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Michael Chang

20.01.2020

Composer, Sruth na Teanga.

 

We meet Michael in his kitchen, surrounded by light, musical instruments, colourful toys and artworks by his two young children. At one point during our session, he picks up his violin and magic fills the air. Michael has been living in Ireland for 20 years and collaborating with Branar Téatar do Pháistí as a composer and performer for ten.

Today, he introduces Sruth na Teanga, Branar’s immersive play that tells the history of Irish language through music, performance, puppetry and visuals. Accessible to both ‘big ears and small’ Sruth na Teanga runs 2–29 March at Galway Airport.

Can you tell us about yourself and how you became a maker in Galway?

I was born in the US, in Washington DC. I went to university and spent most of my life in Seattle before coming to Ireland. I spent some time travelling around Asia, teaching English. I came to Ireland in 1998 initially. I am always kind of in awe that I am here at all. I came here just for a taste of Irish music and culture and now I’m living here with my wife and two children. Who would have ever thought that’d I’d be in Ireland watching my daughter play the violin? It just feels like a dream.

 

What do you remember from your introduction to music?

I was classically trained on the violin since I was five years old. I wanted to play the violin because my two older brothers and my younger sister all play music. My oldest brother was always playing in orchestras as first chair violinist. I am the only one that stuck with it after all these years. The violin that I play now is one that was gifted by my mother’s friend years ago and that both my brothers played. It’s not what you’d call an expensive instrument by a known maker but it’s worth the world to me. Over years and years of playing it hard, it’s become a beautiful instrument, with a rich tone. It’s very responsive and I know how to play it a certain way. It’s cool that it’s been in the family – maybe my daughter will play it one day as well.

 

How did Irish music draw you in?

When I was in college, I got a taste for Irish music at an American Irish bar. I was just immersed in this world of Irish ballads and rebel songs – singalong songs. I had developed a pretty good ear by that time and I was ready to take on new music. I played backing track to a singer and found it interesting and fun to find ways to complement the voice. But what I wasn’t getting at all was traditional music – the reels and jigs – and I really wanted to learn those kinds of tunes. There were quite a lot of Irish people in Seattle at the time but there wasn’t really a scene of the traditional ‘session’. Back then, there was no Google or YouTube, so I could only read about it and find a few recordings.

Do you recall your first trip to Ireland?

I’d thought about coming for years and after living in Asia, I decided to come here for two months in ’98. On my initial trip, I had a backpack and my fiddle, and I hitchhiked around the country. I put the name of the next town I wanted to go on my violin case with masking tape, on the side of the road. It was really cool; most of the time I was picked up within minutes. I was amazed! In America, you just don’t hitchhike but people have told me that it’s safe enough to do here. Back then, I was picked up by women with kids in the back seat. They were all chatting, curious about what I was doing. I didn’t look like your traditional Irish musician. I’m Chinese (both of my parents are from China) but born in America. I think it was interesting for people to see what I was up to.

 

What were your first impressions of the country?

I really liked the West Coast, I really liked being by the sea. Being from Seattle is probably a part of it. I was always amazed at the greenery in Ireland from the beginning. Where I am from (the Pacific Northwest of America) is very green and mountainous. It rains a lot, it has a very similar climate to Ireland. I loved growing up around trees, forests and hiking. I thought it couldn’t get any greener than Seattle but it’s super green here. Then when the sun shines, it really is gold – the land just comes alive. I thought, “I want to come back here and maybe base myself somewhere.” I found that Westport in Mayo and Ennis in Clare were great centres of traditional Irish music. I wanted to base myself in between those two and spend time in Galway.

 

“Sruth na Teanga is a journey through the evolution of Irish language. It’s an immersive theatre project where the visitors will come into a world. “

Galway 2020 explores the topic of migration in many ways. What was your experience of moving here?

The following year, I came back in March but as an American citizen, I couldn’t really stay. I wasn’t married back then and I don’t have any Irish lineage in my family. Logistically and legally, I couldn’t really stay for any longer than three months at a time. Immigration [offices] at the time were confused as to my goals and intentions. It was truly that I wanted to learn Irish music and play in sessions. Not just take classes and study at university but play with musicians, spend time in pubs, in that environment. They couldn’t get their head around that. For a couple of years, I was really struggling with having to leave and come back. I’d go back to America or travel elsewhere in Europe; for me to stay longer than 90 days was a real challenge. It’s a miracle that I stuck with it but I really wanted to try.

 

What role does session music play in your life?

When I started to hear traditional Irish music sessions recorded in pubs, with the crowd noise, I was really just bitten. I learned that music doesn’t even have to be at this high-performance level. It’s a part of the culture and I would love to be in that world. Not as an audience member and a performer but experiencing it among a group of people sitting at a table. I now play in the Crane Bar, and in Taaffes Bar regularly; I play in Cooke’s and Carroll’s. I play four to five sessions a week, generally. Since I’ve been here, I’ve done that, not always in a professional way, or in a capacity of getting paid. In fact, the very first year I was here, I didn’t really play. I just listened. I’d sit at the bar with my cassette recorder, then I’d go home, listen to the recordings and practice.

 

When did you first start working with Branar?

In 2009, a friend of mine told me about this theatre company where she was asked to work as a composer on their production of Clann Lir (Children of Lir). She approached me about collaborating with her and writing music for this piece of theatre. This was an Irish language theatre company and the play was based around Celtic mythology – it was going to be Irish traditional music, in nature. The person I was working with was very able and we ended up working very well together. We created a lovely score for this 45-minute theatrical piece. That was really my first introduction to working as a composer in theatre.

What’s it like, being a composer for Branar?

Marc Mac Lochlainn, the director, and I hit it off well and he has been a great source of inspiration for me. One thing that’s great about Marc is that he’ll say, “Have you ever done any musical directorship before? Not really? Well, how about this one?” He’ll just give you that position.Then, you have to step up to it. Since I’ve met Mark and since I’ve worked in Branar, I think I’ve worked on six productions, in four of which I’ve been chief composer or musical director.

 

What is the world you’re trying to create with Sruth na Teanga?

Sruth na Teanga is a journey through the evolution of Irish language. It’s an immersive theatre project where the visitors will come into a world. You will go through five rooms and experience how the language was introduced from the arrival of the Celts, through all the periods of Irish history to current day. My role is to create the soundscape and all the musical elements for that. It will be a 45-50 minute journey and in each of the rooms, you’ll probably spend about eight to ten minutes. In some rooms, you’ll be walked through by performers; in others, you’ll walk in and projections will guide you through. There will be actors playing roles as either guides or characters; there will be puppetry and visuals. It will be very interactive too. You can take things and move them around, and offer feedback at the end.

 

Sruth na Teanga is going to take place at Galway Airport. How is that going to work?

I haven’t had the chance to join Marc and the designer on a site visit yet but we have schematics and measurements of the rooms. It’s interesting; the idea is that it won’t be an airport once you’re inside. We’ll be building the rooms within rooms, so you won’t even know. There won’t be a baggage claim, departure lounge or a scary immigration counter! I think what Branar looks for is a good space – a space they can work with that’s neutral and where they can create this whole world.

How far are you in the creative process of putting the play together?

We started developing and talking about this in the summer of 2018. It has taken many different incarnations. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about the music and writing down notes. For Sruth na Teanga, I’ve been hoarding ideas of music. Now I am putting those into the programme, working with the music and the notes, the orchestration arrangements. At this very moment, everything is cascading everywhere and it’s all going to form itself in the weeks ahead. Then I’ll have an idea of what I want to have in the rooms. The process then would be to go and record everything properly; I’ve talked to musicians already about coming in to work with me and put it all together.

 

What is the most exciting bit about dreaming up the pieces for Sruth na Teanga?

I think the most exciting thing is writing music that corresponds with all these incredible events. The language flourished, then it was stifled, now it’s slowly coming back. At the same time, it’s writing music that propels people forward, to walk through rooms. The idea is that it’s a flow of Irish language like a river. We want to create a sense or a mood of movement, that you’re moving like a natural source of water.

 

Is there any difference between writing music for children and writing for adults?

I wouldn’t say so. One thing about Branar which I really admire is that they don’t dumb down things for kids. Music is accessible by small ears and big ears. The music that I try to write is accessible for all; I don’t think of it at all in terms of being for children or adults.

 

“The idea is that it’s a flow of Irish language like a river. We want to create a sense or a mood of movement, that you’re moving like a natural source of water.”

Can you talk us through your composing process?

My composing process is still relatively new to me, even though I’ve been actively at it for about ten years. I don’t really work in one particular space or a particular genre. A lot of my composing is done when I’m cooking; I wear my mandolin and as the kids are running around, I’ll be playing things or thinking about ideas. I am always writing anyway – sometimes music comes to me that is not inspired at all by the show that I’m working on. A lot of my ideas are just simple eight to 16 bar phrases that I record quickly and revisit either later on that day, or weeks or months later. For me, a lot happens in that time.

Do you think language and the music of a country influence each other?

Certainly, I would say they must. With Irish language traditional songs, or sean-nós songs that are unaccompanied, the language would lend itself to melodies and tone. Chinese language is a tonal language; Mandarin is based upon five tones, Cantonese is nine tones and Shanghainese is 13 tones. You could have one phrase and say it a number of ways which mean different things. I don’t know much about Chinese music but I would say the tonal differences in the language would have an influence on the music.

 

How have you introduced your children to music?

We always make a point of trying to create a musical environment in this house. We have a lot of instruments laying around. I have a lot of Irish friends who grew up hearing their parents play traditional music or having their aunt, uncle or neighbour come over and play Irish music in their kitchen. Some of those people grew up to play Irish music. I didn’t really have that – we had classical music and it was really structured. The idea is just to encourage [traditional music] and always have it around. One of the things my kids always ask at breakfast is, “Can we listen to music?” So, they expect something like that to be happening in the background. There’s a rich, diverse range of musical styles that I want them to experience. I’m now able to start playing with my daughter which is an incredibly joyful thing for me to do. Some friends have put sessions together for children; we play music together in Katie’s Claddagh Cottage once every six weeks. To grow up in an environment where they’re playing with their peers is a great thing.


Hundreds of creatives have been involved in the making of the Galway 2020 programme. In our Meet the Makers series, we meet the people who are making it  happen.

Photos and interviews by Julia Monard.

Videography by Lakshika Serasinhe.