The making of Three Carriages

Composer Nick Olsen offers a unique insight into new music in the making with Scotland's largest mandolin and guitar orchestra, Da Capo Alba for the Adopt a Composer project.

Apologies in advance for all of the awful train-based jokes throughout this blog, I just couldn’t help myself. 

My New Year plans were easy to explain. I was full steam ahead writing ideas and fragments of music to take to a workshop with Da Capo Alba. While driving to rehearsal on a very wet Wednesday night in January, I was still unsure if I was going in the best direction of musical-travel for our new collaborative piece.

Handing over new music to musicians is a daunting task, but giving musicians incomplete and in progress music is a terrifying task.

This is not the case when Da Capo Alba are involved. I arrived at our rehearsal with parts and scores of some of my ideas and was greeted with characteristic Da Capo Alba excitement (this normally comes in two parts, the first before the rehearsal and the second with a cup of coffee and a biscuit in the break). 

The ideas were drawn out of the groups interests and were coupled with my own interest in trains for good measure. The first idea was drawn from a folksong which would have been sung by Irish navvies when building the Scottish railroads near Bishopston, the second a musical idea depicting a runaway train clattering along the rails, and the third the quiet sound of a tired train at the end of a long day. 

Da Capo Alba’s conductor, Barbara, blew the whistle to depart along the platform and on our exploration. To my relief, nobody pulled the emergency break! 

As expected, some ideas worked better than others – high harmonics on the mandolins, for example, can only be played fairly quietly. During our first workshop together we tried some singing while playing and I was very keen to try this out again. It’s an amazing timbre which is only available to a plucked string orchestra – tremolo mandolin and mandolas echoed by humming! The orchestra enjoyed this far more than I expected and gave me an excuse to hum along at the back (probably to the dismay of the guitars, however). After an hour or so, we reached our destination.

There are quite a few more stops on our journey together but this workshop allowed the orchestra to give real-time feedback on what they liked and what they didn’t like.

One of the fascinating takeaways was how much interest players had in the conceit and concept of the initial ideas. I’ve been in contact with various players after the workshop who are interested in hearing about how the piece is taking shape.

The piece, 'Three Carriages' is now finished. It has been printed and is on the overnight post train to East Kilbride. I have bought my season pass to Da Capo Alba’s rehearsals over the coming months. I can’t wait to hear it take shape.


Follow on social media: Nick Olsen Facebook / Twitter, Da Capo Alba Facebook / Twitter

The Adopt a Composer project matches vocal and instrumental leisure-time music groups with some of the UK’s most promising composers to collaborate on creating a new piece of music. The project leads to a première performance and broadcast on BBC Radio 3. If you’re a music group or composer and you’d like to take part, find out more.