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Julian Wagstaff

Chemistry tercentenary opera composer, Julian Wagstaff, talks to us about being a fresh-faced mature student, a close call with the Cheerleading Society, and why there are no rules when it comes to your career.

Name Dr Julian James Wagstaff
Degree Course PhD in musical composition
Year of Graduation 2008
Julian Wagstaff

Your time at the University

My time at Edinburgh was, by and large, immensely happy, productive and fulfilling. I came to study music at Masters and then PhD level through a strange set of circumstances.

My first degree had been in Politics and German from Reading University, and by the age of 30 I was settled in Edinburgh, my native city, with improbable parallel careers as a translator, computer programmer and occasional guitarist. At that time, writing and playing music was largely a hobby - albeit one which placed considerable demands on my time and finances.

In October 2000 I attended, on a whim, a conference in Glasgow dedicated to the Russian composer Shostakovich, of whom I was a huge fan. It turned out to be one of those rare life-changing events. At the time I was a fairly youthful-looking 30, and everyone at the conference simply assumed I was a music student. That got me thinking: “if everyone assumes I am a music student, why don’t I become one?” The idea had literally never occurred to me before. The following Monday I requested an Edinburgh University prospectus and discovered they offered a one-year Masters course in musical composition run by Prof. Nigel Osborne. I applied and was accepted (largely on the basis of the score of a musical I had written the previous year), and to my delight I became a student once more.

That got me thinking: “if everyone assumes I am a music student, why don’t I become one?”

Julian Wagstaff

I have so many fond memories of my time at Edinburgh that it is hard to single one or two out for special mention. Excellent first performances of my musical works by the Edinburgh University String Orchestra, Chamber Orchestra and Edinburgh Studio Opera are certainly cherished recollections, as are more comical episodes such as being asked (apparently in all seriousness) to join the Cheerleading Society at the 2007 Freshers’ Fair!

I was proud to serve as the founding president of Composers’ Orchestra, which is still going strong today, though somewhat less proud of crashing a University minibus into a bridge during Wagner study week - while terrified undergraduates screamed and cowered in the back. Luckily no-one was hurt, and both bridge and vehicle lived to tell the tale.

Tell us about your Experiences since leaving the University

Since graduating with a PhD in music in 2008, I have worked freelance as a composer and musician - with the odd bit of translating, computing and teaching thrown in.

I am particularly gratified that my association with Edinburgh University has continued, and even strengthened, since graduating. In 2011 the Music Society at King’s Buildings appointed me as their composer in residence, commissioning a new string trio from me which was twice performed by players from the Edinburgh Quartet. I am currently serving as composer in residence in the School of Chemistry, where I have just completed a new opera entitled ‘Breathe Freely’ to celebrate their Tercentenary, for performance on 24 October 2013. I have been made very welcome in the Joseph Black Building and will be very sorry to leave when my appointment finishes at the end of the year.

Over the last five years I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to collaborate with some of Scotland’s leading musicians and ensembles, including the Edinburgh Quartet, Hebrides Ensemble, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Consort of Voices and now Scottish Opera. My initial introduction to many of these ensembles was in the context of my studies at Edinburgh, and the connections and friendships I made while a student continue to stand me in good stead as a professional musician today.

Vist the Breathe Freely website

Alumni wisdom

There are no rules. By which I mean: pay no heed to the expectations of others, nor to conventional notions regarding career progression. Work out what it is you want to do. Work out how to set about doing it. Then do it, with integrity and without fear.