Pulse’s lecturers and tutors include a number of high profile industry experts with interesting and varied careers. In this section of our newsletter we delve into their stories to learn about their experiences and, if we’re lucky, uncover some of the secrets of their success.
Fiachra Trench is a composer, arranger, producer, keyboardist and musical director. His scores for film and television include: A Love Divided, The Boys and Girl from County Clare (IFTA Nomination 2006), Dear Sarah and People’s Century, and he collaborated on Pearl Harbor, Die Hard and Into the West. Arrangement credits include: Altan, Paul Brady, The Boomtown Rats, The Chieftains, The Corrs, Phil Lynott/Thin Lizzy (including brass and strings on the original ‘Old Town’), Paul McCartney/Wings, Van Morrison, The Pogues and Wet Wet Wet.
Ahead of RTÉ Concert Orchestra’s “A Celebration of Fiachra Trench” at the National Concert Hall on September 8th, Fiachra talked to us about his early interest in music, his studies in America, and how he played at the Playboy Club on Saturday nights followed by Church on a Sunday morning…
Q1. You were surrounded by music growing up, with your mother giving you your first Piano lessons as a child. How did your parents’ musicality impact on your later work?
My parents were extremely supportive of my early interest and continued to be so when it became clear that I was destined for a career in music. They were both amateur musicians, and from an early age I can remember them playing piano duets at home and at social gatherings. My mother, Bea Orpen, was a painter, a graphic designer and an art teacher/lecturer, but in her youth had thought about a career in music. She played the organ regularly at St Patrick’s Church, Slane, Co. Meath, until a few years before her death.
Q2. Is piano your instrument of choice?
The short answer is yes, piano and anything else with black and white keys, but along the way I thought about taking up the clarinet and, briefly, tried out the french horn and trombone.
From secondary school in Waterford onwards I studied organ. During my years at Trinity my organ teacher at the Royal Irish Academy of Music was George Hewson; he had been my mother’s organ teacher about 30 years earlier!
Q3. Your first experience of the RTÉ Symphony Orchestra had a big impact on you. Tell us a bit about this experience.
In 1955 the Radio Éireann Symphony Orchestra, as it was called before television arrived in 1961, played a concert for schools in Waterford. This was my first experience of “live” orchestral music and I was enthralled. The programme included Handel’s Water Music and Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. The Tchaikovsky I knew from my parents’ record collection, but this was in the days before long-playing 331/3 r.p.m. vinyl: the maximum duration on a 78 r.p.m. disc was less than five minutes, so with extended works like symphonies, the music would fade at the end of a disc, the next disc on the auto changer would drop down and the music would fade up. So I came to know this music in short chunks. What was amazing to me at the concert was hearing the orchestra play right through a movement without the breaks!
Q4. With your love of music, what made you choose to study Natural Science in Trinity?
I guess at the time neither I nor my parents thought there was a steady career in music. I had notions of becoming a farmer (my father’s sister was a farmer) or working in some aspect of agriculture. So I did a science degree, majoring in organic chemistry. The irony is that I am now ardently pro organic farming and anti the widespread use of chemicals in food production.
Q5. You continued your studies in two prominent American colleges, Georgia and Cincinnati. Tell us about this experience.
Much to my amazement (and, I imagine, to the Professor of Chemistry’s amazement) I completed my science studies, while playing in jazz groups, working as musical director with TCD Players, studying organ and theory/composition at the Academy of Music, and winning First Prize for an original composition at the Feis Ceoil in 1962.
Upon graduating from Trinity, I was fortunate to obtain a scholarship to further my music studies for a year at the University of Georgia. This was in 1963: the year J.F. Kennedy was assassinated and the token integration of college campuses was beginning.
I then obtained a Graduate Assistantship to the College-Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati, where I studied for a further two years, leading to a Master of Music degree.
Q6. Cincinnati has a renowned Symphony Orchestra. How did this fuel your passion for music?
As a music student I was able to attend concerts by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at discounted prices and sometimes for free. I heard so much wonderful music in those two years. Apart from the symphony concerts, I also saw and heard great jazz from the likes of Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Horace Silver, Art Farmer, Betty Carter, Roland Kirk…
Q7. You went on to find gig work while you were studying, but in two areas that couldn’t be more different – one in a Church and the other in the Playboy Club! You must have some funny stories of those times.
It’s true: Saturday nights at the Playboy Club and Sunday mornings playing organ for church services. Once I took some much-needed, erm, chemical help on the Sunday morning. The choir used to sing the opening hymn while processing from the back of the church. On this occasion they arrived breathless at the choir stalls; clearly my heart must have been racing and so were my hands and feet!
Q8. You then went on to do a nine-month tour of US and NATO bases. What was that like?
I was playing with an American band at bases in Germany and Italy. The band was led by Dave Matthews (no, not that Dave Matthews), a college friend at Cincinnati. We played the hits of the day and jazz and swing for listening/dancing and we accompanied touring cabaret acts. At most places we were resident for two weeks or a month, but we did three months at the NATO base in Naples and, for some of that time, played outside looking out on Capri and Ischia and the Bay of Naples as dusk fell. Magic.
Q9. You went from playing tea dances in the Empire ballroom to becoming one of Ireland’s most reputed Composers and Producers, working with some of the world’s most acclaimed musicians. How did you make this transition?
I came back to Ireland briefly in 1967. I still thought my musical career might be in composing concert music and on a scholarship from the Arts Council I went to London for further music studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. But the money quickly ran out, so I played with a succession of dance bands. Gradually I moved into working as a music copyist (music notation software was a few decades away) and playing keyboards on recording sessions. And from about 1970 onwards I started to work as an arranger, an orchestrator, a songwriter, a film composer, and producer. I moved back to Ireland in 1991 and have continued in most of these roles. I shall always be grateful for the experience I gained in the USA, in Europe and particularly in London.
Q10. The artists you’ve worked with come from very different genres – from The Pogues to Kate Bush to Wet Wet Wet. Can you tell us about the different approaches you brought to each?
Most of my arranging work has involved adding strings/brass etc. to existing tracks. (The Americans have a good word for it: ‘sweetening’.) My approach does not vary greatly. I always strive to use and enhance elements within the track. Of course, the amount of enhancement can vary greatly — from minimal (for example, the strings on Thin Lizzy’s “Sweet Marie” are only heard on the bridge at about two-thirds of the way into the track) to full-on Technicolor (strings, jazz brass group, chamber brass group, choir and percussion on Van Morrison’s “Avalon of the Heart”).
Q11. You give lectures on our degree course. How did you get involved with Pulse?
I got to know Tony and Aidan when recording string overdubs at Pulse and during my involvement with Screen Training Ireland’s Film and Television Scoring Programme. They invited me to be a guest lecturer, and I have enjoyed talking about my work with students at Pulse. (I prefer to call it a ‘talk’ rather than a ‘lecture’.)
Q12. You have an amazing new project being launched in the National Concert Hall. What can you tell us about it?
At the National Concert Hall on September 8th the RTÉ Concert Orchestra is presenting A Celebration of Fiachra Trench, a concert of some of my compositions and arrangements from the past 40 years. The guests taking part will include Altan, Paul Brady, Marti Pellow, Declan O’Rourke and Brian Kennedy.
Q13. Do you have any other exciting projects in the pipeline you can share with us?
My life-partner, singer Carmel McCreagh, and I embarked on a new career together about 15 years ago (though we had often performed at informal get-togethers before then): we formed a band, we recorded and released an album, Nice Girl, of jazz songs and originals and were thrilled when the album received four-star reviews in the Irish Times and the Sunday Tribune (see Carmel’s blog for info/reviews: http://www.carmelmccreagh.com/