2020 has kept me busy.
My role as Interim Head of Composition at the RCS has continued, and I have also been navigating the various projects that have/haven't happened in the second half of this year (and into next). Like everyone I know in the world of new music, many of my projects (either at the planning stage, or previously definite) have been cancelled, with little prospect of any re-scheduling at the moment for the majority.
One project that has (miraculously) gone ahead was the recording of an album of some of my works for wind instruments, which took place during the week of the 14th of December; I had been planning this since February this year, with funding applications written at the end of 2019, so it has been a long time coming!
I was fortunate to work with a team of players from the RSNO, along with two of my longer-term collaborators: Richard Craig and Carla Rees (both virtuoso flute players). Delphian Records have recorded all of the material, for editing in the new year, and eventual release in April 2021.
The repertoire for the album is as follows:
Pilgrim of Curiosity (wind quintet) - ca.40 mins
Snowbirds (wind quartet) - ca.9 mins
Dalriada (reed trio) - ca.20 mins
Faith, Hopes and Charity (solo baroque flute) - ca.6 mins
The RSNO have been a long-term supporter of my work, and as well as making their principal players available, we were also able to record in their new concert hall (in the RSNO Centre, in Glasgow); Richard Craig kindly stepped in at the last moment, due to two other flute players having to step back, and Carla Rees popped up from London for the day, to record the solo work; I am still surprised that any of this happened, and it took a lot of concentrated effort from everyone to allow this to take place! Until the final session was done that week, I was still pretty certain that COVID was going to prevent someone from turning up.
Paul Baxter (from Delphian) was fantastic, and guided us all through the recording process; due to the lack of opportunities to meet prior to this week - and co-ordinating parts between players, due to the physical-distancing regulations - I had to conduct a lot of the music for the ensembles, which helped hold it all together.
I am still surprised that the largest project I had planned this year (in terms of budget and organising on my part) actually happened, and that any postponement was avoided on this occasion. I am therefore very grateful to the following organisations/individuals for their support, without which the project would not be taking place:
It is looking like it will be another busy term at the RCS this session for me, as I continue in the post of Interim Head of Composition.
Aside from the day-to-day running of the Composition Department, I will also be teaching a number of different classes across all years of our BMus/MMus degrees. This includes 1-1 composition teaching, PhD supervision, full-class free composition seminars and classes on orchestration, analysis, contemporary repertoire, free improvisation, interdisciplinary composition, and being a freelance musician/composer.
On top of this, I am also adding some more movements to my wind quintet, collaborating a little more with writer Martin O'Connor on his Ossian project, and hatching some plans for new projects next year.
Having (almost) made it through to the end of a rather packed academic year, I am looking forward to a number of activities over the next few months.
This week at the RCS contains our graduation ceremonies (on Thursday 4th July) - where I will be congratulating all of our graduating BMus/MMus composers - as well as our first ever Fair Access Composition Summer Course, working with 9 young composers, along with some of our student performers, to discuss/hear some of their music and lead some techniques classes.
I also have some rehearsals with community theatre groups, working towards a performance at Paisley's Sma' Shot Day on Saturday, 6th of July.
For the rest of the summer, I will be working on a number of projects, including a new version of a piece for contrabass flute and flute ensemble (for the fabulous Carla Rees), and some more music for wind quintet, for recording/performance later in the year.
But first, a much-needed (and hopefully well-deserved) holiday.; happy summer everyone...
I find myself in the midst of a rather manic (but productive/enjoyable) two weeks at the moment.
Last week, PLUG took place at the RCS, featuring the work of over 40 of our composers (all premieres), over 10 concerts of new pieces (of which I attended every single one).
I am also currently working on two theatre projects at the moment; a piece of street theatre with Grinagog Theatre, and some development with writer Martin O'Connor, which involves me writing a number of Gaelic songs.
On Monday the 13th of May, we have the Scottish Awards for New Music, which are taking place for the 3rd time in Drygate (I will be there in my capacity as chair of New Music Scotland, who have organised it); I will also be fitting in a board meeting with NYOS earlier that day, and some composition teaching at the RCS on Tuesday, before heading off to Classical:NEXT in Rotterdam on Wednesday morning, then back to Glasgow on Saturday to run some composition workshops with the RSNO.
Then, I will treat myself to a day off, before the marking mountain topples at the RCS the following week...
Back in 2015, I developed a new course for my RCS students, as an opportunity for them to learn about the technologies used by the organisation and ways to integrate these into their musical practice, whilst developing new material for the instruments, then encouraging interaction with DMS musicians and participants. One of the principle aims was to build skills and confidence in devising and leading workshops/performances with musicians with disabilities; this was identified as an area for enhancement within the RCS, which may contribute to music education more widely in Scotland and the UK, and distinct from Music Therapy as a separate discipline (which is not currently offered as a course of study within the RCS).
The Composing and Creative Music Making module takes place in our Intensive Learning Week (the last week of our second term), where students experience an immersive learning environment for 5 days, working with staff and peers; towards the end of the week, students work directly with musicians regularly involved with Drake Music Scotland, and share their work in an informal setting amongst fellow students and staff members.
Within this course, we explore the following areas:
Notation – We encourage students to explore a number of methods, not relying entirely upon standard Western Classical Music notation, and introducing a degree of flexibility in scores and performances. A number of examples of composing and performing with different forms of graphic notation (such as Figurenotes) are presented to students, who are encouraged to create their own methods of capturing and recording aspects of musical work as they develop (as much for their own future reflection as to aid with any immediate recreation of a new piece).
Additional Support Needs – through discussions, we ask students to consider their personal definitions of Additional Support Needs (the term used in Scotland to help recognise a range of educational needs), and how this might affect our practice as musicians, or alter our approaches and methods when working with particular individuals.
Composition/Improvisation – we use improvisation as a tool to create and develop musical material within the group, discussing a range of methods for setting up musical environments in which others can more easily participate. This includes: initial exercises in musical memory, expanding on simple material (e.g. a well-known melody) and then harmonising within an agreed chord sequence; layering of simple, improvised, repetitive rhythmic cells, which are vocalised initially, then introducing instruments to build a broader range of pitches and expand the tessitura of a texture; free improvisation, using simple themes created from 3 or 4 pitches which may be separated by a certain pattern of intervals.
Technologies – through the module we introduce all of the technologies DMS regularly utilise in workshops and performances (including those listed within my own projects), encouraging practical engagement and consideration for integration with acoustic instruments.
Throughout, there is an emphasis on practical composition and methods for creating new musical material for people with Additional Support Needs. We assess students through observing their work with each other, the application of their musical skills, and how they implement collaborative methodologies within small groups to create new work with musicians from DMS.
A short, informal performance ends the intensive week of activities, and students have previously gained the opportunity to perform new work with DMS musicians as part of the RCS lunchtime concert series; some were also involved in demonstration workshops at the International Society of Music Educators (ISME) conference in Glasgow in 2016, or in the RCS new music festival, PLUG in which a new work by one of our student composers, (also participating in the module), was developed in collaboration with several RCS Woodwind Department students.
Oh, and it is one of the most enjoyable and rewarding weeks of the year for me...
I have always been interested in instruction pieces and the Fluxus movement as a tool to expand your creative approach as a composer / practicing artist and I often ask my students to work in this way, encouraging them to think away from musical notation, pitches, instruments, and standard concert spaces, to consider other aspects of performance, and how it might be presented.
I was therefore pleased to be contacted again recently by Daniel-Wyn Jones (we met at a previous RCS Composition Summer School), who is running a Fluxus series in Cardiff - newCELF - with a call for new instruction pieces at the end of April.
Consequently, here is mine: Flashmosh. It is an exploration of joint frustrations with the concept of flashmobs, and silent discos.
Another rather eclectic week for me coming up. Although I am employed at the RCS as a composer (I think...), I am often called on to exercise/utilise a wide variety of my other skills. My schedule this week therefore includes the following events (not an exhaustive list):
Monday - teaching Scoring and Arranging to the Musical Theatre Musical Director students (orchestration and writing for various ensembles), attending another board meeting with New Music Scotland (to discuss some exciting developments - watch this space...) and working on our composition admissions for next session
Tuesday - Leading our Freelance Musician seminars for our BMus 3 composers (discussing the skills required to be a freelance composer, such as fundraising, social media, communication of ideas, etc.), and leading a free improvisation class for some of the MMus performance students
Wednesday - Composition Staff Department meeting, and attending a talk I organised for our composers from Fabrice Fitch
Thursday - attending a solo instrumental workshop for our BMus 1+2 composers, lead by Robert Irvine (cellist from Red Note), then convening some performance assessments in our Concerto Concert that evening
Friday - viewing some final drafts of pieces for submission to our Conductors' Ensemble workshops (where our conducting fellows read through new works by BMus 2 composers).
Aside from this (and the inevitable email communications...) I will also be meeting my composition students for 1:1 lessons most days, and even grabbing some time to write some music myself in the gaps!
Over the last few weeks, I have been enjoying writing a short work for the fabulous Sarah Watts, for solo contrabass clarinet. This will be included in a collection of new works for low clarinet (called Ten Wee Drams), with the first performance at the recently-opened Isle of Raasay Distillery, on the 11th of April. There are also many other (more famous) composers involved in writing short works for the series, such as Stuart MacRae, Bill Sweeney, Jane Stanley, Piers Hellawell and Alasdair Nicolson.
The title of my piece - The Illicit Still - originates from the fact that the Raasay Distillery is the first legal distillery on the island (!); I have therefore attempted to recreate a number of mechanical sounds from the distilling process on the instrument (hissing, dripping, humming and bubbling). The title is also taken from a pub in Aberdeen with the same name, where I spent many hours in my student days (when I probably should have been doing something else...).
I have recently finished an arrangement of a number of sections of music from a show I worked on in 2010 called The Farmer's Cheese (now renamed into a Tiny Dance Suite). This was originally commissioned by Innbruck-based company MED-EL (with whom I worked for around 6 years in total), for children with cochlear implants, as one of the outcomes of a post-doctoral fellowship they had sponsored for 3 years. I am pleased to have the opportunity to rework this for another outing, for an audience of children with cochlear implants, at the Vienna Konzerthaus, performed by the wonderful Varietas-Ensemble.
I have long believed that as composers/creators of new music, we should be promoting each other's music more than our own. I have a theory that if we do this more, we improve the overall environment for new music, and foster a more positive approach to allow all of us to have our own, individual careers.
A sizeable amount of my time inside the RCS is now spent on developing composition opportunities, and the amount of these seems to be increasing year-on-year.
Here is a selection of the sort of things that I have been working on for our student composers: over the last few months:
- collaborations with our RCS Modern Ballet students to work on new choreography (and hopefully forming longer-lasting working partnerships)
- workshops and recordings of new works with Red Note and the Hebrides Ensemble
- a collaboration with Stirling University Art Collection and the Edinburgh Quartet, with performances of 8 new works during Refugee Week in June 2019
- collaborations with astronomers from the University of St Andrews, resulting in the performance of 6 new works by their new music group in May 2018
- the Kimie Prize, awarded to BMus 4 composer - Rylan Gleave - to write a new work for inclusive performances by a Live Music Now Scotland professional chamber ensemble
- a new (paid!), commissioned work for one of our composers, for the Nevis Ensemble, to be performed around Scotland in summer 2019
- a new work by a female composer for a new album, recorded and released by the fantastic Scottish Voices
- an education project for 2 composers to work with Sir James MacMillan in the lead- up to the Cumnock Tryst in 2019
- two new works for a collaborative dance performance (by Nora Marazaite and Fergus Hall) during the Cumnock Tryst 2019, performed by Mr McFall's Chamber
- a new work for the Scottish Clarinet Choir, by MMus composer Stuart Rynn
Outside of the RCS, I have also been involved in the Scottish Awards for New Music, which have taken place two years running, organised by New Music Scotland (of which I am currently co-chair). We hope to be able to run these again in the future (funding-dependent!), as they seem to have been a good way to raise the profile of new music in Scotland, and encourage many more performers/promoters from outside of the country to engage with Scottish-based artists and their work.