A haunting work inspired by the spirit of Chopin and other ghosts

June 27, 2003

Gordon McPherson is going ghost-hunting in preparation for his next musical composition. Olga Wojtas reports

Carrying out research into haunted houses and the voices of the dead might be considered a reasonable pursuit for a professor of parapsychology. It is a little more unusual for the head of composition at the Royal Scottish Academy for Music and Drama in Glasgow. But Gordon McPherson has won £30,000 of National Lottery money through the Creative Scotland awards for research that will lead to an orchestral suite on the paranormal.

"I'm ghost-hunting for the next year or two," McPherson says. "My wife says she's not coming, she's not going to stay anywhere haunted. Sometimes I'm a bit scared about what I've said I'm going to do, but creativity's not much without exploration."

He plans to go on field trips with ghost-hunters, to visit some of the world's most haunted buildings and to collect electronic voice phenomena - recordings on analogue equipment that reveal ghostly voices only when they are played back.

In his work, he hopes to use film and tape alongside the orchestra. This will include part of a movement on Chopin: there are recordings of the composer allegedly speaking through British medium Leslie Flint, and the musical medium Rosemary Brown claimed he dictated new compositions to her.

People generally associate ghosts with ancient sites and buildings. But McPherson plans to base another movement on haunted hotels in California - there is one where guests apparently get disturbed at night by a trumpet-playing Montgomery Clift.

"It's obviously going to have an important trumpet part," he says. "When he lived (in the hotel), he annoyed people because he didn't sleep because of depression problems and walked around learning scripts and playing the trumpet. From Chopin to Montgomery Clift - it's quite eclectic."

McPherson will also investigate hauntings on the ship Queen Mary , berthed at Long Beach, California, and visit the Winchester Mystery House, built by the widow of the inventor of the Winchester rifle. He says: "She was told at a seance that in order to appease the souls of all the people killed by Winchester rifles, she had to build a house in San Jose. It's one of the most bizarre houses in the world, with doors that open on to walls, and staircases that go up to nothing. The plans were apparently given to her by spirits."

As strange as the house is, it seems little stranger than taking the paranormal as the subject for a classical composition. McPherson agrees that it is standard to compose around grand themes, commonly found in classical mythology or literature. But it's an approach he disapproves of.

"One of the things I don't particularly like about 'classical composition' is that it has to be about things that are important, because it's so self-consciously art," he says. "That is at odds with things I find interesting such as UFOlogy and the paranormal. I did a piece a couple of years ago, The Waterworks , that was inspired by alien abductions."

He suspects composers tend to suffer from arrested development. A poet once told him that when people began writing, their interest was in big ideas because they were generally emerging from adolescence. "Most writers grow out of it but composers don't. We're encouraged to think about the big things, but small things can be big if they're presented the right way."

McPherson says he takes a scientific approach, and his research will include sceptical literature. "I was much more of a believer in the alien abduction phenomenon before I wrote The Waterworks . I became more of a sceptic after the research. The piece is less about aliens than people's belief systems, why they want to believe certain things."

Nevertheless, he recounts that as a student he may have lived in a haunted house in York, said to be one of the most haunted cities in Europe. "I was convinced that something was up. You could hear running about upstairs and rattles. Others in the house had seen people. I never saw anyone, but there wasn't a very nice feeling."

For the teenage Scot, York was an uncomfortable experience in general.

McPherson says: "You could describe my background as traditional Scottish, northeast working class. Music is essentially a middle-class pursuit because of the cost. I think that if I had had any brothers or sisters, it would have been much harder for my parents (to be able to afford) to encourage me."

The headmaster urged young Gordon's parents to send him for music lessons when he proved particularly gifted at playing the recorder. "I wanted a piano but we lived on the top floor of a tenement. We went to the shop and I got the next best thing - an accordion. No, actually, it wasn't the next best thing. It's bad enough being a Scottish composer, but to be from Dundee is worse, and then to be working class is pretty bad, and then to be someone who played the accordion is pretty far down the rungs."

Neither of his parents is musical, but they have been supportive of his choice of career, even though he initially seemed destined for medicine.

McPherson says the health of the music scene in Glasgow is robust. "We have quite a lot of (composition) students here now, and a lot of them think similarly about the problems of what we should be writing about and who the audience is. There's a vibrant bunch of composers who are inspired and confused in equal measure, which I think is healthy."

What type of audience does he want for his orchestral composition on the paranormal? "A huge concert hall full of open-minded people. And I'd love to have it premiered on Hallowe'en."

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