Music for Musicians

My first blog in a while is more a musing on art and culture than a random babbling on what I have been doing. This was inspired by a conversation on twitter between @jamiebullock and myself from the question “contemporary classical music = university music?” from @laputean.

This is a topic that has concerned and worried me greatly over the past year or two. Is contemporary classical music simply producing music for musicians (a large number of whom don’t respect it anyway) or does it have a wider cultural place?
In the world we live in everything seems to need a price, seems to need an explicit benefit or educational advance but how does contemporary classical music fulfill this? It has nothing tangible to give other than a pleasurable experience, but because of the musical language used people without understanding or even without the desire to learn to appreciate the tonality manage to let this music pass them by. The price of art can be extortionate or less then the cost it was to produce. The rich will pay thousands for an original piece of art by a famous artist but many will squabble over paying £30 or less to attend a concert. When anyone goes to a concert of modern do they go with the tools to understand it or do they just go to say to their friends in a form of one-upmanship? Even those that go with the tools to understand the music still may not because surely the only person who understands the music is the composer. Anyone that listens will take something different or nothing at all away from a piece.
When Feldman rejected the audience in writing his 2nd string quartet (I believe it was the 2nd) he received the best reception of any of his pieces. Does this then mean that the audience wants to be rejected rather than pandered to? That is something I cannot decide the answer to. Maybe a composers thought process changes to when he thinks like this allowing his own experiences to filter in.
The composer is the only one who understands their own work whether accepting or rejecting the audience, though sometimes not even the composer understands. Music as an art that is there to broaden the mind and be the pot in which ideas coincide whether these ideas be it maths, physics, poetry, philosophy or even another piece of music or art. Every piece is the sum of experience of the composer. From this I feel music can be described as a condensed encyclopaedia or even a wiki where different people can add their spin on it but the essential meaning and experience of the composer is still there.

This was just thrown together tonight. Hopefully I will come back and revise it. I know it probably posses more questions than it answers but I felt the need to put this down and have no problem showing it to anyone that might be interested


It has been almost a month since my last blog. Since then I have been in Prague, Krakow, Budapest, Vienna, Rome, Geneva and Barcelona. I was planning to try and blog as I went around Europe but that didn’t happen. Needless to say it was a really good trip and saw some amazing places. Even found a CD shop in Vienna that sold only classical music and another that was stocked with scores! I was like a kid in a sweet shop! Probably not that big a deal to anyone reading from a big city but Belfast doesn’t have these kind of shops annoyingly. The classical section in HMV is rather pathetic and matchets, though great for exams, doesn’t stock that much. Ach well, amazon helps. Finding the shop which had cds I wanted gave me the impetus to by them, finally got round to getting Chronochromie and a CD of Takemitsu’s chamber music. First introduction to him and I’m hocked. Also went to the Picasso museum, Van Gogh museum and saw an exhibition of Turner’s paintings, all amazing in real life.

Anyway, I have been home about just over a week and finally getting back into the swing of things. It took me almost a week to recover and catch up on sleep! The second Queen’s Composers’ Concert is pretty much organised, posters are being designed, music is being written, will be in the Queen’s concert brochure and there should be a mention going up onto the CMC Ireland website soon about it. By the way its on the 25th November at 7.30pm in the Harty Room in Queen’s Music Department and its free.

As for the opera its coming on quite nicely. About 1/3 of the way through it with about 3 weeks left to write it piles of time… I hope. I think reading ‘Morton Feldman Says’ has influenced it a little, or at least my ideas but I will reserve judgment until its finished. I think the dates for it are the 13th and 14th of November.

Just as a final note one of my friends, Daniel Barkley, has just put up his own site . Have a look, hes doing continuing blog on how hes writing a Euphonium concerto which looks interesting


We have decided there is a curse on leaving cities after more than a day. On the way to checking out in Berlin Laura decided it would be a good idea to fall over on her ankels while carring her bags. After which she couldn’t carry herself, let alone her bags, so we had to carry her and her bags to the front door, get a taxi and then to the train station which thankfully had a wheelchair. Train journey to Prague was pretty good had individual rooms for 6 people. Was awkward getting down the train with bags to the room but it was good to have a bit of privacy for the 6 hour trip. Sat talking to some Sweds who were in my room, who tried to teach me some swedish (cant remember any of it now) but was good fun.
From the train station to the hostel was, yet again, interesting. Found a porter in the train station and put Laura on a baggage trolley before finding more taxis and taking out money to get said taxis. Took out 2000 koruny but wasn’t sure weather that would buy me a bun or a car… Worked out it is about 40 pounds so wasn’t to bad. Some of the prices here are about the same as at home but others are really cheap, a loaf of bread for 10 crowns (about 30p). The hostel I’m staying at is really good, Hostel Marabou. Its about 30mins walk from the centre of town but the best thing about it is the atmosphere. Really friendly, really homely and a constant stream of metal music played at most hours on the radio. Def going to come back to it again when I come back to Prague (which I will do).
Went on another free walking tour yesterday. This time gave a bit more because I had more spare change but still not as much as I would have paid for an equivilent tour. Again it was about 4 hours and gave about 800 years of Prague’s history, admitidly very condensed and potted but still interesting. Also went on a ghost tour last night, was really cheesy and after the first story I thought it was a waste of money. Though after the 2nd one people in costume started to jump out. If it hadn’t been for Lynn and Susie, both rather jumpy, it wouldn’t have been that good. Even with them jumping it was ok, wouldn’t go on it again and wouldn’t advise anyone else to go on it. One of the others on the tour was an austrailian who was travling from aus, hong kong, round europe and back home for 3 months costing him about 35000 austrailian dollars (abotu 15000 pounds!). How he was able to afford it, had a traffic accident a few years ago and broke his back. He got 25000 compensation.
Back in the hostel I sat talking to some English people who were in a rally, to drive from London to Mongolia! It sounds really interesting, think I might look into it maybe for next summer.
Having a relaxing day in the hostel today before getting a night train to Krakow tonight though I really like Prague and this hostel so dont want to leave it. Ach well, can always come back.
Annoyingly haven’t had a chance to write much music on the trains, might try and do some tonight while everyone is asleep. Seeing some of the places and modern art around the place is quite useful to get the brain going. If only Belfast had more galleries!
Think thats it for now, till next time.


This will hopefully be a fuller update. In a hostel with free Internet and wireless so have borrowed my friends iPhone so there will prob be some typos.
Paris was pretty good though getting list at 2am is fun but tiring spent the day going round the place but not for any real perpuse. The louvre and the pompeasue centre were closed so just ended up lowing in the louvre gardens having lunch and going to muse Dorset, think that’s the right spelling. Was a good mix of modern and older art. Also while walking around found a stall selling sheets of plainsong manuscript from the 1600s. If it’s a fake it’s a good one only problem is carrying it round for the next few weeks until I find a post office or get homeafter Paris went to Amsterdam.really nice city and quite interesting stuff. Headed to the van gogh museum and to Anne franks house. More I wanted to see but didn’t have enough time. Definitly going back at some point. Now I’m sitting in a hostel in berlin after a 6hour train journy yesterday. Here for a few days so have a chance to relax and take our time rather than rush round everything like before. 1/4 the way through and been to 1/3 of the cities. Going really fast but still enjoying it. Lynn summed it up really well yesterday “you don’t realise your have fun until you realise you realise your fed up”.
Think that’s about all for now possibly going to the body works exibition aoon and then onto a museum or two because they are open late. Wanted to go to be Berlin phil but they seems to be off for the summer, ach well. anyway till next time.

Before Leaving

I leave to Paris and inter railing tomorrow! Will be trying to update this thing on my travels maybe with pictures but more than likely just with text. Away for a month and heading round Europe clockwise form Paris to Barcelona. It should be fun, really looking forward to it.

As for last weekend and this week I have been frantic. It was my 21st birthday last thursday and then friday afternoon I flew to York to CNMC (creating new music communities) to have Beyond the Tone played. Though the players only had a few hours rehearsing they did a very good job of it, hopefully get a recording of the concert up soon or at least when I get back. The whole day was a mix of open rehearsals, open ear sessions, networking, composers surgiories and two concerts all of which were really interesting and useful. Though I only managed to get to the tail end of one of the open ear sessions. The event was in York uni and was part of the ICC and organised mainly by Peter Moran and James Whittle.

Once I got home from that I had to organising moving flats and getting packed for inter railing! Oh yea, also decided to scrap what I had written of the opera and start again. Got about 2mins written and going to try and do some more while I’m away with many hours spent on trains.

Anyway thats all interesting to mention. Check back regularly over the next month for updates on my travels.

For once a blog that isn’t on a friday night!
I feel its time for an update since it has been ages since the last one. Not too much has happened recently, went to Download music festival for a week and it was damn good.
As for compositional stuff. I started writing the opera after a few weeks of finding the 120 déçi-tâlas Messiaen wrote about and then trying to find translations. The translation side was almost impossible so I did my own which I’m thinking of posting on my site. Finally got that sorted and have about a minute of it written, so about 1/10th the way through. It is definitly a learning curve as I have never written for voice. Trying to think of a words rhythm and combine it inside the music is a little challanging simply because I’ve never done it before.
Also started on a piece for Alto Sax, Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello for the November Queen’s Composer’s Concert. Managed to write about 1min 30 in a day just sitting out in the garden. Really pleased with it so far. Definitly getting the nack for minds ear, though hearing it on sibelius helps and gives even more ideas to develope.
Finally heading to York on friday (the day after my 21st birthday :S) to hear Beyond the Tone being played at CNMC (creating new music comunities). Should be a fun weekend.


The last few weeks have been a little hectic, too hectic to post here. Mainly because of finishing off my septet The Space Within but its done and handed in. Would love to hear it played properly but don’t know if I’ll be able to organise it with the players I know. Its the first piece I’ve composed almost completely without a piano or Sibelius (only used either for a few chords) so hearing it on Sibelius and it almost being exactly how I imagined was amazing. The only problems were tempo markings but that isn’t that big a deal. But knowing my inner ear is developing is definitely a good thing to know. Also got my electro-acoustic piece handed in Machinist’s Visual Fallacy. This is my first piece to use c-sounds, takes a bit of getting used to but a really good tool to know. Will probably use some of the techniques in my acoustic pieces. In fact some electro-acoustic techniques inspired parts of The Space Within.

With The Space Within handed in I can now start properly on the opera. Met my librettist, James Johnson, on Wednesday to talk about some of the ideas I’ve got and how they fit with his libretto. Still haven’t written any music yet but I think the ideas will work, just got more research to do into them before I can write. It will be three singers Soprano, Mezzo and Alto though I cant find an Alto! (Anyone know a good one who would like to sing in an opera?).

As for the dates of the performance its provisionally 5th 6th and 7th of November. This is provisional but it seems a decent amount of time to get things finished, organised, advertised and rehearsed. The lineup of composers has been expanded to five: Me (Matthew Whiteside), Omar Zatriqi, Eduard Zatriqi, Conor Mitchell and the new addition Gareth Williams.

There should be a website up soon for SPARK with everyone’s details on it but here is a quick break done. Omar, Eduard and myself are all composers who are studying at Queen’s Belfast. Omar and Eduard are heading into a masters in composition I’m heading into my 3rd year, Conor Mitchell is a London based musical theater and opera writer and Gareth Williams is an Armagh born composer. As for the librettists James Johnson is a Queen’s graduate who has written a play for Tinderbox and Michael Shannon is currently studying for a masters in writing in Queen’s. Its an interesting mix of students and professionals, hopefully a good mix!

Onto other stuff. The next Queen’s Composer’s Concert will be on the 25th of November in the Harty room. I’ve managed to organise a group of players for a yet to be writting piece of mine. Sometimes I dont know which is harder getting the players or writing the music either way I’m half way there. Think I’ve mentioned this in a previous blog but I’m heading over to York to hear Beyond the Tone being played at Creating New Music Communities. I’ve somehow managed to become the Northern Ireland contact for the event and I’ve promised a larger piece for next years event.

Finally a slightly sour note. A few months ago I entered SPNM’s call for scores with my Quartet No. 1. Got word back this week that I didn’t make it into the short list. Ach well theres always next year.

Friday Again

This does really seem to be a weekly blog. This week hasn’t involved anything too exciting. Just working and going to concerts. Went to seven concerts this week, six of them part of Sonorities Festival at Queen’s and one of those being five hours long! Not all of them good though, POW ensemble was a little weird but the rest (CMC Composers’ Platform, Bird on a Wire, Trio Scordatura and Move) were really good. Possibly going to write something for Bird on a Wire when I get a chance.
The next Queen’s Composer’s Concert has confirmed a date, Wed 25th November. There are so many people interested I’ve started organising another one for the 24th of March 2010, or around then anyway. Ages away but why not be organised?
Finally got my electro-acoustic piece finished and called it “Machinist’s Visual Fallacy”. More details on that will be up soon once its handed in and marked. Just have to do an analysis of Ricardo Climent’s Silent Era now and thats electro-acoustic comp finished for this year.
Like I said nothing too exciting this week going to start getting stuck into other compositions next week I think.
Until next Friday (probably).

This Week

I always end up posting blogs at the end of the week, hmmm.
Anyway, this week has been rather hectic even with an extra day off at the start just work work more work oh and 3 concerts and a workshop (by the Lawson Trio) in 2 days. Unfortunately the workshop wasn’t for my own compositions but for phd composers. Got some great ideas from it though which will be in my next composition. Well maybe not the next one (that should be the opera) but the one after that. Also went through Dogs and Wolves by Piers Hellawell with Piers. Really like that piece now and the way he works the orchestra is really interesting. If you haven;t listened to it give it a go. Gave me some ideas to put into my septet (The Space Within). I know I keep saying its finished but I keep making little changes…
Got a few more details on the concert in Cork. It will be somepoint mid November and it will hopefully be my Quartet No. 1 rather than Beyond the Tone being played. Going to use the same players that I used for the recording on my site, if they are free and we can get accommodation down there. I didn’t say there were many more details just a few more!
Also started organising another Queen’s Composer’s Concert this week. It will be roughly the same setup as before but with the possibility of maybe one piece with electronics/tape piece possibly. The electronics is just an idea at the moment not sure how will it would work in the room but its maybe possibly a possibility (maybe!). Out of the seven replies I’ve got back from the email I sent, two have been electro-acoustic pieces so there is definitely and interest the rest were standard acoustic composers. Going to give it another week or two before deciding for sure which composers to choose. Thankfully know a bit more about organising this kind of thing this time than last so should run a little smoother. Thinking that the concert will be around November/December time to give people rehearsal time but not too close to hand in dates.
Finally I do apologise for my previous blog, it was written late at night and very much a stream of consciousness. Need to go back and edit it, will be posted up here when I do.
One more note, sonorities festival is on round queens this week. There are around 10 concerts on starting tonight of contemporary music. Have a look here for more info.

The Mirror of Art

The arts are the mirror on society. Is this why society can never accept contemporary art? Art that shows the truth that people don’t want to see. When looking back at history the music of each period perfectly fits the period’s image, to a modern viewer. The music of the renaissance and Baroque periods were reserved and followed strict tonal rules, mirroring the reserved nature of the aristocracy and the control exerted on the population. The reserved nature was mostly driven by a desire of the commissioners for music to dance to. The reserved feeling continued into the classical period but by the time of Beethoven the link between commissioner and composer had diminished. There were fewer court composers and so less commissions for music to dance to. This left composers free to do as they pleased but still kept the tonal rules, though stretched quite excessively.
Composers such as Beethoven almost completely threw away the ideas that music had to be small and reserved. During the classical period the French and American Revolutions occurred showing a breakdown of aristocracy’s dominance over the population. This is quite obviously mirrored in the music of the time in things such as the diminishing use of dance rhythms and the larger freer motivic and harmonic development. These ideas though freer than before still have more than a little semblance of tonal structure, implying that the control by the ruling class is still very much there.
Then we get into the romantic period, of long flowing free melodies that seem to wallow in their own art. This art was being imported from all over the world such as Debussy being influenced by oriental oils and carvings. The world was getting smaller, society becoming more homogeneous, different ideas imported and exported and the influence on the music was again obvious. When Debussy started playing with the colour of notes on the piano he was scoffed at by his teacher. Like all other composers before he was criticised for ‘bad’ music simply because it did not conform to previous expectations and the rules used by previous generations. He was showing freeness in composition that was unheard of 50 years ago yet the freeness was a sign of the freer nature of society.
Very swiftly after we get Vaughn Williams who was a massive patriot and used English folk tunes of the time as the basis of his music. This mirrored English society’s longing for older times, as the colonies were definitely gaining freedom at this point. Though at the very same time we have the second Viennese school. A school of thought and composition that encouraged untold of control over music through serialism but also the complete breakdown of tonality. Even though serialism was a massive controlling influence Schoenberg taught that a composer should create the tone row and then compose as before. In other words write what you like within the confines of the tone row. These two completely contrasting ideas again mirror society at the time of their fruition. Vaughn Williams the nationalist, showing the nationalistic feelings of Europe leading up to WW1 and Schoenberg the serialist showing the increased mechanisation of the time. After WW1 the control in serialism and the nationalism of Vaughn Williams can then be combined to show the ideologies’ of the Nazis this time leading up to WW2.
Skip ahead a little and we get into the domain of Boulez and Messiaen. Boulez is experimenting with total serialism and Messiaen is playing with colour in the same way as Debussy. The control has become great with Boulez and the colour more vivid with Messiaen. This again is societies mirror. Messiaen is showing the colour of the 60s while Boulez is showing the control the state is beginning to have.
Listen to the music of today, what does it say about today’s society? Does the music imply stately and reserved, happy, bright, controlled, dark or sad? Has the control that was once serialism bled into music so much that even if society is totally free the music is now unable to express it or is the new harmonic language of this generation generally darker than previous generations? The world seems to be slipping into a state of more control and anguish and this is reflected in the music. Atonal music can be beautiful but it is also almost always angular. Look into the mirror that is music and the arts, what is the world today?

The idea for this came to me earlier when I was reading the first lecture in Orientations by Boulez. I’m sorry if it rambles a bit but it is very much a stream of thought I wanted to get down there may be edits done sometime soon but not tonight. Its almost 3! Any comments are more than welcome I would quite like to get other peoples views on this.