Writing Music in Lockdown


I’m a freelance clarinet player, so fall into that large group of self-employed people across the country who have found their working life abruptly side-swiped by the lockdown.

What to do?
I have started writing short pieces of music, 3-4 minutes, for Aberdeen Art Gallery’s online offering.

I was involved in the wonderful weekend of music-making for the Gallery’s re-opening, and had since been making plans with Ruth Kent from the learning team to give a series of informal pop-up performances in the different spaces (so beautifully resonant), playing my own music inspired by some of the works on display. We’ve run with this idea, in a new format according to what is possible from my own home i.e. non-broadcast quality recording equipment (horror!), and my house with its clanky heating, active birdlife tweeting away, and merry young neighbours passing in the street instead of a soundproof studio.

I started with trepidation, every soundcheck a trauma - but, it’s been amazing! There’s a new feeling of licence around recording quality, as we listen to our favourite radio presenters’ children and pets broadcast-bomb them, and hear our loved ones’ voices audio-compressed by Facetime - we are all just making the best of what is available.

So I’ve been able to take a new attitude to using recordings that aren’t “clean”. Now, those background noises take on a quality of intimacy, of “liveness”, and I think are adding something really special and personal to the finished pieces.

My brief to myself has been to take the structure of the musical compositions from the artworks.

“Scottish Ballad” by Robert Motherwell is a collage layered above a bright blue background, and I was very excited about composing my own Scottish Ballad because I had a bit of true gold to get me started - on a research visit to the Gallery, I had made a recording on my phone of a constant drone that plays as part of a Dalziel and Scullion film, thinking - I’m going to have to work with this tone if I play in here, so I’ll need to know the pitch. Now I have been able to use this (very background-noisy) recording as my “blue background” on which to layer a musical collage. Next, I wanted to use material that reflected the title, and the first things that shouted out to me as layers of Scotland are Politics, Religion and Landscape. So I have made a layer using a covid update briefing by Nicola Sturgeon last week (re-voiced by myself to circumvent copyright issues, and stretched out), another using a recording I made of the church organ at my sister’s wedding ten years ago, and another of my footsteps crunching up the beach by my house. The fragment of sheet music is suggested by my clarinet.  As in Motherwell’s piece, none of the layers are ever fully obscured and, as his work seems to me very upward in the brightness of the colours, I opted not to use bass notes.

Tracy Emin’s neon heart had me creating “Loveheart”. I wanted to capture the initial sentimentality of the pink and blue piece, which masks a deeper feeling. In line with the pop culture style of the work, I took the first six notes of the Beatles song “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah” and used them to create a piano improvisation. Like love, the piece frustrates you ever so slightly in the way that it flows.

An unexpected artistic opportunity, then, to explore new ways to think and to produce work - I’m very grateful to the Gallery for facilitating it.


Blog by Joanna Nicholson, Freelance Clarinet player
Joanna Nicholson studied clarinet and piano at the junior department of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, and went on to complete her degree at the Royal College of Music, London, where she was awarded an Exhibition Scholarship and several prizes. Since graduating in 1992 she has pursued a lively and varied freelance career based in Scotland.

She performs, broadcasts and records with many of the UK’s finest orchestras and ensembles, including recently the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Ulster Orchestra and Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and she has been a soloist at the BBC Proms in London’s Albert Hall, and with the Scottish Ensemble. Her chamber music involvement includes work with Daniel’s Beard, the Dalmeny Trio, the swing klezmer trio Yiddish Song Project and Red Note Ensemble.

Find out more at www.joannanicholsonclarinet.co.uk