My favourite thing about composing music is creating new ideas and exploring how they might develop and expand into an actual composition. I work a lot through improvisation; I’ll sit at the piano and play for long stretches of time, recording what I come up with. Then, I’ll find the most interesting results of that and repeat the process. I love writing for piano, but I try to make sure I’m not overusing it just because it’s my own instrument. There are very few instruments I don’t like – my experience over the last few years has taught me that writing for instruments you think you don’t like often results in very interesting music!
My name is Stephen Coyle, I’m from Donegal, and I’m a lead developer at N56 Software (https://n56.ie/). My brother and I set up N56 Software last July with the aim of making apps for festivals and events. The idea for this came from my own experience within the music and creative industries – there were so many festivals with paper brochures that I thought could be improved upon. After transitioning towards making software development my primary career, this seemed like the natural pathway to take to turn it into my main living.
The main things that I like to do when I’m not working are composing and playing music. I started playing piano when I was about nine – at first, I was only really interested in playing music, not writing it. As time went on, I started to experiment with writing pieces of my own. By around sixteen or seventeen, I was writing lots of little pieces; these were mostly just for fun, but some were for short films and projects like that. When I went to university, I started learning much more about composition. Over the following few years, my focus shifted away from performance and further towards composition; by the time of my Master’s and PhD, it was my main focus.
I have a pretty varied taste in music – what I want to listen to depends a lot on my mood. Lately, I’ve been listening to Igor Levit’s album Bach, Beethoven, Rzewski, in which he performs those composers’ largest theme and variations pieces. I’ve also been loving Hilary Hahn’s new Bach recordings. Outside the classical world, I’ve been recently listening to Lana Del Rey, Billie Eilish, The Beatles, and Radiohead. In terms of favourite composers, there are always too many to list, but Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Ravel, Messiaen, and Schoenberg would be some of my major favourites (no surprise that they’re also composers of some of the greatest piano music in history). I also listen to a lot of more contemporary composers: Thomas Adès and Kevin Volans are the two most recently played in my music library right now.
The set-up I use for composing is pretty simple: usually just a piano or keyboard, my iPad for writing things down, and either my laptop or an audio recorder. In terms of musical material, sometimes I’ll have an idea or motif in my head that I want to explore; other times, I just go in cold and start playing around until my hands come up with something that sounds interesting.
Harmonically, my music features a lot of big-small interval combinations. By that, I mean I’ll often have two notes which are relatively far apart, contrasted with two notes that are very close together. I think this gives my music a fairly bright and clear tone, with a bit of crunch from the close together notes. I usually write slow to moderately fast music; I tend not to write very frantic or busy material.
Most of my composing over the last four years has been dominated by work I produced for my PhD. It required around ninety minutes of original composition, and I ended up writing very little music for other things within that time period. I was a finalist for the Peter Rosser composition prize in 2018, with a piece called Taking[Up][In][Off][Away] (https://stephencoyle.net/hrse-march18). Previously, I was also the first composer in residence with the Ulster Youth Choir. I’ve also written quite a few short film soundtracks, most recently for a film called Lady Death.
Hearing my music performed is always a favourite experience of mine. I’ve been lucky enough to have an incredible group called the Hard Rain Soloist Ensemble perform a few of my pieces in recent years – it’s always an enchanting experience hearing people perform what you’ve written. In 2016, I was also a composer in residence at the IConArts Festival in Romania, so I got to travel over for workshops there; I also attended a concert which featured my music. As part of my residency with the Ulster Youth Orchestra, I was also able to hear some incredibly talented young people performing a choir piece which I composed for them, titled Darkly Bright.
It’s also a great experience to hear soundtracks I’ve composed on the big screen. A short film I wrote and composed the music for was premiered at the Aubagne International Film Festival in the south of France. Lady Death was screened at numerous festivals in the UK, Ireland, and the USA.
I’m most proud of all the pieces that make up my PhD portfolio. They’re all different lengths and sizes. Some have yet to be performed, and others have brought me to different countries to hear them played, but they each represent me pushing myself further than ever before. The portfolio contains the longest piece I’ve ever composed, the largest ensemble I’ve written for, some of my favourite compositions, as well as the most unusual pieces I’ve ever written. Together, they form a collection I’m really happy with.
Since submitting my PhD a few months ago, I’ve taken a short break from composing formal, notated compositions. I’ve still been creating small, more casual compositions here and there, but I’m feeling the urge to write something bigger and more elaborate again! I enjoy the freedom that my business gives me to pursue non-work projects. I just finished working on a very large hobby project, so I plan to write my first major post-PhD-submission piece soon!
I think there are a lot of conceptual similarities between programming and composing. One of the most prominent things is the need for an awareness of time and context; every note you write exists in a delicate balancing act between what precedes it and what comes next. A chord can sound completely different depending on where it’s placed. Programming is no different; the same line of code can have very different effects depending on where you place it. An awareness of time, actions, and consequences is absolutely vital to both activities.
My advice to beginners looking to compose their own music is to experiment. Write what you think sounds good, but also what is interesting. Think of composing like chasing a very clever enemy – when you think you’ve caught them, you can’t just sit back and relax, or they’ll outsmart you and get away again. You can’t write something that sounds nice, and then just keep repeating it; you have to be dynamic and keep the momentum going. This doesn’t mean you have to write anything complicated or difficult – some of my favourite compositions are exceedingly simple. It just means you have to be thoughtful and creative.
I consider tech a means to an end. I feel like programming is just another outlet for my ideas and passions, no more than music or any other activity. Creativity and ideas are the driving force behind it all, and it’s really important to share that side of technologists. No more than learning the basics of oil painting allows someone to express the images in their head, learning to program opens up a whole new arena for creative expression – the creative passions of programmers are at the heart of that.