RCS Exchange talk

19 January 2017


I’ll be giving a talk next Monday (23rd January) at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland about some of my recent work. All welcome! Tickets are available from the RCS Box Office.

Categories: News, Research


Thesis defence!

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.

Categories: News, Research

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Sandglass: development week

17 August 2015


I spent last week in residence at Citymoves Dance Agency in Aberdeen with choreographer Lucy Boyes and dance artist Mhairi Allan where we were developing our new work, Sandglass, for Sound Festival and DanceLive.


The piece takes as its starting point the recollections of older residents of Aberdeen, although at present the work is not warmly nostalgic. I’ve made several trips to the city over the last few months to meet some wonderful people and record interviews with them about how Aberdeen has changed over the years. Each of my interviewees spoke about how the arrival of the oil industry into Aberdeen drastically changed the city and the lives of those who live there. As explored in my recent work Elbow Room, I’m fascinated by the role cities have in shaping the lives of those who live in them and how the fabric of the city responds to broader changes and societal trends.


I enjoy collaborating with artists from different disciplines but this is my first time working with dance artists. We spent the week exploring how sound can be made though dance and how physical gesture and sonic gesture can relate to each other — an experimental approach for all concerned. There was a lot of listening, particularly to the recordings of those beautiful Aberdonian voices I have captured over the last few months.


Sandglass will be performed at 8pm on Friday 23rd October 2015 at The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen.

Categories: Research, Works

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Google Art Talk — Composers and Conflict

4 December 2014

Today I hosted a live Google Art Talk with Norwegian composer Rolf Wallin, British composer Sally Beamish, composer and researcher Philip Lancaster, and Australian sound artist Saskia Moore. Following on from the exhibition that I recently curated for Sound and Music and the Google Cultural Institute about composers’ responses to conflict in the twentieth century, we spoke about how war can be represented, investigated and commemorated in music.

Categories: Research, Sound and Music

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Composers and Conflict

30 November 2014

Downing 2 copy - Copy

This post originally appeared on Sound and Music’s The Sampler Blog.

In commemoration of the centenary of the start of the First World War, I’ve curated a Google Cultural Exhibition that looks at the ways composers featured in Sound and Music’s British Music Collection have reacted to war in the 20th century.

As a composer myself, I’m interested in how historic events interact with music. The First World War had an effect on most composers in the world, certainly in Europe, and it was intriguing to me to delve a bit deeper into the repercussions of it artistically.

It is also a timely exhibition, with it being the centenary of the outbreak of World War One, so it seemed a very good time to look at how a monstrous event can have a lasting impact on the music of 20th century.

When I applied to curate the exhibition, I stressed that I was interested in that intersection between music and society. Having worked with Sound and Music before on the Embedded scheme with Red Note Ensemble, I know the organisation quite well and it was a good opportunity to work with them again- this time through the British Music Collection; a collection that I hadn’t previously had much experience with.

Another thing that attracted me to this project was the fact that in essence, it’s a story told through an archive- the British Music Collection. I’m interested in these repositories and how you can use them to construct narratives – not just looking at the data as it were, for example the scores themselves, but also the metadata and other elements surrounding the music itself.

There are so many different ways in which music can play a part in remembrance. Just today, on Armistice Day, at 11am the Last Post was heard in the building I happened to be in, showing that music and remembrance go hand in hand, even for non-musicians or for people for whom music doesn’t play a large part in their lives. It’s a symbol of remembrance which we repeat every year and which is familiar to us all.

Whilst looking through the archive, there were so many different scales of remembrance. There are some massive works; great, public, large scale pieces, for example The Spirit of England by Edward Elgar and the War Requiem by Benjamin Britten. These are big, public declarations of remembrance, but also there are some really private ones in there too. What’s intriguing for me is that we sometimes can’t get to the bottom of the way a composer commemorates a conflict because it’s such a personal affair. It’s impossible to disentangle the musical language from their feelings about war because they’re so tied together. You see hints of this through the dedications in the scores at the British Music Collection. This is something which I touch on in the exhibition. For example, Frank Bridge’s Piano Sonata, was dedicated to Ernest Farrar, a young composer who was killed in the First World War, and Britten’s War Requiem was dedicated to four friends who were killed in the Second World War. So these personal remembrances are sometimes attached to bigger, public memorial pieces.

Another piece by Frank Bridge, called Three Improvisations, was written for and dedicated to a pianist called Douglas Fox who lost his right arm during the First World War. This shows both a pragmatic and personal response to the conflict as Bridge wrote the piece for piano but for the left hand only, so that Fox could play it. The piece was sent to him whilst he was recuperating in a military hospital in Bournemouth, so that it could be a part of his recuperation and therapy.

The most striking change is the fact that recent composers haven’t necessarily lived through wars, or at least fought in either of the two World Wars. For example, in the exhibition, two of the most recent works are After Reading “Lessons of the War” by Janet Beat and Michael Finnissy’s My parents’ generation thought War meant something. Even though Janet was a toddler during the Second World War, she was clearly drawing on some personal and familial recollections; After Reading “Lessons of the War” was in response to the Henry Reed poem of the same name, of which the first part is essentially a list of instructions similar to a military training manual. She was very affected by this poem, as well as remembering the experiences of her grandfather in the First World War, who suffered a mustard gas attack, and her own experience during the Second World War, when her house was bombed. All these experiences inspired this piece for violin and piano.

Finnissy’s piece is an incredibly moving and astonishing work, it’s more than a remembrance of war. His father, who was responsible for photographing the post-WWII reconstruction of London, quit his job in disgust at the corruption he saw whilst doing his job. I feel some of that anger was channelled into this piece.

Cornelius Cardew has the most political pieces in the exhibition – Vietnam’s Victory and the Vietnam Sonata. In the preface to these scores he makes it explicit how nations can overcome aggressors, by rising up against the U.S in this instance. Most composers look at human consequences of war, and even though Cardew does look at this, he mainly considers the causes of war, and the political machinations that ultimately facilitate it.

As a composer who works with historical documents, it was really inspiring to see how we can use an archive to tell stories. I do this in my own work and just being surrounded by the artefacts and all those potential narratives was truly fascinating.

I’m interested in finding historical documents and incorporating them into my work; creating a sense of history and connecting the past to the present, and exploring our present day through historical artefacts. For example, for the final piece for my Embedded residency with the Red Note Ensemble, I used archive film to present the almost-destruction and re-construction of a city (Glasgow). I’m interested in telling stories about today through historical documents, which is why curating with the British Music Collection was so valuable for me.

Thomas Butler’s exhibition ‘British Music Collection: Composer and Conflict’ was made live on Armistice Day, 2014 on the Google Cultural Institute website. You can see the exhibition by going to http://thecollection.soundandmusic.org/ or http://bit.ly/1xqehpK.

Categories: Research

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Lies, damn lies and clarinettists: writing “My Life in Ventriloquism”

1 September 2014

Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy

This is an edited version of a paper I gave at the RMA Student Conference in January 2013.

So often in the concert hall, music is prefaced by writing. Or rather, reading. The music I am talking about here will be no exception: I fully expect most audience members to read the programme note for My Life in Ventriloquism, a piece I wrote between 2011-’12 for clarinettist Jenny Stephenson as part of my practice-based research at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. This programme note is deliberately terse, however, and only the title hints at how I borrowed a few ideas from the world of ventriloquism during the composition process:

My Life in Ventriloquism is a virtuosic piece for solo clarinet in three continuous movements. It lasts about eleven minutes.

As you probably noticed, there is a performance element to this piece. In case you missed it, it appears at times that Jenny is playing things that are impossible on the clarinet, either because they are polyphonic, too high, too low, or performed at a super-human speed. These effects were all reproduced live simply by playing pre-recorded samples of real and MIDI clarinet sounds through a hidden speaker located in the darkness behind the performer. However, this performative element is such that if you were to listen to the piece on CD, for example, it would make musical sense but you’d lose the visual clues which create a disjunct between what you, as an audience member, see and what you hear. Any meaning the piece has, therefore, is not fully realized until it is experienced in performance.

It’s this relationship between composer, performance and meaning that is my area of research. Traditionally this relationship is based on a simple model of meaning concerning composers, performers and listeners: the composer is placed at the head of a chain of Chinese Whisperers, their original, brilliant utterances are finally handed-down to listeners via a cohort of performers who do their best to realize the composer’s intentions with studious exactitude. However, this model fails to consider the very act of musical performance as significant in its own right. Also, there is the implication that musical performance is a form of pedagogy, the audience remains passive at all times as they receive meaning from the concert-platform.

My research project assumes that meaning is reception-based. That is, any meaning a work has is created in the minds of the audience and is not intrinsic to the notes on the page. Furthermore, meaning can be influenced by non-musical elements of performance which could include physical gesture and elements of theatre, all of which can be designated by the composer. Consequently, the act of composition is seen as the creation of a musical performance in its entirety rather than than the writing of a score which is presented within the context of a pre-existing performance grammar.

The model of meaning fundamental to Vaudeville-style Ventriloquism (that is, ventriloquism as comedic entertainment) has given me some ideas on how to balance the role of the composer with the desire to grant agency to the audience in a performance-led artform. My first interest in ventriloquism with regards to music was metaphorical; having written a piece in 2011 about authority (in which a recording of my voice issued occasionally-frantic instructions to an ensemble of five instrumentalists), I felt in some way all composers are ventriloquists — we are forever forced to speak through others, an instrument or singing voice sounding on our behalf. There is some evidence of this metaphorical approach in the piece you’ve just heard — rhythmically the piece is constructed like written-out rubato over a steady pulse, all expression having been allocated in advance by the composer, a sort-of master puppeteer. However, it was the ability of a ventriloquist act to be perceived in several ways simultaneously which influenced my composition the most.

In this short clip from 2005 the British ventriloquist Nina Conti, with Monk the monkey, plays with the two ways of perceiving a ventriloqual exchange. As outlined by philosopher David Goldblatt, the ventriloqual exchange can be viewed either as Conti talking to the monkey, or as Conti talking to herself. Crucially, both modes remain identifiable during proceedings even when one is foregrounded over the other (such as when Conti talks to her own hand). The act continuously slips between privileging one way of perceiving proceedings and the other; much of the routine’s humour derives from the jolt we feel when the gear suddenly shifts and we remember that the monkey’s words are in fact spoken by a ventriloquist.

Despite appearing like a right-on post-modern deconstruction of the artform, Conti’s routine is only an exaggerated form of the traditional Vaudeville ventriloquist skit in which the dummy, or “figure”, acknowledges its true, inanimate nature. Seemingly, comedic ventriloquy has always been incredulous towards its own believability. The legendary American ventriloquist Edgar Bergen was often chastised by his acerbic dummy Charlie McCarthy in this way. “You don’t know what you’re saying”, says Bergen, “Yes I do, I can see your lips move” replies Charlie. Bergen, like many comic ventriloquists, regularly undermined his own routine to force an interplay between the two ways of perceiving the act.

Although Bergen’s implicit self-criticism may have been justified, his technical shortcomings did little to detract from the accomplishment of his act, perhaps because, somewhat surprisingly, he first found widespread appeal performing on American radio from 1937–1955, the allure of his act being not a physical display of basic ventriloquy but the rapid interplay between ventriloquist and figure; the kind, long-suffering Bergen versus the rude, argumentative Charlie McCarthy, whom the audience knew were voiced a single performer.

For David Goldblatt, the dual modes of perception indicate the uniqueness of ventriloquism as entertainment. Unlike magic shows or special effects in films, ventriloquism is “illusion without deception” — we may not be able to replicate the act ourselves but we at least understand how the effect is achieved. If we were truly deceived by a ventriloquist, if we believed that the fibreglass humanoid held by the entertainer was really alive and capable of independent thought and speech, the logic of the act, along with some of the humour, would be compromised.

Crucially, the ventriloquist act only comes alive in performance: if we were to examine a script of Conti’s routine, which would be the equivalent to our musical score, it would just read like two people having an amusing argument. It lacks the nuances encoded in the act’s binary perception.

These two modes of perception enable a complex, fluctuating relationship, or “slippage”, between the dramatic narrative (say, a sketch where the dummy goes to the shops…with hilarious consequences) and the meta-ventriloqual narrative that explores the logic of the act. Furthermore, because these two modes persist at all times, the final meaning of the routine is constructed entirely in the minds of the audience who are free to prioritize a reading of one mode above the other, or both simultaneously. Like music in our tradition, this ventriloquist sketch uses a pre-scripted text but the meaning gleamed through performance is not limited to just that text. The ventriloquist’s script is not ventriloquy in the same way that our musical score is not by itself music. By it’s very nature, the ventriloquist’s act has an element of enforced performativity.

To translate, as it were, this model of meaning into musical performance I conceived my solo clarinet piece with two narratives; the musical narrative and a theatrical narrative that concerned the dislocation of sound and instrument. It was the theatrical narrative that was written first by deciding when the audience might be able to notice the illusion and how striking the illusion should be at any one point. Naturally, these two narrative strands made demands of, and imposed conditions upon, each other during the composition process but both were granted equal status. This method creates the possibility of slippage between these two layers, the “pure” musical content, and the metapraxical element of the miming illusion, during performance.

Despite calling this presentation Lies, damned lies and clarinettists, there is, I believe, only one (white) lie in this piece; the programme note. Programme notes are a very powerful thing and tend to shape how an audience perceives a work, how they understand the structure of the composition and interpret the meaning of the music. In the programme note for this piece there is no mention of the electronic soundtrack that allows the clarinettist to perform out-of-range musical material or at superhuman speed, and certainly no indication that the clarinettist is miming to this soundtrack some of the time. This programme note doesn’t contain spoilers.

Because of this secrecy, the audience is left to discover the two distinct narratives in the piece by themselves. In keeping with my desire to grant agency to the audience, rather than have them receive handed-down pre-determined meaning, there is no obvious indication as to where the first “throwing of the musical voice” takes place or as to how much of the performance is “real” and how much “fake”.

By creating musical performance which is capable of multiple modes of perception you invite the audience-spectators to partake in the construction of meaning as a dialogue with the work; an active communication with it, not simply a subjective reaction to it. However, this is quite unlike the relationship between audience and ventriloquist. Unlike the ventriloquist’s illusion without deception, where you go into a ventriloquist show complicit with the act by knowing about the theatrical conceits and mechanisms that propel the one-performer double act, the “lying” involved in my own work creates a very different relationship between audience and piece. This piece is still only ventriloqual in the metaphorical sense, it is not a piece of ventriloquism in the truest sense. Instead, Vaudeville ventriloquism has been a vehicle for exploring how to create an enforced performativity in a musical work.

Categories: Audio, Musings, Research

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New Work at Plug 2014

28 April 2014

Plug banner

Plug, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s new music festival, returns this week. As I’m approaching the end of my PhD studies at the RCS, this will be the last time I take part in the festival. I’m signing-off with a new video work, titled Espial, which is made from hours of CCTV footage whittled down and assembled into a 15-minute piece of music. The (unwitting) performers in Espial are the Astrid String Quartet, who will also be performing pieces by fellow RCS researchers Lucy Hollingworth and Shona Mackay. The concert will also feature performances by the Red Note Ensemble.

Espial will be shown at 7:30pm, Wednesday 30th May at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, 100 Renfrew Street, Glasgow. Tickets are available from the RCS box office.

Categories: Performance, Research

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New recording

31 December 2011

A recording of my recent piece Struction (how I attempted… is now available here. It’s a bootleg-esque recording from the first performance given by Red Note.

A little confession: I’m not entirely sure this piece works as an audio recording. If you do listen, bear in mind that the voice of the composer is disembodied – the “composer” isn’t in the room and his voice is delivered through loudspeakers. Without pictures, however, you won’t see the physical exertions of the ensemble as they react to this voice. It’s deliberately physical music.

As normal, Struction was conceived as a concert piece (and these days I’m always thinking about the relationship between music its context) and hearing this recording reinforces my belief that live musical performance and audio recordings are two completely different mediums, each with their idiosyncrasies. Why do we so often consider them the same when composing?

Categories: Audio, Performance, Research, Works

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Plugged and Struction done

18 May 2011

One of the highlights of the RSAMD year is the annual Plug festival of new music of which the 2011 variety took place a couple of weeks ago. It’s usually a good week for the composition department, both musically and socially, as the Academy puts on around ten concerts of new work (almost) exclusively created by its students and staff. This year there were, apparently, 35 new works for various ensembles and a further 30 new German songs which formed part of the department’s “Glasgow Liederbuch” project. I say “apparently” because unfortunately I was unable to make most of the concerts due to a string of other commitments and rehearsals for my own piece, Struction (how attempted to get the thoughts in my head into your head using only five instruments, five instrumentalists, metronome sound and MIDI), which was performed by the Red Note Ensemble on the Friday evening of the festival.

I’ve blogged about the creation of Struction before. In its final version it became a 25-minute blast; five instrumental lines, often demanding and virtuosic, are set to an unrelenting, totally audible clicktrack with the composer’s voice booming over the top issuing ad hoc instructions to the performers and apparently composing / recomposing the piece as it goes along. There are occasions when a computer-realized performance of the piece plays in tandem with the real-life instrumentalists, all of whom are amplified. My thanks go to Tim Cooper for all his hard work in engineering the live sound for this performance and for graciously putting-up with me changing my mind every few minutes. I hope to get an audio recording on this site as soon as possible.

One of the necessities of the PhD process (of which this piece forms a part) is the complete documentation of research; consequently I have 31 work-in-progress versions of the score, a “complete” intermediate demo of the piece, three versions of the recorded voice part (including two hours of out-takes), several versions of the tape track, four written documents discussing the piece and a lot more besides. Although I always know that the piece I’ve just finished is a little different from the one I set-out to write this excess of documentation allows me to reflect on how, when and why the piece shifted, conceptually and musically, before settling down into its final form. For me the end product touched on several topics, including, to greater and lesser extent, the relationship between composer, performers and audience, the compositional process, the relationship between people and technology, and role-playing/performativity. However, it was this final element, that I performed the role of “The Composer” whilst also being the piece’s composer, which changed the most since the genesis of the work. (A quick aside; did the performers play the role of Performers during the performance?) Originally I had planned to characterize The Composer differently; he was to be my tyrannical alter ego, overbearing, over-demanding and cruel (hence the working title Struction (shut up and listen)). It all got a bit hammy so the Composer’s persona was scaled-down and became perhaps a little more autobiographical. Not only did this allow for more humour in the piece, which in turn added another dimension to The Composer’s characterization, but it made The Composer a more universal figure; the (often ludicrous) demands made by the composer’s pre-recorded voice were not the rantings of a madman but became characteristic of a system that sees the composer as auteur. These themes will be revisited in future work; Struction is definitely the first chapter, not a conclusion.

I was very pleased with the concert. Red Note pitched the performance just right, having found the flow and humour of the piece early on they threw themselves into the wilder passages and played the quieter moments with great poise. The performance was probably best summed-up by a composer colleague of mine who, when asked how he thought the ensemble did with the piece, responded “they played the arse off it”. I’m inclined to agree, and, for a performance of this piece, there’s probably no greater compliment.

Categories: Research, Works

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