Composer Spotlight Q&A: Georgina MacDonell Finlayson

Georgina MacDonell Finlayson is a musician, composer and community arts practitioner from the North East of Scotland. 

Georgina's work To Glenesk was premiered by Any Enemy (North East New Music Ensemble) at soundfestival 2019. The piece was recorded by BBC Radio 3 and broadcast on the New Music Show on 27 June 2020. 

When did you start composing? 

That is a hard thing to pin point. We’ve always had a piano (albeit an out-of-tune one) in the house, and I remember my dad teaching us a lot of the early Bartók Mikrokosmos. There was constantly all kinds of music playing in the house. Without every actually putting things on paper, I would occasionally write my own little piano tunes. It wasn’t until I got to university, and even then not until my final year, that I really began to find my compositional voice. 

When and what made you decide to pursue composition as a career? 

It has been quite a gradual process, and has happened quite spontaneously. I had always done little bits of composing, without ever considering that it might become a big part of my career. It was in the final year of my undergraduate while working on my composition portfolio that I realised it was something I wanted to develop and pursue. As part of the Edinburgh College of Art Degree Show, I had one of my pieces performed by a small group from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. It was a brilliant opportunity and I got such encouraging feedback it really spurred me on.

Where and with whom did you study?

In July 2019 I graduated from the Bachelor of Music undergraduate degree at The University of Edinburgh, specialising in composition, performance and dissertation. During my time at Edinburgh, I had the pleasure of studying with Dr Gareth Williams, Professor Peter Nelson and Pippa Murphy. They’re all such lovely people to have worked with, but also each has taught me something really different to take away from my time at university.

What stage are you at in your career right now? 

Having finished my undergraduate degree last summer, I am currently taking some time out of studying before starting a Masters of Music at The Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester this autumn. It’s been really fantastic to have this time and space to think and figure out where I want to go next. I feel very lucky to have so much flexibility and freedom, and I am enjoying this time of discovery, especially for composing more and working on my portfolio.

How would you describe the type of music you write?

Environmental. Soundscape. Atmospheric. Sometimes folky. Sometimes minimalist. I have grown up in a remote Angus Glen, surrounded by nature and living very closely with the turning of the seasons. Although I have been living in Edinburgh for the last five years, growing up in the landscape has definitely had a big impact on how I create, hear and think about music. Even listening to and reflecting on my pieces that aren’t written specifically about landscape or nature, I can hear all the open space, icy winds and nature that was the soundtrack to my childhood.

Is there something that inspires or helps you structure your compositions?

Definitely landscape. Nature. A place. I really enjoy working with a specific idea, image, or piece of text when I’m writing.  I love the idea of spoken text, the human voice, being an integral part of the structure, flow and musical narrative of a piece, I guess kind of like a contemporary classical rap or musical soliloquy. I also find it really focuses my ideas when there are particular limits or external restraints to how I am composing, like a specific concept behind the piece that structures it or determines how its elements fit together.

What forces do you prefer writing for and why? (Instrumental, orchestral, chamber music, choral…? 

I really enjoy writing for small chamber groups. Working with just a handful of instruments, each with their own set of sonorities and colours, allows you to really explore the voice and capabilities of each individual instrument and how they smoosh together. When thinking about just a few musicians, both instrument and person are integral to the performance, and the musician can be so much more than just the player of an instrument. I love combining live music with other elements of performance like spoken word or recorded sound. At the moment, I find I am constantly listening for quirky little sounds or ‘musical’ patterns I can add to my personal ‘sound library’. I’m keen during this lockdown to go much further with how I can combine acoustic and recorded elements - a recording device, selection of random instruments and a DAW is all the orchestra I need.

Which composer (dead or alive) has most inspired you and why? 

Oh I don’t know if I can pick one composer. There are so many over the years that have really inspired me and influenced my composing, even unconsciously. Depending on what I am working on, I am inspired by composers in all sorts of different ways. I love the rhythmic drive and excitement behind Stravinsky’s music, but also the rustic folk elements of Bartók’s music. And then there’s the beautifully simple and slowly evolving textures of Arvo Pärt’s tintinnabulation and Pēteris Vasks.

What do you do to take your mind off composing?

If I’m not composing, I’ll either be practising, hiking up a hill, or in the garden. I am currently back at my remote childhood home in the North East of Scotland. I’ve not been back here for such an extensive period at all in the last five years. It’s amazing to step outside straight on to an open moorland or up on the plateau, and to just listen. Once you start really listening to the world, you realise there are wonderful kinds of music all around. I find it easy in the city to get caught up in the busyness. I think I was forgetting to listen. When my head has been stuck in a piece of music, I find it really grounding just to go outside and take in all the sounds around. The latest distraction has also been downloading a podcast (at the moment Costing the Earth) or an album and then taking it outside to spend a couple of hours digging in the garden.

What are you working on right now?

I am currently working on a collaboration with the North East poet Catherine O’Rourke, to be performed by the Aberdeen group Any Enemy. We started off by discussing themes and ideas, which Catherine then took away to write the poem and has presented to me to write the music. I am also starting work on the sound design for a theatre show/online interactive performance which will be appearing live or online by the end of the year. I am using this time in lockdown to start work on some ideas I’ve had bubbling away for a while. I have this Indian drone instrument called a shruti box - traditionally used in Indian classical music. I use it mostly for performing folk music, but I really want to write a full length sonata for violin and shruti box, combining elements of classical, Scottish folk and traditional rāga.

What would your dream commission be? 

A multi-disciplinary installation and live performance. Live music. Recorded sound. Dancers. Spoken word. Lighting. Maybe inspired by a specific place. Or in some way relating to the way our natural environments are suffering and vanishing.

Is there anything about the current lockdown situation that is affecting your compositional activity, whether positive or negative? 

Normal life often feels so busy and fleeting. Doing one thing here, another there, composing, practising teaching. So many things out there to engage with. Constant distraction. So much more one could achieve. Limitless artistic possibilities. I miss human interaction. And I miss hugs. But in a way, I am really appreciating the limits this situation has created. I really want to develop my portfolio and have some new things recorded, but suddenly now the possibilities are reduced to this little bubble. What can I create and record myself from a violin, flute, shruti box, mouth harp, harmonica, mbira, an in-tune piano, an out-of-tune piano, cornett, clarinet, accordion…? Maybe it’ll be a sonata for solo melodica… For me, that is an exciting challenge!

Find out more about Georgina and listen to some of her music here:


Facebook: Georgina MacDonell Finlayson Music (@georginamacfin)

Twitter: @ginamacfin96