Keith Bruce

THE strength-in-depth of the team of musicians working with Scotland’s national orchestra is apparent in many ways. In recent weeks the RSNO strings have been on equally fine form with four different women occupying the leader’s chair. It is equally true that the orchestra can stand the absence of some of its key principals at other desks, and that has allowed it to become something of a model employer in permitting musicians to pursue personal development goals without jeopardising their long-term positions.

Players have recently been able to take extended sabbaticals from their concert work to undertake recording and chamber music performance projects, and currently two of the orchestra’s key personnel, principal percussionist Simon Lowdon and first horn Chris Gough, are both on a year out to study composition for the moving image at masters level.

Although at different stages in their own lives, Lowdon and Gough had both independently nurtured an interest in creating music for film, television and computer games. When the opportunity arose to develop their skills in those areas – probably not coincidentally a sphere that the orchestra wants to become more involved with at its new home in Glasgow’s Killermont Street – they have become students again, with the promise that their old jobs will be waiting for them at the end of their year-long courses.

Gough chose the more exotic location. Boston’s Berklee College has a campus in Valencia in Spain which is part of the futuristic City of Arts and Sciences designed by Santiago Calatrava. Gough says he had known about its Master’s Course in Scoring for Film, Television and Video Games since his undergraduate degree as an instrumentalist at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. But having begun trialling with the RSNO in his fourth year, any plans for further study had taken a back seat to the chance of a full-time job at the top level.

“I have always been interested in that area of music, but I never thought it would be possible to study it,” he says. “I applied on a whim, not expecting to be successful because they only take 25 people a year, and I didn’t think I had the right things to submit. But I sent them some music I’d written for our children’s concerts, and when I spoke to the orchestra management they were fantastic about it.

“It was a tough decision in the end, and I do miss my job at the RSNO, because I don’t have many opportunities to play at the moment. But I am living abroad, learning another language, and improving my skills – it ticks a lot of boxes,”

Lowdon also joined the orchestra as a principal, straight from his studies at the Royal Academy in London – but that was 17 years ago. Married to Susannah, a violinist in the orchestra, he is very settled in Glasgow, and is now studying at Glasgow School of Art’s School of Visualisation and Simulation at Pacific Quay for a Masters of Design in Sound for the Moving Image

“Music technology and sound recording is something I’ve had an interest in for a long time as a hobby,” he says, “and I thought, ‘if I don’t do it before I’m 40, I’m never going to do it’, and that’s next year. Being a principal in the orchestra it is difficult to have the time for any side projects, and especially with having a young family [a nine-year-old and an eight-year-old, James and Hannah], but I was keen to explore this other interest that I had and find out how much I missed playing.

“I had a small set-up at home and worked with Logic-Pro and Pro-Tools software to build up compositions with orchestral samples and electronic stuff just for my own pleasure. My neighbours run a TV production company and my wife’s brother makes television as well, and at a Christmas party last year I met people who mentioned this course.

“When I joined, having a sabbatical wasn’t really a thing, so it had never entered my head, but the orchestra is much more flexible now about ways of working. It’s still quite scary when you get your P45, although there is the agreement that the job will be there in a year’s time, and I have gone back to do some freelance work with the orchestra when I can fit it in around my course. I was back in for Children’s Classics and I’ll be doing the Snowman week of Christmas concerts because that’s after the end of term.”

The work for his course is proving very demanding, however. “I am fascinated by how composers for film and TV use orchestral samples and live musicians alongside electronic sounds. The hybrid orchestra is something that technology has made possible and that’s quite interesting.

“We were given visuals from the opening sequence of a film for which we had to do the sound design and music and we had a project that was quite open around the theme of Clyde-built, because of being in a former ship-building area.

“The academic side of the course is a research project in semester three, and having only done a performance degree that’s a bit intimidating. There’s a lot to get through in a year, it is quite a high pace. It was fortunate I had quite a lot of background knowledge of the technology side because they do throw a lot at you quickly.”

Meanwhile in Spain, Gough has been creating music for a Spanish drama series, Gran Hotel, the score for which was written by the director of his course, Lucia Goddoy, The project involved writing an orchestral score, and a remote recording session with players from Budapest.

For the horn player, whose undergraduate second study was in composition with Rory Boyle in Glasgow, the technology side of things is where he is learning the most.

“There is a lot of work in the course about how to produce music, not just write it. We have to do the sound design for a sequence in a video game including dialogue and gun shots as well as music. It is like the work of Foley artists on film and very hard to do, but it is quite a musical process, using sounds to tell the story.”

Lowden makes the same comparison from his place behind the horns at the back to the orchestra.

“I’ve always thought of orchestral percussion as having a link with Foley artists and sound design. I remember watching the Harry Potter DVD extras about how they made the sounds for the films, and sometimes in the percussion section you feel like you are the sound effects department.”

That is perhaps less true of his role in Howard Blake’s music for The Snowman, best known for the song Walking in the Air. “It has one of my favourite percussion parts in the whole repertoire. I must have done 70 or 80 performances, but I still enjoy it.”

Over in Valencia, Chris Gough is discovering new music. “I am playing in a local wind band to keep my chops up. Historically it’s a big thing here, like brass bands in the north of England, and they have a lot of repertoire that is written specifically for them.”

There are other benefits in his extra-curricular activity too, because that is where he is learning the most Spanish. On campus the teaching language is English and although both musicians are enjoying the international company on their courses, Gough says that many of the Americans in Spain seem content to recreate their home lifestyle rather than mix with the community.

“But there’s live music on every night somewhere here, and I like to get out and speak to a bunch of strangers. I am having Spanish lessons every week and I can now understand quite well but my speaking is not as good as I’d like it to be.”

Like Lowdon, he’ll be back with the orchestra at Christmas, and he’s joining the tour to Germany with Nicola Benedetti in January. Then both musicians will be back to their studies, before returning to their desks as masters of moving image composition, as well as of their instruments.

The RSNO’s annual Christmas concerts with Howard Blake’s The Snowman are in Perth, Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow and Edinburgh from Wednesday December 19.