Lliam Paterson, composer

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

As a child, I devoured stories of the lives of composers from a book I found at a local library. Since most of the composers I read about were also performers, and I was learning piano and French horn, it seemed clear to me that one day I would be a composer too!

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

I would have to say Judith Weir has had a profoundly positive influence on my musical life. I first met her as a teenager when she was adjudicating a composition competition at Aberdeen University where I was awarded first prize. Along with her words of wisdom, I also heard her music for the first time, and instantly fell in love with its bright, clear sound world. Later I would work on Judith’s operas as a répétiteur and conductor, and I was lucky enough to have private mentoring from Judith when I was studying piano accompaniment and répétiteur studies at Guildhall School of Music & Drama.

I have also been very fortunate to receive mentoring from some wonderful composers: Errollyn Wallen, Nicola LeFanu and David Sawer. This has meant a great deal to me, as I made the decision not to study composition formally at an institution at Masters level.

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

The greatest challenge of my career so far has been combining piano work (principally as a répétiteur and contemporary ensemble pianist) with composition work. For the past year I have focused almost exclusively on large-scale commissions, while continuing piano work with more personal projects, such as workshopping and performing new pieces by Edinburgh University PhD composers.

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

The parameters defined by a particular commission usually make the creative process more focused and fluid. Boundaries – a certain number of players, a particular venue etc – suddenly allow you a defined space to explore and test ideas vigorously.

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

Writing for particular musicians brings a vital energy to the creative process. Especially working with singers, you can really play with the unique vocal and performative qualities of a particular artist to create something more satisfying for the performer and audience alike.

Of which works are you most proud?

‘The Angel Esmeralda’ – an opera for Guildhall School of Music & Drama after Don DeLillo’s short story with a libretto adapted by Pamela Carter – has been my dream project since I first read the story in 2013. It will finally be performed in the School’s Silk Street Theatre from 24 February – 2 March this year. Pamela Carter’s adaptation is so skillful that it has allowed me to create a strong dramatic shape with the music. I very much feel our approaches to text and music are entirely integrated, which is a rare thing to share between artists.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

My compositional language embraces many elements. Most of all it is lyrical – I enjoy creating long melodic lines which interact and create tension with an underlying harmonic structure. Frequently a harmonic structure grows out of a melodic idea. I also love being playful with rhythm, and creating catchy rhythmic structures that stick in the mind!

I also like playing with harmony which changes gradually over time, such as a chord being altered by a note or two until it becomes an entirely new harmonic area.

How do you work?

I always sketch a broad outline of the work first of all at the piano. This gives me a clear structural shape for the piece, so I can achieve a sense of directionality. If writing an operatic piece, I sketch all vocal lines for the piece with a harmonic underpinning for the entire work. After this, I work through the material very thoroughly to produce the final score.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

My favourite composers include Sofia Gubaidulina, Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Lili Boulanger. Recently I have become a big fan of Sudan Archives. I also love the work of Anna Meredith and especially admire how the energy of her music is matched by tremendous animation and video design in her music videos.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I define success as being able to move and affect people with your music, and connect people through a shared experience. Other measures of success do not concern me so much as achieving artistic and emotional honesty which can communicate directly with an audience.

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

I think having faith in your own ideas is important, while being simultaneously open to collaboration and being adaptive in your own creative practice. Being receptive to the ideas of other artists usually makes the final work much stronger, especially in the case of writing for theatre/ opera.

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

I would like to be working across a wide range of collaborative contexts, especially involving film makers.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

To be surrounded by people who make you smile and laugh.

What is your most treasured possession?

A beautiful, glittering orange stone I found in Brooklyn and gave to my late mother as a Christmas present.

What do you enjoy doing most?

I most enjoy getting lost in writing music, watching horror movies and encountering friendly cats!

What is your present state of mind?

Excited, by turns quite stressed but also contemplative.

Guildhall School alumnus Lliam Paterson’s opera ‘The Angela Esmeralda’, commissioned by Scottish Opera receives its world premiere on Monday 24 February and runs until Monday 2 March at Silk Street Theatre, Barbican Cente, London. Further information


Lliam Paterson was born in Ellon, Aberdeenshire in 1991. After studies at the Aberdeen City Music School and St. Mary’s Music School, Edinburgh he read music at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge University, where he graduated First Class. He had private compositions lessons with Errollyn Wallen while at Cambridge. Lliam subsequently studied as a piano accompanist with Eugene Asti and as a repetiteur at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, completing his studies with Distinction. During his time at the Guildhall, he studied privately with Judith Weir.

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