Ewan Mackay

Where Does My Music Come From?

Where Does Music Come From
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email

For many years, my work has been heavily influenced by the landscape of Scotland. Living here on the North-east coast of the country, we are spoiled by beautiful scenery, however, the same can be said for the rest of the country too. It is often said by my International friends who have settled here, or who come to visit, that Scotland and its landscape is the most beautiful place they have seen. Growing up here that beauty is not lost on me. I have worked hard to create a musical language which seeks to show that beauty through the music I compose, and almost all of my work has been devoted to or inspired by the landscape which surrounds me.  



How My Music Manifests Itself:


Lately, I have thought a great deal about where music comes from. It’s a rather abstract question, with different answers for every composer you ask. For me, at least music comes not only from within but also from outwith. Take for example the topographical lay of the land. Low glens, high hills. Rolling plains and jagged rocky cliffs which tumble into the seemingly endless sea. These lines of the land often represent the musical lines – such as pitch, duration, and dynamics. Many composers before me – and also those working and living today, take a programmatic view of the land; that is to say, the music tells a story about the surrounding(s). I try to avoid this and focus on what I want to ‘show’ my listener in my music. I think of my music as being a musical painting. An early example of such an exploration is my piece In a Mystic Garden for Orchestra (2017). This is an early and dare I say very ambitious attempt at expressing a Neo-Impressionistic image of a garden through various different views. The piece is at times tonal, modal, and atonal, with a view to creating a kaleidoscope of sound. It was ultimately an experimentation in sound, texture and orchestral colour. While the piece has never been performed, it allowed me to experiment in writing music which is abstract yet at the same time listenable. Similarly, my String Quartet Scenes of Aden is inspired directly by Aden Country park, not far from my home. With this piece, I decided to take a tonal melodic idea and completely deconstruct it over the course of the piece before reconstructing it in a somewhat reflective and impressionistic final movement. The overarching idea behind the work is that with each movement comes a change to a scene within the park – similar to the changing of the seasons. Other works that take similar approaches in trying to ‘show’ a landscape, element, or scene of the land to the listener include Reed SongsSoliloquy and The Dreaming Tree



Turning Inspiration Into Art:


For me, the process of turning the inspiration around me into music is an interesting process. When I’m out and about in nature I often think about music and when I’m writing, I often think about the connection to the landscape. To me music and the natural world are strongly connected, after all, it was Plato who said ‘The world has music for those who choose to listen‘ I completely agree. There is ‘music’ everywhere, it’s just a matter of channelling it properly in order to create a piece of music which makes sense to the listener and that can take some time. In my article How to Find Inspiration as a Composer, I talk more about the landscape’s influence on my work. Personally, I tend to write either very quickly or very slowly. I guess it comes down to how the music is flowing in my mind. For me, I write best in a quiet environment with little distractions, but others like George Crumb need noise around them in order to compose. However, it is in that silence that I visualise interacting with the landscape, or look at the various photographs I take when I’m on my walks, that the music begins to form in my mind. That is a wonderful thing about music. Nobody really knows where it comes from. Does it come from the inspirations around us? Does it come from the depth of our own creative subconscious, or is it a more complex mix of the two? In reality, I can’t say for certain. I know that my surroundings have greatly influenced my work, but I am also well aware that how the music comes to be, is a relationship between intuition and theoretical practice and decision making. The composer Philip Glass once said that for him, ‘Music is like an under ground stream. you can hear it, but you don’t quite know where it comes from‘. It’s somewhat of an abstract idea which holds a lot of truth for me and the way in which I write. All I know is that the core of what I do as a composer is to express the natural world around me through my melodies, harmonies and rhythms, and to hopefully create an engaging piece in the process. 



A Freedom of Individual Interpretation:


I personally feel like a great deal of the ‘New Music’ out there which deal with the inspiration of landscape, tends to lean towards a challenging and more complex sound world for the listener. With my music, I strive to write equally ambiguous work, which relies on a little amount of musical material upon which I build my own perception of the landscape within the music. I brought up programmatic music because it is the opposite of what I want to achieve with my work. I am very keen to allow the listener to form their own opinion on what the music coungers up for them in their own mind. As the composer, I obviously have my own interpretation of what the piece means to me, but I never try to impress those views upon my listener. The result is an interesting relationship between the music and the listener, where the music and the abstract thoughts of the listener bridge one another to form a unique and individual experience of the work as a whole. This is where I believe music forms into something more than the notes I choose to write. It becomes more abstract when a listener forms their opinion – be it good, bad, or indifferent. When I compose my work, one of the intentions I always have is to compose a piece that allows for individual interpretation. This means if 100 people were to hear a piece, there would hopefully be 100 individual and varied opinions and interpretations – all of which are equally worthy and valid in my eyes.  


For me, music and it’s creation is a deeply personal and individual experience, and I believe that those who listen to it should be able to have their own personal experiences with the music I compose. For me, there is no right or wrong way to compose. I believe strongly that music should ultimately come from the heart, and I believe that those who choose to take the time to listen to my work should listen to it with the same mindset and open ears. Perhaps then they too can experience the beauty of the inspirations I seek, through the music I write. 

Leave a Reply