Alt Notes #9 | Matthew Whiteside

Based in Glasgow, Matthew Whiteside is a composer exploring the boundaries of experimentation, diversity and the world of sound. With a body of work ranging from small ensemble pieces to film score to electroacoustic works, Whiteside’s music transcends an overall defining genre and instead becomes a style all his own. I spoke to Matthew about his compositional style, influences and his many projects and commissions.

What made you want to start composing? 

Matthew Whiteside: I’ve played music for as long as I can remember. Initially, I focused on the euphonium but it wasn’t until studying music at GCSE level that I started to get really interested in composing. Gradually, this interest grew until I decided to study music at university because I knew I wanted to be a composer.

You’re a composer who has written for a lot of different genres and styles. Is there anything that defines your overall style?


One of my friends has described it as ‘spectral minimalism’, which I quite like, though more Feldman than Reich. I think it’s quite an appropriate term because I tend to take my time to explore sounds and let them breathe. My harmonies are mainly spectrally-orientated and sometimes they come out as fairly tonal but the process to get there hasn’t been thinking in a tonal sense. Even my film scores have used this exploration of sound and instruments, for example a large part of Anna Unbound is based around bass clarinet multiphonics.

This exploration of sounds started when I first heard electroacoustic music in SARC at Queen’s University Belfast. There was just something fascinating about the way sound was used within the music. I remember excitedly finding Chris Corrigan to ask ‘how do I learn to compose this stuff?’. I didn’t compose that much electroacoustic music at Queen’s but it influenced my work while studying there and my music since. While studying at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, I spent quite a lot of time developing my knowledge of live electronics and wrote a few pieces for instrument and electronics. ‘Ulationfor viola and electronics, ‘Dichroic Lightfor cello and electronics, ‘Quartet No. 3’ for string quartet and electronics and ‘One Will Be…’ for trombone and electronics. Most of these pieces along with others were released in May 2015 on my debut album Dichroic Light which is available on iTunes.

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What might inspire your creativity to start a piece? Does your creative process evolve as you write?

I try and have a player in mind and always start with pen and paper. For a solo piece I’ll often stick with pen and paper right up to the typesetting stage but for an ensemble piece I’ll start by hand and then move to Sibelius once the ideas are firmed up in my head. I find there’s something more fluid and free about pen and paper, its like inventing your own blocks to make the building compared to Sibelius’ pre-made blocks that you have to work out how to break to create the building.

You work a lot with acoustic instruments fused with electronics. What is your approach to working with electronic material when coupling this with acoustic instruments?

For working with instruments and electronics, I find it much easier to work with a player and often stick to pen and paper the whole way through. It’s a lot easier to sketch a gesture or and idea for the electronics on paper than try and do it computer. Often, I would start with a few very rough ideas and send them over to whomever I’m working with, get them to record it and then use that to start creating the electronics. From there I’ll develop the material more before sending it again and repeat until the piece is done. This way of working means that it is possible to work with players who aren’t nearby through the joy of email.

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I’m currently writing a piece for contra-bass flute and electronics for Carla Rees. The whole process was accelerated by attending Rarescale with Carla. Carla is based in London and Joanna lives in Rosehearty near Aberdeen, so the backward and forward via email is almost as good as sitting in a room together. It also gives space to play with the electronics that’s often not available when you only have an hour or two hour session.

Spending a week writing music and trying stuff out was fun and a really good way to get to know the instrument. Since then, email has been useful to sort out the piece. The plan is to tour it along with a programme of music for the contra toward the end of the year. Joanna and I have started performing as Electric Clarinet and will be doing a concert on the 10th May in Glasgow as part of ‘The Night With…’.

Have you written any pieces that are composed purely of electronics? Do you prefer to fuse electronics with other instruments?

I have composed a few pieces for purely electronics, or at least tape. I haven’t composed anything for purely electronic instruments. The most recent piece ‘Unda Malacia was finished this week but doesn’t have a premiere date. It is completely derived from the sounds of water. ‘Vociferous Palpitation is another one that conjures up a more metallic and mechanical environment.

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It’s really interesting composing these kind of pieces. Choosing a few seconds of samples that I’ve recorded and then bending, pulling and twisting them to make an engaging piece. It is fun to dive in and see where the sounds take you.

You have been working on some film scores in the past few months, most notably Anna Unbound. How does your approach to film composition differ from your other works?

Ultimately with concert music its up to me to write a piece that stands on its own terms, I always try to collaborate with players to get their input but it is a different kind of input than working with a director or an artist.

For film music, it’s very collaborative but the music is there to support what’s happening on screen. I recently did the music for ‘Michael Palin’s Quest for Artemisi’a for BBC 4 and one of the ways I know I’ve done my job right is that no one, apart from my friends, has commented on the music. For a documentary it should be there in the background gently guiding the viewer. However, for ‘Anna Unbound’, my most recent feature film score, the music is more present to help drive the story, set the scene and play with the audiences’ emotions.

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The next film project I’m working on is Do Not Disturb, a short by Chris Bogle that has very little dialogue so the music will take a larger roll in the film. The script even has music descriptions written into it!  This is the first project that I’ve been brought on board before its even shot so it was rather interesting to go to the set earlier in the month to see how that side works and start to get a feel for the film.

It’s interesting collaborating with visual artists as well. Last year I was commissioned by R-Space Gallery and Sound Festival to create an interactive installation with Dominika Mayovich. This process was different from both film and concert composition because she fed into the music and sound design and I fed into the paintings. It was a very close collaboration where we were both trying to create work in our own medium that supported the other to come together into a whole piece.

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What is your approach to writing for touring performances?

The main challenge with touring anything that involves electronics is the space and making sure it works or fits. It’s a challenge but it is also why I like working with instruments with electronics rather than instrument and tape because of how much the space can change the performance of the piece. With a tape part, the player is fairly fixed with what they can do to interpret the music but with a live electronics part they can react to the space with a lot more flexibility.

For my ‘Solo for Viola D’amore and Electronics’, I took this a step further and along with Emma Lloyd we designed a sensor for her finger that measures how hard she presses on the finger broad. This means that she can expressively control the electronic element, in this case ring modulation.

Any other new pieces or projects coming up?

I recently got funding from Creative Scotland to run two concerts under the banner The Night With… The first will be on the 12th April with Red Note Ensemble performing music for brass trio and electronics. The second will be on the 10th May with Electric Clarinet.

I’m been commissioned to write a piece for Cappella Nova to be toured at the end of the year along with seven other new pieces as part of Echoes and Traces. I’ve also been commissioned by Cottier Chamber Project to write a new piece for vocal trio, choir and trombone quartet to be premièred in the festival in June.

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