'If Rousseau, Marx, Einstein, Lacan and Bill Gates were to collaborate on an opera, what would they create? Perhaps something not unlike ROBE, which clearly aims to challenge long-held assumptions about the material world and to illuminate the performative nature of matter itself. - Opera Today
Alastair White is a Scottish composer and writer. Described as “spellbinding” (Boulezian), “excellent” (BBC Music Magazine), “virtuosic” (Winnipeg Free Press), "deftly manic" (American Record Guide) and "passionately atonal" (Gramophone), his work is characterised by a lyrical complexity which draws influence from technology, science, politics and materialism. Recent projects include the fashion-operas WEAR, ROBE (Métier Records February '21) and WOAD; a string quartet for the Altius Quartet’s album Quadrants Vol. 3 (Navona Records); the documentary opera A Boat in an Endless Blue Sea; WORK: movement through a series of arbitrary partitions for .abeceda; and The Drowning Shore, a Scots-Yiddish cantata.
Shortlisted for a Scottish Award for New Music twice (in 2019 and 2020) and a Creative Edinburgh Award (2019), Alastair has created work for the opera festivals Tête-a-Tête and Opera in the City, the international poetry festival STanza, UKNA City Takeover, Compass Presents, The Scottish School of Contemporary Dance and The Scottish Poetry Library. His music is supported by Help Musicians UK, The Hinrichsen Foundation, The Marchus Trust, The Hope Scott Trust, The Sarah Caple Scholarship, Goldsmiths Graduate School Fund and Music Research Committee.
Alastair was a founding member of the Edinburgh-based bands White Heath (Electric Honey) and Blank Comrade (Red Wharf), and has worked as a session pianist and producer. He is currently undertaking a PhD at Goldsmiths, University of London with Roger Redgate and Lauren Redhead, where he organised the interdisciplinary conference on New Materialism Futures of the Real. He publishes and speaks internationally on his research interests, which include the development of an original materialist philosophy, ‘Contingency Dialectics,’ and its methodological implications in Fashion-Opera.
Scroll down for audio, video, images, writing & research, and reviews.
Accomplishment in both musical writing and performances was undeniable, even spellbinding. Had this been a song-cycle – or cantata – I should have been gripped, but staging...left one in no doubt that this was not only an opera, but an opera of rare imagination – and success. I am keen to hear more. - Mark Berry, Boulezian
Undeniably, WEAR is a beautiful show...I wholly look forward to what this talented company conjure up next. - Sam Lawrence, The 730 Review
WEAR is not only an opera or a fashion exhibition but a genuine show of rare imagination and experimentation...the creative spirits of Alastair White, Gemma. A. Williams, designer Derek Lawlor, and choreographer Max Gershon shine bright as they explore the physical and emotional repercussions of the works we produce, the ties we have with others and the strength that lies in between. - Hugo Scheubel, Schön! Magazine
Fantastical, dystopian, highly poetic. The music is excellent. The limited textural palette is used with intelligent frugality. The entire cast has a firm grounding in contemporary music and it shows. Given ROBE's commitment to visual and musical integration, the next staging is anticipated with interest. - Claire Jackson, BBC Music Magazine
White's music has an intriguing elaboration to it, with instruments and voices executing striking arabesques, jagged and angular, and the resulting textures successfully evoked the strange abstract world of cyberspace, creating a real sense of non-reality…The performances from all concerned were excellent. - Robert Hugill, Planet Hugill
White's libretto is highly imaginative as you would expect it to be - I was moved. Some duets were wonderfully original. Notable too was the quality of singing - the whole cast of singers quite brilliantly navigated a complex atonal vocal landscape. - Karine Hetherington, Artmuse London
[ROBE's] combination of quasi-Symbolist excess, complex wordplay and the classical poise of ancient Greek tragedy makes for a heady mix. So dense is the imagery that it’s hard to separate shape from sound from smell from texture. At times, words seem to literally transform before one’s eyes, like physical matter, archaeological relics, unearthed, becoming something new...If this sounds somewhat schematic, the sonic experience of the score is anything but. There is simplicity – a single, angular vocal line, fractured by explosive percussive piano stabs, for example – and complexity, with melodies leaping high and low against hyperactive piano kaleidoscopes. There is stillness – a repeating piano tone chaining the voice – which is fraught with restlessness, as a flute gabbles and gibbers, slithery yet spiky, around the vocal line. The storyteller’s mythic tale has a folksy lyricism at times, the sense of the ‘antique’ enhanced by the flute’s discursive elaborations. When the Storyteller sings of the Warlord Q-el, “upon the battlefield … knackered and filthy”, the musical and verbal images of violence have a strange beauty. Voices occasionally elide in expected harmonic sweetness, only to be abruptly rent apart as the circles keep turning. EDINBURGH’s depths of data and abstraction are rendered by the voices of Beira and Neachneohain which come together, cohere and pull apart. At the close, Beira’s vision – a stratospheric beam of vocal light which arches, ducks and weaves – is followed by Rowan’s epilogue, in which the hint of a chronological tick in the piano’s low ostinato thud is challenged by the meandering monotones of voice and flute. Rowan finally realises that what she had created was not a map but a city, human, pulsing, real. Herself. Quietly but surely, her unaccompanied voice invites us to “look – closely,/ Out of the corner of your eye … and the sky is red, red,/ Edinburgh-red”. It feels both cathartic and complete. - Claire Seymour, Opera Today
A passionately atonal essay about time. - Gramophone
A virtuosic showstopper. - Winnipeg Free Press
There are some real gems here...Alastair White’s Two Panels for String Quartet deftly switches between two wildly different sound worlds in a manic, musical dialog. - American Record Guide
Alastair White’s Two Panels is conceived around polar opposities related to the sense of chaos or line, as well as components of time and space (which may also connect to registral considerations). Harmonically we move toward a more atonal expression...Certainly, this is another fine exploration of modern writing for string quartets that should be of interest to fans of this genre. The music is certainly quite engaging throughout. - Steven A. Kennedy, Cinemusical
Completely atonal but not necessarily 12-tone, and I was very happy to hear that he knows how to use this technique to create music and not just a labyrinth of sound that confuses the listener. Complex and modern as it is, it also has good form and structure and, in places, shows a sense of humour. - Lynn René Bayley, The Art Music Lounge.
An amazing project. - Sonograma Magazine
Breathtakingly beautiful and rather haunting. - The Shmooze
Dammit, I really enjoyed this release. - Norman Lebrecht, Slipped Disc
Very well done...and like nothing else I've seen. - John Gilks, Opera Ramblings
The work packs a strong punch in its 14 minutes...This is a work with much to unpack, from White's music to the multi-layered, multi-lingual text. - Robert Hugill, Planet Hugill
The Drowning Shore is a gorgeous act of ghosts and limits and liminal remembrance, a 14-minute cantata in Scots and Yiddish reaching through water and time to speak of marginalized languages and imperial borders and once again the love between two women that is the heart of Sholem Asch's God of Vengeance, the playwright's great-great-granddaughter now the performer in her bird-of-paradise brilliance, in ancestral tartan, in frum-black silk that made me think, intended or not, of Hanna Rovina's Leye in The Dybbuk, crumbling earth between her fingers, writing holy letters on the air. I managed to watch it this afternoon for its streaming premiere, no less haunted for being digital...I commend it highly to your attention. - Myth Happens
The ideas and dynamics, the go-for-it approach, the instrumentation, the fearless and erratic arrangement of each song was refreshingly new, daring, and immediate in its impact. After a lifetime in and around the music industry and having become numb to the never ending cart loads of re-shaped, re-fashioned, re-visited, and regurgitated plagiarisms from the musical mountains of the past's 'golden age', hearing their work was an absolute delight. - Graham Bowers
WRITING AND RESEARCH
Contingency Dialectics in Fashion-Opera (2021). In progress. To be presented at the 57th Annual Royal Musical Association Conference at the University of Newcastle.
Music of the Spheres: Quantum Computers and the End of Newtonian Realism (2021). In Progress. To be presented at
The Annual Plenary Conference of the Society for Musicology in Ireland and the Irish Chapter of the International Council for Traditional Music at Trinity College Dublin.
An Embodied Critique of Contingency Dialectics (2021). With Jenni Hogan. Presented at Vibrant Practices at the University of Leeds with The Snake That Eats the World.
Material Music: Reclaiming Subjectivity in Spatialised Time (2021). Presented at Music in the Body 2019 and the Royal Musical Association Annual Conference 2020. Published in Goettingen Studies in Musicology (2021).
ROAD (2020). An audio paper featured as part of Drifting Bodies / Fluent Spaces - Lab2PT & Made of Walking (VII) - in Guimarães, Portugal.
Vocal Writing in Fashion-Opera (2020). Presented at Spheres of Singing 2020 at the University of Glasgow.
'Heaven’s Rose’: ROBE and the Philosophy of Fashion-Opera (2020). Published in Sonograma Magazine.
Futures of the Real (2019). A conference organised at Goldsmiths, University of London.
“For me the greatest measure of a work of art is if it makes me feel uncomfortable or excites me sexually”: a Lacanian reading of Michael Finnissy's Verdi Transcriptions (2018). Presented at the 19th International Music Theory Conference at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre. Published in Principles of Music Composing (2019).
The Spatialisation of Music (2018). Presented at Intersections 2018 at Kent State University, Florence.
Postmodern Hyperspace in Elliott Carter's String Quartet No. 4 (2017). Presented at YMEIC 2017 at the University of Rome. Published in Dialectical Interactions: Individuals and Contexts (2019).