24 May 2016
I am happy to announce that I recently successfully defended my PhD thesis, and that my doctorate will be awarded in due course by the University of St Andrews. Titled Composition as the creation of a performance, music as a vehicle for non-musical thought: six new works, the thesis comprises pieces composed between 2008 and 2015 and a written commentary. It was examined by composers Professor Joe Cutler and Nicole Lizée.
I would like to extend thanks to the many people who generously contributed to the work in this thesis: Special thanks to Gordon McPherson, my principal supervisor, for his unwavering support, encouragement and difficult questions. Thanks also to: my second supervisor Yannis Kyriakides; Alistair MacDonald; Stephen Broad, Anna Birch, Celia Duffy and the Research Degrees Committee of the RCS; Leverhulme Trust.
Whilst creating this portfolio of compositions, I had the pleasure of working with many fine musicians, ensembles and institutions, each of whom made an indelible impression on my work. Thanks in particular to: John Harris, Robert Irvine and Red Note Ensemble; Jenny Stephenson, Pete Furniss and Yann Ghiro; Timothy Cooper, Matthew Whiteside and Edit-Point; Darragh Morgan, Roland Roberts and Kay Stephen; Angharad Cooper and Sound and Music; Astrid String Quartet; Laurie Irvine and DotBot; John De Simone, Christine Cooper and Ensemble Thing; Ben Twist, Gemma Lawrence and Creative Carbon Scotland.
I am grateful for the support of many colleagues at the RCS, particularly Bethany Whiteside and Ben Fletcher-Watson, and composers Oliver Searle, Colin Broom, J. Simon Van Der Walt and Shona Mackay. Outside the RCS, I am grateful for the support and suggestions from the following composers: Alasdair Nicolson, Andris Dzenitis, David Lang, Johannes Maria Staud, Alla Zagaykevych, Pär Lindgren, Richard Ayres and the Mazsalaca composers.
Finally, I would like to express my gratitude to friends and family for their continued support, encouragement and interest. Special thanks, with love, to M, K, L and H.
16 April 2016
My new work for solo cello, Six Maps of a Fragile Landscape, will receive it’s first performance at this weekend’s Loch Shiel Spring Festival. Supported by the Hope Scott Trust, the piece uses the metaphor of different map scales — large-scale and small-scale — to explore an imaginary landscape. This first performance will be given by Robert Irvine, alongside works by David Fennessy, Duncan Strachan, James MacMillan, Sally Beamish and more.
Robert Irvine will perform Six Maps of a Fragile Landscape at 1pm, Saturday 16th April 2016 at Acharacle Parish Church, Acharacle. Proceeds for this concert go towards UNICEF.
1 April 2016
For the current issue of The Sampler, Sound and Music asked me to select four exciting new music events taking place in the next fortnight.
1. Sound Thought Festival 2016
Date: Friday 01 April
Venue: Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow
If you’re quick, you can catch the last day of Sound Thought, an annual festival of sonic arts in Glasgow. A mixture of talks, installations and performances, Sound Thought showcases the work of early career composers, sound artists and researchers and is well worth checking out. Read More
2. The Devil Inside – Stuart MacRae
Date: Sunday 03 April, 7.30pm
Venue: Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Mold
My favourite Stuart MacRae (pictured) opera to date, The Devil Inside‘s mix of the modern day and the supernatural could have been a bit awkward – but it works beautifully, with a great score, cast and libretto by Louise Welsh. Read More
3. Bel Canto – Cassandra Miller
Date: Sunday 03 April, 6.00pm
Venue: The Coronet Theatre, London
Cassandra Miller (pictured) made a big splash at last year’s Tectonics festival in Glasgow. Here, her piece Bel Canto is programmed as part of London Sinfonietta’s Mix, with music by Martin Smolka, Christian Marlay and Fausto Romitelli. Read More
Date: Wednesday 06 April, 7.30pm
Venue: Sands Films, London
“Fusion” and “boundary-crossing” are terms we hear quite a lot but, in my humble opinion, Namvula is the real deal. Despite her diverse influences, the music feels honest, instinctive, original and highly personal. Read More
16 March 2016
Simon Thacker is a virtuoso guitarist and composer who is acclaimed for his genre-defying music. As the leader of Simon Thacker’s Svari Kanti, he has worked with some of the world’s leading Western and Indian classical musicians to redefine cross-cultural collaboration. In this episode of ICWID!, Simon talks about how listening to records as a child growing up in Scotland opened his ears to the music of other cultures. He also speaks about the human spirit that transcends time and place, and how he met a master of the 800-year Bengali Baul tradition on Facebook.
11 February 2016
In March 2015 I was fortunate to participate in Creative Carbon Scotland’s second annual artists’ residency on the Isle of Mull (I also attended the first, in 2014). CCS have recently published a report, written by Stephanie de Roemer and Allison Palenske, about the residency, which was structured around a weekend-long discussion on the extraordinary and ambitious United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. As in 2014, not only did the weekend’s discussions feel timely and useful, but I also met a very interesting group of artists from different disciplines, including the visual arts, writing, dance and theatre.
17 December 2015
Last week saw the first ANTHEM! workshop take place at the CCA in Glasgow. ANTHEM! is a workshop about protest and song in which I lead participants to collectively create and perform a single new protest song, written by the group, for the group, on a subject dictated by the group. ANTHEM! is open to all, no previous experience of songwriting or musical performance is required. ANTHEM! was part of ArtCOP Scotland, a local artistic response to what some are calling the most important event of this century, the COP21 UN climate change negotiations in Paris.
To get us warmed up, and to introduce the group to a variety of different styles of protest song, we began the session by singing three existing songs: the 17th century Diggers’ Song, Phil Ochs’ 1964 anti-war song I Ain’t Marching Anymore and Ding Dong Dollar, a Glaswegian anti-Polaris song from the 1960s.
Despite being part of ArtCOP, there was no compulsion for the participants of ANTHEM! to compose a song about climate change and/or sustainability. However, this was a large part of the conversations that proceeded our songwriting — ANTHEM! is all about open discussion, finding common ground and collectively creating something new. The discussions were wide-ranging and interesting, and eventually the group settled on a topic for their song, the complicity of one’s money in warfare and environmental damage. Group members told of their shock on finding out that their electricity bills were paid to companies that contributed to environmental damage and discovering their pension funds had invested in the arms trade — actions which did not meet the ethical approval of the customer and pension holder.
In protest songs, text is key. Having decided upon the subject matter for the song, I asked each group member to write a short scenario where the simple payment of a bill, or other everyday action, had directly or indirectly financed an activity the group member found morally offensive. These scenarios were then distilled into the verses of the song. Next, the music was composed collectively as group members argued for their preferred twists and turns in the melody.
This is the song written by the group: Not in my name (but with my money). Within five minutes of finishing the song, we performed it to an unsuspecting audience in the cafe at the CCA. As you’ll see in the video below, we stood on the balcony above the cafe and sung to anyone who’d listen. I hope to run further ANTHEM! workshops in the future.
24 November 2015
Here are some excerpts from my recent work with Lucy Boyes, a dance/music piece called Sandglass. Sandglass was commissioned by Sound Festival and DanceLive and had its first performance in October this year at The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen. The work is based upon a series of interviews and workshops conducted for this project in Summer 2015 in which people of Aberdeen discussed past, present and predicted cultural changes witnessed over their lifetimes in the North East of Scotland on land and at sea.
19 November 2015
Last weekend I took part in Enterprise Music Scotland’s Creative Exchange with Red Note Ensemble at Crear on the west coast of Scotland. I was joined by fellow composers Shiori Usui, Chris Hutchings and John De Simone, all of whom I’ve known for many years.
Crear is in a beautiful part of the country where the sky and light are constantly changing. The rehearsal room at Crear has floor-to-ceiling windows with stunning views of the Isle of Jura. Our stay coincided with the arrival of Hurricane Abigail which limited the amount of time we spent exploring the surrounding area but gave us a good excuse to sit in front of Crear’s open log fire. At night we were surprised by clear skies and an impressive view of the Milky Way.
I spent most of the weekend completing a short solo work for Red Note cellist Robert Irvine (more on that another time) who was joined by violinist Tony Moffat and violist Jessica Beeston.
On Sunday morning, having completed the cello piece, I wrote this little ditty:
18 November 2015
You are invited to ANTHEM!, a workshop about protest and song. Join composer Thomas Butler to collectively create and perform a single new protest song, written by the group, for the group, on a subject dictated by the group. The session is open to all: no previous experience of songwriting or musical performance is required! Bring your voices, bring your words, bring your anger.
9 November 2015
The recent performance I gave with Ensemble Thing at Sound Festival, You Can’t Get There From Here, was broadcast by BBC Radio Scotland as part of its Classics Unwrapped programme. The whole programme is now available on the BBC iPlayer and clips of the pieces can be heard on the Classics Unwrapped homepage.
5 November 2015
Back in August, I performed Independence by John De Simone with Ensemble Thing as part of the Made in Scotland Showcase at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. One of our performances, at Summerhall, was captured by director Sarah Hodgetts for her work-in-progress film about John and the personal stories behind his music. The video above is just a snippet from Sarah’s footage. The audio is raw and unmixed — and best listened to through headphones — but the film gives a good impression of what we were up to with Thing this summer.
3 November 2015
Sandglass, my new dance/music work with choreographer Lucy Boyes, had its first performance on Friday 23rd October at The Lemon Tree in Aberdeen as part of Sound Festival and DanceLive. Here are some photographs of the performance, given by Lucy, Mhairi Allan and Robbie Synge with lighting by Francis Stevenson.
Images courtesy of Hannah Imlach.
22 October 2015
The end of the universe will be announced by bass clarinet and trombone duet. From Colin Broom’s piece for You Can’t Get There From Here.
21 October 2015
On Friday afternoon (23rd October, 3:30pm, ACT Aberdeen) as part of In Cahoots, Jenny Stephenson will perform a short recital of works for solo clarinet: my piece My Life in Ventriloquism alongside a recent work by Neil Tòmas Smith. My Life in Ventriloquism was originally written for Jenny back in 2012 and it’s been great to revisit the piece with her for this performance.
Friday evening (8pm, The Lemon Tree) sees the première performance of my new collaborative project with choreographer Lucy Boyes, Sandglass. The piece is based around the recollections and imaginations of people from Aberdeen, captured in recorded interviews and workshops conducted especially for this project. We hear the voices of older and younger residents as they discuss the cultural change to the city seen through their lifetime, encompassing the remembered past and the imagined future. Lucy and myself will be discussing this work in a Soundconversation event after the Friday performance and then again with Nele Hertling at the In Cahoots Dance and Contemporary Music Workshop on Saturday afternoon.
On Saturday afternoon (24th October, 1pm, ACT Aberdeen) I’ll be conducting Ensemble Thing for the first performance of an interesting and original project called You Can’t Get There From Here. Arising from a residency at Cove Park, YCGTFH is a collaborative project between six Scottish composers – Francis Macdonald, Sonia Allori, Colin Broom, Drew Hammond, John De Simone and Oliver Searle – where each composer’s work was edited and re-written by all the other composers in sequence. The resulting scores are fascinating, surprisingly distinctive and perhaps proof that good art can be made by committee! The band’s been sounding great in rehearsals, too.
24 August 2015
In the last ICWID! podcast from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2015, PianoPiano (AKA Karen Maciver and Hillary Brooks) talk about their show Dedicated, a series of new works for two pianos which celebrate the lives of women who have changed history.