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What I am Trying to Do as a Composer - Autobiographical Thoughts

Music and creativity are a vital key to unlocking our human potential as social individuals and the quality of the music we aspire to as a society is a real measure of our civilisation.

Does this qualify as the ubiquitous "Mission Statement"?

I begin with this assertion that music is worth dedicating a life to. "Will you dedicate your life to music?", as Arnold Schoenberg bluntly put it to John Cage when a request came for lessons. And, although he replied in the affirmative, Cage arguably spent the rest of his life trying to wriggle out of the corner in which he found himself...I hope I'm more at home in the great European tradition while trying to push against it!

The role models for my career as an artist are men and women who have staunchly resisted fashion and artistic "movements" but who have consistently striven to recognise that music must be useful to communities in order to encourage the effect outlined above. At the same time, they have aspired to create works which offer intellectual and aesthetic challenges to performers and audiences. They include Benjamin Britten, Michael Tippett, Thea Musgrave, Per Norgard and Cornelius Cardew.

What did I try to learn from these artists? Directness and challenge: immediacy and richness only gradually revealed. I wonder if I have at all succeeded? Listen and tell me!

Though born in south London in 1954, I was brought up by Scottish parents near Glasgow and enjoyed a fine grammar school education, thanks to the wonderful line-up of teachers at Coatbridge High School where contemporary alumni include the celebrated organist John Kitchen.

The encouragement I enjoyed in my teens; first from Benjamin Britten and later at the Royal College of Music from David Willcocks and John Lambert was extremely helpful. My studies with Sir Peter Maxwell Davies at Dartington Summer School complemented my academic degree and his request for a work for his ensemble The Fires of London allowed me to make my debut at the 1976 Edinburgh Festival with Eighteenth Century Scottish Dances.

The final work I wrote at college, Mirrors of the Truth, eventually won the Gaudeamus Music Theatre Prize and was produced at the 1982 Holland Festival by Netherlands Opera.

As the 1976 Mendelssohn Scholar, I spent a year studying at Det Jydske Musikkonservatorium in Arhus, Denmark; principally with Per Norgard. His technical rigour and his insistence in building his own musical world from observance of highly individual natural or creative inspirations influenced me deeply in ways which are only now becoming clear to me.

My involvement with the 2nd and 3rd St Magnus Festivals, founded by Maxwell Davies and a few enthusiastic friends; taught me that artists would meet resistance from older people's scepticism in trying to engage deeply with a community but could find immediate response from youngsters and kindred spirits. Infinity Contained; Timeflight; The Darkness Declares; Dayspring; Beggarman-Thief!; By Fire; The Owl and the Pussycat; Three Carols For 1984 and many other works are an attempt to follow my conviction that I must engage with society. The feeling has nothing to do with concepts like "community arts" or "education projects". The works are just as carefully conceived and realised as those written for professionals. This led me to undertake many residences with a variety of institutions from Arts Centres like Third Eye Centre in Glasgow in 1979 to work with orchestras and festivals such as the the Spitalfields Festival in 2002. The most important of these so far, perhaps, has been the three years I spent beginning in 1983 as Composer in Residence to North West Arts, attached to Wigan LEA. The opera Beggarman-Thief! was commissioned for performance at the 1984 Buxton Festival and the oratorio By Fire (Per Ignem) for Liverpool Cathedral in 1985.

The orchestral works I have composed so far tend to feed from the dramatic preoccupations of my theatre works. For example, Desiderata of 1973 is based on the spurious 17th century advice found in a Baltimore church on how to live at peace in a hectic universe. Judith's Doubt and Resolve is a coloured visiting card for the opera Line of Terror; while Phaedrus, my piano concerto, commissioned by the BBC in 1993, was inspired by Robert Pirsig's observations, both inner and outer, in his cult novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Song and Chamber Music are somewhat blurred categories nowadays. I wrote many song cycles as a teenager and I adore the sound of the human voice. It has crept into chamber works such as Dreams for Marcie (with string quartet) and La Belle Dame Sans Merci (with clarinets and lower strings) but the Neruda cantata Every Day You Play is the only piece now in the catalogue for soprano and piano. This will receive its premiere at last in Madrid in 2003. The early octet The Glen is Mine for harmonie band is a testament to my ongoing fascination with "pibroch", the classical variation form of music for the highland bagpipe.

The main body of my work, however, is opera and the most large-scale of these pieces is the three-act Fortunato, premiered in Sweden in 1993. Unfortunately, despite its enormous success, I am still awaiting its first British production.

Another Swedish work, whose success led directly to the commissioning of Fortunato by Norrlands Opera, was Line of Terror, my reinterpretation of the much-visited biblical tale of the bloody encounter between the Judean heroine Judith and the Assyrian general Holfernes.

Line of Terror was produced by Almeida Opera in 1993 (an annus mirabilis for me!) and this led to their commissioning the much more controversial chamber opera East and West. This is concerned with a Bosnian refugee family which suffers persecution in Germany. It was produced by the Almeida in 1995 and broadcast that year by BBC Radio Three. 1997 saw my latest chamber piece Picasso: out of the blue, an intimate portrait of Picasso's early years in Paris and how his lovers influenced his work.

In 2000 a collaborative venture for the Contemporary Opera Studio of the English National Opera led to my latest operatic venture Late Cocktails, part of Shawna and Ron's Half Moon a fast-moving tragi-comedy set in a New England diner on the US's annual Veteran's day...

At present I am now working on a cycle of Burns settings for professional a cappella choir My Plaidie to the Angry Airt and an organ work for Michael Bonaventure, 2000 Nails.