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Pamela Buxton

Town-planning might at first seem like an unlikely source of musical inspiration. But not for composer Thomas Butler, whose new piece Elbow Room springs from his fascination with Glasgow’s post-war city reinvention.

Elbow Room will be performed next month by the Red Note contemporary music ensemble, whom Butler has been working with to develop the piece as part of an 18 month composer-in-residency project. Its performance is certainly fortuitously timed, given the recent hubbub over using the proposed demolition of Glasgow’s Red Road flats as pre-Commonwealth Games entertainment, which shows how deep sensitivities still run over the post-war rebuilding of the city.

Butler is not a local but during his seven years in Glasgow he has become intrigued by how it took its current form and in particular the thinking behind the motorway that runs through it and the huge and troubled housing schemes of the twentieth century.

“I’m interested in how a town-planning fantasy affects reality for the people who have to live in it,” he says.

Elbow Room is based around two films from the Scottish Screen Archive produced by the Glasgow Corporation: Glasgow Today and Tomorrow (1949) and Glasgow 1980 (1971. These talk about the future of the city in a hugely optimistic way, which with the benefit of hindsight seems all the more poignant given the mixed outcome of the plans. The earlier film looks at the radical vision of the 1945 Bruce Plan, which proposed moving people out of the city centre and creating a new M8 motorway through the city and a radial road network. The later film shows the development of new housing high rises, many of which have since been demolished.

The first two movements of the piece are inspired by the utopian fantasy of the town planning visions represented in the two films respectively, with the second markedly more optimistic.  However the third and last represents the reality of Glasgow today as Butler creates his own musical fantasy overlaid on sound recordings of traffic from the places it depicts. The 40 minute piece will be performed by Red Note’s group of cello, violin, electric guitar, clarinets, percussion and synthesizer and will be accompanied by a specially made film.

“Tom’s music is not easy to play - he writes very virtuosic individual lines. Players like it because they are the sort of people who like challenges,” says Red Note Ensemble head John Harris.

The result is a visual and sound collage which is, according to Harris, neither celebratory or mournful but will instead leave the audience to make up their own minds about past and present plans for the city and the impact that developments such as Red Road will leave on the city, even when they’re long gone.

Elbow Room by Thomas Butler will be performed by Red Note Ensemble 
on May 21 at Summerhall, Edinburgh & May 22 at The Arches, Glasgow. / /