Alongside working towards a PhD at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Timothy lectures in music technology there and also teaches composition at Edinburgh College.
Over the last few years, he’s been busy composing tape pieces, a work for a baroque ensemble and working on a collaboration with poet Samuel Tongue.
He’s also a founder-member of Edit-Point alongside Matthew Whiteside, a collective dedicated to the creation and performance of classic instruments and electronics.
Later this week, he premieres Breathing Space, a piece for tuba and electronics based around his personal struggles with brass playing and the natural resolutions he’s found.
The piece forms part of the next instalment of Matthew Whiteside’s The Night With… concert series in Glasgow (see below for more info).
Here, Timothy explains how he first fell for composition, what drives his compelling sound and why electronic devices and studio gear is pushing him forwards….
When did you first begin composing and what was the impetus?
In school music lessons, I really enjoyed composition tasks, so I started to compose bits of music I wasn’t asked to write. I went to a really supportive comprehensive school, Egglescliffe School, which has an amazing music department with a hundred piece orchestra and 50 piece brass band. It wasn’t hard to get into music. The first piece I wrote that I showed anyone was the first movement of a piano suite. It was called Extreme Measures and it used lots of time changes.
What has most influenced your sound?
Probably working in the studio directly with the sounds I am composing. I don’t think I have a typical sound but if there is an identifying stamp it’s about how I engage with the materials I compose with. I’m much more comfortable with the idea of that than thinking about trying to pursue some kind of voice.
In the studio I have access to the sounds as they actually exist. I can manipulate and reshape these quickly and playfully, and it is this relationship with my sound materials that has made the most dramatic impact on my work.
Has your work as a sound engineer impacted your own music at all?
I think it’s all connected. My studio composition directly influences my recording and mixing technique and vice versa. I choose my recording projects quite carefully and don’t necessarily take on every project I get offered. I’d rather spend more time on projects I’m excited about, like Pippa Reid-Foster’s album Driftwood Harp, which has some electroacoustic manipulation of her harp sound.
How do modern technologies shape your music-making?
The studio is really my instrument now. I’ve recently got back into improvising using live electronics and that has been really exciting. But it isn’t so much about the technology, but what the technology lets me do. I hope my work is musical and sonically engaging, that’s the important thing.
When and why did you first begin learning the euphonium?
I was eight. My primary class had all taken a theory test to find out if you were ‘musical’ (seems a bit silly really!). But, I passed. There were two options, brass or woodwind. My mum had told me I was to come home with a brass instrument.
We were all given a cornet to try and the kids who couldn’t make a sound it were sent to the flute teacher. When I also failed to make a sound I told the teacher my brother had an old euphonium at home and could I play that please? Obviously, they didn’t have many euphonium players because he said yes. So I started learning euphonium because I didn’t want to learn the flute. Of course, I grew to love the instrument!
Why do brass instruments pose a challenge for you?
As a player I had a tonne of bad habits. I worked hard to get rid of these but there was only so much time at college. I got much better, but there were problems with breathing and embouchure that I just couldn’t sort out.
As a composer, the sound is very narrow and dense. There isn’t much to reshape spectrally. Finding ways to transform the tuba sound so that I could make the piece as spectrally interesting as I wanted was a big challenge.
Your new work Breathing Space is about recognising and embracing the challenge – did you find it a cathartic process?
I think if there is any catharsis it might come at the concert. I’ve had a while to come to terms with my playing issues. Looking back, I’m very fond of my time studying euphonium and wouldn’t swap it. I learned a huge amount from Dave Dowall and Dave Thornton who taught me. I think the last section of the new piece has a sense of unequivocal resolution that definitely has something to do with all of this.
How do you feel about the outcome?
I’m really pleased with the sound world of the piece. It has a very particular character and the materials are very different to all of my other pieces, which is really satisfying. Early on in the process I realised composing this piece was offering me a chance to do something dramatically different from my other work, which tends to be much more gestural.
How has it changed your relationship to brass?
I always have and always will love brass. The sound of a brass band or orchestral brass ensemble playing really well is totally awesome. The expressiveness of the very best players makes a sound that is just so vivid and powerful.
How did you become involved in The Night With… and why do you feel it’s an appropriate place to premiere Breathing Space?
I’ve been working on Matthew’s project since the first The Night With... I was involved in a project with Red Note Ensemble doing the live electronics and sound projection for a programme called Sounding Brass. I’ve been involved in two more gigs, one as sound engineer and one as composer. Matthew and I have worked together a lot, firstly on an electroacoustic performing group called Edit-Point with Louise Rossiter and then Nick Virgo.
Tom, Danielle and I have carefully curated the whole programme so it will work well in the venue and the more relaxed atmosphere Matthew’s gigs create. I think the closeness of the audience to the players and the speakers will really help with the immersive nature and detailing in the piece.
What else is keeping you busy this year?
I need to work out what to complete next, having started a couple of projects. One is exploring sea sounds and sea words with a colleague at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Laura Bissell. The other project is an installation with Susie Leiper (calligrapher) and Samuel Tongue (poet). I hope I’ll be able to move one of these project forwards over the summer.
What are you listening to at the moment?
It is marking season at work so I’ve been listening to lots of composition and recording submissions. I’ve really enjoyed listening to these and have been really impressed by work by Sandy Power, Conor O’Donnell and Katya Mansell. They each have such different approaches, but there is a real quality and skill evident in their work. I’ve also been listening to Otros Aires, an electro-tango band who are an exciting listen.
Timothy Cooper’s Breathing Space will be premiered at The Night With… Tom Poulson, Danielle Price and Timothy Cooper, on 14 June at the Hug and Pint, Glasgow.
For more info and tickets, please see http://thenightwith.co.uk/events/event/tom-poulson-danielle-price-and-timothy-cooper/