Time Out Residency

October 20, 2014 in featured, guest blog, Jo Buckley by Jo Buckley

Francis MacDonald, Sonia Allori, Colin Broom, Drew Hammond, John De Simone and Oliver Searle

Francis MacDonald, Sonia Allori, Colin Broom, Drew Hammond, John De Simone and Oliver Searle

Earlier this year we put out a call for composers: rather than a call for scores, we were looking for composers seeking ‘time out’. Composers who were keen to take a break from the day-to-day challenges of composing, to get together with other like-minded folk and to share, explore and discuss what it means to be a composer in today’s modern world. As one of the participants at the residency announced on arrival: ‘I just want the chance to have a total geek-out and talk about composing all weekend’.

And this is just what we did. We gathered together six composers in the beautiful surroundings of Cove Park, near Helensburgh on Scotland’s west coast. Situated on a hill overlooking Loch Long, where the mist lingers in the morning and gradually lifts by the afternoon to reveal the real beauty of the loch beneath, Cove Park is a haven for artists of all kinds. As well as offering great communal spaces for group work and social sessions, the centre also has self-contained accommodation ‘pods’ and ‘cubes’ for individuals to hide themselves away from the world and get stuck into their personal projects. Left to our own devices over the course of the weekend, we were able to roam the rural, wooded site, gather in separate places for one-on-one sessions and come together in the lovely studio space for dinner, listening, talking and sharing.

The aim of the residency was not to teach anyone anything, but to allow the composers to learn from one another, and to share their ideas and concerns about their work in a supportive environment. Along with Fiona Robertson, I helped shepherd the group sessions and together we structured the discussions around issues that were high on their agendas, which included: How do you promote yourself and find new commissions? How do you create? How do you use technology in your work? When do you find time to compose? The composers were also paired off for one-on-one sessions, where they had the opportunity to swap skills with one another, offer support and learn from one another’s particular expertise. We were also delighted to welcome Sally Beamish for the Saturday morning, when she spoke openly about her own path towards life as a professional composer, the challenges she met on the way, and the techniques and tools she developed to overcome them. Inspiring and intriguing in equal measure, Sally’s session provided a platform from which much of the weekend’s discussions emanated.

There was no shortage of talking in this weekend ‘geek-out’ and by Sunday afternoon we had covered everything from how to orchestrate music for strings to the challenges of composing within the constraints of family life. But everyone – and I include myself and Fiona in this – left the residency inspired, rejuvenated and ready to tackle our work with a renewed sense of purpose and determination.

Here is what the six composers had to say about their own personal experiences at Time Out.

Francis MacDonald

If I wasn’t careful I was in danger of morphing into a character from Little Britain, prefacing almost every comment with “I didn’t study classical music, you know” (“I’m the only only gay in the village!”). This is a reflection of my own circumstances and my wrangling with the idea of Who Or What Defines A Composer. It was reassuring to know that is a fluid concern for both part-time and professional classically-trained composers:

“Sometimes you feel like a fraud? Me too!”

“But you’re not.”

“Neither are you.”

“Let’s bond.”

I only knew the lovely Sonia Allori (from the EIFF Composer’s Lab 2013 but I found everyone else in the group – John, Oliver, Drew and Colin (and Jo and Fiona and Donald) and Sally Beamish – to be welcoming and generous in sharing their knowledge and wisdom. Writing music can be a solitary concern. Bringing people together to discuss and share, in a conducive environment can only be a good thing. This residency was planned and organised extremely well. I am still processing everything that I have managed to soak up. But first thing’s first: I’m off to buy a Pomodoro Kitchen Timer.

Sonia Allori

The New Music Scotland “Timeout Composer Residency” has given me a unique opportunity. Composing as a creative practice can be an isolated endeavour and yet during the last few days I have found myself amongst a group of exceptionally gracious and incredibly supportive kindred souls, with whom sharing process, thoughts and music was a truly organic and intrinsic outcome. This should happen every year as a means to connect, to laugh and to normalise “being a composer”!

Drew Hammond

I tend to believe that a set of ideas arrived on through open and honest discourse will be far more robust than the individually held predilections and biases that constitute personal dogma. One may understand this, it may even be kind of obvious, but it is nevertheless gratifying to engage with such a discourse about creative practice in a setting set aside specifically for that purpose. For me it has had the effect of eroding some of my own hidden, vague, but nonetheless poisonous notions of artistic practice in Scotland, primarily the vision of practitioners as competitors only, each of us sorting out how to maximise our own slice of the ever-diminishing pie of public funding. One short weekend of chatting about, thinking about, and in essence living in the kind of environment we normally may only hope for brings me face to face with the blinding truth: if we choose to see ourselves exclusively on their terms, the terms of the neo-liberal capitalist priesthood – that old Social Darwinist chestnut – we will be choosing our own ultimate extinction.   We may at times bemoan the dire financial straits that The Arts is now apparently in, but we mustn’t forget that societal patronage is a two-way street where our vibrancy and our creativity will deeply impact the future of the arts in Scotland, and leave aside any tendency toward despondency and inaction. A true forwarding of the arts will not be achieved on those therms, in the dumbed down notions of market economics and football relegation that make up so much of the way we are constantly told to think about the world. No, what we need is much better encapsulated in the language of “scene” and “community.” And our scene must be one that chooses a deeper meaning for human activity; we are after all either fools, or not actually here for the money.

Colin Broom

I applied to for a place on New Music Scotland’s Time Out residency for a couple of reasons: I was interested (as I always am) in discussing composing, methods and practice and careers with other composers. Secondly, I was interesting in hearing other composers’ experience (and indeed the experience of the facilitators, Fiona and Jo) of self-promotion, which, for all the reasonable confidence I have in my own practice as an artist, is an area I feel I could be better on. Finally, I was interested to have some discussion about a piece I’m currently working on, and get some objective thoughts on what I’m doing from other composers of similar levels (if different areas) of experience and an open, comfortable environment.

I found the residency was hugely worthwhile. Despite the variance in backgrounds of many of us, several common themes emerged across the weekend, one strong one was that of self-promotion, creating and pursuing opportunities. Everyone shared their own experience of this, and it’s always reassuring to hear others voice similar discomforts about “putting themselves out there” but also to offer some thoughts on ways in which they have handled this. IT was also useful to hear Fiona and Jo’s (of NMS) take on this from the promoter, festival/record label running perspective.

It was also good to hear Sally Beamish’s thoughts on this from her perspective as a more experienced professional composer. Sally was open and very generous in her discussion of her own career, and it was interesting and good to hear the route she has taken, as well as her own working practice.

It was also good to discuss many of the more composition-specific aspects of our practice, from the minutiae of day-to-day practice (starting work, the usefulness of procrastination) to the much larger and wide ranging themes such has how we perceive our work in the larger musical or artistic context.

Across the weekend there was a real openness and generosity of sharing practice and sharing music, and this for me was what made it an insightful, constructive atmosphere and a consistently engaging dynamic. It was hugely helpful to have a group of composers of similar age and experience round the table and in this respect the “peer to peer” aspect of the residency was for me very useful. The fact that it took place in the beautiful misty surroundings of Cove Park, with excellent facilities certainly helped as well.

I’m grateful to have been selected by NMS to attend the residency, which I feel I got a lot of information and ideas from, all of which I will continue to think about, and plan informed by what I have heard and considered over the weekend.

Some of the other composer I knew before the residency, but I expect I will keep in touch with all of the composers, and with NMS.

All of this, in combination with future NMS residencies with other participants (which I hope happen), and related events, should I hope contribute to the consolidation of a sense of a community of composers working in Scotland but worthy of notice much further afield. A hugely successful and useful residency.

John De Simone

With some trepidation, I set off to Cove Park on Friday 10th October. Not sure what to expect, wondering what could come of 6 composers in a room spending time together, rather than in our more usual solitary confinement. I was anxious about sharing my work and experiences, and unsure about what people would make of what I do and have to say. My trepidation was immediately dismissed when I got there and felt at ease and comfort in the beautiful surroundings.

What an amazing bunch of people that were there! From Fiona and Jo’s amazing organisation and cooking, to Sally Beamish’s inspiring and impressively honest reflections about being a professional composer- the participants were in a really great, safe space to enable an honest sharing of experiences, needs, and advice. I have been in a bit of a rut recently, wondering why I do what I do and the wonderful support I got this weekend from Sonja, Colin, Drew, Francis and Olly has me going back to Glasgow newly energised, committed, and enthusiastic about pushing forward with my career as a composer. I had a fantastic time. Thanks NMS!

Oliver Searle

Although I speak to composers a great deal, it is often in passing; over a quick coffee, in a concert interval, walking through a corridor, or through a mouthful of sandwich, with the occasional idea and thought thrown out fleetingly, as I rush headlong into the next activity.

There is very little time to get to the end of a conversation, reach a natural conclusion, or draw a tangible outcome or response from a group discussion, where everyone present has the chance to voice their opinions, concerns and ideas.

This residency facilitated these conversations, providing an opportunity to not only find the negatives in the current working lives of composers, but navigate a way through the quagmire of expectations, to reach positive goals, which we can hopefully take forward to begin making an affirmative change to new music in Scotland.

It was a fantastic chance to meet new composers and their work, but also to hear those I already knew talk more about their processes and activities, as well as hear their concerns (I particularly appreciated Sally’s honesty about her own career path).

The biggest positive outcome for me is the realisation that we can and should be positive about new music in Scotland. There is a diverse range of work being created, and it is all too easy to write much of this off as ‘not within my field’. My greatest hope is that we can support each other’s practice, act as advocates of each other’s work, and actively help each other in finding more/better opportunities to create new music, while crafting careers for the future.

hst-logoNew Music Scotland gratefully acknowledges the support of the Hope Scott Trust, who provided the funding to make this residency possible.