Marks on Paper: Writing Music, Writing Poetry
An Interview with Iain Matheson

by Bryan R. Monte
Copyright © 2016 by Bryan R. Monte and Iain Matheson. All rights reserved.

Iain Matheson is a Scottish composer and poet, born, raised and educated in Glasgow, who lives in Edinburgh. His musical compositions have been performed in countries such as the Netherlands, France, Scotland, Spain and New Zealand by groups such as the Hebrides Ensemble, the New Zealand String Quartet and the Luxembourg Sinfonietta. His poetry has appeared in The Scotman newspaper, in Gutter, and in Amsterdam Quarterly. Recently, AQ had the opportunity to interview Matheson about his background, how he composes, what types of pieces he writes, the style of his compositions and the relationship in his creative life between his poetry and his music.

Bryan R. Monte: When did you first start to write poetry and music?

Iain Matheson: I started to write music at school, so around age 15; though of course I didn’t have public performances till much later. I wrote a few poems in my teens, a few more in my 30s. I’ve been writing poetry seriously since age 50 (I’ve just turned 60). I think of myself as an experienced musician, but still quite new to poetry.

BRM: So you’ve been writing music longer than poetry seriously?

IM: Yes.

BRM: How much longer?

IM: About 15 years longer.

BRM: What type of music do you write?

IM: I’ve always composed in the classical genre – an unhelpfully vague term nowadays, I know.

BRM: Could you define classical? Whose music is your music similar to?

IM: For me “classical” means, firstly, music that’s completely written down; and then, the potential for formal complexity and experimentation implied in that. The music is transferable: it goes from inside the composer’s head, via marks on paper, to the minds and bodies of performers. As soon as you work with written music, you’re part of a 1,000-year tradition, beginning with people who invented a way to represent music on a page: and you have to decide how you’ll relate to that.

A composer is probably the last person to ask: “Whose is your music similar to?” The answer will probably be someone whose work, or whose name, most
people don’t know. To me, my music is similar to (at least, it comes about through a similar process to) the music of Arnold Schoenberg. It may be more useful to say WHAT it sounds like: people have told me it sounds like tree frogs, or water dripping into a jar.

BRM: What type of poetry do you write?

IM: From the start I was interested in writing formal poetry: I started, as I suppose many people do, with tight shapes and rhymes: ballads, sonnets, sestinas.

BRM: Was there a specific event that inspired you to start writing poetry/music or did you just start writing poetry/music after hearing or reading poetry/music? For example, I remember listening to a poet at my second form read one of his poems whose rhythm imitated that of a tennis ball being volleyed back and forth across the net and I thought—I can do that—and I did.

IM: I played the piano and studied music at school and university, and it seemed obvious to me that I should try to write music, to help me understand what Bach and Beethoven were doing. I’m better at composing than performing; I’m happy to leave the playing to others.

I’ve always enjoyed reading, and writing words seemed a natural way of finding out how real writers put them together. At the time I didn’t question why I wrote poetry rather than prose: I think now that, because I understood the tiny details of moving musical notes around, the distilled language of poetry seemed similar. I’ve begun to think of writing words as a more direct form of creativity than composing – no need to find a performer once the poem is written. But in my mind I’m a composer who sometimes writes poetry: that’s the emphasis.

BRM: What type of music do you generally write?

IM: I usually write in lines (so-called counterpoint) rather than chords: horizontal rather than vertical. I’ve written a lot of chamber music (up to four instruments) as that’s the most practical to find ensembles and performance opportunities. It’s rare to find an orchestra eager to try new music; if only because rehearsing an orchestra is so expensive.

BRM: What type of poetry do you generally write?

IM: I write quite abstract, formal poems: usually taking off from the sound of a word, which leads to other words with similar sounds. I don’t set out to write a poem “about” a particular subject: the subject emerges, if at all, in the writing process. Lately I’ve been writing in syllabics: each line a fixed number of syllables.

BRM: Who are three of your favourite composers and their pieces how have they inspired you?

IM: Scriabin’s music speaks a revolutionary harmonic language within quite traditional forms. Especially in his piano music, the theosophical extravagance of his philosophical ideas leads him to imagine completely new sounds such as in Piano Sonata #9. Haydn’s music is elegant and deceptively straightforward; but he’s always trying something new, taking himself by surprise. He’s a master of silence in music in String Quartet op.50/6. Webern’s music has very clear patterns, and he attends to every tiny detail. He composes in very tight shapes, with just a few notes, inventing restrictions for himself. Again, silence is vital: at times the music seems like a frame for silence as in Canons op.16 for soprano and clarinets.

BRM: Who are three of your favourite poets and their poems how have they inspired you?

IM: I enjoy John Donne’s poetry, especially the late sonnets: flamboyant imagery crowded into very economical shapes. “Holy Sonnet X: Death be not proud.” I’ve heard Kay Ryan reading in Scotland a few times. Her willingness to follow the sound of the words and let meaning take second place is delicious: on paper, short lines make the shape of her poems fascinating in “Blue China Doorknob”. W. S. Graham was a Scottish poet, maybe not well-known in other countries. Many of his poems touch on the process of writing poems, and remind the reader that a poem is a constructed thing such as in “Dear Bryan Winter.”

BRM: How is writing a poem different from writing a piece of music?

IM: I don’t know that writing a poem, in the way I write one, is very different: the difference is in the awareness of how others may read it. Because a poem uses words that people know, they often expect a “meaning” in the way that doesn’t apply when they hear a new piece of music.

BRM: Let me rephrase that question. How is starting to write a poem, different from how you begin to write a piece of music? Do you start with a phrase or an image with a poem, for example, and a series of sounds for music?

IM: I see what you mean. For me, they both start with sound. A poem usually starts with a word, which I take apart to see what sounds are contained within it, and what other words its sound might suggest. A piece of music often begins with an interval (the distance between two notes, one higher, one lower): but that’s almost inseparable from the sound of whichever instrument I know will be playing the piece.

BRM: In what ways are poetry and music similar?

IM: They are comparable systems of making marks on paper: musical notation on the one hand, writing on the other. They can contain similar formal patterns: line lengths, rhythms, repetitions. They can use different sounds (instrumental sounds, or vowels and consonants) to make a specific sound world for each work. They can incorporate silence as a formal and expressive element. They can make the flow of time seem erratic. They can have titles that lead or mislead. They can combine contrasting elements, and invite the audience to find a way in which they relate to each other. Probably these things are true of any two art forms, not just music and poetry.

BRM: How long does it usually take you to compose a piece of music?

IM: It depends on the length of the piece, and the number of instruments. Maybe six months.

BRM: How long does it take you to compose a poem?

IM: Four to six weeks. After that it’s usually clear that something isn’t worth pursuing: though there are some that lie around for months and years and never give up. There’s a difference, though. It’s very seldom that anyone asks me to write a poem: at most, there may be a submission deadline.

BRM: Do your compositions (poems/music) tend to be more organic in that you start with a line or a musical phrase that comes to you and you add to it from there or are your compositions more formal (like a sonnet or a minuet) where you know the restrictions ahead of time and then you plan how you can fit this phrase and other variations or counter arguments into that form to make a complete poetic/musical statement.

IM: Knowing how long a piece of music is to be, is important: once I know that, I can organise the proportions of it, see where certain things will be placed. (For reasons of programming, most performers are looking for music between 5 – 15 minutes.) The instruments involved usually suggest the musical material in some way – highest or lowest note, how they make a sound, how long can they sustain a note, that sort of thing. I seldom start writing anything (music or poem) at the beginning.

My poems tend to be short, maybe a dozen lines. If I’m not given restrictions by (e.g.) a magazine’s submission guidelines, I invent my own. More than with music, I usually write a lot then pare it away till there’s a poem left. I don’t write in established forms now, such sestinas or villanelles, except as an exercise. (Just as, in music, I don’t write fugues or in classical sonata form). I do, however, try to arrive at the shape of a poem early on. That’s usually a case of shuffling and reordering fragments—single lines, couplets—until a pattern comes together.

BRM: What have been your most adventurous piece of music and poem and why?

IM: “Equal Parts” is a small piano concerto, for piano solo and eleven instruments. The length (10’00”), the size of ensemble, and the relatively large number of ideas to be kept in balance made it quite a complex piece to write. You can hear it on my website at

I don’t think any one of my poems is more adventurous than others. Since writing is sufficiently new to me, each is an adventure. There’s a competition at the moment for a poem up to 80 lines: that’ll be a new sort of adventure if I can do it.

BRM: What are two of the most recent poems and musical compositions that you have written?

IM: I’ve recently completed a string trio for violin, viola and cello. I wrote it without a commission, and it’s still looking for a first performance. A short violin piece “Slow” had its first performance in April. I wrote a poem called “About” since people sometimes ask what my poems are about. I think my poem “Web” is finished, but it needs to lie in a drawer for a couple of weeks.

BRM: How is listening to one of your poems or pieces being performed by someone else different from how you imagined it how when you wrote it?

IM: I try to notate my music quite precisely, so that performers can see what’s meant, and there aren’t big surprises (I don’t use improvisation in my scores). But there are always welcome variables: for instance the relationship between players and audience, and the size of the venue, which affects things like volume and speed. Sometimes the comparative volume level of instruments has to be adjusted.

I haven’t heard many of my poems read in public by another reader: only two, I think. It’s the nature of poetry readings that you don’t often hear poems read by anyone except yourself, which to me seems a pity. I sometimes ask a friend to read a poem aloud for me, in private, to test whether the “notation” is clear. When people read a poem in a magazine or on a website, they have nothing to go on but the layout on the page, so I try to make that as clear as I can. But other readers always bring something different; not least, the sound of their voice. Music notation usually includes a direction about speed: poetic notation usually doesn’t, and other readers can have quite a different idea of how fast something should go.

BRM: Where are some of the places your music and poetry has been performed and published?

IM: My music has been played throughout the UK and Europe (the Netherlands, Spain, France etc.): also in the USA and New Zealand. Performers have included the Hebrides Ensemble, New Zealand String Quartet, Kevin Bowyer, Luxembourg Sinfonietta. There are a couple of pieces on CD, and one bass clarinet piece published in Belgium. Here is a link to a performance of Next for solo violin: .

I’ve read my poems at various events in Scotland; in particular, in 2013 I was glad to be invited to read at Shore Poets, which is a monthly poetry event in Edinburgh. Some are published in Scottish magazines, newspapers and anthologies, and some on websites; I was pleased to have poems selected for Gutter, which describes itself as “an award-winning, high quality, printed journal for fiction and poetry from writers born or living in Scotland”. Here is On read by me at Jupiter Artland: There’s a print copy of it on this page (click on “Dowload the shortlist” and it’s #14):

BRM: Where can people find a list of your compositions/poems?

IM: You can find a list of my music compositions, and some recordings, on my website: . The only list of my poems is on my computer…AQ is a major publisher! Four at the last count: Her friend finds cheese in his pocket, (AQ4), Interval, (AQ6), What it is (AQ12), and Inspire (AQ14).

BRM: Where will some of your pieces be performed/published in the next six months?

IM: My pieces, Three and Conversation, will be played along with work by five other composers by the Ensemble Ruspoli on 19 June, in Arnhem, the Netherlands at the Lutherse Kerk, Spoorwegstraat 8, at 3.00 PM. Entree is 10 euros. My piece for organ, Imaginary Music is due to be played in Dundee (Scotland), but the date and venue aren’t yet confirmed. Poems will probably be published, if at all, online and therefore internationally… I’ll let AQ know of any other upcoming performances, publications or readings.

BRM: Iain Matheson, composer and poet, thank you for your time.

IM: You’re very welcome, Bryan.