Martin Watson - Blog

Martin Watson - CCA Composer of the Month – JULY 2013

Martin Watson - CCA Composer of the Month – JULY 2013

Martin Watson - CCA Composer of the Month – JULY 2013

CCA Composer of the Month – JULY 2013

Your featured Composition(s) of the Month:

Celebration Day

Instrumental and/or vocal resources used:

Cathedral organ [pictured middle right]

First performance details – if relevant:

Recording played on the 26th May 2013 at the Maynard Hotel, Derbyshire [top right].  The follow-up live performance was at Wakefield Cathedral on 23rd June 2013.

Performers on your recording – if relevant:

Thomas Moore, Director of Music at Wakefield Cathedral [bottom right].

Of the work(s) you have selected for the Composer of the Month feature, what was the source/inspiration/commission which set this piece or these pieces in motion?

I felt like writing it. I then played it to a relation who was getting married this year. She liked it, and used it as part of her wedding ceremony.

What would be a good programme note for this work (or these works) which explains the structure, use of melody and harmony and any technical points related to the performers?

Celebration Day is a bright, mainly toccata-like piece in a loose Ternary form.

Here is the SCORE:


Here is the RECORDING:



When did you first start composing and what was your first piece?

A minuet for CSE music aged 15.

Who was it that first encouraged you to develop your interest in composing and how did they help?

My secondary-school music teacher Jonathan Brittain (an excellent violinist) encouraged my interest in music, which led to my having viola lessons with Max Gilbert at the Royal Academy. My interest in composition was pursued purely on my own. I listened to (and played in orchestras) a lot of music. I followed scores and read about the pieces in the relevant music literature, playing bits from scores and books on the piano.

Later, at college I was taught by Patric Standford; and for my higher degrees at university by Philip Wilby. Both of these composers helped me develop techniques for planning, organising and shaping music, especially larger and longer works.


Who do you consider your greatest inspirations in terms of the major composers and which of their works has influenced you the most and why?

I draw inspiration from pretty much everything I experience, see and hear, not just music.

Musical Influences

I soak up music from all genres and eras, but the following composers are my chief influences:


Stravinsky: rebelliousness, humour, vertical/horizontal strata, tempo, time sigs and rhythmic drive, orchestration, motivic and melodic construction, sound pictures (Pribaoutki), music theatre (Renard, The Soldier’s Tale etc).

Shostakovich: mischievousness, humour and musical irony, mixture of world-weary bleakness and optimism, orchestration (including stratospheric violin writing), motor rhythms, harmony, motivic and melodic construction. A man who could look Stalin in the eye.

Schoenberg: music theatre (Pierrot Lunaire, Erwartung), motivic and melodic construction, Klangfarbenmelodie, orchestration, word-painting, texture, mirror structures and the use of older structures in a contemporary context, colour.  His books on composition are worth studying.

Carter: Subtle use of Klangfarbenmelodie, tempo relations, orchestration, texture, colour.  He lived a long time and saw a lot. His quartets make you feel as if your blood is on fire. His articles on composers and composition are worth reading.

Janacek: Musical characterisation of credible people in stage works, motivic and melodic construction. A willingness to express personally charged ideas in music, (for example Quartet No.2: Intimate Letters).

Satie: anything goes, mischievousness, humour and fun, saying a lot with simplicity, unusual inventiveness with regard to colour.

Lutoslawski: aleatoric repeating “frames”.

Gesualdo: word-painting, colour, harmony.

Machaut: texture, colour, harmony.  

Ives: word-painting (for example In Flanders Fields), aleatoric phase-shifting, harmony.

World Music: African and Latin-American rhythms, North American Indian music. For example, I used a Medicine Song reputedly sung by Goyathlay in my opera Tom Karble about a fictitious civil–rights activist:

Medieval music: dance rhythms, modal harmony, and especially Southern European medieval music with a Moorish influence.

The Post 1960 music I tend to draw on most is rock music. For example, if I write anything involving Minimalism, it will owe more to rock than to “classical” writers of minimalism.

Kraftwerk, Soul, Reggae, Pink Floyd, Joy Division, Faith No More.

American West-Coast music – particularly The Grateful Dead (structured free-form improvisations) and Jefferson Airplane.

Reed/Cale era Velvet Underground: anything goes, lyric writing, texture, melodic construction, musical violence.

Punk: rebelliousness, rhythmic energy, lyric writing.  


Extra-musical Influences:

I also draw inspiration from the world I live in (news stories, radio and television documentaries etc.), historical events, nature, literature, and fast things like Mig 29 jets and streamlined locomotives.

Inspirational People: Leonard Cheshire, Steve Biko, Mohammed Ali, Goyathlay (Geronimo).

Artists, architects and engineers: I.K. Brunel, R.J. Mitchell, J.M.W. Turner, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, C.R. Mackintosh, M.H. Baillie-Scott.


How would you describe your style to someone who has never heard your music before?

Rhythmic, sonorous, abrasive, beautiful, thought-provoking, witty.

What do you feel is original in your music?

Hard to fully pinpoint, but the way I work with musical material certainly creates sonorities that are recognisably my music rather than that written by someone else.

How do you work? What methods of creativity and work ethic do you have? Do you solely use musical technology or do paper and pencil still form a part of your process?

I am very down to earth about composing. I do just get on with it, working on some aspect of composition pretty much every day. I tend to write what I want to, unless writing for a competition or a call for pieces. I can compose with all sorts of distractions going on around me, such as children, animals, noise, killer bees, storms, children imitating animals.

My compositional starting points are undoubtedly my imagination and instinct – errr where else? Sensitivity to an incident (humorous or tragic) I have heard about or observed may spark me into composition. Musically, a rhythm or motive may form the starting point, but then equally I may come up with the overall architecture first, sketching out what will happen where on paper, and sorting out the detail later. Occasionally I find musical ideas when improvising on an instrument. Occasionally I will hear a work by another composer and something about it - the combination of instruments or the structure – will mean that I will begin writing.

I use both MT and pencil and paper.  I’ll often sketch something down on a bit of paper while out and about to nail the idea down so it is not forgotten. The ideas are then worked on further. I will look again at a previous day’s work and thing “Nah!” strip it and start again. Developing and exploring ideas is generally quite easy; it is extremely rare for me not to develop an idea within a piece.  If I do get stuck when composing, I just swap to working on something else, let the sub-conscious do its work, and come back to it later.

Computer music programmes: ideal for commercial music and minimalism, but they are rubbish when it comes to writing anything not involving time sigs. It can be quite time consuming persuading a page to accept things like aleatoric writing. This was easier with a ruler and pen. I try not to fall into the copy and paste trap. If I repeat something, I tend to re-compose it.

Sometimes I play around with numbers, tempi and proportion. Usually these are to do with the large-scale architecture, rather than small-scale detail. The numbers are pretty much buried in the background.

Once I have created a musical box of bits, the piece is then built up through thinking, listening, rejecting and trying alternatives, until the music works. Sometimes I find the compositional process is like doing a musical puzzle that needs solving.

Often the music I write at first will end up in the middle or towards the end of the piece. Some pieces (an influence from early Stravinsky) include juxtaposed blocks of episodes.  Other pieces go with the flow. It depends on the nature of the beast in the piece being written.

I like telling stories within my music, taking the listener on a journey, sometimes jollying them along before taking them out of their comfort zone. I also like being mischievous, subversive, popping the balloons of the pompous, entertaining, and making people laugh too. I have a penchant for writing music which manipulates the listener into not being quite sure what is going to happen next.

I’ll tend to leave a “finished” piece for a bit, stuck away in a metaphorical drawer, so that hindsight can have time to kick in and improve the music.

Some of my music is uncompromisingly dissonant and abrasive, such as my fourth string quartet or my work for orchestra Taking the Ghost Road. Other music is unashamedly melodic. Some works incorporate both the abrasive and the beautiful– for example my concerto for string quartet and orchestra: This City Will Always Pursue You.  I can and do write more commercial music (I do write rock music for example).  Horses for courses.

When composing vocal pieces, I try and see into the words, and so sonic pictures and word-painting will often direct the nature of the music. Sometimes, but not always, the text may suggest the structure too.

My guess is that one person would greet my music with a grimace and shake of the head; another with animated enthusiasm. Some of my music is demanding to listen to, but then I’ve seen people in concert halls with their hands over their ears when listening to Bartok. In my opinion, it doesn’t matter as they’ve paid to get in. Why bother attending the concert in the first place? They just look foolish.


What projects are you currently working on?

I have just finished a brass quintet called Chasing and Tumbling on the Hill. I am about half-way through working on piece for string orchestra and harp, and have recently started composing a piece for unaccompanied SATB choir. I am also digitising Taking the Ghost Road, as it was originally written on manuscript paper.