What drew you to a career in music?
The biggest influence on me aiming at becoming a musician was Bob Reid, Head of Music at Knightswood Secondary, who died earlier this year, just before the lockdown. He combined knowledge and enthusiasm with enormous practical skill. Not just as a keyboard player, although he could sight-read,transpose, harmonise, switch styles without a blink! He also orchestrated all the school shows (including West Side Story!) for the school orchestra players and any FP’s on hand. So we had to learn how to copy parts, making them legible, but also sometimes work off the piano copy e.g. transposing horn parts from bass clef chords – up a fifth and on to treble clef. His trick was to make you think this was just normal (sol-fa helps….).
How would you describe your work?
That’s a cruel question – it’s like “which hostage to fortune would you prefer?”….
I try to write the kind of music I have always liked – well-defined gestures, non-traditional tonality, metrical organization as a base for rhythmic freedom and primary tone-colours. As well as Scottish traditional music, I listen to a wide range of ethnic music – I like its directness, earthy colours and rhythmic élan. Also important is jazz – not only for the spirit of improvisation, but for the brooding lyricism of Gil Evans, or the intellectual fervour of John Coltrane. The cool self-criticism of Miles Davis is still an ambition, still something to strive towards.
I am not interested in private, coded messages nor in obvious propaganda, but I do hope that my music can play some part on the side of common humanity against the cynics, sell-outs, exploiters, racists and other enemies of culture.
What positive and negative aspects have you found lockdown has had on your work?
No positive aspects at all. I am dismayed and distressed by the effects of this situation on the whole music profession and especially on my colleagues who have had their main sources of income abruptly interrupted. I’m in the last few months of an academic career, so I’ve been cushioned economically, but I share in what I sense is a kind of lethargy, a lack of daily structure and enlivening human connection.
Eolas nan Ribheid – BBC Interview
Find out more about the clarinet concertino Eolas nan Ribheid, written for clarinettist Yann Ghiro and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and premiered in 2017.
Sarah Watts performs Ruadh, uaine, dà fhilleadh
This piece is included in the collection Ten Wee Drams for solo bass clarinet.
This, and many of William’s other works are available to buy from the SMC shop.
“It is Sweeney’s Third String Quartet, from 2004, that has the word masterpiece stamped all over it. It is a monster of a piece lasting 36 minutes. It’s totally abstract, and some might think it discontinuous, with its apparently fractured progression, pounding rhythmic unisons that dissolve, seemingly isolated and unrelated musical events, wild dances, and melancholic intensity. With a little familiarity, the events begin to cohere, and what emerges is a kaleidoscopic piece of a rare conciseness and almost Beethovenian intensity”. – Michael Tumelty, The Herald, 2007
“Gabhail a Chreig (Taking the Rock)…contrasting elements of rhythm against lyrical writing are condensed into the single movement of Sweeney’s piece. There, they alternate, punctuating and shaping the music until, with astonishing brilliance, they are revealed to be all part of a single idea.” – Alan Cooper, The Herald, 2007
“I close this brief survey of a very remarkable composer with another MacDiarmid setting – in a tiny choral song, ‘The Innumerable Christ’, Sweeney reaches out with his modes and metrics in a folksong-like simplicity that literally encompasses the universe. It took its first hearers’ breath away.” – Jamie Reid-Baxter, Tempo, 1994
“Sweeney has always been a thoughtful, politically engaged artist. In ‘an seachnadh (The Avoiding)’, just as in ‘Hallaig’ three years ago (Sweeney’s profound meditation for organ on Sorley MacLean’s elegy), he emerges as a first-rate composer, who urgently addresses, and achieves truthful utterance through the ‘matter of Scotland.’ ‘An seachnadh’ is a masterpiece.” – Neil Mackay, Tempo, 1994
Education and Early Career
1950 – Born in Glasgow
1961-67 – Knightswood Secondary School
1967-70 – Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama: W.T.Clucas (Clarinet), Frank Spedding (Harmony and Counterpoint), Sibelius Essay prize in all three years, Clarinet, Composition and Sight-reading Prizes in year 3, DRSAM (Performance), DRSAM (Teacher)
1970-72 – Royal Academy of Music: Alan Hacker (Clarinet), Harrison Birtwistle (Composition).
1975-80 – Woodwind instructor for Central Regional Council, full-time
1981-85 – Woodwind instructor for Central Regional Council, part-time, Teaching all woodwind and saxophones, forming and then developing the Regional Wind Band from a woodwind training group into an orchestra capable of performing Berlioz’ Symphonie Fun bre et Triomphale in its fifth year of existence.
1983-89 – Prepared clarinet students for performance components of degree programmes at the University of Glasgow.
1986-1997 – Contributed to the development of a new style of educational work, mainly in association with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Paragon Ensemble. Acting as composer-in-residence, these schemes integrated orchestral performers into creative workshops in schools on projects involving a wide range of client groups including special needs as well as school music Staff Development.
1987 – Composer-in-residence for the first Strathclyde Concerto Project. the elements danced – devised for performance by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and ensembles from East Dunbartonshire Schools, spread through a number of spaces in the Kelvingrove Art Galleries.
1997 – Playing to the Gallery with the Paragon Ensemble, which exploited the different galleries, levels and exhibits of the Gallery Of Modern Art in Glasgow, and showcasing a number of compositions by Glasgow Higher Music candidates.
1987-1990 – Honours Composition options taught at University of Glasgow.
1987-1997 – Composition tutor at the Music School of Douglas Academy.
1990- 95 – External Examiner for the first cohort of the BEd in Music (RSAMD/Strathclyde University/St Andrews College), External Moderator for BA in Music at the RSAMD.
2003 – Composition Fellow at Veruela International Composition Summer School, Aragon, Spain.
1974 -1992 – Clarinetist, performed with the SPNM and the Park Lane Group, gave recitals, and made a number of recordings for BBC Radio 3, including premieres of works commissioned from Edward McGuire (1978), John Lunn (1983) and Gordon MacPherson (1987). Conductor, directed a wide range of amateur, student and professional ensembles and orchestras (BBC SSO, SCO) in theatrical and concert performances as well as in recording sessions for radio, television and film.
Many works have been written for the clarinet, but the output covers a wide range of instrumental, orchestral, electronic and vocal forces. Commissions have been from such diverse organisations as the BBC, Paragon Ensemble, St Magnus Festival, Musica Nova, Capella Nova, Mayfest, the STUC, Glasgow University, RSAMD, Moving Music Theatre, McNaughten Concerts, Cryptic and the Jim Henson Organisation. Equally diverse are the genres explored, from concert works through music for theatre, dance, movement, film and television and including a number of works designed for use in music in education. The opening of two important national buildings have led to commissions: irc an dualchais (Inheritance Ark), commissioned for the opening of the Museum of Scotland in November 1998 and Na th inig anns a churach ud (All that came in that one coracle), commissioned for the opening of Arainn Chaluim Cille (the new campus for the Gaelic College on Skye) in 1999.
After the early influence of the European avant-garde, in particular Karlheinz Stockhausen, a period of reflection in the middle 1970s led to the re-establishment of a tonal idiom. Apart from an enduring attachment to the music of Leos Janacek, the two main inspirations of the music are traditional gaelic music and jazz ; these can be found combined in An Rathad Ur for jazz saxophonist and orchestra, although the influence of one or the other of these musical streams is seldom far away in any of the works.
During the 1980s, commissions from the BBC, St Magnus Festival and the STUC (for the Scottish National Orchestra) lead to a number of orchestral works (Maqam, Sunset Song, Cumha) exploring the developmental potential of traditional musical styles and forms, although these processes had begun to be explored in works such as Nine Days (1976), The Heights of Macchu Piccu (1978), An-og Mhadainn (1979) and String Quartet No.1 (1981 – McEwen Commission from the University of Glasgow). Towards the end of the decade, the possibilities for the incorporation of improvisation into large-scale musical structures was explored in An Rathad Ur (1988) and El Pueblo (1989). The gaelic stream is perhaps most quintessentially represented by Salm an Fhearainn (1987), described by Purser in his Scotland’s Music: ‘It is an astonishing fact that Gaelic had never been set or sung in any extended classical composition until William Sweeney’s Salm an Fhearainn (Psalm of the Land). This historic work in essence reproduced and enlarged upon Gaelic psalm singing to produce sounds and textures for a capella voices that had never been heard in a classical context.’
The main focus of development in the 1990s was on three major works: A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1992), The Woods of Rassay (1993) and An Turus (The Journey). The first of these is a music-theatre (later recorded for radio) setting of much of MacDiarmid’s gigantic poem exploring his vision of the Scottish psyche. The second is a large-scale setting of Sorley MacLean’s poem in Gaelic, uniting a vision of natural forces, landscape and artistic crisis. The third, to a libretto by Aonghas MacNeacail, was the first full-length opera for professional forces in the Gaelic language. An Turus was commissioned by Paragon Ensemble, Scotland and premiered by them in 1998.
Among works from the later 90s were: incidental music for a film An Iobairt (The Sacrifice), (Scottish BAFTA Award for Best Music, 1997) directed by Gerda Stevenson and scripted by Aonghas MacNeacail, and Heave Awa House, commissioned by the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra.
Recent works include The Poet Tells of His Fame for Solo Cello and live electronics, Fergusson, a Song Cycle based on poetry in Scots by Robert Burns and Robert Fergusson for Tenor and Harp, a String Quartet (No.3) and Pro Patria, a setting of words by the 16th century Scottish scholar and poet, George Buchanan.
The composition of String Quartet No.3 was made possible by a semester of study leave from the University of Glasgow. It was premiered by players from the Paragon Ensemble and subsequently performed and recorded (for Delphian, 2007) by the Edinburgh Quartet. Critical reaction has been strong and the work indicates a new stage in the development of large-scale forms in a tonal idiom while using structural techniques which avoid the precedents of sonata-form and its derivatives. The possibilities opened up by this work will form a key part of future developments and indicate a new compositional direction enhancing the discoveries of the past decades of work.
In 2006, a Creative Scotland Award lead to the creation in 2007 of Schemes, Blues and Dreams, a composition combining live performance and electro-acoustics, exploring the sensibility of Scottish musicians of the 1960s who defined their identity through the music of Black America. The project featured internationally recognised blues harmonica player Fraser Spiers, placed in an electro-acoustic setting based on live processing of sampled and performance material.
More recent works have included Songs of Connacht and a setting of Brian Merriman’s The Midnight Court for the Dunedin Consort, a Sonata for Cello and piano (Winner in the Solo/Duo category of the BASCA/Radio 3 British Composer Awards 2011, and plans for 2012 include a new, site-specific work for the Lammermuir Festival at Tantallon Castle.
Sweeney’s Sonata for Cello & Piano won the title for Intsrumental Solo or Duo at the 2011 British Composer Awards. Eleven awardees were presented across 13 categories: Anthony Payne, Huw Watkins, Michael Zev Gordon, Lucy Pankhurst, Julian Anderson, Orlando Gough, Tommy Evans, John Barber, Richard Bullen, Bent Sørensen and Graham Fitkin.
1981 – McEwen Commission (University of Glasgow)
1981 – Aeleph Composition Prize
1988 – McEwen Triennial Commission (University of Glasgow)
1997 – Scottish BAFTA Award for Best Music, for music for the film An Iobairt (The Sacrifice)
2003 – ARAM (Associate of the Royal Academy of Music)
2006 – Creative Scotland Award
2011 – Winner in the Solo/Duo category of the BASCA/Radio 3 British Composer Awards 2011
Many works from the catalogue below have been broadcast * and/or performed internationally **. Some have been issued as LP or CD recordings ***. All works, with the exception of four early, and one later piece, were commissioned.
1975 -78 – Paraphrases on Poems by Rilke, for Piano *
1976 – Nine Days, piobaireachd for Clarinet * **
1979 – An-og Mhadainn (The Young Morning), for Basset-clarinet * ** ***
1981 – String Quartet No.1 *
1982 – Trio, for Clarinet, Viola and Piano
1982 – Sextet, for Clarinet, Piano and String Quartet
1982 – Landscape, for three Guitars
1984-95 – Life Studies (I -VII), for Clarinet and Piano * ** ***
1985 – Sonata, for Viola, Marimba and Claves
1986 – Fantasias, for Thirteen Wind Instruments *
1987 – Sweeney Astray, for Clarinet Duet (version for Clarinet and Viola 2003) **
1990 – Hallaig, for Organ ***
1991 – Para Subir, for Soprano Saxophone, Clarinet and accompaniment ** ***
1995 – Quintet, for Clarinet and String Quartet
1998 – Galloglas, for Brass Quintet
2001 – String Quartet No.2 (Remebering Lepo) **
2003 – Cha B ann Grad, for Clarinet ensemble
2004 – String Quartet No.3 ***
2005 – Cha B’ann Grad, for Saxophone ensemble ***
2006 – Night songs, for Bass-clarinet, String Trio and Piano
2006 – Paraphrase on Pro Patria, for Trumpet ** ***
2007 – Gabhail a Chreig (Taking the Rock), for String Ensemble
2008 – Tree o Licht, for Two Cellos **
2010 – Sonata for Cello and Piano **
1983 – Maqam, for Orchestra *
1983 – Glasgow, for Strings and Percussion
1985 – Sunset Song, for Symphony Orchestra *
1989 – Seann Orain (Old Songs), for String Orchestra
1987 – Cumha (Elegy), for Orchestra *
1988 – An Rathad Ur (The New Road), for Jazz Saxophonist and Orchestra * **
1989 – Air, Strathspey and Reel, for Symphony Orchestra
1990 – I Will Wait, for Choir, Orchestra and Jazz Trio
1991 – St. Blane’s Hill, for Symphony Orchestra
1996 – Sweeney Astray, for Concert Wind Band
1999 – The Caledonian Antisyzgy – Portrait of Hugh MacDiarmid, for Jazz Orchestra
2001 – Heave Awa Hoose, for Jazz Orchestra
2001 – The Rim of the Sky, for Symphony Orchestra and voices
Solo Vocal with Ensemble or Orchestra
1974 – Three Poems from Sangschaw (MacDiarmid)
1977 – Two Concert Arias (Quasimodo) *
1978 – The Heights of Maccu Piccu (Neruda) *
1979 – A Vision of Scotland (MacDiarmid) **
1989 – El Pueblo (The People) (Neruda) * ***
1991 – Soruidh Slan? (Farewell Forever?) (Niall Mor McMhuiredhaigh /Aithbhreac Inghean Coirceadail)
1992 – A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (MacDiarmid) *
1993 – The Woods of Raasay / Coilltean Ratharsair (Sorley MacLean) *
1994 – Seeking Wise Salmon (MacNeacail)
1994 – Agua (Water) (Lorca)
1999 – Na th inig anns a churach ud (All that came in that one coracle) (MacNeacail)
2001 – Fergusson, for Tenor and Harp (Burns, Fergusson) **
2008 – Songs of Connacht, for Tenor and Baroque Ensemble (Douglas Hyde, Synge)
2012 – The Midnight Court, for 8 Voices and Baroque Ensemble (Brian Merriman trans. Frank O’Connor)
1987 – Salm an Fhearainn (Psalm of the Land) (MacNeacail) * ** ***
1987 – An Seachnadh (The Avoiding) (MacNeacail)
1992 – Two Lyrics (MacDiarmid) ***
1998 – Flight (Rigg)
1998 – irc an dualchais (Inheritance Ark) (MacNeacail)
2006 – Pro Patria (George Buchanan)
2009 – The Old Year (John Clare)
2012 – The Little Rose (Brecht)
1997 – An Turus (The Journey) (MacNeacail)
1987 – Springburn, for Clarinet and midi-generated electronic score * **
1989 – Sharakan, for Ensemble and midi-generated electronic score
2003 – The Poet Tells of His Fame, for Solo Cello and live electronics
2006 – Schemes, Blues and Dreams, for Solo Harmonica and live electronics
Music in Education and the Community
1980 – Voyage of Discovery, Chamber Opera for Primary Schools
1981 – Sonata with Some Pine Trees, (Neruda) for Voices and Ensemble
1981 – Water Music and Natural Philosophy (Rush), for Chorus and Orchestra
1982 – Ceol Beag, for solo Cello and Orchestra
1986 – Bagpipe Music, for Orchestra and Ensembles
1987 – Scenes from Old Stirling, for mezzo-soprano and Orchestra
1988 – the elements danced…, for Ensembles
1988 – Three Poems of William Soutar, for Chorus and Orchestra
1990 – Concerto Grosso, for Clarinet Choir, Strings and Timpani
1991 – A Set For the Kingdom, for String Orchestra
1993 – Birth/Procession, for Orchestra
1993 – Bhirlinn Taibhseil (The Ghost Longship), for Concert Wind Band
1993 – October Landscapes, for Youth Orchestra
1995 – A Song from South Uist, for Recorders, Strings and Orchestra
1996 – War Ends in Europe, for Women’s Choir and Ensemble
1996 – A Bheinn Air Chall (The Lost Mountain), for Concert Wind Band ***
2001 – The Heart of Us, for Soprano, Northumberland Pipes, Brass Band, Children’s and Adult Choirs
2006 – Slow Air and Reel, for Double Reed Choir
2006 – Three Songs (Soutar), for the National Youth Choir of Scotland
Music for Theatre, Film and Television
1989 – 2 Scenes for The Ghost of Fafner Hall *
1993 – The Loch: Autumn * ***
1996 – An Iobairt *
2007 – The Memorandum