Douglas Whates and His Music (or DWAHM for short) is a project which, like the dodo, never seems to get off the ground. Nevertheless, it's a concept I like to revisit once in a while. Maybe 2016 will be the year where we miraculously rise from extinction and take flight.
The project title and, in certain ways, ethos takes inspiration from the great dance bands of the early 20th Century, who would almost invariably give themselves such names as ‘Charlie Kunz and His Orchestra’ or ‘Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy’ (I'm not making that up!). I formed the group not long after graduating at a time when I was growing increasingly disatisfied with mediocre one-off performances of my music by indifferent ensembles. I suppose I had this grandiose idea I could form my own ensemble, Steve Reich style, and play my own music.
As a composer, I grew up convinced that for my music to be valid it must be performed by other people. So at first it felt like a bit of a vanity project to have my own ensemble performing my own music—almost like I had to disguise it as something less narcisistic. But it occured to me that composer-led bands or ensembles are totally normal and unremarkable in just about every other genre of music besides classical. In fact, I almost feel it's a relatively modern thing where composers exist purely as composers; perhaps even a little unhealthy.
The ensemble is a six piece: flutes, saxes, piano, drums, violin/viola, and double bass. Here's a sample of some stuff we recorded back in 2009 (more information about specific works can be found in the works section.)i_loves.mp3vhsii.mp3vhsiii.mp3
Our first (only and last) concert was in 2006. here's what Herald critic Michael Tumelty wrote about that concert...
For all the gut-kicking punchiness of his rhythms, the angularity of his melodies and his penchant for interjecting into his musical textures explosive and unpredictable drumbeats, the composer Douglas Whates is something of a romantic.
That, anyway, was the strongest impression left by the composer - a graduate of the RSAMD, now in his midtwenties, who yesterday brought his sextet to the first of the lunchtime concerts of Plug, the festival of new music that is running throughout this week.
Whates has assembled a first-class group to perform his music, with himself on six-string electric bass, Feargus Hetherington on violin, Aisling Agnew on flute, Konrad Wiszniewski on tenor sax, Laura Baxter on piano and Jamie Flanagan on drums. All played to the hilt.
Of the four compositions Whates brought to Plug, Stoop, with its power drums flattening everything else, was an inauspicious start. When he looked over his shoulder at the past and dipped into Gershwin's I Loves You, Porgy (a gorgeous piece, with soaring, ecstatic playing from Hetherington, and far too elliptical to be a mere deconstruction), Whates was on firmer ground. Similarly, in his haunting VHS Suite, when a touch of unashamed sentiment filtered into the music, it glowed with beauty.
Best of the lot, and the most unified, coherent composition in the set, was Miro's Park, a soulful piece, beautifully written, richly evocative of solitude and with an unforgettable melodic line that stretched like an upward gaze into the night sky. Some seriously impressive writing here.