Matthew Whiteside, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

I took up the euphonium when I was about 8 but it wasn’t until I was about 15 that I realised that composers weren’t just all long dead and that it was ok to write things that weren’t just a four-chord progression repeated every four bars. It was hearing Thomas Adès Asyla that helped convince me to apply to study music at university and then my first composition teacher, Piers Hellawall, who opened up the world of new music to me.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

The most memorable experiences have been analysing Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time and seeing the mathematical underpinnings for some of the music. This had a huge effect on my compositional techniques. I started to use mathematical sequences to develop new material from short cells and my music still has quite a mathematical underpinning at times.

Reading Morton Feldman ‘Says’ showed me that it is ok to take time and explore the same idea from a different angle. It was also helped by going to an art exhibition when I moved to Glasgow and realised that every painting was of the same subject but each was subtly different. Up until those two experiences I had the typical student mindset of ‘every piece, every bar needs to be novel!’ but I slowed down and embraced a more minimal compositional language. This slowing down was furthered by the discovery of spectral music through Grisey’s Partiels.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

The period straight after graduating from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland was challenging. I was working a 9 to 5 job and having very little energy to actually write music when I got home. I started writing funding applications and had a slew of declines and was very close to giving up on the whole idea of being a composer when Creative Scotland funded my first album, Dichroic Light. This gave me a confidence boost and from there things have started to develop both on a personal front, receiving commissions and performances, but also developing The Night With…

It is still frustrating and challenging to receive declines for projects but it has got a little easier to handle over the years and the declines are coming a little less frequently.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

Commissions can be challenging sometimes especially when the commissioner has an idea of what they want the piece to be. The weirdest one I’ve ever received was from Cottiers Chamber Project for the well-known ensemble of female vocal, choir and trombone quartet. The piece also had to tie into the work of Lord Kelvin and the architecture of Glasgow University. When Andy Saunders, the artistic director, found out my great uncle was a physicist he said “include that in there somehow as well”. It took ages to work out how to include all of these things into one piece but I’m very pleased with how it turned out. I quite enjoyed doing it, even if it was quite a weird commission. It was a challenge but quite a satisfying one.

Of which works are you most proud?

Repercussive, my first orchestral piece, Dichroic Light, for solo cello and live electronics, Piece for Violin and Bass Clarinet, Quartet No. 4 (Entangled), for string quartet, live electronics and a film by Marisa Zanotti, Always Ever Unknowable, for female vocal, choir and trombone quartet, and Little Black Lies, a short opera commissioned by Scottish Opera with a text by Helene Grøn.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

One of my friends described it as “spectral minimalism” which I quite like. It is also increasingly being influenced by scientific ideas and artistic responses to them.

How do you work?

I always start a piece by hand with pen and paper. Pen specifically because I can’t erase anything and that’s quite useful sometimes. If it is a solo piece, I’ll keep with pen and paper almost to the end and through numerous revisions. If it’s a larger ensemble piece, I’ll keep using pen and paper until I have a fairly solid idea of the piece before moving over to computer.

Some pieces I have huge amounts of pre-compositional sketches (both structural and musical) while others will be more organic and free composition.

Usually I write for about 4 or 5 hours a day when I have a deadline looming much more than that and my concentration stats to slip.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

This changes all the time and I go through phases of listening to classical, metal or electronica. I always go back to Grisey, Vivier, Saariaho, Feldman and Reich but at the moment I’m loving the music coming out of New Amsterdam and Bedroom Community labels. Composers like Molly Joyce, Brendon Randall-Myers, Donnacha Dennehy, Daniel Bjarnasson, Judd Greenstein and Caroline Shaw.

Musicians wise I’m really interested in the ensembles those composers are working with like Roomful of Teeth, Crash Ensemble and Eighth Blackbird.

I’ve started to curate a weekly playlist on Spotify which gives a bit of an insight into what I’m listening to. It’s also a way for me to programme a concert that wouldn’t be possible in real life like putting a Radiohead song beside an orchestral recording or Dawn of Midi beside Steve Reich. This is the main playlist and the archive is on my website

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Writing the music I want to write and finding the people who are interested in performing and listening to it.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Be interested and interesting. Don’t sit back and wait for commissions to come to you, make your own opportunities. I started putting on concerts when I was at Queen’s University just because I wanted more performances of my music and that experience has turned into ‘The Night With…’ where I am programming and commissioning music.

Don’t be afraid to fail. That is when you learn the most.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

In a similar position to where I am now but with more performances going on around the world and with The Night With…’s season having grown to 30 or more concerts a year.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Outside of music I really enjoy scuba diving. I took it up last year and since qualifying have been to the Great Barrier Reef and numerous dives around Scotland with almost 14 hours time underwater.

Glasgow-based Northern Irish composer Matthew Whiteside is creator of a series of concerts “The Night With…” which opens on 7 August in Glasgow and running monthly till November in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. Further information here


(Photo credit: Julie Howden)

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