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Matilda Brown: Making music in the Scottish mountains

Written by Fiona

October 03 2020

I interviewed the innovative composer-walker Matilda Brown from southern Scotland. This is an interview that appeared in the Scots Magazine.

View of Buachaille Etive Mor from the West Highland Way.

Matilda is passionate about walking in the hills and mountains of Scotland – and it is where she is most stimulated to create her music. She is influenced both by an ever-changing scenery and, as she puts it, “Scotland’s very variable weather”.

“The outcome,” she reveals, “is probably best described as moody landscape music.”

However, it wasn’t until her early 30s, some 10 years ago, that Matilda first became struck by the idea to combine her two greatest loves, walking and music.

“Until then, I viewed my composing and walking as separate. I recognised that they inspired each other but I didn’t put the two together as a profession,” she says.

Matilda, 43, who grew up in England and now lives in the former Scottish mining village of Leadhills in South Lanarkshire, had an innate attraction to both music and the outdoors from childhood.

She says: “Strangely, despite the rest of my family – my mum, dad and sister – being non-musical, I was naturally drawn to music. The first sign of this was when I was very young and I would bash out my own tunes on my great aunt’s piano whenever we visited her.

“Not really sure what to do with me, my parents organised some piano lessons but it was all rather on-off.”

Looking for alternative outlets for Matilda’s creativity, she was enrolled in dance lessons in the family’s home village of Blakesley, in Northamptonshire.

Matilda says: “I did enjoy dance but I still had a passion for music that was always there. I listened to a lot of music, such as Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa and 1970s film music. I continued to compose my own tunes for the piano and vocals.”

Matilda and Jasper.

Matilda’s talent spotted

It was at secondary school that Matilda’s musical talent was spotted by two teachers. She went on to receive more formal instruction, learning to play the guitar, as well as tuition in piano and vocals. 

She says: “I progressed through the formal musical grades to the highest level but I can’t say I enjoyed this too much. I preferred creating my own music. In retrospect, a lot of my music and composing when I was younger was self-taught.”

Attending university to study music, first at Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts and then a post-graduate degree at the University of Edinburgh, Matilda was able to focus on developing her own compositional style.

She says: “It wasn’t until university that I properly learned and understood musical theory and writing my music down. Until then, a lot of what I composed was in my head.”

Exploring new compositional processes and orchestral arrangement at Edinburgh led to a range of exciting commissions in her early career with the London Symphony Orchestra, BBC Concert Orchestra, The London Jazz Festival and BBC Radio 3, among others.

Matilda’s favourite stay outside at Glendhu bothy.
Matilda’s favourite view looking towards Torridon.

A love of the outdoors

At the same time, Matilda’s love of the great outdoors strengthened and deepened. She says: “My parents encouraged me to spend time outdoors when I was small and then my best friend at school, Anna, became my adventure companion.

As young as 14, Matilda and Anna, would head off on their own to explore. Matilda says: “One time I remember we got the train to Snowdonia National Park and walked Snowdon.

“When I was 15, we headed to Fort William and got a taxi late at night to Glen Coe to stay at a youth hostel. My first Scottish walk was the Aonach Eagach ridge. After that we thought all the mountains in Scotland would be as scary, although, thankfully, it turns out we were wrong.”

Matilda continued her walking trips when she studied at Liverpool. She says: “I did my first major multi-day walk from Dalwhinnie to Culra, then Ben Alder and Loch Rannoch when I was 19. 

“I also hitched to Morocco to walk the Atlas Mountains and became the first woman to complete the Rocky Mountain Challenge in Canada. 

“I was very adventurous from an early age.”

Matilda at one of her gigs.
A Bendronaig Lodge performance.

Music and the mountains

In 2010, a small project funded by the Scottish Arts Council first saw Matilda combining her two biggest passions. The says: “I think this was when I made that connection with walking and music for work.

“I embarked on a walking and bothy trip through Scotland’s wilderness area of Knoydart in winter. The result was a Scottish tour of synchronised film and music that was directed and composed by me and performed with other musicians.”

A second “Bothy Project” the following spring gave Matilda further opportunity to compose several pieces of music, which are still part of her repertoire for concerts and performances.

She formed the Matilda Brown Ensemble, which has given concerts across Scotland, with music directly inspired by Matilda’s adventures in the Highlands. She says: “Each concert is a musical and visual tale grounded in the physical experiences of the wilderness – the places, memories and thoughts from walking solo.”

Then, in 2014, Matilda received further funding – partly from Forestry Commission Scotland – for another walking and music project, this time on the 250-mile Cape Wrath Trail in the Highlands.

The results of the Cape Wrath project, in collaboration with choreographer Joan Clevillé, was “Footsteps Marking Time”. The final performance took place in Ullapool, the mid-point of the trail, and featured music by Matilda’s chamber ensemble.

Walking to Shenavall bothy.
Jasper sleeping on Matilda’s sleeping bag in a tent.

Alongside Autumn: A Composer’s Walk

More recently, Matilda completed a more ambitious solo adventure: Alongside Autumn: A Composer’s Walk. 

In the autumn of 2019, with her dog Jasper, she walked and camped over 528 miles from Annan in southern Scotland, north to reach Durness in Sutherland. Her route included some sections of recognised trails, but was mostly her own creation.

She says: “My aim was to take on my biggest adventure and to write music along the way. I also performed with musicians and young people in six unique venues – Corryhully Bothy at Glenfinnan was my favourite – during the walk. The music, written and performed, told the story of my challenge.

“It’s not easy to describe how the landscape inspires my music although, as an example, I write quite intense music once I get back from a walking trip, especially if the weather has been bad.

“While I was on the trip through Scotland, I wrote a lot of sketches because I was too tired and busy walking to write full pieces of music. These shorter pieces captured what I was feeling in the moment, the people I met and the landscapes I passed through.”

While Covid-19 lockdown has halted some of Matilda’s touring plans, she still hopes to perform in the future with a series of short pieces inspired by the autumn walk. She is also making an album and book of her journey.

Another part of Matilda’s work is in education and the community. “Matilda’s Music and Mountains” is an innovative learning music project for young people that aims to create original compositions inspired by the Scottish landscape.

Matilda says: “Each project takes place over a few months and involves pupils generating ideas, translating these into music and artistic expression and then performing their work. “

“Children can explore their creative ideas through instruments, singing, conducting and utilising sound music technology.”

In addition, she works with the education departments at  Drake Music Scotland, Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

The urge to take on another walking challenge is always there. She says: “If funding and other work allows, I would love to walk the length of Britain. I would follow my own route, again bringing in the musical element and organising performances along the way.

“I am happiest when I am outdoors, walking and being inspired to compose by what I see, feel and experience.”

See Matilda Brown Music.

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