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An Experiment with Tradition in Pilton Bohemia

Tony Garner on Michael Garrett

Last Tuesday I went to visit the classical composer Michael Garrett at his home in Pilton, North Edinburgh.  Those familiar with the city will know this is not an area you’d expect to find a member of the high arts scene practicing his craft.

But then Michael Garrett is no typical member of Edinburgh’s high arts scene.  And his refusal to compromise is perhaps what has led him to live where it’s assumed the arts have about as much chance of thriving as lemons and oranges in the Scottish climate.

Stepping inside Garrett’s garret is a shortcut into an idiosyncratic head.  In his study (he has no need of a living room) there are dozens of music scores lying around on every available surface, carefully labelled CD’s and tapes filling rows of shelves, and on one wall a series of charcoal and crayon drawings of Garrett sitting in a high-backed chair with his hands on his knees, looking not unlike Beethoven with his white hair swept back and a fiercely artistic expression on his face.

In fact, far from being fierce, he is a gentle, softly spoken man with an instinctively shy nature. “I see myself as part of the European cultural tradition”, he confides, “although I’m influenced by all sorts of other elements like folk, jazz and rock.  But I’m very respectful for traditional forms… I like melody.  With solitary composers today it’s very out of fashion, melody.”

The opposing currents of experimentalism and tradition have played a strong role throughout Garrett’s life, and not always in the way you would expect.  In the late sixties and seventies he was part of the cultural avant-garde of the time, working with jazz icons like Bill Coleman and Art Taylor in Paris, and in England with the film director Ken Russell.  He composed music for and acted in Russell’s cult classic ‘Women in Love’, starring Oliver Reed and Glenda Jackson, as well as working as composer and pianist for an experimental mime company which toured with a young David Bowie.

And yet in many ways the most truly experimental part of his career began in the nineteen eighties when he moved away from the avant-garde  and refocused his attention on more classical composition.  Shortly after this point he moved from London to Edinburgh, where he has lived ever since.

“I’ve been so lucky moving up here from London,” Garrett tells me.  “I’ve been trying all my life – as you can imagine – to get my music performed and for the first time I’ve got it published in Edinburgh and it’s being played quite frequently now.  I love it here.  I don’t want to move.”

The reception for the enthusiastic audience in St Giles Cathedral earlier this year at a concert of his music by the Michael Garrett Ensemble suggested that the affection felt by Garrett towards his adopted city is fast becoming a mutual one.

In 2009 the first CD recording of Garrett’s piano compositions was released,  It sprang from a chance meeting with the renowned young Polish pianist Barbara Karaskiewicz, who was captivated by his music and wanted to record it herself.  The works range in tone but the mix between classical melody and modern jazz and atonal elements is clear even for someone with no great musical background.  What Garrett has – and it comes through in his music – is an immense and unstoppable impulse to create sounds that are transcendent, that go beyond the limits of time and place.

I suppose that’s why he tells me it suits him to live and compose in Pilton, in a flat which was bought for him by sympathetic benefactor.  He has no distractions here, but he does have the inspirations he needs: inside, the music of his heroes, and outside – in the form of the sea and the wooded parks nearby – the rhythms of nature which he says are the greatest inspirational thread to his work.

Tony Garner, Summer 2011

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