St Magnus International Festival & Composer Course

So I spent from 10th-24th June 2017 on the beautiful Orkney Islands, attending the most phenomenal composition course and festival, with the marvellous composition tutors Alasdair Nicolson and Sally Beamish.

There were 8 composers on the composers course, and this ran alongside the writing and conducting courses, 9 and 8 individuals in each respectively.

Our task, before arriving in Orkney, was to create a piece that was near finished, but had room for improvement and changes; this should have been about 5-6′ of material. Mine ended up being 7′. Throughout the course we worked extensively with some of the best musicians I’ve encountered, The Assembly Project. Their dedication and commitment to workshopping, playing, rehearsing, tweaking, and finally performing all 8 new pieces was absolutely stunning. Every composer on the course was thrilled about their time with the ensemble, and even more thrilled about the results during the final performance.

As part of this project the composers were each paired with a conductor from the conducting course, and my wonderful collaborative partner was Tom Coult, a brilliant musician who is both a composer and conductor – there was no one better for my piece. A non-stop, ever changing, theatrical onslaught needs a conductor who understands the whacky wants of composers, and Tom was exactly that!

I hope my piece hasn’t scared all the players away! A big shout out to Fraser Langton for being the best diva on stage!


Alongside this project, we also collaborated with those on the writers course. I was fortunate enough to collaborate with two writers – Aileen Ballantyne, and Kate Oldfield. Their poetry was extraordinary, and the composers were to compose short string quartets in response to these poems. The string quartets were workshopped by the wonderful Gildas Quartet. One of mine was definitely successful, the other lesser so, but the poetry was nonetheless stunning. I’m hoping to collaborate further with both writers in the future.

One of the most difficult, yet rewarding projects of the course, was the collaboration with Hear My Music, an organisation that helps those who have learning difficulties experience music making. All the composers were paired with a child from a local school in Kirkwall; the children all composed and provided a bit of musical material as a starting point for the composers on the course to write something for The Assembly Project (again! they must have been fed up of us!). I was paired with a lovely girl called Evie, who provided me with 6 notes. I found out that Evie likes mysterious shipwrecks, so I tailored the 6 notes to that kind of mood. During the concert I noticed how a lot of children found some of the pieces very difficult to cope with, either being too tense, not resolving, or not to their taste. After the concert I discovered that Evie really liked it! So at least one person was definitely happy!!

During all of this we were supported by Alasdair and Sally, who both provided the most invaluable advice. There was also a wonderful workshop with Rafal Łuc, a Polish accordion player, who introduced us to its amazing contemporary repertoire. And of course this was all complimented by all of the concerts in the festival!

I stayed in a place called Berstane House, which was a 30 minute walk into Kirkwall, with 3 other composers, all of whom I’ve come to greatly respect, and hope I will keep in touch with! (That also goes for the rest of the people on the course too!). Berstane overlooks the sea, and has the most stunning views, views that no photo can do justice.We also had the most marvellous views of cows and sheep (pretty good pictures of those though!), pretty much in 360.

The opening reception took place at The Sound Hub, a new club for Kirkwall, in the presence of Norwegian Royalty! Many a night was spent at the Festival Club (the same place) with all the musicians, performers, composers, conductors and tutors – I was introduced to Kirkjuvagr Gin and I think I may be hooked!

As the course was so intense with so much work and revising of scores, there was very little free time! But with some perseverance, however, and a few days spare at the end I managed to fit in some trips with my Berstane-housemate Matt Grouse, an absolutely fantastic composer, based in Glasgow, Derrick Morgan, a conductor based in Edinburgh, and some of Matt’s friends. We went to Stromness, Skara Brae, The Ring of Brodgar, The Standing Stones, Scapa Beach and Scapa Distillery.

Alasdair, Sally, Tom, Matt, David, Mike, Lillie, Angela, Carol, Anselm, Derrick, Fraser, Fenella, Emma, Rachael, Ian, Clea, Emily, & everyone else involved in the 2017 St Magnus International Festival, thank you so much for making it the most incredible experience, I will cherish the memories I made with all of you.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s