2018 has been eventful, to say the least. Now I’m composing full time, so much has happened. It was a year of firsts: first totally electronic compositions, my first festival, first major commission, and a master’s degree just to name a few! It hasn’t always been easy; files have been lost, Sibelius has crashed too many times, many sketches have been abandoned, and all too often I’ve stared at a blank page and not known what to do. But overall, it’s been pretty great!

A Brand New Sound

Electronic composition has always seemed a bit scary to me, but 2018 was definitely a year of experimentation so why not give it a go! This resulted in three new pieces (Something is Out There, Reflective Pools, and Drive Museum) all created using only electronics. Even better than this, Amgueddfa Genedlaethol Caerdydd – National Museum Cardiff used Reflective Pools in two of their videos!

Oxford Recordings

One of the first projects this year was a set of choral works, recorded in St Peter’s College Chapel (my old college) in Oxford with Joe Davies and a fantastic bunch of singers. These three pieces, To Night, At Dawn, We Are Apart, and I Cannot Go, are some of my favourites that I’ve written, and getting to work with everyone closely was amazing. The chapel is a unique acoustic for this kind of music, and really makes these recordings special.

VOTE100: Distant Voices, Current Drifts

This was my first official commission, as part of Royal Holloway’s celebration of the centenary of the passage of partial suffrage in the UK. A Small, Intimate Gesture for solo viola is a very personal work for me, and having it played alongside other new pieces, including Nathan James Dearden’s amazing you ARE determined, was such an honour. If you want to know more about the piece, you can read about it here: https://sam-buttler.com/2018/03/16/about-a-small-intimate-gesture/

Etchings Festival 2018

I was nervous heading to my first festival, but it was so amazing I hope it’s not my last! Travelling to Auvillar by train was beautiful as it meant I got to see all of France go by and relax in a seat (with ample leg room)! This town was the perfect setting to work with the inspirational ECCE Ensemble, learn from other young composers, and attend seminars from Phillipe Hurel, Erin Gee, Martin Brody, and John Aylward. Solaris, my piece for flute and cello, had a rocky conception (one version of this piece was totally scrapped) but I couldn’t be happier with what I ended up with. I have to thank Roberta Michel and John Popham again for playing it so beautifully. Hope this isn’t my last!

Sam Buttler, BA MMus

If you’ve had told me this time two years ago that I’d have a Distinction in a master’s degree in Composition, I would not have believed you. But here I am! Hypatia, my final project, was a love letter to many things I love in music: oboes, large orchestras, the interaction of music and science, and a pinch for the dramatic. This confirmed for me that I want to compose, and so glad I didn’t give up!


Of all the pieces I’ve written this year, Triptych will always have a special place in my heart. A duo for flute and violin, written for my sister’s group Flö, about chemical processes (how very me!). I finally heard all of it in Cardiff in August, after an initial performance in Sweden, and it was a magical moment listening it in full. Since that Cardiff concert, Triptych has been played a few more times around the UK. Every time I revisit this piece, I find something new to love about it. Check it out again if you’ve missed it:

Looking Ahead

2018 was amazing, but I’m secretly hoping that 2019 will be even better, with some very exciting things on the horizon. Very soon, a new piece called Vortex will come out, played by Duo Kottos. Also, I’ve been working on two new pieces with Chameleon in Manchester; they are an absolute pleasure to work with, and it’s been so much fun to write for such a unique ensemble. In April, I will be attending the Ludlow English Song Weekend as one of the Emerging Composers, with a new piece for voice and piano. There’s also a great project with Chris Roberts, a fantastic guitarist and a very dear friend of mine.

So here’s to more music! Bring on 2019!


As part of Royal Holloway’s VOTE 100 celebrations, I was asked, along with eight other composers, to write a piece for solo instrument about civil and human rights activism since the passage of (partial) women’s suffrage in the UK (1918 was when the first women in the UK could vote, 1928 was when women had equal voting rights to men). My piece was to be written for solo viola, and I chose to base it on the speech ‘All the little things’ (2014) by Rory ‘Panti Bliss’ O’Neill, an Irish drag queen and LGBTQ+ activist.

‘All the little things’ is an incredibly powerful speech, detailing the ways in which queer couples often do not feel comfortable showing affection in public, how their relationships are feared and demonised. O’Neill details how even holding hands is not something taken lightly by queer couples; the situation must be assessed and even when they feel it is safe, queer couples still can be the target of ridicule and homophobic abuse. O’Neill also explores the causes for this abuse and how in their own personal experience, they are fed up with how there are still those in society who would deny LGBTQ+ people rights.

For my piece, I drew on O’Neill’s experiences discussed in ‘All the little things’ as well as my own. I decided to use the various strings of the viola to my advantage, using an open D string with the same note stopped on the G string to illustrate a queer couple holding hands. Around this, I built anguished music, showing the calculating decisions and internal struggle caused by these simple acts of public affection. However, I wanted the piece to end with a hopeful tone; when the final “hand hold” comes, the motif is surrounded by a “halo” of natural harmonics and open strings. I hope that this ending shows the future, one in which queer couples may express themselves freely in public without fear or ridicule.

I hope you enjoy A Small, Intimate Gesture.

Alongside my composition studies, I also have to do a bit of musicology. One of our classes is Music in the Art Tradition since 1900. For this, I had to write a short blog post about a musical movement/composer/work of my choosing. I chose to write about Grand Pianola Music by John Adams. I’ve put a link to the blog below, and also while you’re there, you should check out some of the other posts done by other students on Schoenberg, Stockhausen, Stravinsky, and also composers that don’t being with an “S”! Hope you enjoy: http://musicsince1900.blogspot.co.uk/2018/03/an-american-beethoven-on-acid-john.html

Music, especially composition, can be seen as a system of sound organisation. What that system is has differed throughout time: church modes, fugues, tonal harmony, dodecophany, total serialism, chance music etc. These systems show us how composers have approached the issue of “sound organisation”;  in other words, composition. These systems are still alive today, and all can be used by the modern composer in varying degrees. How a composer sets about putting these tools to use is a unique process that each composer has to grasp themselves. Some will use manuscript until their desk is covered in scraps of paper, some will go straight onto composing software, and some have completely abandoned scores all together, in favour of electronic and electro-acoustic music.

However, many young composers, especially at a school/university level, often worry about the “right” way to compose; there must be a magic solution that covers all their needs and creates perfect music every time. This is the cause of a lot of stress among composition students, myself included. But I am here with a message of hope, and here it is:

There is no right way to compose.

Composition is all about trial and error. If I went back and saw the first drafts of some of my works, they would nothing like the finished product (even though I would argue that a piece is never “finished”, but that’s a different story). Whole sections had been added where I felt an idea needed more space, new timbres are added when the ones I already had weren’t working, time signatures have been changed, and pitches moved around, all to better achieve my compositional vision. My composition process is unique and tailored to how I approach music. Once I have an idea, I get it down as quickly as I can, normally onto software such as Sibelius. This musical fragment often comes with a vague structural outline already, as well as the ensemble I see it for. For the past six months, I’ve even been working with MIDI composition, removing the need for a score all together, and exploring a totally new sound world. I also have a review process; at the end of each day, I write down everything I’ve done in all my pieces so that I can see my progress.

What works for me however, won’t work for everyone. My tips for finding a composition process would be:

  • Work out you shape your ideas – on software/manuscript/recording etc.
  • Don’t be afraid to leave a piece if you get stuck on a section. Just make sure you go back to it once the issue is fixed!
  • First drafts are just first drafts. They are not the final piece.
  • If you’re not sure if something works, ask. Singers and instrumentalists will nearly always know more than you about what the voice/instrument can do.
  • Have a review/tracking process – notebook/spreadsheet/wall charts. Anything that can show you what you’ve done while composing.
  • If the way you compose isn’t working, change it! If it works, then keep doing it!

It takes time to find that balance between music making and music “organisation”. If someone suggests a way of approaching music, try it. If it doesn’t work, try something else. Composing isn’t an exact science, there is no right or wrong way to do it. Just give something a go; you never know, you may find the perfect way for you.