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  • Writer's pictureJulian Almeida

Festival Programming & Remote Working

Introducing Alasdair

Alasdair is Artistic Director of the St Magnus International Festival. He is also a performing musician and an award-winning composer, ‘regarded as one of Scotland’s most important musical voices’. Alasdair has built a holistic understanding of the sector working in a range of roles including in theatre and as an opera répétiteur. It is especially interesting to hear Alasdair recall how, when studying music ‘I wasn’t sure what I was going to be and certainly “composer” was not necessarily an obvious route’. Over time, he gravitated toward composing but he notes that overall he simply likes to ‘make music happen’. He feels that ‘in a funny kind of way, the road toward directing festivals, being a producer if you like, has always been in the background’ waiting for him.

If you’re following along with the Unplugged Sessions guests, it is interesting to listen to both Judith Walsh and Alasdair speak about how their careers developed from their own practice as musicians. Both Judith and Alasdair, as he puts it, have ‘never been somebody that only plays the piano, or writes music, or one single thing, I like to mix it up a little bit.’

Festival Programming and Remote Working

Alasdair speaks about how difficult it can be ‘to get jobs, to get a platform, to be seen for the first time’ as a musician. The lovely thing about working as a festival director now is that he also understands the challenges of working as a musician. Alasdair is happy to be able to champion and support artists, to ‘give somebody a chance who you think is interesting or talented, maybe give somebody their first opportunity’. He recognises how important it is that he has been able to work on both sides of the musician/programmer equation, as ‘poacher and gamekeeper’, and his specific experience as a composer also influences the way he thinks of festival programming. In both a composition and in planning a festival, you start with a blank (page, diary, or stage) and arrange the notes into music or the art into a programme. He is ‘impatient to put good things on stage’; devising programmes and ‘thinking of composers, writers, playwrights, sculptors to commission’ is not the difficult part of programming.

Alasdair has also watched the rise of social media and online capacity change the functioning of festivals and the arts. As he says, ‘in so many ways, both as a composer and working in festivals, I am the generation that used, and still do use a pencil and paper’ for tasks that have now gone digital (although we’ve also heard Judith Walsh speak about how she also finds pencil and paper most reliable for to do lists even now!). He remembers when communications within the sector, as well as with audiences, were quite different -- ‘when I started, there was barely online booking for tickets, it was a very new thing to book a seat online’. So the increasing functionality of technology has made it much easier to programme and plan a festival in Orkney despite not living there. Alasdair does emphasise how important it is for the success of the festival for him to spend a significant amount of time in Orkney, though. The ability to communicate with collaborators from afar doesn't mean that physical presence isn't important, because it is essential ‘that you are part of the community, that you are tuned in to how it all works’.

And the community is at the heart of the festival. Alasdair explains that the festival began with ‘various members of the community...saying “let’s do something in midsummer in Orkney”’. It was only about 15 years into the festival’s life that it began to have professional staff members. Now, 44 years in, the festival still has a very small full-time staff (only 2 people!), gathers a small freelance team seasonally, and relies on about 150 local volunteers. These volunteers are a core part of the festival, however Alasdair points out that it is sometimes challenging to have a volunteer staff completing essential roles (technical team, accommodation, concert stewarding). Devoted as they are to the festival’s success, as they are unpaid the volunteers can’t commit as much time or prioritise the festival over their personal responsibilities. He emphasises that ‘you need the trust of a community to work so intensely with it, but also to rely on it to do so many tasks that, if flipped into a city environment, would all be professional jobs’. While the community’s work makes the festival happen, they also have an incredible opportunity to take part. Many community members are on stage and up close to the arts each year, through community dramas, singing in the festival chorus, or participating in programmes designed for local children, and this helps the community build a well-rounded sense of ownership over the festival.

Blast from the past - Alasdair’s previous festivals and work.

Current Challenges 

Alasdair mentions he has some reservations about content created in the current lockdown. Number one is that for music, sound is of the highest importance, and some experiences are not served by being broadcast live rather than played from a quality recording. He questions the idea of ‘quickly setting up a concert hall in your front room’ as a solution to the inability to stage live concerts. He also notes that quite a lot of quality artistic content has been made available to stream. Does the free offering of artistic content during this crisis set a dangerous precedent for the idea of art being free? Alasdair also worries that, if enough content is available online, as we move out of social distancing measures, the availability of content to enjoy from home may further stall the return of patrons to live events. However, he thinks ’it is really great in the circumstances...and for places that are cut off culturally by geography, to be able to share artistic content’. St Magnus International Festival have talked about how to share what they do more internationally, as well as to make sure that all of the Orkney community can access the art, and Alasdair is interested to increase access in future.

Unplugged Sessions Common Questions

If you could have lunch with someone who works in the creative industries (dead or alive), who would that be? 

Alasdair says that there are so many people that he would like to have lunch with, especially long-gone classical music composers. The reason being is to try to understand what the person behind the art was actually like. French composer Maurice Ravel would undoubtedly be his first choice, partly because he loves his music, especially because his music seems to portray completely the opposite to what Maurie Ravel was.

What 3 words would you use to describe the arts and culture?

Fundamental to life.

Produced and interviewed by Christopher Buttigieg at Hello Creative

Written by Julian Almeida


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