Artists Alistair MacDonald

Alistair MacDonald is a composer, performer and sound artist. His work draws on a wide range of influences reflecting his interest in improvisation, transformation of sound, and space. Many of his works are made in collaboration with other artists from a range of media, and explore a range of contexts beyond the concert hall, often using interactive technology.

He has a longstanding live electroacoustic improvising duo with Scottish harp player Catriona McKay, and another with singer Anne-Liis Poll.

Collaborations and commissions include installations with Jennifer Angus, Brass Art, and Sarah Rubidge, dance work with Shobana Jeyasingh and Anna Krzystek, and music for Jos Zwaanenburg, Elision, and the Scottish Ensemble. Recent commissions include work with trumpet player Tom Poulson and director Susan Worsfold, commissioned by the St Magnus Festival, and a series of collaborations with Carrie Fertig, on pieces for glass percussion, electronics and live flame-working.

He is a member of invisiblEARts, a group of Scottish-based composers. He teaches composition and directs the Electroacoustic Studios at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, where he was made Professor in 2017.


Alistair MacDonald

Doncaster (England, UK), 1962

Residence: Glasgow (Scotland, UK)

  • Composer
  • Sound artist

On the web

Alistair MacDonald [Photo: Julie Howden (Royal Conservatoire of Scotland), Glasgow (Scotland, UK), December 2017]
Alistair MacDonald [Photo: Julie Howden (Royal Conservatoire of Scotland), Glasgow (Scotland, UK), December 2017]
  • Simon Atkinson, Alistair MacDonald, Robert Dow, Pete Stollery [Photo: Pete Stollery, Leicester (England, UK), January 29, 2014]
  • Alistair MacDonald [Birmingham (England, UK), 1995]

Selected works

Main releases

empreintes DIGITALes / IMED 18155, IMED 18155_NUM / 2018


FMR Records / FMR 3160711 / 2011
  • Not in catalogue
Various artists
[Independent] / EMH 2009 / 2009
  • Not in catalogue
Various artists
Sargasso / SCD 28046 / 2002
  • Not in catalogue
Various artists
MPS Music & Video / MPSCD 013 / 2000
  • Not in catalogue
Various artists
NMC Recordings / NMC D035 / 1996
  • Not in catalogue
Various artists
  • Not in catalogue
Various artists
Mnémosyne musique média / LDC 278049-50 / 1989
  • Not in catalogue
Overhear Music / OHM 001 / 1989
  • Not in catalogue

In the press

What is musique concrète?

BBC Bitesize, February 19, 2020

Musique concrète is a style of experimental music that is composed using recorded sounds.

Musique concrète originally dates from the late 1940s. Pierre Schaeffer and colleagues working for France’s public radio station, Radiodiffusion française (RDF) experimented with sound effects and other ‘real’ sounds recorded on disc. They played sounds forwards and backwards, changing their length, pitch and volume. The finished compositions were montages of sound. These experiments paved the way for the use of technology as part of the composing process, such as the use of samples and loops. Since then, this type of composition has moved from working with discs, to magnetic tape, to electronic sound files.

[Video: Alistair MacDonald discusses musique concrète and his own composition Final Times (1998).]

Articles written

  • Alistair MacDonald, SAN Diffusion, May 1, 2001
    … a sense of space and movement, and an effortless movement between real and surreal imagery.
  • Alistair MacDonald, SAN Diffusion, December 1, 1999
    … a hugely enjoyable CD and a fascinating snapshot of just some of the composers working in the late nineties…


Alistair MacDonald, SAN Diffusion, May 1, 2001

Another from the Québécois label empreintes DIGITALes, this CD was released in 1994. It’s one of their Compact Compact series — an excellent idea — about 40 minutes of music at half the price of a regular CD. This disk, however, is great value for money with five pieces by Mario Rodrigue composed between 1985 and 1993.

First impressions? I must confess never to have heard this composer’s work before. I put the CD on without looking at the cover and found myself feeling pleasantly refreshed to be in a sound world which seemed a little old fashioned. So I reached for the cover — Tilt, the first track was made in 1986, and apparently, along with Qu’est–ce concert? (1987) and Fiano Porte (1985) was made with good old fashioned reel–to–reel tape recorders, varispeed, editing and filters. Aah yes, I remember it well! Rodrigue works in Montréal and the early pieces were made in the studios at the Université de Montréal where he studied with [Francis] Dhomont and [Marcelle] Deschênes. What I enjoyed most about all of the pieces on the disc was the layering of sounds, a sense of space and movement, and an effortless movement between real and surreal imagery. But the pre–digital pieces seemed somehow richer (no, I’m not going to write about analogue warmth). Perhaps the advantage of reels of tape over synths and samplers (certainly the samplers from the early 90s) was that you could use so much more sound — long sweeping gestures, no faking of sustained sounds with tiny loops because of the lack of memory, no MIDI limitation of dynamics, no equal tempered keyboard trying to tell you how to tune your sounds, better sounding distant transpositions with varispeed… OK, I’m biased, but I really don’t think that the beginning of Tilt would have been the same had Rodrigue been using the S1000 and Atari ST he used in the later pieces. Nevertheless, all five pieces inhabit rich, vivid sound worlds, and I was no less impressed with the later works.

Tilt is an imaginary pinball machine. Rodrigue didn’t start with recordings of real pinball machines, but takes the idea and plays with it, travelling a long way from the simple initial idea and turning it into a dynamic piece of music. I was impressed by its shape and energy and loved the sounds.

The track which follows, Cristaux liquides (Liquid Crystals, 1990), gained a well deserved Mention in the Bourges International Electroacoustic Music Competition in 1991. Stylistically it is a mixture of the abstract electroacoustic soundworld of Tilt, and a more pitchnrhythm based language. Rodrigue pulls it off, though, making a virtue out of some of the limitations of his sampler — the piece has layers made up of rhythmic loops and clearly pitched sounds (drones, chords) as well as longer sweeps of recorded sounds (particularly water). The piece is obviously his with the clarity of mixing which characterises all of the pieces on the disk.

Qu’est–ce concert? plays with the idea of ‘concert’: it tips its hat to musique concrète in its opening spinning sound (the electroacoustic concert) and real soundscapes with references to concerts make appearances, including birdsong, a city, the sound of an orchestra tuning–up, applause and a string quartet. No simple catalogue of images though — the piece really flows and theres a constant stream of surprises, soundscapes appearing unexpectedly from within each other.

I have to admit that it took a few listenings before I started to enjoy Le voyageur. Im too easily put off by notes by composers which try to explain music in terms of narrative. It seems to belittle the power of sound to suggest much more, to ignite the imagination and to suggest ideas which can’t easily be described, if a piece can be explained away so easily as a story. A personal hang–up, perhaps. Although all of the pieces on Alchimie have a narrative idea or image lurking in the background, there is always something else there, something more to listen to. But the note on Le voyageur is a short, simple narrative, and the piece seemed to realise the ‘story’ in a very literal way. However, the piece is no less skilfully composed, and once I had managed to forget the description in the CD booklet the piece started to make more sense.

The final piece on the CD is also the oldest. Fiano Porte was made in 1985. Although the technique is not so developed it is fascinating to hear strands which are carried into later pieces. The looped fragments of voices are not so distant from the world of Cristaux liquides and the sense of space is all there along with a very natural feel for mixing.

This is a CD well worth recommending, and I came away wanting to hear what Mario Rodrigue is doing now.

… a sense of space and movement, and an effortless movement between real and surreal imagery.


Alistair MacDonald, SAN Diffusion, December 1, 1999

Miniatures concrètes is a CD of 24 three-minute works by 25 composers and is a very worthy successor to the same label’s excellent Électro clips (25 pieces by 25 composers) which appeared in 1990. Miniatures concrètes, however is quite different from its predecessor. More than simply a collection of short pieces it’s a strangely coherent ‘suite’ lasting for over 70 minutes. How much this was the conscious intention of the label’s artistic director, Jean-François Denis, is unclear, but for me it certainly works like this. The CD is both fascinating and fun. All of the works repay repeated and closer listening, whilst most are also immediately attractive.

Although there is no explicit information in the CD booklet on the ideas behind the project, it is apparent from individual composers’ notes that each was given (the same) three recorded sounds and asked to divide their piece into two sections of 15 seconds and 2 minutes 45 seconds. I have to admit to being initially sceptical, but the quality of the pieces and the variety of styles and approaches, along with the additional sound materials chosen by each composer, mean that the results are wonderfully varied. And the ordering of the tracks, itself an act of (unaccredited) composition, gives the whole disc a level of structural interest which I hadn’t expected.

Listening to the pieces, the ‘given’ sounds start to become obvious, sometimes apparently untreated, often transformed, extended and mixed. But even when we hear them clearly, just what the made the sounds is never certain, and different composers suggest different solutions to the riddle through their contextualisation. As for the added materials, some composers play with recognisable, ‘real’ sounds, others with more abstract colours; some pieces seem to suggest narrative, some make reference to other musics, and others occupy more surreal landscapes. Successive pieces fluctuate between beautiful and frantic, severe and humorous, enigmatic and filmic (including Sylvia Eckermann and Mathias Fuchs’ contribution to the ‘Horror and Suspense’ genre!), and the range of possibilities from music to sound-art is thoroughly explored so your ears are forever jumping between different sorts of listening.

In the end it’s difficult to pick out pieces or composers for special mention. Perhaps there are pieces which are better than others, but it is the combination of pieces and the threads which link them together which make this CD such a success, and none of the pieces is superfluous to it. The following brief descriptions, then, just give a taste of the variety.

In Jacques Tremblay’s fiery opening, Le Vidoir, sounds spin and collide, manic echoes of a dozen different musics viciously intercut. Kim Hedås’ piece, Princess Bat with the Underground Stars, has a wonderful clarity of layering, sudden changes in pacing and extremes of space marking out a landscape which is inhabited by surreal creatures — close-up metal insects giving way to larger life forms in huge imaginary spaces.

Andrew Yencken’s ‘day job’ as a sound editor for film is reflected in his choice of materials for Balanço which is a succession of superbly articulated transitions between vivid realities. Roger Doyle, on the other hand, throws melodic fragments together with a sampler to create a hectic, crazy musical world like a wild fairground organ in The First Spirit Level, a headlong rush to the sudden three minute cut-off.

Natasha Barrett’s gestures in Racing Through, Racing Unseen, are distinct and powerful and there is a real sense of control of materials from the naturalistic to the synthetic. Monique Jean’s Lacrimous, on the other hand, plays much more with ambiguity, her subtle mixing and transformation allowing sounds to surface then dissolve gently back into textures.

From Le Vidoir to the final piece, Justice Olsson’s gently rhythmic and melodic A Man is a Delicate Flame, the composers have left their distinctive prints (and in at least two cases, echoes of yet other composers!), yet, however different, the trail of shared materials links them powerfully together.

In teaching I found Électro clips invaluable, and Miniatures concrètes too is a rich resource. It is immediately useful as an introduction to those new to the technology or new to working with recorded sound, showing how fairly ordinary sounds can be put into a number of musical contexts in some pretty extraordinary ways. And to have these distillations of so many styles for comparison gives a powerful incentive to dig further into other pieces by some of the same composers.

Miniatures concrètes, is a hugely enjoyable CD and a fascinating snapshot of just some of the composers working in the late nineties, which I would thoroughly recommend.

… a hugely enjoyable CD and a fascinating snapshot of just some of the composers working in the late nineties…