing with folk; [and] the guitarist and drummer play in pop bands, and rock bands. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with bringing all these styles together. You do get your traditionalist folk in the folk scene just as much as you do in the classical scene, but you’re never gonna please everyone. So please yourself. -laughs-

Collaboratively, how does the writing process work with Eriska?

It tends to be [that] someone writes a tune — by that, I mean a melody — but the arrangement is very much done by the six of us. Which is time consuming, but I think you get the best result, because everyone’s getting an input in, you know. Although it’s also a bitch when you haven’t played together in two years, and you come back and go to play things, and nothing’s written down and you’re relying on your memory. -laughs- But that’s how it works.

Did you do a lot of tours with Eriska — at least pre-covid?

We did a bit! I organised a wee tour in Scotland in 2019, and things were going pretty well of us, actually. It’s really hard to get it off the ground because there’s six of us, all with jobs, and all in bands that pay money — i.e. wedding bands — so it’s really hard to get everyone on board for a gig. But 2019, things were going pretty well; I organised this wee tour, we made a profit, we got invited to play out in Switzerland for a week!

I know everyone has their “covid-moan”, and I’m not gonna moan about [it], but the thing about covid was [that] it went from us kind of doing alright to: someone was delivering ice cream all day, someone was working in a factory, someone was working in a call centre… And you just can’t line up those schedules. So since all that amazing stuff that we managed to get in 2019, we’ve had three rehearsals now in about 2 years, and the progress is much slower. It’s annoying, like? And in the two years that’s gone by, we’ve all become a lot more adult; people now have graduated, [they] have jobs — someone even has a mortgage. -laughs- So the band comes lower in the priorities. But I’m hoping we can gradually climb back to where we were; even if we don’t get to the same level [that] we did, we still enjoy meeting up and playing and recording. We’re quite lucky in the fact that our drummer Gavin [Paterson] lives on a farm, and he converted one of the old barns into a recording studio — so we get to rehearse and record for free. If that wasn’t the case, we would have disbanded a long time ago. -laughs-

Aileen Sweeney, ‘The Overview Effect’ (2021), performed by Darragh Morgan.

So I’ve heard you also run a podcast called Ear to the Ground — what were you trying to achieve when you initially conceived the podcast?

Yeah! It’s about having down-to-earth chats that are informative, with composers who are Scottish, or based in Scotland. I feel like a lot of the time, when there’s interviews with composers, they’re very dry — or you feel like the composer’s this really big thing. A lot of elements of classical music feel very elitist, and very exclusive; it doesn’t feel cosy, or welcoming. It can also feel very formal — and a bit drab, a bit boring, a bit dry. But equally I really hate podcasts that are two guys chatting shite in their bedroom. -laughs- If I’m gonna invest 45 minutes of my life into a podcast, I want to feel like I’ve learned something, or heard about something new, or came away wanting to look up that thing. I want to have something to take away from it. I guess we’re trying to strike that balance between giving folk information that’s interesting, but in a way that doesn’t feel dry, [or] boring. I think we’ve still got a way to go. I think me and Ben [Eames] are getting better at it, but we’re not interviewers, we’re not that great at speaking.

That comes with the territory, I think. I remember my first interviews being quite difficult for me, as well!

Our first interviews that we did with folk, even though they were our friends, we were still a bit nervous; we prepared the questions [in advance], and I still want them to be formulated and structured, but [it’s about] having decent chats. People seem to listen, which is good! And as long as people listen to it, then we’ll do it. But I think it’s good, in the sense that the sort of people we’re interviewing are the same age and stage as me, for the most part; you know, that “emerging” or “young composer”. It gives them a platform to show people what they’re up to. I like the idea that they’re like little time capsules — in the sense that some of the people we’re interviewing might be super famous in fifty years, and we’ve got this wee nugget of them chatting away in their mid-twenties. It’s a nice moment in time, so to speak.

Although we’re chatting to Scottish / Scottish-based artists, [we’re] really trying to have a wide range of music and people on it as much as we can, to make sure we’re showing all of what’s going on. That’s what we’re trying to do; we’ll keep going at it for now, hopefully get better at it. -laughs-

Of course! Giving people that platform in a way that isn’t pretentious…

I also feel like some people, orchestras and that, try to do “fun interviews with the composer!” — and they’re not fun. They ask them “what’s your favourite food? What’s your favourite colour? If you would have dinner with a famous person, who would it be?” — I think people are trying to be cool and down to earth, but they don’t get content. [We’re] trying to get that balance of chilled, but worthwhile listening to.

Having listened to a few of your interviews, I think that’s a balance I think you’re striking really well.

I think it’ll take a long time for that to trickle down into all classical music. I’m going to see the RSNO with my mum for her birthday, because they’re playing the Firebird and it’s her favourite tune — [and] the thing I fucking hate the most [is] the tension in a classical music hall, when say there’s movements, and the first movement finishes in a big flourishing, rousing gesture… and people are like “fuck, do we clap”? And then someone goes like this… -Aileen claps slowly- and everyone like’s “fuck! Someone fucking clapped…” Then the next movement goes by and someone’s like “fuck, I need to cough, I’ve been holding it in for so long”… -laughs- I understand that classical music can’t ever be Transmit, or T in the Park, or Glastonbury. You can’t have folk pissed, jumping around [in a field] — because you wouldn’t hear it. It needs to be listened to attentively, but it doesn’t have to be quite so horrendously tight.

I think it’ll take a long time for that to go away. I hate that we go to see an orchestra and they’re in tails, I hate that you go to a concert and everyone’s in black! I go to ceilidhs every other weekend, and I wear black — it’s the only time in my life that I wear black, apart from funerals. Like, why are we all dressed in black? Why do they all need to dress the same, have they ever heard of smart casual? -laughs- I know it doesn’t bother everyone, but…

I heard about the absolutely meaningless drama on Twitter about the Proms this year… Generational traditions imposed on other people, right?

The RSNO [Royal Scottish National Orchestra] are a great orchestra and they’re on my doorstep, but I don’t want to hear Beethoven every week. I don’t want to hear Mozart’s piano concertos every week, I don’t want to hear Paganini Variations every week… I could probably predict the programme for the year. I’m not saying they need to change up the whole thing, but mix it up a bit, you know? There’s a whole generation of people that need to die before that changes. But in saying that, when those people die, who’s gonna be there? It’s gonna be a bunch of composers and music students and that’s it. So something needs to change when those folk go.

Aileen’s work can be found at:

Check out Aileen’s podcast Ear to the Ground at the links below:

Stream Eriska’s new EP, ‘Are We There Yet?’, at:

References/Links:

  • Ogham – a writing system used in Ireland, Scotland, and England throughout the 4th-9th Century CE.

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