Alumni Services

A journey of musical discovery

Performer, composer and sociologist Tom Arthurs (PhD Music 2016) describes his love of the improvised music scene and shares a jazz playlist specially curated for fellow alumni.

Tom Arthurs
2016 PhD alumnus and trumpeter Tom Arthurs. Credit: Remko Wieland.

The chance to study with “one of the world’s most incredible music sociologists” and to delve into a neglected area of research drew Tom Arthurs to Edinburgh’s Reid School of Music.

His doctoral thesis was an ethnography of Berlin’s underground improvised music scene completed under the supervision of Emeritus Professor Simon Frith – a former rock critic who has chaired the judging panel of the Mercury Prize since it began in 1992.

Underground fieldwork

What drew you to jazz music in the first place?

I have loved jazz since I was 10 years old, and this led me to the great European tradition of improvised music that began in the 1960s, for which Berlin has been a centre since the mid-1990s.

How did you settle on your thesis topic and what did you make of the PhD experience?

After living for some years in London and Berlin, and performing extensively around Europe and the world, I wanted to write something about the music I loved using grounded theory – using fieldwork and interviews with musicians and listeners in order to explain the (thought to be-)unexplainable, and bring this music to a wider audience in a way that its protagonists would also recognise.  

Looking at how people improvise, musicians’ political concerns, the perceived problems of “difficult” music-making, and asking how it’s possible to make a life in such a music scene.

I was greatly assisted by a Principal’s Career Development Award, and Simon was a total inspiration as a thinker and human being - deeply enriching on many levels.

Like many people I have some truly life-long friends from my time in Edinburgh – not just from Music, but from Visual Art, Anthropology, Sociology and Environmental Science too.

Recording, teaching, and inspiring students

What have you been up to since graduating almost two years ago?

Since leaving Edinburgh I played many concerts, released the album “One Year” (Ozella Music) with British pianist Richard Fairhurst and Finnish percussionist Markku Ounaskari (drums), and taught at the International Jazz Platform (Lodz, Poland) and at the Jazz Institute Berlin.

Since February 2018 I have had the great honour to take over the reins from Valérie Portmann at Bern University of the Arts (Switzerland) as leader of the Jazz and Contemporary Music department.

How are you finding Bern’s music scene and cultural life?

The Hochschule der Künste, Bern (HKB) is an incredible institution – forward-looking, open-minded, and a place where, just like during my studies in Edinburgh, I am able to combine my experiences as a performer, composer and sociologist, with inspiring students and colleagues from all disciplines.

I must say that since I moved to Bern a few months ago there has never been a dull moment, thanks to concert series such as the Jazzwerkstatt Bern and the Werkstatt Improvisierte Musik Bern (WIM - an improvised music series in the PROGR arts centre), a beautiful network of private house-concerts, and of course the astounding nature all around (not to mention the cuisine).

In your opinion, what are the challenges facing jazz musicians today?

I think for jazz musicians today, one of the biggest challenges, as maybe for all artists or humans, is to find the “own” voice within the huge amount of existing art, information and “tradition” (as the composer Ligeti said, the difference between “la loi et le moi”).

At the same time, it is an ongoing responsibility and reality to balance such creative concerns with the practical restrictions of staying alive, and creating a sustainable future for the music, its musicians and its audience.

And to finish, what advice would you give to students today?

My best advice is simply to aim for the stars, and, cheesy as it may sound - be who you are, and do what you burn for!


We asked Tom to select a few of his top albums to share with the Edinburgh alumni community. He explains, "This playlist is simply some of my favourite music, and some of my favourite musicians - some of whom I’m lucky enough to play with. Some of the music that always finds its way back into my ears…”

The playlist consists of the following albums:

  1. Miles Davies, Porgy and Bess, 1959, Columbia Records
  2. György Ligeti - Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Works For Piano: Études & Musica Ricercata, 1996, Sony Classical
  3. Sidsel Endresen, Exile, 1994, ECM Records
  4. Various artists, Secular Music From Uganda, 2003, SWP Records
  5. Tom Arthurs Trio, One Year, 2018, Ozella
  6. Luc Ferrari, L'Œuvre électronique, 2009 INA-GRM

Listen to Tom’s playlist on Spotify

(The link above will take you to the Spotify Web Player.)

You can let us know what you think by tweeting us @EdinburghAlumni or @tomarthursmusic.

Alumni curate…

Do you have expertise in a creative field? Would you like to share your career story and curate a playlist – be it of films, music or other – for the alumni community? If so, please contact En-Chi Liu, Communications Officer.

Email En-Chi Liu

Related Links

Tom Arthurs (external link)

Reid School of Music

Principal’s Career Development PhD Scholarship