Young composers try on the professionals' shoes

3rd December 2004 at 00:00
Music by teenage composers will feature in a special concert in Inverness tomorrow evening. All the pieces have been written by young people from the Highlands and Moray.

The event will be the culmination of Sound Inventors, a youth music initiative for 12- to 18-year-olds, introduced to Scotland for the first time this year. Launched in England in 2002, the project is devised and delivered by the Society for the Promotion of New Music (with partnership funds from the PRS (Performing Right Society) Foundation.

While composition projects are common in music education, this one differs in being more focused on the composer's point of view and, instead of group work, the participants produce their own individual compositions.

"The idea is to give them a taste of how a real composer works. It is designed to have no exit routes other than laziness built into the structure," explains Scottish composer Alasdair Nicolson, the creative director.

"We bring in established composers to work with them and we bring in musicians for them to write for." The intention, he says, is that the youngsters produce a work-in-progress during an intensive week, which is recorded on CD. They take it away and refine it for a couple of weeks, then return for a follow-up surgery. Finally, there is a concert where everything they composed is performed.

"It replicates the process a composer goes through, and each of them is working in his or her own right," he says.

Mr Nicolson comes from Inverness and chose to take the first Scottish project to Culloden Academy's splendid new music department. The school itself had no real involvement, since Sound Inventors is an out-of-hours project, and the initial intensive week of work took place during the October holiday, with a follow-up session a couple of weekends later.

Four Culloden pupils enrolled, along with participants from Grantown Grammar, Golspie High, Fortrose Academy, Nairn Academy, Alness Academy, Glenurquhart High and even one boy from Lionacleit Community School in Benbecula. The composer chosen was William Sweeney, who was assisted by a younger composer, Andrew Hammond, and a string quartet.

Among the Culloden pupils was 12-year-old fiddle prodigy Graham MacKenzie, son of the school's head of music, Alison MacKenzie, so she was able to get a flavour of how the project worked from the teacher's perspective.

"The pupils definitely found it useful," she says. "Two of them are doing Advanced Higher and the others Intermediate 2, and they can use this work as part of their folio for their exams.

"The most exciting thing for them was making the music live. We use computers and technology a lot in school, but there is something magical about writing something on a bit of paper and then hearing live musicians play it.

"Being in contact with a professional composer was very interesting for them, and they were given a lot of very good ideas. I think they found it very demanding. Some were better than others at written notation, which is not a part of the curriculum in music these days. The pupils we sent all met the challenge and came up with four compositions that were very different in style."

Howard Cox, 16, from Benbecula, echoed her sentiments, saying he found it very helpful. "We did some exercises with pitch and rhythms to help us generate ideas for the pieces we then wrote. They helped us with learning how to work with string instruments as well, and lots of techniques that you can use for creating mood and atmosphere."

Howard has been the Western Isles Young Composer of the Year for the past five years, but the level 1 course at Culloden was theoretically open to complete beginners. Sound Inventors also run summer residential courses at levels 2 and 3, which are open to anyone who has participated in level 1, but are subject to meeting certain requirements.

Kenny Mathieson Society for the Promotion of New Music,

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today