Martin Gaughan, composer

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

I started by learning the trombone in a brass band in school, but I found that whatever piece we were playing I always added to my part, imagining I was ‘improving’ or adding something to it. I eventually decided it would be fun to write all the parts. At school, one teacher encouraged my desire to play in a local orchestra, rather than a brass band or concert band, as soon as I heard the orchestra I knew I wanted to compose even more.

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

Beethoven! Before I knew any other music I devoured all the Beethoven symphonies. I also had a very good local music library in York when I was young, which had a wide variety of scores – I would often go there and keep the librarians very busy! The same thing was true of my local classical record shop.

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

Getting performances. It is incredibly frustrating, especially when people express interest and ask for a piece, then when I send them the score, I never hear from them again. Thankfully not everyone is like that.

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

You are working with specific people, you can discuss aspects of their performance technique, the music they like and don’t like as well as developing friendships, often these performances will lead to others.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

Ironically, the restrictions they place on your imagination, which often take it to new and exciting places. For example I was asked to write a piece for Bass Viol – I was both excited and nervous, especially when the Viol player was also a singer, however this piece is now my most performed work.

Of which works are you most proud?

I am proud of them all, but the pieces I like the best are never the pieces others like the best, it always surprises me the pieces listeners and performers go for.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

This is very difficult to answer. I don’t use one method, I find that too restrictive. I may use two or three aspects of language in one given piece, a chord for example, a phrase, a timbre, which may then also be used in other pieces, but the thing perhaps that links my language is a sense of expressiveness, I feel a great need to express how I feel and think, as I am sure do all composers. I can’t, for example, work solely with serial techniques.

How do you work?

When I am composing I don’t like to do it in silence, I like the TV on. I won’t watch it, I just listen subliminally, often I won’t recognise people when I come to watch TV properly but I recognise their voice. In the past I used to actually listen to popular music while I composed. I often compose intensely for a week, a month etc., then I will take a break, or rather my brain will demand a break. Then I will come back to it. I usually get an idea for a piece when I am doing other things, such as waking, on a bus or something non-musical, I will work those ideas out in my mind, make a few notes, then get down to work on Sibelius. I miss manuscript paper but Sibelius does mean my scores are neat – my handwritten scores were often very messy indeed.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

There are so many, apart from Beethoven as mentioned above, I’d add Monteverdi, Mozart, Schumann, (both Robert & Clara), Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, Britten, Tippett, Ives, Boulez, Saariaho, Turnage, Charlotte Bray. I also have many non-classical influences and artists I admire greatly. I am also a big fan of Chinese traditional music.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

This has changed over time, for me now it is to compose the pieces I have always imagined, even if these pieces never get performed, and to keep learning, never to fall back on the same systems.

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

Develop a thick skin, don’t take anyone’s negativity as a reason to quit. Someone said to me once that if you can stop composing and be happy, then fine, but if you can’t, then you know your answer.

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

I would like to still have my hair, and I would like to have written a large symphonic piece, and an opera, and hopefully get a few more performances.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Finishing a composition, plus my cats, my best friend & waking up late.

What is your most treasured possession?

I think possibly some of the miniature scores I collect, second hand ones if possible.

What do you enjoy doing most?

My initial answer to this was eating ice cream!

What is your present state of mind?

Right now positive, I enjoyed answering these questions and thinking about the answers.


Martin Gaughan was born in York of Irish descent. He attended Trinity College of Music, London and during this time he won the 1st year prize for most outstanding student, the Chappell Composition Prize twice and took part in a number of composition workshops as well as being asked to write a work for the ‘Principals Concert’. He completed his studies with two concerts dedicated to his work.

In 2011 Martin returned to education at Morley College with a number of performances and a graphic score project in celebration of Cornelius Cardew. Martin completed a MMus in composition with Roger Redgate at Goldsmith’s University, London and is planning on beginning a PhD..

Martin’s music is dark, atmospheric and often nocturnal, this in part is due to him being an insomniac. Therefore his work is often infused with images of night and the gothic. Being a poet as well as a composer Martin’s music often contains quotations and poetic fragments from his own as well as works by other poets. Martin has worked closely with a number of singers and performers including the Scottish new music group ‘Red Note Ensemble’ and the Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival.

martingaughan.co.uk

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