Arts Q&A: Composer Brian Irvine on Rory Gallagher, Cy Twombly and Pat McCabe

Jenny Lee puts performers and artists on the spot about what really matters to them. This week, Belfast composer Brian Irvine

Brian Irvine is Professor of Music at Ulster University. His music has been performed and commissioned all over the world by internationally significant performers and organisations.

1. When did you think about a career in music and what were your first steps into it? The truth is I never really thought about having a career. I only knew that the act of putting sounds together was like opening a door on to a brilliant, exotic, exciting adventure playground of possibility and once I discovered that playground I never really wanted to leave or spend my time doing anything else. I always played in bands and put bands together; however, I soon worked out that in order to be able to dive into different sonic worlds and be able to build ever more exciting and ridiculous things, I needed to know some stuff. I went off to Boston, then to Surrey and then to Ulster University to do some proper learning. I think careers take care of themselves if you spend time doing what your soul tells you.

2. Best gigs you've been to? There have been so many amazing ones – Rory Gallagher at the Ulster Hall with my cousin Mark when I was about 15, Alban Berg's Wozzeck at the Welsh National Opera around 10 years ago and John Zorn at the Royal Festival Hall in London. More recently I saw Roscoe Mitchell, with the Scottish National Symphony Orchestra and it completely blew me away.

3. Fantasy wedding/birthday party band? Ornette Coleman and Paul Dunmall on saxophone, Cecil Taylor on piano, a reincarnated Captain Beefheart on vocals, Han Bennick on drums, Paul Rogers on double bass, Bjork on vocals, Keiji Haino on electric guitar and 50 non-musicians aged seven to 100 playing instruments for the first time all conducted by a reborn Sergey Kuryhokin.

4. The record you'd take to a desert island? Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart – I never tire of hearing it and I always find it ludicrously inspirational.

5. And the book? That would have to be The Essential Cy Twombly. Since discovering his work at MOMA around 1995 he has played a fundamental role in shaping my love and approach to making art – perhaps more so than any other musician or composer. His complex beautiful paintings show me the way every time I look at them.

6. Top three films? You the Living, In the Mood for Love and Breaking the Waves.

7. Worst film you've seen and why? Hard to pinpoint exactly, but La La Land would definitely up there.

8. Favourite authors? JD Sallinger, Kevin Barry and Patrick McCabe.

9. Sport you most enjoy and top team? I enjoy the sport of secretly rearranging things, the sport of making images with paint and the sport of inward counting – mostly steps but sometimes other things. Rubik's Cubes and eavesdropping on random conversations are also big favourites.

10. Ideal holiday destination? London, Morocco, New York, Donegal or a beach in the rain anywhere.

11. Pet hate? Mobile phones.

12. What's your favourite:

Dinner? Roast chicken, spuds, carrots and parsnips.

Dessert? Pear crumble and ice cream.

Drink? Guinness.

13. Who is your best friend and how do you know each other? I am blessed to have so many great friends – they are brilliant, inspirational, gentle people that mean the world to me and would be horrified to be outed.

14. Is there a God? Yes, and that god is art.

:: Award winning composer and conductor Dr Brian Irvine has been appointed professor of music at Ulster University. For further information on his work visit

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