Alasdair Nicolson Interview

Alasdair Nicolson

Christian Morris talks to Alasdair Nicolson, composer, Artistic Director of the St. Magnus International Festival and Director of its Composers’ Course.

Tell us a little about the origins of the St. Magnus Festival.

St Magnus International Festival started 37 years ago and was initiated by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and a group of local enthusiasts, amongst them the local writer George Mackay Brown, around the time that Max decided to set up home in Orkney. For such a small place in a remote part of the UK the list of international performers, orchestras and ensembles that have ventured North is quite extraordinary and this has made the reputation of the Festival across the world quite enviable. Equally because it was started by a composer, and once again with me is in the hands of a composer, new music plays a huge part in the programming. Over the years the RPO, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Britten Sinfonia, BBC Scottish Orchestra and Trondheim Soloists have visited with solo artists ranging from Isaac Stern to Christine Brewer, Valdimir Ashkenazy to Nicola Benedetti. 

Tell us a little about your role as Artistic Director.

Being Artistic Director of St Magnus International Festival is a busy job and is quite wide-ranging. We have a very small professional staff which runs the Festival and so my job is not only to choose artists and repertoire and to invent projects but also has quite a lot to do with the overall running of the organisation. The programme also includes poets, painters, theatre, folk music and cabaret so I also have to be able to think and know about a world beyond concert music and opera. Being a group of islands and with no “state-of-the-art” concert venues, I also have to spend time thinking about appropriate ideas for the spaces we have available, for example a production of Carmen in the cattle market or a wartime concert party in an old barracks. Of course there is a wonderful medieval cathedral in the heart of Kirkwall which has a magnificent atmosphere and is a great acoustic but most of our other venues are created for the Festival from churches, sports centres etc. As a composer myself I’m very keen that there is a constant representation of new work and making sure that in most concerts there is something being played by a composer who is still alive. This is not always possible of course, but we try. In recent festivals we have counted up to 36 world premieres through the Festival programme never mind the music which is just from the last hundred years. I also really like to treat the Festival as an entry point for younger performers and composers and having several courses surrounding the main work of the Festival has allowed me to find interesting young musicians and bring them back to Orkney. I’m also Director of the St Magnus Composers’ Course and oversee the Conductors’, Writers’ and Singers’ courses so I have a keen sense that training opportunities are key. The access a Festival provides to lots of visiting orchestras, performers and ensembles is unlike any other summer school or course. 

What courses are available to musicians at the festival?

We have three courses currently working which are on offer to musicians. Around Festival time we have two: a Composers’ Course and a Conductors’ Course. We are just re-working a Singers’ Course too which will eventually combine with composers and writers towards a new opera course.

What makes the St. Magnus Composers’ Course special?

One of the most obvious things about the St Magnus Composers’ Course is the environment in which we work. It’s a very beautiful place, away from the hurly burly and with a wealth of landscapes and historical sites famous across the world – part of Orkney is a World Heritage site. Perhaps one of the other key factors about the course is that it surrounds the Festival itself and this allows a lot of interaction with various artists who are visiting to do concerts, it also allows for a great deal of stimulation from attending concerts. We have a dedicated ensemble for the course which works on most days to play through music and try out new ideas. This all leads to a concert as part of the Festival where the new works are revealed to a rather discerning audience. Around the main work with the ensemble we have visits from expert performers who hold workshops in their instruments or BBC producers who talk about getting your music played and there’s lots of one-to-one sessions with the course tutors. We also pair up conductors from our sister course with our composers and they become the conductor for each piece in the final festival concert.

Tell us a little about your and Sally Beamish’s role as Composers’ Course Directors.

Both Sally and I have been teaching the course since it started and have strong connections to the St Magnus International Festival. We are both musicians who started our career combining careers as performing musicians whilst beginning in the world of composition: in my case as a pianist/repetiteur and in Sally’s as a viola player. We like to think that our teaching and the way that the course runs is exceedingly practical and designed to be a true reflection of what the professional experience might be. We like to look at how performers interact, how things are communicated on the page and what a composer is trying to say and how to go about that in the most focussed way. With all the practical activity it can be an extremely intense experience but one which is no different from the “real” world.

How are composers selected? Do your interests have an impact upon who is selected? 

Composers are selected by sending in some of their work and telling us why they want to come and where they’re at in the careers. There isn’t an age limit and we’ve had applications and students ranging from about 18 to 50. Sally and I don’t really have any personal agenda or artistic philosophy which informs choices of students, we prefer to look at the individual work and consider how what’s on offer in the course could be useful to a composer. 

Do composers pay to attend or are there bursaries? 

Yes, composers do pay £690 to attend the courses. It may sound like a lot of money but this includes self-catering accommodation and access to an ensemble for ten days, teaching staff, concert tickets within the festival and one-off workshops with visiting musicians. It’s probably worth mentioning that the interaction with the Conductors’ and Writers’ courses has also lead to further collaborations and commissions. There is also quite a lot of “talent-spotting” by various visiting orchestral managers, agents and other festival directors as many of our working sessions are open to the public.

How long does the course last? 

The course lasts just under two weeks although the accommodation runs for two weeks so if you want a few days after it’s all over to “do” Orkney then that comes free. 

Could you outline the typical experience of a composer on the Composers’ Course? 

We ask a composer to arrive with some of the work done on an ensemble piece for a known line-up. It’s really up to the individuals as to whether they want to turn up with a lot or a little. Some self-knowledge about how quickly you work or how much can be achieved in ten days is essential. What we do want is the idea that a piece is “open” and can be worked on with tutors and ensemble without the feeling that the double bar has been drawn and there is no question of editing, re-writing or changing. We start the process by one-to-one sessions with course tutors and then add in the ensemble for practical and technical feedback and straightforward play-through. We also have a technician on hand who records all the working sessions and gives composers copies of their music as sound recording so that they can reflect after the ensemble sessions and bask in the glory of their music for the rest of the day. This is actually a very key part of things in the sense that composers often get bombarded with information and thoughts during a practical session and lose track of what it sounded like and what was being offered as advice.

As well as the main piece which will go on to be conducted by one of our conducting students in the Festival concert, we also have various small-scale pieces which may be “commissioned” overnight or an instrumentalist might demand a quick piece in the course of a workshop on anything from the accordion to percussion to guitar just to allow our composers to try to get under the skin of instruments while they have an expert in the room. 

How would you say that composers benefit by attending the St. Magnus Composers’ Course? 

There’s a definite sense of “real world” about the process which our students find themselves in. All our ensemble musicians spend their lives performing and dealing with new music so nothing about the situation is “academic” or un-natural to the profession. I think this is one of the key attributes which initially shocks and eventually scores 5 star reviews for the course. Apart from this, the intensity of workload, the interactions with a diverse group of fellow composers and other musicians and the Festival concert attendance is like plugging yourself into the mains supply. Of course, there is a huge opportunity to make good colleagues and friends and to meet professionals from all aspects of the world of music. 

The Orkney Writers’ Course also takes place during the festival. Is there interaction between this and the Composers’ Course? 

To date we have brought together the two artforms to create works for solo voice but this year we’re dealing with choral music and the BBC Singers. In the future I hope that there will be more interaction with both courses into a summer school that looks at libretto/opera work. It’s certainly been the case that our random pairing of wordsmith and composer has gone on to be continued as a collaboration beyond the festival.

When is the closing date and when can composers expect to find out if they have been selected?

Monday 17th March is the closing date for applications and we’ll let people know by the end of March. 

For audiences interested in attending, when is the best time to be there to hear contemporary music?  

The festival has a real spread of new music throughout the programming. I try to make sure that there’s something contemporary in most concerts. If you want a dose of brand new then then outcome concert of the Composers’ Course is on Wednesday 25th June and all of that will be brand new and hot off the press. 

What about plans for the future? How do you see the Festival developing in years to come?

I’d love to expand the number of courses that we offer to accommodate more collaborative, cross-artform work and to grow the idea of a place in Scotland where we bridge the gap between training and the profession. The magic of the landscape and history of Orkney is a perfect backdrop for anyone wishing to be creative, to learn or to reflect. In terms of the Festival growing, some would say that it’s quite big already and certainly there are limits of venues, accommodation and travel which keep a boundary round how huge the Festival could ever become. One of the exciting things about Festivals is creating new projects, commissioning work and offering opportunities for work to be seen and heard. St Magnus International Festival has always been this platform but in the future there are plans to collaborate with other UK organisations, as well as ones in Europe and beyond, which would give any project a bigger launch and more exposure. 

Originally posted at Composition:Today ©Red Balloon Technology