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 or

Categories: Research

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New recording of Nightmusic

28 July 2014

Here’s a new recording of my piece Nightmusic for solo violin. This performance was given by violinist Kay Stephen at the beautiful Sherbrooke St. Gilbert’s Church in the Southside of Glasgow. The recording was made by Timothy Cooper and partly funded by Sound and Music for inclusion on the New Voices website.

Categories: Audio, New Voices 2014, Works

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New Voices 2014

27 July 2014


I’m very happy to (belatedly) announce that I’m one of 56 emerging composers to make up this year’s New Voices cohort. The recently re-launched New Voices website, part of the British Music Collection, showcases the work of those who have been composer-in-residence with some of the UKs leading creative organizations through Sound and Music’s Embedded and Portfolio schemes. I’m honoured to be in such illustrious company.

Listen to the work of the other New Voices composers here.

Categories: New Voices 2014


Writing Elbow Room

10 May 2014

Elbow Room image by David Coyle

This year’s Commonwealth Games will not longer be inaugurated by the synchronized destruction of five thirty-storey tower blocks. The buildings, the Red Road flats which have been home to hundreds of families since their construction in the 1960s, were due to be demolished as part of the opening ceremony to Glasgow’s Games which take place this summer. Organisers had promised that, by beaming television coverage of these implosions across the globe, Glasgow would be celebrated as a city of “authenticity, passion and ambition”. Others were not so sure: 17,000 people signed an online petition to stop the destruction of Red Road as part of the opening ceremony, forcing the plans to be dropped.

The size of the backlash against the plan indicates how strongly many feel about the symbolism of Red Road and the infrastructure of Glasgow’s regeneration more generally. Many accused the organisers of insensitivity, not least for the asylum seekers housed in a sixth tower who would have to spend years living in a rubble-filled wasteland. The flats are due to be demolished regardless of the Commonwealth Games, but by attempting to include their destruction in a broadly artistic event, and by insisting that razing the buildings is purely a celebratory affair, the organisers appeared to overlook the nuanced and contradictory symbolism of such an act. Since construction began in 1964 the Red Road flats have been home to thousands, initially providing an improvement in living conditions for many. For some they once represented the dawning of a Utopian way of life; a functional, modernist approach to city dwelling. Others see only an eyesore. The flats later became synonymous with urban decay and crime, and were also the scene of several widely-reported suicides.

It is contradictions such as these which have been both a cause for concern and a driving force behind my new work Elbow Room which I have written for the Red Note Ensemble as part of my Sound and Music Embedded residency with the group. Although not specifically about Red Road, the piece is about Glasgow’s redevelopment more generally and tells the story of the real-life mid-twentieth century plan to re-build Glasgow as a concrete paradise of skyscrapers and motorways. Although never fully realized, the plan did lay down some of the principles which shaped the development of the city in the coming decades.

I live in Glasgow, the city which has a motorway running though its heart. As a composer I feel it’s important to engage with the world around me and writing about this road, and the other radical improvements made to the city, is of great personal importance. But it’s a big, complicated topic that needs to be completed with great sensitivity, particularly for someone like me who lives in Glasgow but is not Glaswegian. Finding a way into the subject, and working out how I was going to be able to write music about it, proved to be very difficult.

My solution was to use period films made in Glasgow about the proposed urban regeneration, alongside sound recordings of today’s city. The films I have used were essentially propaganda tools to convince the people of Glasgow that the proposed years of disruption to their lives would be worth the new, healthy, futuristic city that would be created around them. The plans for the city were bold: one envisioned the total destruction of the centre of Glasgow, and the building of the motorway itself (now the M8) required the razing of many healthy, attractive parts of the city. Rather than underscoring the films, I wanted the music of Elbow Room to reflect the optimism and sense of progress inherent in them. I then re-edited the films to fit the music whist also allowing them to contributing to the overall narrative.

There were undoubtedly many problems in mid-twentieth century Glasgow that needed to be solved, including slum housing and poor health. However, looking back from 2014 with our ideas of efficiency, usability and sustainability, many plans for the city now seem completely over the top. With the benefit of hindsight, the optimism of the period films seems misplaced: although many improvements were made, the promised Utopia never materialized. It remains a fantasy on a drawing board and yet the remnants of these improvement schemes still affect the day-to-day lives of many in the city.

The key to completing Elbow Room was this fantasy. If the first two movements of the piece are concerned with the imaginings of architects and town planners, the third and final movement would be my fantasy: a musical reinterpretation of the sounds of the city recorded this year at locations still affected by the plans drawn-up in the 1940s.

Elbow Room will be performed by the Red Note Ensemble at Summerhall, Edinburgh, 8pm Wednesday 21st May and at The Arches, Glasgow, 8pm Thursday 22nd May.

Categories: Performance, Red Note, Works

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Go Compose! in Banchory, day three

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!.

Categories: Music Education, Red Note

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Go Compose! in Banchory, day two

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…

Categories: Music Education, Red Note

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Go Compose! in Banchory, day one

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.

Categories: Music Education, Red Note

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