Composer Spotlight Q&A: Gillian Walker

Gillian is a young composer studying composition at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

Gillian's work Polaroid for Chris Marker was developed during a composers' residential weekend and premiered at soundfestival 2019 by Sergio Vega Dominguez (oboe) and Martin Storey (cello) musicians from Red Note Ensemble.

When did you start composing?

I started composing just before I left the Junior Conservatoire, around the age of 18.  At the time, I was very new to the idea of being able to study composition as a subject, as I’d only previously written small pieces for my Higher music exam in secondary school.

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

An important moment was during the interdisciplinary project The Chronicles of Cumnock at the 2018 Cumnock Tryst Festival. Being able to teach, perform and compose on a large scale was extremely inspiring, as well as meeting fellow creators and young people interested in music and performance.

Also, when I started having more performances of my work I was really excited by the idea of having things that I had created being realised and performed.

Where and with whom did you study?

At the Junior Conservatoire I studied piano with Lauryna Sableviciute and composition with Audrey McPherson. At the moment, I am studying at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland with David Fennessy, who has been my teacher for 3 years.

What stage are you at in your career right now? 

I am in my 3rd year on the undergraduate composition course at the RCS and am currently looking to apply for a masters degree course this year. I have also been involved in leading composition workshops in secondary schools as a part of my interest in composition education and providing support to students for their portfolio and music exams.

How would you describe the type of music you write?

This is a hard question…. I would say that, generally, my music is based on my personal experiences that I attempt to translate into musical objects. I am also interested in the idea of New Music Theatre, and exploring the relationship between the performer as player and the performer as a person.

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

In terms of starting a new work, I find that being interested in literature, film and other music helps to generate new composition ideas. I tend to listen to a lot of music before I even start writing to find what kind of atmosphere I’m looking for.  Then I usually draw images or sketches to try and make sense of the structure.

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

I’ve mainly composed for small chamber ensemble groups so far. However, I've invested a lot of time into writing for small intimate groups of musicians, where I can focus on the timbre and particular aspects of the instruments that I’m working with. Also the benefit of working on a smaller instrumental scale is getting to know and work intensively with the musicians.

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

Recently, Heiner Goebbels. I was completely blown away by his theatre pieces and the immaculate sense of timing, extra musical imagery and his article on using text as landscape.

Name a piece of music (or two) that you listen to over and over, or find inspiring and why? 

At the moment I’ve been obsessed with Gerald Barry’s opera The Importance of Being Earnest and the manic nature of the music coupled with his handling of the original text. Following along the same vein is my tutor’s work, David Fennessy’s, Pass the Spoon and the amazing use of external musical items as sound material.

What do you do to take your mind off composing?

I run, even though I’m not very good at it, and read as much as I can. At the moment I’m reading a lot of Murakami, which is funny because he does the same thing to take his mind off of writing!

What are you working on right now? 

A commission for Live Music Now for SEN children that is going to be performed by Prismatic Winds. I’m also working on a piece that I hope to perform myself in the near future for piano and percussion duo, which features some interesting musical objects.

What would your dream commission be? 

I’d love to do something with Ensemble Modern, particularly a theatre piece or something for an interdisciplinary context.

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

I feel the lack of motion in society is affecting my work in a very negative way. As a student I’m used to commuting to university and interacting with fellow students and teachers on a regular basis, and this lack of connection to the outside world I feel is detrimental to the creative process.

The replacement of physical classes with online, virtual ones has had a massive impact on my feeling of the loss of connection with the creative world. This idea of connectivity in musicians and their instruments is, ironically, a subject that I have been exploring extensively in my folio this year.

Follow Gillian on Twitter and SoundCloud