25 September 2018
I’m happy to announce that I’ve joined the music staff at the University of Edinburgh as Teaching Fellow in Composition. Edinburgh is my alma mater and it’s great to be back. I’ll be teaching composition and orchestration to undergraduate and postgraduate students.
21 March 2015
This weekend sees the culmination of a unique education project on which I am composition and conducting tutor. New Found Sound, now in its fifth year and run by Falkirk Community Trust, sees school-age musicians compose and conduct music to accompany an old silent film at a public performance as part of the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema in Bo’ness. Since the first NFS project in 2011, 20 young composer-conductors, usually aged 16–18 and drawn from the Falkirk area, have taken part. This year six composer-conductors have taken-up the challenge.
The task these young musicians are set is enormous and outwith anything they have experienced previously. Whilst most would have composed before (either instrumental pieces or songs), the scale of the project means they are likely to be writing music with a much longer duration than they’re used to. They also have the added challenge of writing music that somehow reflects the silent film (which is provided by the Scottish Screen Archive) and then arrange their piece for an orchestra made up of their peers.
The films vary from year to year and range from fictional narratives made by ambitious local amateurs in the 1920s and ’30s to long-play commercials extolling the virtues of Scotland as a holiday destination or centre of industry. Each type of film presents its own challenge to the young composers: how do you time the music to coincide precisely with the story? What do you do if there’s no story to coincide with? This year the young composers have tackled a film made for the 1938 Empire Exhibition in Glasgow which advertises the social amenities and industrial productivity of Falkirk. The film hasn’t been seen in public for many years and examines each facet of the town, including the hospital, swimming baths, fire service, bus station, parkland, and manufacturing companies.
To date, no pupil has had any previous experience of conducting. This is usually the hardest and most nerve-racking part of the project for the young musicians. Standing in front of an ensemble to conduct for the first time is hard enough, but there is the added pressure of conducting their peers and coordinating music and film without a clicktrack, all put together in only a handful of rehearsals before the final performance. By conducing their own work they also get an abrupt lesson in practical composition: some things that are easy to conceive whilst writing are not so easy to put together in the rehearsal room, particularly when conducting a youth orchestra.
However, despite these difficulties, each year I am pleased to see how these young people rise to the challenge set them. This year’s cohort is no different: however their performance goes this weekend they can be proud of what they have achieved in only a few months and for revitalizing an old film with some new music.
New Found Sound takes place at 11:30am on Sunday 22nd March 2015 at the Hippodrome, 10 Hope Street, Bo’ness, West Lothian, EH51 0AA.
26 October 2013
It’s the third and final day of Go Compose! where I am assisting composer Brian Irvine and Red Note Ensemble as they guide a group of school-age composers through writing and rehearsing brand new pieces. We’ve just enjoyed the final concert of the opening night of the Sound Festival, the grand finale of the course where each new work received its première.
It was a wonderful event. Banchory’s Woodend Barn hosted a large and enthusiastic audience for the occasion. Buoyed by a warm reception, each of the Go Compose! participants introduced their own pieces and explained how stories found in Monday’s newspapers provided the initial inspiration for their work. Some composers were keen to stress that, although these news articles provided the genesis of each work, the music had transformed into something entirely different, unrelated to current affairs. In all cases it was apparent that the composers had not become stifled by doggedly re-telling the news story in music – each had allowed their work to be structured by the requirements of the musical material they had created.
The concert not only marked the end of the course, but also the end of a long day. The composers had an early start and spent the first part of the morning adding finishing touches to their new scores. Learning from the previous day’s session, some took time to re-write tricky bars whilst others perfected phrasing, dynamics, colour and – the thing the young composers seemed to find hardest of all – the transitions between sections. They also had to make instrumental parts for the three performers in time for final rehearsals.
In all, each young composer created three new works during Go Compose! – two short pieces created under strict time limits imposed by Brian Irvine, and the final five-minute-long composition. This is an extraordinary amount of music for an inexperienced composer to write in such a short time and credit must be given to Brian for providing much of the energy and ‘can do’ attitude that energised the composers to achieve this. Likewise, the musicians from Red Note were approachable and positive at all times and offered the young composers some of the highest-quality feedback I’ve ever seen in a workshop situation.
The youngsters have quite obviously been empowered by this process: only on Monday queries and suggestions from the ensemble were met by the meekest of responses (“OK, whatever you think is best”). Now, only two days later, the young composers are far more bold and quick to point-out where balances need to be checked, tempos need adjusting and phrasing altered. This also indicates an assuredness about their compositional output – they knew what their piece should sound like and they now have the confidence to demand their work be realized as envisioned!
By Midday their work was complete. The evening’s performance concluded what was a creative and inspiring three days at Go Compose!.
24 October 2013
It’s day two of Go Compose! here in Banchory. I am assisting composer Brian Irvine as he guides a group of school-age composers through the process of writing a new piece to be performed tomorrow by Red Note Ensemble on the opening night of Aberdeenshire’s Sound Festival. Our young composers have worked overnight on their scores in preparation for this performance. There’s still quite a long way to go but each composer has made considerable headway.
In all cases, pencil and paper has been abandoned for laptop and notation software. Gone, therefore, are the scribbles and crossings-out of yesterday, but gone too is much of the detail evident in their hand-written pieces. Phrasing has become something added to a musical line rather than being integral to it and there is a general lack of detail in the computer scores at present. Of course, some of this is due to not knowing the intricacies of the notation software, but the computer also promotes a certain fluidity in the compositional process; the composers ‘stand back’ from their pieces a little more and things are often left to be ‘fixed later’.
Of course, there are many pros to using the computer as a compositional tool. Aside from the almost effortless creation of instrumental parts, the ability to quickly rearrange their musical material has allowed the young composers to experiment with structure with comparable ease. The copy/paste function is great in this respect but can also be a hindrance, as one composer found out when copying sections of his riff-driven work: the resulting pile-up of material may have been musically satisfying but was also confusing to read and play due to the way the copied material fell across barlines of mixed-metre.
Jackie Shave (violin), Ruth Morley (flute) and Robert Irvine (cello), the three Red Note musicians in residence here at Go Compose!, read each iteration of each score with the same precision and commitment they show towards work by established composers. They all have considerable experience of performing new music and are an invaluable resource to the young composers. They are always on hand to answer questions: today’s most popular queries all concerned the confusing world of double-stops on string instruments.
The most common questions to Brian and myself all relate to structure: ‘I’m not sure how to extend this passage’ and ‘I’m not sure how to link these ideas’. The young composers have no problem inventing new material but integrating it into a larger, coherent, musical structure can prove to be a bit of a headache. They have each been asked to write a piece of five minutes duration, no easy feat for an inexperienced composer. However, they have been encouraged to experiment and, as a result, each young composer has taken a different approach to musical form; some have attempted to blend and contrast different sections of music whilst others have deliberately developed limited material.
The composers will need to have their scores completed by 11 o’clock tomorrow morning in order to allow time for final rehearsals. Despite a promise of an earlier-than-normal start tomorrow, one or two seem a little daunted by what they have to achieve by tomorrow morning. Their audience awaits…
23 October 2013
I’m in Banchory, about eighteen miles west of Aberdeen, with three members of Red Note Ensemble and composer Brian Irvine. I’m assisting Brian as he works with four young composers at Go Compose!, an initiative based at Woodend Barn and developed by Sound Festival, Sound and Music and Red Note. This is the third annual Go Compose!, a course which aims to create an environment for school-aged composers to develop their craft.
The challenge set by Go Compose! to its participants is simple: to compose (and typeset) a completely new piece of music.. However, the pieces will have to written in only two days and will be publicly performed by the Red Note Ensemble on the opening night of Aberdeenshire’s Sound Festival.
Far from being a daunted by this situation, our group of young composers have approached the task with calm enthusiasm. They’re a talented bunch and, as evidenced by the music written on this first day, are able to produce interesting and original pieces at a surprisingly fast speed.
To begin the day, members of Red Note demonstrated not only the basics of their instruments but also some of the more crazy sounds the composers could use in their pieces. The highs, lows, squeaks, pops and clicks of the instruments having been fully explored (with Ruth Morley’s ‘draining bath plug’ flute sound causing the most hilarity), Brian set the first challenge: to compose a short piece for the ensemble in only fifteen minutes. Although each composer had access to a piano, computer and other composing tools, most were content to scribble away with pencil on paper with only their imagination for guidance.
The resulting pieces were diverse in style and demonstrated the emerging compositional voices of the young composers – some pieces were lyrical and harmonically driven, others full of mixed-metre exuberance. These short pieces were then extensively workshopped by the ensemble, not only to fix the few (inevitable) notational issues, but also to introduce the composers to the intricacies of instrumentation and the myriad ways a phrase can be performed: should this be legato? Would you like to try this up an octave? We could try a colder sound. With vibrato – how much vibrato? What type of vibrato and so on.
The composer’s second challenge was to write a piece of music somehow inspired by an article in today’s papers. With pages of newsprint strewn around the venue, the composers got to work and produced pieces inspired by the genuinely tragic and more off-beat stories they could find. After a second round of workshops, and considerable insight from the Red Note musicians, it was time to take the plunge as the young composers began writing their final works for performance in only two days time. Some are incorporating the shorter pieces composed earlier in the day, others are beginning all over again. However, they have Brian, myself and the three members of Red Note to consult at all times. They wrote solidly until we forced them to stop at five o’clock but all took their work home with them. I look forward to hearing their “homework” tomorrow morning.