Letting music take flight with birds

8th August 2008 at 01:00

Cameron Paul, 16, admits that, until recently, the closest he got to musical composition was strumming out a song on his guitar, usually after listening to Pink Floyd or David Bowie.

But that has all changed, thanks to a four-day composition masterclass led by Alasdair Nicolson, one of Scotland's leading composers, and an ensemble of top musicians. It is part of the Edinburgh Inter- national Festival's Bank of Scot-land "Connecting to Culture" education programme.

The music workshop at The Hub has been an eye-opener for Cameron, from Holy Rood High, in Edinburgh, who plays piano and guitar and is studying Higher music, but claims to have only had a passing interest in classical music.

Over the four days, he has swapped the psychedelic guitar solos of Pink Floyd for the distinctive rhythms of Olivier Messiaen, the French composer whose centenary is celebrated with two concerts at this year's festival, which opens today.

"I've found it challenging, but interesting," says Cameron. "I normally compose on the guitar but I never write it down. I was interested to see how someone goes about composing a classical piece."

He has not only seen how it is done, but has also written a four-minute piece of his own for a wind and string ensemble.

Cameron is one of five Higher and Advanced Higher music students from three Edinburgh schools who have given up some of their summer holidays to take part in the workshop. Their reward will be to have their work recorded and played in the temperate palmhouse at the Royal Botanic Garden each day during the festival, and at two concerts this month.

Nature and birds are the inspi- ration behind the composers' masterclass, in homage to the work of Messiaen, who was fascinated by birdsong and incorporated it into most of his pieces. Further inspiration comes from a painting by Paul Klee entitled Twittering Machine, which portrays a group of small mechanical birds singing into infinity. The workshop takes its name from it.

Mr Nicolson, who has written his own piece for the project, says: "This is a Ready, Steady, Cook of composition. The workshops are essentially trying to deliver composition in the context of it being absolute reality. This is how it is for a professional composer. Deadlines are tight, they are working on their own and they have been thrown in at the deep end."

What is less realistic, Mr Nicolson admits, is the presence of four top- class musicians to play any musical ideas supplied by the students, sometimes while the ink is still drying on the manuscript paper. It gives an intoxicating immediacy to the creative process.

The musicians, all hand-picked by Mr Nicolson, also act as a spur to keep the students working. "They are sitting there waiting to be used, so what is the point of not taking advantage of that?" he says.

Mr Nicolson listens carefully, nodding occasionally and offering tips on the fluidity of a piece, its timing or rhythm, or ways to make an impact using silence. All five students have a broad range of musical ideas and by the third day are developing distinct themes.

James Harding, 17, from Boroughmuir High, plays piano and saxophone and is interested in portraying "nature escaping man-made boundaries", which was inspired by a visit to the Botanic Gardens. He offers the musicians a few themes to play "randomly together" to get his idea across.

"I hope to do music at Oxford," he says. "It has been very valuable to work with such a high standard of musicians and to have the undivided attention of a composer too."

Liam Paterson, 17, from St Mary's Music School, plays piano and French horn and has been composing since he was 12, winning two competitions. He missed the first two days of the workshop because he was on tour with the Edinburgh Youth Orchestra, but has quickly caught up.

He wants to capture the colours of the Klee painting in a musical theme and combine it with a homage to Messiaen, who is one of his favourite composers.

"Messiaen had synaesthesia, that is, he saw colours when he heard music and that's the idea behind the chord," he says.

"I've also tried to use elements of what Messiaen would have done, such as having all the instruments play the same thing at the same time."

"Sometimes it is hard to find people to play your stuff, so it is great to have players of this standard. And the short timescale gives you more of a creative drive."

The students' inexperience is occasionally exposed by their limited understanding of the range and capabilities of each instrument and a few instructions raise a wry smile. In one piece the musicians are directed to pause at a particular bar "until everyone catches up".

"Part of the craft of composition is to know, for example, that the high range of one instrument will cut through 70 others, while the low notes will not be heard," says Mr Nicolson, who studied music at Edinburgh University.

"You can give people these kinds of skills to release their ability to be creative. Whether they can then go on to write something beautiful is another matter."

The students' reliance on Sibelius, an industry-standard computerised notation system, is another bugbear of his. Mr Nicolson believes pen and paper are the best way to write music. He is also horrified by stories that Higher music students no longer are required to read music.

The five pieces will be performed, along with Mr Nicolson's composition, on August 15 and 21, in the temperate palmhouse at the Royal Botanic Garden, which has been decorated with Klee-inspired metal wire sculptures of birds and plants made by P7 pupils from seven Edinburgh schools.


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