Emer Kinsella on a Life in Music

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While covering a Columbia Links fundraiser held last summer at the childhood home of Ernest Hemingway, I was entranced by the live music performed throughout the evening by film composer and experimental violinist Emer Kinsella. We subsequently struck up a friendship, and she quickly proved to be one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met. She was born in Ireland and studied in both London and Vienna before attending Columbia College in Chicago. Her music has been featured in a variety of different mediums, from award winning radio plays to acclaimed films, such as Alex Falk’s “Real World – (Berlin Stories).” She also was declared a winner of Columbia’s Manifest video score competition, and will soon have her music utilized in a video focusing on the college’s outreach programs.

Before she moves to L.A. next month, Kinsella spoke with Indie Outlook about her extraordinarily diverse body of work, her approach to composition and her goals for the future.

How did you go about developing your winning piece for Manifest?

I wanted to have something that would bring my different multidisciplinary skills together that also served as an underscore for a video. I knew that it needed to be vibrant and danceable, so I started by researching EDM music, looking at the structures of that and incorporating them into my own piece. It was a different direction than I had gone into before, and I also wanted the piece to have an inspirational feeling to it. That’s why I used spoken word in the bridges to convey that feeling of empowerment as well as determination. Then I just grooved along to it on the violin.

What attracts you to mixing organic sounds with synthesized sounds in your work?

It gives you endless possibilities for music creation. Organic sounds provide a clarity and crispness that blends really well with processed sounds. It creates new possibilities for soundscapes that may never have been discovered before. I love creating atmospheres, so whether I was creating a site-specific music project or writing music for media, I enjoy blending organic and synthesized sounds. That mixture can be unsettling or empowering, or it can just be an entry into new dimensions. I’m always playing with different layers and aspects of sound, some of which I create with my own voice through the microphone, while layering in my own violin textures and combining them with synths and manipulated audio effects.

I like writing poetry as well. I’ve written rap lyrics and I like that mishmash of spoken word and violin music. I like the flow and rhyme of lyrics, and I see it as just another way of expressing myself. Growing up, I would always be listening to film soundtracks in my spare time. I was constantly playing video games, like the “Final Fantasy” series, and I always gravitated toward that kind of music. It never occurred to me at a younger age to actually compose, but later on, it suddenly made sense.

One example of a film score that inspires me is “Run Lola Run” [composed by Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek and Tom Tykwer]. I like a score that has an emotional drive, as well as suspenseful music that gets under your skin. “The Hours” score by Philip Glass is another example of film music that gets inside you and moves you. The first piece I heard that sparked my interest in film music was Michael Nyman’s piece for “The Piano” [entitled “The Heart Asks Pleasure First”]. It was playing on the radio a lot, and the instant I heard it, I melted. It had a strong impact on me at that time.

Has conjuring imagery assisted you in the creation of music?

Imagery is always an important aspect to my creativity. Even as a violinist playing a piece from a classical composer, I’m constantly putting visual imagery together to create an emotional arc that I can follow. That approach has stayed with me in my own compositions. I try to think of a storyline that brings out different elements in the music, such as tension. My piece entitled “Tension” was used in the radio play “Prinzessin Vukobrankovics” that I had the opportunity to write music for in Vienna. That was one of my first bigger gigs, and it was broadcast on ORF, which is the main radio station in Austria. It also was broadcast in Germany. I created several musical snippets that would match different content in the play. The writer Susanne Ayoub would give me a description of the scene I needed to underscore, and I came up with it using my violin and electronics.

The Crosstown Film Collective in Chicago was working on a short film and they asked me to score it. The movie is a psychological thriller called “Hysteria,” and I really wanted to get inside the character and create an invisible cloud of mystery around him. The images convey the dysphoria of his mental state, and I played with the psychological imbalance of his mind through a haunting piano melody that’s always following him. The violin is another unsettling element that pulsates toward the eventual climax. It was an exciting project to work on, because you’re inviting the viewer to question what’s real and what’s not, while holding the tension and pushing it to its limits.

I especially loved the ending, as a character suddenly awakens and gasps for air before the screen cuts to black and we hear your “Tension” piece.

I wanted to hold the audience in that moment, while letting them know that it’s okay not to know what’s happening. It’s supposed to be abstract. There’s another film that I scored, “Drown,” in which I created an industrial sounding score. The main character is in pain, and I wanted to convey that through a suffocating series of sounds and glitchy effects. When he’s released from the pain, I used a string orchestral texture that accompanied the image of dancers, whose movements pull him in different directions and show how he’s working through his struggles. I like working with contrasting tones—light and dark, soft and hard, fragile and forceful. I also like the theme of questioning your surroundings and yourself.

How early do you recall music being a part of your life?

I can remember myself practicing at a really young age. I started playing the violin at two-and-a-half. No one in my family was a musician. My mom just liked music, and she had seen that I liked it as well. She’d often find me dancing whenever she put on the radio. It all started when my mom saw an advertisement in the paper about a Hungarian violin teacher who was looking for students that started very young. There were many musicians that I grew up admiring. There’s a violinist, Maxim Vengerov, who has always been my idol. He’s very energetic in his playing, and he has his own unique style.

Was it helpful to begin performing as a classically trained violinist?

Yeah, it opened my ears up to music in general. I think it gives you a good foundation for going into any other style. You have to be determined and work hard at both the technical and musical aspects of it. After that, you can continue that approach into whatever style you want to explore.

You received a prize for performing the Double Bach Concerto at age 10.

That was a great piece to work on. The concerto was an exciting new responsibility, and it was a pretty important concert experience. Since the age of 5, I was thrust in front of an audience, and it’s always kind of a challenge, especially with classical performances. I find it easier performing my own music, since I can just go with the flow of it. Improvisation is also a medium that I feel very comfortable with.

Do you find that your music becomes different when you perform in front of an audience?

Yes definitely. You can perform in the practice room all the time and find yourself running up against certain obstacles. But when you’re performing with an audience, you feel like you’re radiating the music outwards, and it all starts to flow together. The music feels like it’s taking on an entirely new character. I always felt like my music improved after a live performance, and it’s enjoyable when you can reach the audience with it.

Has your family been supportive of you leaving the nest to study in other countries after high school?

I think my mom is happier to have birds that are flying in their own direction rather than just staying put. Her mentality is, “Go, do something!” I’m definitely an adventurer that likes to explore new territory. I like to express my own uniqueness, and I enjoy collaborating with other artists. It helps me discover new elements that I can improve upon while expanding my skill base.

London was where you earned your Bachelor of Music in Violin Performance at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

That was my first time being independent when I started my undergrad as a classical violinist. I explored many different avenues there. There were electronic music course electives which I took, and that’s where I discovered my interest in computer music. There was another elective, Composition for Media, and I immediately loved it. It felt good to be in a place where I could experiment, going from classical music into exploring other areas.

One of the most fascinating projects you’ve done thus far took place in Vienna, where you attended the University of Music and Performing Arts. Tell me about the site-specific concert entitled, “Soundproof,” that you performed with your group, ArtISTmotion, at the Schönbrunnerstr 111.

I was looking to do an urban site-specific music project in the city of Vienna, and I wanted to combine my skills as a composer and an artistic director. I was playing with my band at the time in a concert, and the organizer of the concert was involved with a grassroots organization that was managing a building used as interim residencies for artists. They were looking for any collaborative ideas, and I told them that I was looking for a location to do an interactive music project in the urban field.

I was working with a quartet at the time which consisted of an accordion, a cello and two violins. I realized that this location was perfect for the project. It had a huge courtyard in the center of the space, and artists were always being invited to check out the location, so it received a great deal of visibility. I kept visiting the building to get inspiration. I wanted the musicians to interact with the architectural aspects of the building itself, as well as interact with the audience. They’d become one with the building as a single breathing entity.

I based the structure of the pieces on the movement of the performers, depending on where they would be at a particular time. We started on the rooftop, the musicians were up high and the audience was in the open circular courtyard below. We performed fixed pieces at four different spots while remaining stationary on different levels of the building. Then we’d improvise while walking to the next level so there would always be a continuous flow of music, and we would have to listen carefully because we were separated in four different locations throughout the space. Combined with the lighting design, it managed to transform the space into a dream-like experience. Sound and visuals became an optical illusion as what was heard could not always be seen and visa versa.

There’s an intriguing theatre piece that took place at the Palais Kablewerk in which you were featured as well.

I was involved in a theatre piece in Vienna titled Expeditionen in Urwälder des Alleinseins [Expeditions to jungles of loneliness] that took place in one contained space, yet it was comprised of different “containers” that each had a different storyline. I was in my own container, and we were all meant to feel isolated. The audience would walk around the different containers, and there would be one or two artists in each of them. I was improvising to the sounds around me, which was then recorded and resampled into the space by a sound designer.

How did those four years in Vienna impact you on a personal level?

I became fluent in German, and I think that communicating with people from a different country through a different language really broadened my perspectives. The Viennese culture is very ingrained in Mozart, but there’s a new wave of music happening there too. I found a lot of different subcultures there that were very innovative.

What are your future goals?

I can see myself collaborating a lot with different artists and being involved in different mediums, particularly film, video games or TV. I also want to develop new performances that involve media, bringing different art forms together and connecting them through a storyline. The story has always been the most important thing for me, and it can be experienced in many ways. I’m setting my sights on L.A. pretty soon, and I see it as my next step in immersing myself in a hub of artists. I’m glad that I spent time in different places in Europe, but I always had my eyes on the U.S. It’s exciting that I’ve ended up here, and it’s where I plan to build my career.

For more info on Emer Kinsella, visit her official site.

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