Composer Matthew Whiteside on finding new audiences for classical music: “a rising tide lifts all boats”

Matthew Whiteside PIC: Julie Howden
Matthew Whiteside PIC: Julie Howden
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How do you go about providing a platform for cutting edge contemporary classical music? Somewhere artists and composers can try out the untested, the dangerously experimental? Belfast-born composer and sound designer Matthew Whiteside has the answer, and he’s been proving it for the past four years as founder and artistic director of The Night With… (TNW), a gig series that’s become something of an underground phenomenon – literally so in the case of its regular Glasgow pub venue, the Hug and Pint.

There, in its higgledy-piggledy basement, and in parallel series at Edinburgh’s Scottish Storytelling Centre, Aberdeen’s Belmont Filmhouse and more recently in Belfast’s alternative arts venue Black Box, Whiteside has promoted concerts challenging the status quo in front of beer-swilling audiences in search of a good night out and a mind-bending cultural fix.

It’s a sign of the growing popularity of these nights that the most recent series, ending last month, saw Glasgow and Edinburgh audiences increase by around 25 per cent over 2018. Now, says Whiteside, it’s time to step things up a gear: TNW is set to launch its first live album.

“Last year we recorded everything from all our concerts, which will be available on both digital and CD format in February,” Whiteside explains. His growing band of followers can therefore relive performances by the likes of former Arditti Quartet violist-turned-composer Garth Knox, wacky contemporary ensemble The Hermes Experiment, and Ensemble 1604, the period instrument band with a modern twist.

And that’s just the start of a year in which he hopes to confirm significant expansion plans for TNW, including exciting collaborations overseas. Whiteside has already established links with like-minded musicians in Australia, who are open to the idea of reciprocal activity.

But first, his mind is on the new album, which will be critical, he says, in benchmarking the success of the project so far.

“The logic behind it is twofold,” he explains. “Firstly, it’s to try and increase the reach of the music being performed. In every concert we’ve aimed to programme a new commission or premieres, but there’s always a danger that these works are only heard once, multiplied of course by the number of venues in the tour. A CD helps to disseminate that to an even wider audience.

“My hope, too, is that the recordings will also generate income for everyone involved, the performers and composers, through royalties, radio play, etc. Also that they will feed money back into the project to help with concert production later on. That thought stems from my own experience of self-releasing my own music over the last five or six years. While streaming income isn’t huge individually, it can build to something quite substantial when addressed on a combined basis.”

These are not just baseless aspirations. As a composer himself – moving to Glasgow ten years ago to hone his skills in acoustic and electroacoustic composition at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS) after initial studies at Queen’s in Belfast, and whose ongoing work on film and TV includes the soundtrack for Michael Palin’s Quest for Artemesia – Whiteside knows all about the commercial challenges of the creative artist. “In the end, it’s always about money,” he admits.

That’s why you’ll find him, when he’s not composing, curating playlists on Spotify to promote not only his own music, but that of likeminded others. It all boils down to his belief that “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

Detailed plans for TNW’s 2020 season, again scheduled for the latter part of the year, won’t be known until Creative Scotland announces its funding for that period. But for Whiteside there’s no let up.

This week (10 January) sees the live premiere at the RCS of his String Quartet No 6, recently released on his album Entangled alongside Nos 4 & 5.

“The title track, No 4, combining electronics and film work by Marisa Zanotti,” he says, “was commissioned by the Institute of Physics and explores the work of my great uncle, CERN physicist John Stewart Bell.”

In May, he’s off to New York with a new work for violinist Pauline Kim Harris, “who called me to ask whether I had actually written her a new piece, or had she just dreamt it? The latter being the case, I wrote one anyway.”

For the affable Whiteside, every opportunity counts. 

The Aurea Quartet perform Matthew Whiteside’s String Quartets Nos 4 & 6 at the RCS, Glasgow on 10 January. The Night With… launches its debut live album in February, see