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No chance of silent night for Scotland's busiest composer

"'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse." Don't you believe it. If brainwork and creativity could be measured in decibels, the roar would be deafening.

"'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse."

Don't you believe it.

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If brainwork and creativity could be measured in decibels, the roaring noise you would hear tonight and every night during the festive season would be the composer Oliver Searle working flat-out to meet a terrifying set of deadlines.

Searle, 31, who hails from North Berwick, is one of Scotland's most prolific and versatile young composers. But not even he has come up against such an array of deadlines before. First, he has a commission from the Bearsden Choir to mark their 40th anniversary next year. When's it due? As you read this. Next, Searle is working on a 90-minute full-scale musical commissioned by Hampstead Theatre. Due when? Next Thursday: that's January 1. When we spoke recently, he was almost two-thirds through it.

After that, he is to produce a set of three new songs for Christopher Bell's National Youth Choir of Scotland, due for January 11. "I've got ideas," he told me when we spoke. And that's not the end of it: Searle is also working on a cutting-edge avant-garde piece for the virtuoso flautist Richard Craig.

And as well as being one of Scotland's busiest composers, he is also an educator, teaching composition and jazz piano at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, on top of being the co-founder, administrator, conductor and general dogsbody of the modern music group SYMPOSiA, whose roots lie in a group of like-minded musicians with RSAMD connections.

In terms of his compositions, Searle hasn't exactly made it easy for himself. Not for him the notion of using an existing text - a poem, say - as a starting point. For his Bearsden Choir piece, which has the idiosyncratic title 23.VII.32, he had the idea of writing a big, showy, celebratory piece with which the choir could trumpet its 40th birthday. "I always try to find something that is not poetry-related," he explains. "I actually find setting poetry difficult, as poets have their own rhythm."

So he scours the byways of life, constantly alert for something less obvious that will trigger his imagination. For Bearsden, his search culminated in, of all places, the Barras market, where he acquired a set of old, faded postcards. One in particular struck him. It was sent on July 23, 1932 (hence the title) by a visitor to Iona, and features a lovely old picture of the cathedral and St Oran's Chapel.

"The actual text was rather antiquated and naive," he says. "Had a topping journey here. Motored across Mull, which is very wild. Crossed over by ferry. It took 10 hours to get here. Janet loves going down to watch the seasick passengers stagger ashore. We're on the other side from the village and, oh, great news. Dirty Dan's father and brother are here."

Searle has brought some 1930s dance-band music into his piece, as well as Scottish melody and jazz chords. Whether Dirty Dan makes a fleeting appearance in the musical landscape remains to be seen - but the fact that the date of the postcard, 23.7.32, forms a palindrome, a device much favoured by composers, has not escaped Searle's notice.

With the musical due on New Year's Day, Searle is in totally different territory. It's entitled Noctropia, and is a yarn about an author who writes comic books. "The characters come to life and he gets drawn into their lives and characters," he explains. Its point of origin lies in an opera course he attended in Aldeburgh, where he was teamed up with the Brighton-based playwright Judy Upton. She told him she was developing a musical and brought him on board. He in turn says he relished the prospect, and has been "turning out tunes" for a musical that is, he thinks, "more Sondheim than Lloyd Webber".

There is a dark side to it, he explains, and its style suits his musical temperament. "There's a bit of everything in it. I like writing music about music, and I've used all my influences, including bluesy and jazzy elements."

What is new to the young composer is the fact that the work will go into development with the singers and directorial team at Hampstead Theatre: in other words, Searle's music is not the finished product, but a stage in the evolution of the musical.

About the three songs for the National Youth Choir, he has nothing yet to tell - though they will be among a new batch of works for another choir songbook, and have to be graded in their challenge and difficulty. The new work for Richard Craig, meanwhile, is already cooking in Searle's brain, and has scheduled performances in Sweden next May. The first performance will take place in Glasgow, at the CCA, on a date yet to be decided.

So how does Searle organise his time-management? Is he a compartmentalist? A super-organiser? "To be honest, I just don't think that far ahead," he says. "I have to think of it one day at a time. I am a terribly organised person, but only because my mind is so disorganised that I have to organise my life accordingly.

"My diary is planned to the minute every day. It's the only way I can function. It's not just time management: it's the constant moving from one style to another.

"But that's why I love it - being interested by the load of different things happening at any given time. I love waking up and doing something different every day, and I just set on one thing and sideline everything else. I just blank it out."

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