Scott McLaughlin, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

I spent my teenage years playing guitar in my bedroom, a weird mix of the indie music of the day from shoegaze to rock (The Cure, Ride, Sonic Youth, Smashing Pumpkins, Jane’s Addiction, The Smiths, Depeche Mode, Pixies, Cocteau Twins, etc.). Pretty quickly I started writing my own songs, never with lyrics, just chord progressions and textures, that was (and kind-of still is) all I cared about. I spent my early 20s living Belfast playing in art-rock bands and slowly expanding my tastes: I lived with a violinist/guitarist and picked up a lot of classical music from him. Slowly across this time I began attending more and more classical and contemporary music concerts before I decided that 6-strings wasn’t enough, so I enrolled on a Foundation Degree and learned music formally for the first time (aged 23).

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

We had no formal composition classes at University of Ulster (Jordanstown) where I did my degree in the late ‘90s, but lecturer Dave Morris was a massive inspiration for me. He heard me bashing through some weird new chords on the piano and stick his head in to advise me to “check out some Scriabin” or similar. He was always drip-feeding me new music and scores, and looking at my early composition attempts. Ian Wilson at the end of my degree was also an important influence. Post-degree, I had some great early experiences with Concorde Ensemble who championed some of my early pieces and really helped me understand how to work with performers; as did pianist Simon Mawhinney. A workshop with Eddie Prévost in Dublin introduced me to free improvisation and a bunch of people (Deserted Village Collective) that were central to my development. A workshop with MusikFabrik and Rebecca Saunders cemented my desire to work with performers who shared my fascinations; leading to Ostrava Days summer course which was vital! Christopher Fox was the reason I came to study in the UK, and PA Tremblay was central to me understanding my limitations (in a good way, I’m still learning that).

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

Finding the right performers was very difficult in the early days. I’m very grateful to those performers who were sympathetic and willing to help, but it took me until after my PhD to understand what I was really doing, and to find the players who share those fascinations. In recent years I’ve been blessed to work with some exceptional players who ‘get it’ in a way that’s productive for both of us.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

I’ve had different types of commissions with different (implicit) constraints. Mostly, as described above, I work with players and organisations with whom I have that shared fascination. If someone asks you to write a piece it’s because they’re interested in what you do, the continuous process and arc of your ‘doing’, not in you repeating one particular thing that you did before or altering your approach in order to fit a particular box. But I also sometimes work on commissions where the context demands a different approach, especially in the area of climate science which I’m more and more interested in. I just completed a piece for soprano and piano, an ‘eco-Lied’ for an event as part of Green Great Britain Week in Leeds. In this case I thought that the kind of long-intense piece that I often write would work, especially in the context of Leeds Train Station. So I wrote a song in Ab-major that carefully sets some climate poetry in a way that I think will be most impactful. I had a lot of fun writing it, and it’s still ‘my’ piece, but it’s different to other more ‘purely’ artistic composition that I do.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

Certainly with bigger ensembles/orchestras, the limited rehearsal time is a real challenge that I have yet to properly find a solution to. I’m used to working very closely with single performers over a long gestation period. The pleasure is in discovery and consolidation, the happy accidents and the bloody-minded pursuit of ‘something’ even if that thing isn’t yet clear.

Of which works are you most proud?

I don’t know, probably those ones where I felt that there was a leap of intuition that led to something ‘new’ (for me at least). Or those that developed into a properly collaborative mode of working where ideas come from everyone because we’re all on the same page: the new work for Zubin Kanga is like this, as was ‘the endless mobility of listening’ with Mira Benjamin.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Obsessively going over the same territory over and over to find new cracks to disappear into, where the instrument can have its own voice. Long, droney, microtonal, spectral; works best when you just surrender to it and listen inside the sounds, they don’t do much on the surface.

How do you work?

Discovery of a germ of an idea. Long periods of gestation interrupted by frantic testing of the idea on an instrument. Back and forth with the player(s) trying to work out what I’m not explaining right. Explaining things right. Panicked realisation that there needs to be a score of some sort.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Sergei Rachmaninov and Alvin Lucier.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

That I keep caring.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

I really can’t answer this better than Kerry Andrew’s answer on this same questionnaire previously, so to quote her: “Say yes to most things, until you’re in a position to say no, and then recommend others for those things instead. Collaborate widely. Be hugely proactive. Put on your own gigs, start your own hubs/websites/record labels. Connect people and celebrate the success of others. Throw all the things you’re interested in into your work and don’t worry about trying to fit in a box.”

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Able to pay for more makers to build stuff for me: I have a lot of awesome ideas that I can’t build myself…

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Playing volleyball in a field with a bunch of hippy singers.

What is your most treasured possession?

I’m not big on possessions (yet I have so many…). Probably my battered cello.

What is your present state of mind?

Busy busy busy (start of uni teaching term), but buzzing with exciting ideas, just trying to find the space to let them flow out!

Scott McLaughlin’s ‘In the unknown there is already a script for transcendence’, performed by pianist Zubin Kanga, receives its premiere at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival on Saturday 17 November. Full details here


Scott Mc Laughlin is a composer and free-improviser (cello, live electronics) based in Huddersfield, UK. Born in Ireland (Co. Clare) in 1975, he wanted to be a scientist but instead spent his early 20s playing guitar in art-indie bands between Galway and Belfast. Slowly he discovered more experimental non-pop musics, leading to a foundation course and subsequent BMus degree in music at the University of Ulster at Jordanstown, completed in 2001. Somewhere between that and completing his PhD at the University of Huddersfield in 2009, he reconnected with science via music, with the help of supervisors Pierre Alexandre Tremblay, Bryn Harrison, James Saunders, and Christopher Fox. Currently he teaches composition and music-technology at University of Leeds, and still enjoys reverb-drenched feedback.

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