Guest post: Young Composers

by James MacMillan

I was in London this week working with a group of young composers ( This has been a marvellous new initiative over the last few years from the education and outreach department of the London Symphony Orchestra. Basically, six young new composers are chosen every year to compose a short work for the orchestra. They are mentored through the year by the composer Colin Matthews. They regularly meet the players, some of whom give specialist workshops and instruction. I have seen and heard sessions on writing for viola, harp, percussion etc. The class also attend many orchestral rehearsals and concerts throughout the year too. They get to know the players.

Last year Colin had a sabbatical so I was asked to step in and do the mentoring. I met the young composers on various occasions to see how the music was developing and to discuss progress, touching on practical, technical, stylistic and aesthetical questions.

This year, was Colin was back, and I was asked to conduct the final workshop. This is open to the public and takes place at the wonderful St Luke Centre, the LSO’s new base near the Barbican. It was a fascinating insight into the new generation of composers. Most were British this year, but there was also a German and a Korean. Last year some of the composers came from Canada, South Africa and Armenia.

There is no single style or approach discernible, but I have noticed that they are not afraid of writing fast music! It may seem strange to say this, but 30 years ago when I was their age, many of us found it difficult to write fast music. The general pulse was slow, but each beat seemed to be filled with frantic activity. I think we thought it was old-fashioned to write fast music, and the connections between rhythm and harmony seemed broken so long ago that we felt lost as to whether music should have ‘direction’ and ‘aim.’

Not so nowadays with the young. Some felt that the reason for this might have been the influence of minimalism over the last three decades, or perhaps the openness to popular culture. There is certainly less self-consciousness now with harmony and a sense of drama, which may have been off-bounds for composers in the previous generation, more in thrall to the ideological experiments of ‘modernism’.

Anyway, it was intriguing to hear the contributions on all of this from the composers, the players and those who turned up to hear the works being rehearsed and dissected. The place was full of composers! Many were from the London colleges who may have been friends and associates of the chosen group. Their teachers were present, including Julian Anderson and Simon Bainbridge.

I know that this kind of project is taking off all over the country. It helps young composers immensely, and introduces others to the kind of thinking that goes on in the minds of musical creators today. Long may it continue.

© James MacMillan

James MacMillan is one of today’s most successful living composers and is also internationally active as a conductor. His musical language is flooded with influences from his Scottish heritage, Catholic faith, social conscience and close connection with Celtic folk music, blended with influences from Far Eastern, Scandinavian and Eastern European music. His major works include percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, which has received more than 400 performances, a cello concerto for Mstislav Rostropovich, large scale choral-orchestral work Quickening, and three symphonies. Recent major works include his St John Passion, co-commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra, Concertgebouw Orchestra, Boston Symphony and Rundfunkchor Berlin, and his Violin Concerto, co-commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Concertgebouw Zaterdag Matinee and the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris.

James MacMillan’s website

London Symphony Ochestra website