C:T talks to Stuart MacRae whose work is recorded on NMC and whose Gaudete - a setting of poetry by Ted Hughes - was premiered at the 2008 BBC Proms.
Unity by Stuart MacRae 2007 (excerpt)
Danjulo Ishizaka (cello), Martin Helmchen (piano).
Tell us something about your background.
I was born and brought up in Inverness, though both my parents are from Skye so I spent a lot of time there too. Both my parents have 'normal' jobs, but they've been members of the Inverness Gaelic Choir for as long as I can remember - so music was always encouraged at home. I left school early and went to Durham University to study music, then Guildhall to do a Masters in composition, finishing when I was 20. I was in a big hurry in those days, for no particular reason. After that I stayed in London for a few years, spent a year in Paris and then moved to Glasgow, where I'm still based.
How did you start composing?
The only instruments around at first were guitars. I couldn't really get much out of those, except for endless, rambling improvisations with lots of what might be called 'extended techniques' (except that that term implies the presence of a basic technique in the first place...). I also used to sing to myself as I walked home from school. Again, endless, shapeless rambling improvisations rather than songs that I'd heard. Whenever I was at a house where there was a piano or at my grandmother's house, where there was an old Estey organ, I used to make things up, and on these keyboard instruments I found I could remember what I'd made up last time, and work on it, changing bits and adding sections. I couldn't write any of it down until I started getting some musical education at age 12, but I think I started making all these pieces up when I was about 7 or 8. Maybe it was a year or two later. Once I took an interest in classical music, and started getting some music lessons, I took composing seriously, and never really thought of doing anything else after that. I still have the scores of the first pieces I wrote. They're rubbish.
What drives your work, what are you passions?
I find this question difficult. I think maybe the answer is different every day, and no doubt there are lots of similarities with other composers, in that composing is just something I've been doing for so long that it's become an essential, a way of thinking, a lens through which I see everything else. That's not to imply, however, that it comes easily or feels natural! Like other composers, I have obsessions and passions that find their way into the musical thinking. Not into the music itself, as such - I think music, essentially an abstract medium, is usually something quite distinct from the ideas that drive it, and is open to the interpretation of the listeners, who may have no interest in what has inspired the composer.
A lot of my musical ideas are fuelled by thinking and learning about nature, in very many different ways. I'm interested in the idea that there may be universal laws of nature and that everything responds to these, including ourselves, humans, as an integral part of nature. I gain insights into this not just by observing nature itself, but from poetry, art, film, and scientific thought, as well as from other music. That's my single biggest obsession, but I think I'm trying to say something different about it in every piece. I try to think of it at every scale, not just the human scale, which I think is our biggest limitation in thinking about our place in nature. A tree must look very different from an ant's perspective! I can't easily say how this sort of idea affects the music, but in the end I think it's only the musical result that really matters to the listener.
Tell us something about your working method as a composer. Give us something that might be or might have been a starting point for a piece.
I make lots of sketches in a notebook when starting work on something. The sketches may be verbal, or graphical, or musical material, but often most of it gets left behind once I get going properly. Sometimes I concentrate on developing musical material more or less organically, sometimes it's the concept of the piece I work on first, or occasionally (though not so much these days) the overall architecture or structure of the piece. Until I see how these three things fit together, however, I don't quite know how the piece is going to turn out. It's easiest when this falls into place early, but sometimes I can get quite far down the line before I really see how it can all fit together, which can be frustrating. I'm not methodical, and I approach every piece differently, so they usually end up being something different from what I thought they were going to be at the start of work. I work at the piano, at the computer, and in my head in roughly equal measure.
Which non-musical influences have affected your music most?
These things change over time. Nature, as mentioned before, is obviously a major non-musical influence, but there are also certain artists in various fields who have inspired and influenced me. In the past Mark Rothko was a big influence, but not so much now. David Lynch, Werner Herzog, David Cronenburg, and Ted Hughes have all had a big influence. Also, many paintings and sculptures, too numerous and varied to list!
What is your musical philosophy?
It's important to try to do something different with every piece, and to set ambitious targets. I think interesting music only results when someone is trying to achieve something difficult, and it's worth risking failure for the slight chance that something worthwhile will be achieved! There's so much great music already out there that I think getting too comfortable is a bit pointless and doesn't yield interesting results. I wouldn't prioritise newness or novelty above all else, however: music should express something and I think sometimes self-conscious innovation can hide that (or cover up for an absence of anything to express...)
Despite the outside influences mentioned above, I think music should work on its own as an abstract medium. It has an ability to express things that cannot be conveyed in any other way, and while I know that many people are very interested in a composer's motivations, the most important thing is that the music itself can speak to people directly. If a piece needs to be explained to me in extra-musical terms, I'm not sure I see the point!
Who has been the greatest influence on your musical style to date and why?
There are lots of possible answers to this, and the influences other people assume are there aren't always the ones I think of myself. Also, once I move on from one obsession to another I'm not sure how much of the previous influence remains. Quite a lot probably. I'm more of a synthesiser of various ideas and styles than a follower of one particular path. I'm going to dodge this question a bit by giving a few names. Earlier influences: Beethoven, Sibelius, Bartok, Stravinsky, Miles Davis, Stockhausen, Maxwell Davies, Boulez, Feldman. More recently: Carter, Nono, Xenakis, Lachenmann, Birtwistle. I'm very fond of Birtwistle right now, and I keep coming back to his music, because his single-mindedness, original thought and refusal to compromise his ideals create a whole world of extremes.
What's the strangest idea for a piece you've ever had?
I'm not sure, I have lots of them - but the strangest piece I ever wrote was 4 parallel stream-of-consciousness texts, all cut up and to be performed loudly while the speakers ran around the space, with everyone finally ending up together, making a big sound. When we performed it (with almost no rehearsal), someone accidentally skipped a line and we all cracked up, so the piece didn't quite have the effect I was after! It was rubbish.
Which work are you most proud of and why?
So far, probably Gaudete, which is a setting of Ted Hughes poems for high soprano and orchestra. I wrote it for the fantastic soprano Susanna Andersson and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, who performed it at the 2008 Proms. The piece is a bit of a mixture of concerto for voice, song cycle and symphony. It isn't perfect, but I was trying very hard to match the inspiration of Hughes's incredible poetry, and I think it's really representative of the kind of music I feel I want to write. One reviewer described it as "massive, wonderfully ambitious and nobly unsuccessful" and I thought, well, at least I'm on the right track.
What does the future hold for you?
I'm writing a fairly big orchestral piece - this time without soloist - which I'm really getting into now. After that I'm starting a one-act opera for Scottish Opera, with the writer Louise Welsh. Both pieces are likely to be premiered in 2012. In the meantime, there's another new orchestral piece that the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra will premiere in Glasgow next spring, and a song cycle I wrote last year that will hopefully be premiered in London later this year.
How important is your Scottishness to your music. What role if any does your nationality play in your music?
It doesn't consciously affect most of my music at all. However, I do sometimes write for Gaelic choirs, and those pieces tend towards a folk music idiom. I've not been tempted to make reference to Scottish folk music in my concert music, as there are plenty of others ploughing that furrow.
Please list anywhere online where your work can be experienced
If you have Spotify, you can find some of my music there.