Ron Butlin Reflects after Storm/Stress

Following the phenomenal response to Intimate Voices and Storm/Stress, and with New Horizons fast-approaching;  we asked Ron Butlin, Edinburgh Makar (2008-2014), about his collaboration with the Edinburgh Quartet on this performance project series funded by Creative Scotland.

Hi Ron, let’s start at the beginning – when did you discover classical music?

I was aged 12 and standing in my bedroom at home when I caught Grieg’s Piano Concerto by chance on the radio. ‘Wow!’ I exclaimed (out loud). I listened to pop music, of course – the Beatles, Elvis, Roy Orbison, Tamla Motown etc. – but this was different. Pop music showed me what I already knew, but Grieg allowed me to glimpse a completely new world, utterly unfamiliar and yet feeling so very right. By exploring this world through LPs I came to love Bach’s rhythmic joy, his serenity and sense of affirmation; Beethoven’s excitement and drama; Chopin’s heart-rending lyricism, Dvořák and Schubert’s melodies. But Mozart? . . . I just didn’t get it. All that elegance and well-turned perfection sounded like 18th century muzak that just trickled on and on, a water feature in a too well-planned 18th century garden.

And then . . . I heard him, for the very first time. His G minor Quintet. For me, now, Mozart is like very clear water that seems only a few inches deep, but you will never, never touch the bottom.

I am fortunate that I work frequently with composers like the late Edward Harper, Ken Dempster and others, especially Lyell Cresswell, providing texts that include several operas. My collection of short stories, Vivaldi and the Number 3 (Serpent’s Tail), features many of my favourite composers in highly fictional settings. When published, it was the Independent’s 5***** star paperback of the week!

Though not a properly trained pianist I love playing the piano, especially jazz and blues – but only when no one is there, not even our dog.


Ron, you’ve collaborated with the Quartet on two of these project launches so far – what does speaking add to a concert? How do you decide what to say?

The generous feedback I’ve had suggests that people appreciate having the particular quartet they are about to hear set in the context of the composer’s life and work. If possible, I also include a brief sketch of the social and political conditions of the time. For example, knowing the circumstances of Beethoven’s life – his progressive deafness, his financial worries etc. – can help us understand how his music shifted from the mostly solo piano pieces of his early period, through the large-scale works of his middle period to his late period chamber music, arriving at the almost unbearable intensity of his final years. 

As with the talks I give at Edinburgh University’s Lifelong Learning department on music appreciation, I draw on my enthusiasm for composers and their music, and my own fascination in their struggles and achievements.

What’s it like sharing a platform with the Edinburgh Quartet?

Most of all, I feel truly privileged when I sit on stage, as in a recent concerts, and experience the power of Janacek’s Intimate Letters or Beethoven’s Op.95, being superbly played only a few feet away . . . New Horizons (Barber and Britten) is next – I can’t wait!


Ron Butlin, the speaker at many of the Rush-Hour concerts in Edinburgh, has an international reputation as a prize-winning novelist, and is also a former Edinburgh Poet Laureate. His novel The Sound of My Voice was included in the Guardian’s ‘1000 Books You Have to Read’ (between Butler and Camus). He has provided texts for seven operas, various orchestral works and several song cycles. His most recent novel, Ghost Moon, has been nominated for the prestigious IMPAC Award 2016.