Music for Music: Emma O’Halloran

The Energy of Discovery: Composer Emma O’Halloran

By Dan Ursini © 2019

Recently, I was contacted by Classical:NEXT, a big  annual networking event in Europe for Classical/Art/New Music. It is held in the Netherlands in Rotterdam, a great music city, and it will take place this year on May 15-18. According to Jennifer Dautermann, Director of Classical:NEXT, “For this edition…we are embracing not just new voices, but the voices of those who are yet to be heard. We want all voices to be heard equally, on the stage, in the audiences and in management.” Among the musical artists featured at the opening night showcase are Emma O’Halloran, Pauchi Sasaki, and Amanda Gookin. I was invited to interview them and did so by email, working the results into three articles, all of which will posted at EIL over the next week or so.

The first deals with Emma O’Halloran, a musical artist who was raised in Athlone, Ireland, and is currently studying at Princeton. Her composition, Constellations, will be performed at Classical:NEXT by the Young Doelen Ensemble. On YouTube is a video of a 2018 performance:

It has a marvelous, witty opening. A gentle piano steps in and is quickly followed by a loud sampler with a sarcastic tone and a strong pulse. Then the rest of the music gradually breathes in around that sampler—layers of strings and keyboards and mallet instruments—some acoustic and some electronic.  A graceful, balanced vocal melody begins and the whole of it soars. Throughout the piece, the animated interplay of disparate layered elements is captivating. I asked O’Halloran about this and she said:

I like to view the electronic aspect in my music as an additional instrument and so I want it to blend and interact with the acoustic instruments in a seamless way. It’s important that everything works together to form a unified sound world, and a lot of the time I will use rhythm and pulse to bind these different layers together.

Constellations rewards repeated listening. Something new turns up each time. The music is very rich in ideas. As O’Halloran explained, “My music aims to capture the human experience, exploring complex emotions felt in specific moments in time. Getting to the heart of the piece is my main priority, and most often a directness and concise use of material is what drives the music forward. “

That same concision propels Land Electric, a piece written for a quartet using percussion and mallet instruments. O’Halloran understands their nimble expressive capacity and writes exceptionally well for them. O’Halloran says that Land Electric “was inspired by various road trips that I took across the United States. Coming from a small country like Ireland, I had never seen anything like the endless skies of the desert regions that I drove through. This piece tries to communicate the expanse of the landscape, the stillness and isolation of the desert, and the storms that roll in from the distance.” This is very exciting music with a pleasing breeziness and buoyancy. It occurred to me that the music of Emma O’Halloran is all about the energy of discovery. In compositions like these, the music both describes it and enacts it

Yet she is interested in discoveries of many sorts. A recent work, Mary Motorhead, is a world away.

O’Halloran explains: “It’s a monodrama for lyric mezzo soprano and amplified chamber ensemble and is adapted from a play that my uncle (Mark O’Halloran) wrote. The story is about a woman who is serving a prison sentence for the murder of her husband.” As such, it is a generously detailed character portrait of a woman in a bleak, hard and mean world. The music for Mary Motorhead’s voice is moving and dark, sometimes heartbreaking. The instrumental music registers intense industrial and metal influences.

I wondered if O’Halloran was deliberately cultivating her talents by pushing herself in sharply divergent directions as she proceeds from work to work. She replied: “Absolutely, one of my personal philosophies is to grow with each new work. I feel most excited by the pieces that I have no idea how to write, it’s the process of challenging myself to figure it out and learn something new that I find most rewarding.”


Dan Ursini and his wife Valerie live in Oak Park, Illinois. Over the years he has done many kinds of writing. Ursini served as the first resident playwright for the Steppenwolf Theatre of Chicago (1978-1983); he worked for ten years as a Contributing Editor for Puerto Del Sol magazine ; he wrote performance art pieces presented at  Chicago venues as Club Lower Links and Club Dreamerz. Ursini wrote radio theatre presented on NPR in the early 1990s. Throughout all this, he has worked full-time at the Law Library at DePaul University where for a decade he also wrote articles for Dialogue, the DePaul law school’s alumni publication . In addition, he was active for some years as a bass guitarist in various Chicago blues/gospel/funk/lounge configurations. Currently Ursini is working on his latest novel. A play he wrote with Robert Rothman, A Mensch Among Men, a fictionalized account of real-life Jewish Chicago-area gangsters, recently had two staged readings in Chicago. Dan can be reached at: 

Emma O’Halloran’s Website

Emma O’Halloran at Sound Cloud

Emma O’Halloran at Kinds of Kings Composer Collective


Kinds of Kings Composer Collective

Mark O’Halloran in the Irish Times

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