Composer Profile: Alistair MacDonald

Alistair MacDonald
Alistair MacDonald

Website | Soundcloud

Dr. Alistair MacDonald is a composer and performer based in Glasgow. Much of his work is collaborative; working with performers, artists and choreographers from different media and backgrounds, he makes work for performance, broadcast and installation internationally.

Current projects include Strange Rainbow, a live electroacoustic duo with Scottish harp player Catriona McKay (performances include Celtic Connections, sound festival in Aberdeen and the Norwegian Film Festival) and collaboration, with Carrie Fertig, on Glimmer for glass percussion, electronics and live flame-working, recently selected for the Coburg Prize for Contemporary Glass.

Recent works include The Imagining of Things with Brass Art (video and audio installation) for Huddersfield Art Gallery and the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Mitaki (string quintet and live electronics) for the Scottish Ensemble, and a number of acousmatic works.

Interactive, performative installation  Sensuous Geographies, in collaboration with Sarah Rubidge (shown in the UK and USA) was was awarded a Creative Scotland Award in 2002;  Silver Wings and Golden Scales (2007), an installation in collaboration with Jennifer Angus, was commissioned for the Chazen Museum of Art in Wisconsin;  SeaUnsea (2006), an interactive dance and video work with programmer Chiron Mottram, choreographer Carol Brown and architect Mette Ramsgard Thomsen was premiered at Dance Umbrella 2006 at the Siobhan Davies Studios. Other commissions include music for The Scottish Ensemble, The Paragon Ensemble, BBC Radio Scotland, Reeling and Writhing, the Australian ensemble Elision, choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh and Theatre Cryptic.

He teaches composition and directs the Electroacoustic Studios at the RCS where he was made a Fellow of the Royal Conservatoire in 2012.


What is your earliest musical memory that, in looking back, has proved to be significant regarding your career as a composer?

…playing with the big radio in our kitchen as a small boy, turning the dial slowly and listening to the faint signals – music, but also voices, Morse code, filtered noise… mysterious sounds 

 – there are many other things (including my dad’s reel to reel tape recorder, and our Dansette record player; the strings of the piano I strummed and scraped when I was still too small to reach the keys) and local music (my dad played Northumbrian pipes, mum played piano, singing in church).

Are there composers who have been influential or relevant regarding your own work?  Has this changed over time?

Too many to name, and the list is constantly being added to. But not just composers – other musicians too. And artists and dancers. I’m not keen on the idea that my (or anyone’s) musical ideas and identity comes only from other music & musicians – that can be quite a skewed view. 

My composition teachers, Nigel Osborne, Denis Smalley, Jonty Harrison, not so much for their (excellent) music, but rather their encouragement.  Simon Atkinson whose delicate investigation into texture led me to make some forays in that direction.  Keith Tippett and Evan Parker, two amazing musicians who play free jazz. The first time I heard Evan literally left me speechless. Composition in real time.  Iannis Xenakis – I don’t know a lot of his work, but hearing Leicestershire Schools Orchestra (!) play Jonchaies similarly sent me spinning. 

Catriona McKay, the clarsach player I work with. A fearless musical explorer and risk taker. One of the most creative and talented musicians in Scottish music today.


Would you mind speaking a little concerning your working process, i.e., do you have a regular schedule for writing; do you use a computer for composing (either for creating pre-composition materials or notation), if so, do you find that it inhibits your process?  What other technology, if any, do you use?

My work is split between pure electroacoustic music which exists as a finished recording; work with live electronics; and collaborative work in a number of arenas. 

The pure electroacoustic/acousmatic work always starts with sounds I have recorded – things I have discovered and found to be fascinating as a starting point (see answer to Q1). There follows a period of play – the playfulness is important, it’s a way of discovering the potential of the material rather than deciding strategies in advance. Then composition/assembly, with frequent digressions back into play. The whole process of composing in the studio is a performative one. 

This is connected to the work with live electronics. More and more these are collaborative ventures with musicians who play their instruments better than I could write for them, and often involve aspects of improvisation either in the making and fixing of the piece, or in performance itself. In an ideal situation there’s lots of to-ing and fro-ing. 

Other collaborative work similarly involves lots of exchange and experiment. One of the most successful pieces, Sensuous Geographies, took a year to make, but had been a seed in the back of our minds for 15 years before that! 

I use a computer. I work in Pro Tools for recording/mixing/editing/processing. Other composers use other DAWs (Digital Audio Workstation) but Pro Tools suits me (particularly the editing and management of edited clips which is a nightmare in Logic, for example). I use other bits of software to do specific processing things too. 

I also use MaxMSP extensively – in the installation pieces, and in the pieces and improvisations involving live electronics. It’s great – I’m not a real programmer but I can still build pretty much anything I can imagine. It’s not stuck in what Trevor Wishart calls “lattice oriented” thinking. I have used it with external controllers including sensors (via Arduino), video input, faders & other MIDI devices, but I’m using the Lemur app on an iPad at the moment which I’m really enjoying. 

I work when I can, but teaching and academia get in the way, so it’s not a regular thing. However I’m on sabbatical at the moment so it’s every day (until the end of March!) 

For notation I use Noteability Pro which does proportional notation and graphics pretty well, though not much of what I do involves notation. 

I record sounds with mics, but have also just started working with contact mics and hydrophones.

Please describe a recent work and provide a link to an audio clip. 

Scintilla (electroacoustic music, 2013)

Scintilla – a spark, a glimmer, a particle of fire, a glittering speck. 

Scintilla started life with the hand made, flame-worked, glass instruments made by Carrie Fertig for her Torcher Chamber Arkestra’s performance at the British Glass Biennale in 2012. Sounds from these intriguingly shaped objects create a dense, powerful, resonant texture but at the same time hints at their fragility and vulnerability.” 

Carrie is a really interesting artist.  She has this Torcher Chamber Arkestra, a group of flame working glass artists she got together to ‘perform’.  She made some glass instruments (percussion) and asked me to write for them.  The result was a piece which was for 2 percussionists and electroacoustic sounds.   I felt I had just scratched the surface of the material so I took it back in the studio and made Scintilla.  I was interested in doing something un-percussive in contrast to the first piece, so Scintilla is more static – less about forward motion and more about a listening in to detail. The overall shape, then, is very simple, so the ear is free to listen in. And in the end the fragile sounds which are just beneath the surface are the details. 

The whole performance is at, with my piece beginning at ~ 31 minutes:

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